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Sunday 13 February 2005

Wave of Support

Published: February 13, 2005 (New York Times / Source: nytimes.com)

The tsunami that unexpectedly ravaged coastal areas in several Southeast Asian countries in late December was an enormous tragedy. It was also a major media event, the kind of occurrence that draws sustained global attention. Naturally, people wanted to help. And just as naturally, the marketplace quickly provided opportunities to satisfy that urge.

One of the most interesting was a set of T-shirts produced by and sold at A/X Armani Exchange, a 92-store retail chain (one of its stores is in Phuket, Thailand). The ''Lend a Hand'' shirt, available in three colors, for men and women, was released in mid-January in an initial run of 7,000 and sold in A/X stores and online. It cost $32, with $20 of that (all of the profit, the company says) going to the Red Cross tsunami disaster relief fund. By late January, about three-quarters of the shirts had been sold, and A/X was working on a second round of shirts, as well as caps and a tote bag, and possibly a bracelet, all featuring the ''Lend a Hand'' design.

Harlan Bratcher, the president of Armani Exchange Worldwide, says that immediately after the New Year's holiday, he and his managers decided to come up with a way for the company to help ''pump cash as quickly as possible'' into the disaster-struck region. The chain sells a lot of T-shirts, so the quickest solution seemed to be to slap a tsunami-aid design on batches of blank shirts that were intended for some other graphic treatment. The company came up with a multicolored hand print, and in less than three weeks, the garments were on sale. The young people who make up A/X's consumer base, as well as much of its staff, want to be socially responsible, Bratcher says, so this has been a ''synergistic'' project. In fact the initial response has been strong enough that he says he hopes to keep offering products with the hand icon throughout 2005.

This would be an intriguing development. Charitable support in response to a catastrophic event tends to fade as the disaster itself fades from the news. A/X's decision to make what amounts to a disaster-specific product is ''fairly unusual,'' says Darren Irby, a spokesman for the Red Cross. But perhaps the time for such an approach has come. ''It gives folks an opportunity to support a cause, but also to have a little fun doing it.''

The approach also makes it easy on the consumer: sure, it seems more rational for a socially conscious person to just make a direct donation of $20 (or $32, for that matter) to the Red Cross -- but the reality is that many would simply never get around to it. In a sense, buying a product with a charitable contribution built in eliminates the logistical hassle of living up to your conscience.

Actually the A/X shirts are not the only charity products spawned by this disaster. Von Dutch is selling a ''Tsunami Relief'' T-shirt and giving proceeds to a humanitarian agency named Operation U.S.A. A company called ZaptoPhone is selling ''Tsunami Aid Ringtones'' (which play the national anthem of stricken countries on your cellphone) to benefit Unicef efforts in the region. There have been at least two sets of tsunami-relief wristbands. ''People love to be a part of whatever is going on in the world,'' Irby observes. ''To wear it on their chest, to feel like they're a part of it.'' Perhaps that's one reason so many people wanted to buy wearable New York Fire Department paraphernalia after Sept. 11 -- or why they buy logoed T-shirts from the Red Cross itself. ''It's cool to be part of the Red Cross when the Red Cross is doing good things,'' Irby says.

Products bearing the A/X hand will most likely benefit other agencies involved in tsunami relief as well, Bratcher says, with the beneficiary always made clear to the consumer. (The decision to be specific about the amount going to tsunami relief efforts was also made in deference to shoppers who find the more familiar promises about donated ''profits'' or ''proceeds'' to be nebulous.) The hand icon will live for as long as consumers respond to it. It happens that A/X is, largely, a conveyance for the Armani name; it is owned by a Singapore-based company that licenses the name from Armani Group. So this is a business that long ago learned that consumers will pay $32 for a T-shirt -- as long as there's a big logo on it.

(Article Link:http://www.nytimes.com/2005/02/13/magazine/13CONSUMED.html)
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