Nathan Rothstein and his partner, Ross Lohr, have figured out a way to save your favorite T-shirts while providing living-wage jobs to Americans. If you’re staring at a pile of sorority/fraternity, sports or even old bat mitzvah T-shirts that mean something to you but that you’re not sure what to do with, Project Repat will sew your shirts into a quilt or bag. I chatted with Nathan about where the idea for his business came from and what has inspired his passion for social justice.
How did you come up with the idea for Project Repat?
My business partner, Ross Lohr, was in East Africa running a non-profit. He was in a traffic jam and saw a Kenyan man wearing a T-shirt that read, “I danced my ass off at Josh’s bar mitzvah.” So we asked ourselves: How can we prevent T-shirts from getting dumped over there? Is there something we can do to add value here? So we came up with an idea that would provide living-wage jobs for people in the U.S. and help people preserve their memories.
The name “Repat” comes from repatriating textile jobs in the United States. We are doing two important things: not adding more textiles that produce waste during manufacturing, and providing fair-wage jobs.
How do you deal with really ratty T-shirts?
I’d say 99 percent of the T-shirts are fine. We’ve found that T-shirts are like trophies for people—most people wear several a week, and we’re here to preserve those for our customers.
You’ve given lectures in the past about how young people can make a social impact and even spent four years in New Orleans doing just that. Was there a defining moment for you that set you on this course of tikkun olam (repairing the world)?
I’m from the Boston area, and I used to work with the JCRC in high school. Through my Hebrew school I participated in a service group—Teens for Tzedek—that hosted Passover seders for the homeless. It was an eye-opening moment for me. I realized that I was looking at modern-day slavery. So many people are living paycheck to paycheck, and for some, they are just a few moments away from losing everything. I feel that our role is to make things better. When you want things to be good for you, you should want those things for others as well.
I also participated in a Hillel spring break during college and went to New Orleans. We saw people who had paid all their insurance bills but were still abandoned by their agencies. I see Project Repat as a way to solve many social issues and problems.
Have you ever rejected a T-shirt for being too lewd?
Occasionally people send us lewd T-shirts, but we are a tailor business. It’s a custom job for everything we do, so we work with what we’ve been sent!
Four Questions is a weekly interview column featuring interesting people connected with the Greater Boston Jewish community. Find past columns here. Have an idea of someone we should interview? Email Molly!
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