Retail and Responsibility: The Mitten State

Kat and I have been looking into the concept of clothing producers and retailers aligning themselves with social causes and charities. (This post is written by both of us). This is becoming an increasingly common notion, from large to small companies. The past ten years have seen an increase in “sustainable” or “responsible” fashion design and production. Examples such as Target and KMart donating a percentage of profits per store to their communities, and companies like Product RED, Edun and Urban Zen all tout eco-friendly, empowering products that raise awareness about social issues. Plus, there has been a huge push toward used/recycled, and vintage clothes as a “green” fashion option.

I was recently contacted by clothing company TheMittenState to discuss their socially minded endeavors. I have a true passion for Detroit-area anything, including working to understand and do my tiny part to help the plight of the challenged city. This includes both it’s standard of living, and, it’s fashion scene. So, when Will from TheMittenState got in touch, I thought I should for sure take a look at what is up with this new company.

In this era of responsibility being a part of nearly everyone’s stated mission (whether it’s legit or hype), what sets TheMittenState apart?

I asked Kat to chat with Will about his company. Below is what they discussed:

    Will – Well, relatively speaking, is a much more local project; whereas companies like Product RED and Edun are tackling issues on a global scale, our parameters are defined within the cities and towns of Michigan. Which isn’t to say that our goals are less important, it’s just that we prefer and enjoy the level of intimacy that goes along with working within our own community. Both myself and my business partner grew up in the Mitten State, and so when we returned to open up shop here, there was a level of familiarity and support that’s more tangible. For example, when you buy a product that benefits The Global Fund (which is a fantastic project), you obviously feel a deeper connection to their cause. But there’s a gap, so to speak, between you buying a RED iPod in Detroit and the donation being made thousands of miles away in Africa. You don’t necessarily get to see the results; it can become a bit abstract. What we love, and one of the factors that drives us forward, is being able to interact with our customers and to give them the opportunity to check out the local charities that are tied to our products.

    Kat – What are the benefits of connecting fashion production with the local community?

    Will – For us, the connection between our product and the local community is crucial to our success. For people who aren’t from Michigan, or who perhaps aren’t familiar with it, The Mitten State refers to the shape of the larger of the two peninsulas that make up the state. Michiganders know it because we all use our hands as maps. If someone is from say, Bad Axe, they use their left hand to point to a spot on the thumb of the right hand. Or if you’re from the U.P., you use your right hand to point to say, Marquette on your left hand (U.P. = left hand, Lower Peninsula = right hand). It’s a ubiquitous symbol around here. And so people are drawn in. Obviously, if you’re not from Michigan, you’ll have little to no interest in what we’re doing, and we’re OK with that. When we launched we knew who we wanted to reach, and we felt compelled to give back to the local community. A portion of every sale benefits a local charity.

    Kat – TheMittenState really emphasizes its work with the Conducive Learning Center and other charities represented by your T-shirt “slogans”. Do you think mainstream fashion designers are aware of impeding issues in their communities (locally or globally)? If not, what steps can they take to achieve a symbiotic relationship?

    Will – As far as creating a symbiotic relationship with communities, I think a good first step is to identify something relevant to your company. If you sell pencils, choose something having to do with forest renewal. Since TMS is a Michigan themed company, we look at charities that have a strong tie to the state of Michigan. The Conductive Learning Center, for instance, is the only program in North America of its type. And it’s right here in Grand Rapids, Michigan. We like to collaborate with these kinds of charitable associations.

    Kat – What are the biggest challenges when it comes to “function” versus “fashion”?

    Will – I think in our specific case, we’re always trying to strike a balance between what we think a vintage shirt should be and what people will actually wear. We picked the shirts we use based on their softness, but also on their cut. They’re more forgiving than say, American Apparel shirts, which are probably more of a vintage cut but can be terribly unflattering if you’re not super lean and stringy. We sell to such a varied demographic, from teenagers to grandmothers, really, that we’re forced to constantly look at and evaluate what type of shirt we should be offering. I think the next step in the not too distant future is to get a private label going.

    Kat – What’s next for TheMittenState? Do you plan on collaborating with any companies outside of Michigan?

    Will – We’re in an expansion phase- we’re currently working on building our product line and the TMS brand. There’s an update of the online store set to launch in the coming weeks. It’ll introduce stickers, coffee mugs, and something we’re really excited about: custom orders. A customer will be able to visit us online and order a shirt with the exact location that they’re from. There’s something like 3,000 cities and towns in Michigan… Our goal is to cover all of them and tie-in relevant charities to the sales. We’re always looking to collaborate with organizations and people who may not come to mind right away within the context of our business. Just recently, we were contacted by a NYC director who just finished filming a documentary. Since the content is relevant to Detroit, he thought our shirts might present an interesting cross-promotion.

As mentioned above, TheMittenState is not the only community-conscious fashion company out there. You can check out those above, and if you want to read more about this contemporary concept there have been more than a a slew of academic and popular pieces recently written. Here are a handful and please go ahead in your comments and suggest others that would be interesting for WT readers.

    Marie Claire featured a spread in their December 2009 issue on fashion designers and companies who have established charitable foundations or regularly contribute to causes like global poverty.

    Charity retail: past, present and future by Elizabeth Parsons in the International Journal of Retail & Distribution Management

    Environmentalism and consumers’ clothing disposal patterns: An exploratory study by Soyeon Shim in the Clothing and Textile Research Journal

    Towards a sustainable fashion retail supply chain in Europe: Organisation and performance by Marisa P. de Britoa, Valentina Carboneb, and Corinne Meunier Blanquartd in International Journal of Production Economics

    Developing considerate design: Meeting individual fashion and clothing needs within a framework of sustainability by Sandy Black, Claudia M. Eckert, and Philip Delamore in Proceedings of the MCPC 2007 World Conference on Mass Customization and Personalization

Related Articles

1 Comment

  • Eveling | Como Adelgazar May 23, 2011 03.17 pm

    Hi, well to me it seems very good idea for both large and small companies to donate a part of something beneficial, it shows that there is still humanity in the world,and not just interests. I like your article.



Leave a Comment

Monthly Archive


Available now: Punk Style by Worn Through founder, Monica Sklar, PhD. Find it at :, Powell's Books, or a bookseller near you.