Circularity - down to a T: New solutions for volunteer clothing


Setting the scene

Historically, when we ran volunteering activities, we provided many participants with a branded t-shirt and they were invited to take these home with them at the end of the day.  This happened for two types of volunteering - environmental and fund-raising.

Between 2012 and 2017, over 5,200 of our people took part in one of our environmental volunteering events. We know this had a really positive effect not only in improving local nature areas, but also in helping to increase sustainability understanding and to trigger more sustainable behaviours. But it meant we were buying around a thousand t-shirts per year.

In addition, we estimate that about 1,000 of our people take part in fund-raising efforts each year, especially during our main campaign, 'One Firm, One Day'. Indeed, over the past few years, they’ve collectively raised over £3.75m for different charities. In lieu of a donation to the PwC Foundation, we’d supplied t-shirts to them, too, if requested.

As part of our Going Circular programme, and increasingly aware of the environmental burden associated with textiles, we started to wonder whether there was a more sustainable solution.

'One Firm, One Day' volunteers
Environmental volunteers

How we helped

We challenged ourselves by asking questions such as:

  • Did we really need the t-shirts? 
  • What functionality were they providing?
  • Could we deliver this in a way that used fewer materials or was redesigned for circularity?

For environmental volunteering, we defined three needs: first, the t-shirts were helping to keep personal clothing clean as our employees did outdoor work in wetlands, on beaches and in forests. They also served to ensure we could easily identify team members when they are scattered over large sites. And, we held the belief that people appreciated and reused the t-shirt after the event.

It quickly became apparently, though, that white t-shirts were perhaps not the most ideal for dirty jobs. Moreover, having asked our people what became of the t-shirt, most confessed that it sat in the bottom of a drawer where they felt too guilty to throw it out but didn’t have a good use for it.

We decided to replace the t-shirts with hard-wearing, darker tabards that better protected people’s bodies, were highly visible, and which we could collect back at the end of the event so they could be eco-laundered and used again, and again.

Volunteer t-shirt

In similar vein, fund-raising volunteers used t-shirts to make themselves visible to donors, and to identify themselves as being part of a named event, taking place on a specific date. This meant that the t-shirts had a large printed PwC logo on the front, and the name (and date, if needed) of the volunteering event on the back.

But people told us that they rarely used the tops again, unless for the odd bit of gardening or for washing the car – so most of the t-shirts were only being used for a single day. We decided to redesign these, too, working with our corporate merchandise supplier, Outstanding Branding.

First, we sourced a t-shirt made in a super smooth fabric from 100% recycled materials (i.e. shredded, salvaged organic cotton clothing, blended with recycled plastic bottles). Soft to the touch, we chose a mid-grey colour and replaced the large PwC logo with a more understated ‘tab’ on the hem, providing a contrasting splash of colour in a stylish way.

Next, we came up with the idea of round stickers that conveyed the event name and date, and which would adhere to the t-shirts for the duration of the volunteering but come off without causing any damaging afterwards. All these features were designed to make the item nicer to wear, and more flexible – increasing the likelihood of use in subsequent events, or at home.  

In addition, as part of our drive to encourage our employees to live more sustainable lifestyles, we now hand out a small booklet to each participant (often via a digital link) that explains why we have made changes, and encourages them to both look after their t-shirt, and to dispose of it in a way that allows reuse by someone else when they no longer want it.

Making a difference

This new approach has successfully reduced the raw material, water and carbon footprint of the clothing needed for our volunteering and saved us money without any detrimental effect.

Not only were the tabards that replaced our environmental volunteering t-shirts 10% cheaper than the old items, but we’ve saved by not having to issue tops on a one-for-one basis.

Volunteers involved in fund-raising have also been receptive to our new approach. Indeed, for larger teams that participate annually in fund-raising, we’ve been able to issue many people with just new stickers this year, reducing the number of t-shirts distributed by 65%. 

Altogether, we estimate that we’ve reduced the number of t-shirts distributed by over 1,300 since we introduced our new approach last year, saving several thousand pounds into the bargain. Moreover, we’re raising the profile of environmental protection and circular economy principles amongst our people, contributing to more sustainable mind-sets. 

Volunteer t-shirt

Contact us

Bridget Jackson

Chief Sustainability Officer, PwC United Kingdom

Henry le Fleming

Assistant Director, Plastics & Circular Economy Lead, PwC United Kingdom

Tel: +44 (0)20 7213 4097