When is a T-shirt not a T-shirt? When it is a tool for alleviating global poverty, according to the social entrepreneurship centre at the Farmer School of Business at Miami University in Ohio.

Professors and students at the centre have forged a link with Edun LIVE, a sub-brand of Edun Apparel, the socially conscious clothing label founded in 2005 by U2 singer Bono and Ali Hewson, his wife.

While Edun markets designer-priced jeans, Edun LIVE focuses on selling mass-market blank T-shirts for merchandising purposes. The T-shirts are made in the sub-Saharan countries of Lesotho, Uganda and Kenya.

Last month the students at the Farmer school created a further sub-brand, Edun LIVE on Campus, a student-run business that will form partnerships between the socially conscious clothing brand and universities worldwide that are interested in selling the Edun LIVE label to help drive trade with Africa.

The scheme was devised and is supervised by Brett Smith, assistant professor at the centre for social entrepreneurship at the Farmer school. His aim was twofold: to get the students to learn about social enterprise by founding a business rather than listening to lectures; and helping to alleviate hardship in sub-Saharan Africa.

Initially the students worked on selling the blank T-shirts to colleges within the university, where they could be screen-printed with appropriate logos. They also created a generic T-shirt that promoted the initiative. They sold for $10-$15 each and in total the students sold more than 1,500 T-shirts.

That was clearly not enough to generate real social change, says Prof Smith. “The ultimate mission is to maximise the value in Africa. To be honest, to scale this we need to roll it out across the world.”

So he and his students worked with Edun LIVE to develop a business plan to market the T-shirts to other colleges and universities.

“Edun LIVE had been looking for a solution to sell high volumes of T-shirts in the college market,” says Christian Kemp-Griffin, Edun chief executive.

“When the Farmer school’s centre for social entrepreneurship approached me, one thing led to the next and an innovative idea emerged.”

There has already been a healthy interest from other institutions. Rather than being in competition with these institutions, Prof Smith says all the work the Farmer students have done will be given as a turnkey package to others who want to create similar products.

Though the Farmer students involved in the project are undergraduates, there is no reason why the projects could not be implemented by MBA students in other business schools, says Prof Smith.

Even though the school pays a premium for the blank T-shirts, the student business still manages to make a profit. This is ploughed back into the social entrepreneurship centre, where it will be used to fund three initiatives.

First, the money will be used to bring guest speakers to the school. Second, cash will be made available to fund student visits to Africa. And third, some money will be used to create a social venture fund.

The Farmer school is one of a growing number of business schools around the world that have developed centres for social enterprise, and social enterprise courses, intended to educate future managers in developing innovative solutions to social problems. These include several of the top business schools in the US, such as Harvard and Tuck, as well as some in the UK, such as the Saïd business school at the University of Oxford.

The Skoll Centre for social enterprise was created at the Saïd school in 2004 with a gift from Jeff Skoll, the first president of Ebay.

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