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VOL. 127 | NO. 189 | Thursday, September 27, 2012

Clothing for a Cause

Agape North T-shirt company shifts charitable focus toward Memphis

By JONATHAN DEVIN

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Joe Williams believes that consumers want to help others, even if it means giving the shirts off their backs.

Joe Williams, founder of Agape North, fulfills an order for a shirt at the company’s office. The company has donated more than 2,500 uniforms internationally and in Memphis over the past two years.  

(Photo: Lance Murphey)

His small business, the cause-based Agape North T-shirt and polo shirt company, is equally focused on the meaning of his clothing as well as the quality of it.

“I wanted to create a quality clothing item that someone can wear every day, but that has some meaning behind it,” said Williams, owner of Agape North, which does a one-for-one donation of school uniform shirts for less-fortunate school children. “The shirt has a symbol on it that hopefully down the road represents a brand that gives back.”

The company sells T-shirts, polo shirts, long-sleeve button down shirts and pullovers, each bearing Agape North’s logo, the silhouette of a lion. For every shirt sold, a school uniform shirt is donated to a school.

“We chose the lion because it’s a cool symbol,” Williams said. “Secondly, it stands for strength and courage.”

Williams, a Memphian with 13 years experience in sales including 10 years in medical sales, started the company in 2010, hoping to mimic an idea made popular by Toms Shoes, which donates a pair of children’s shoes for every pair purchased.

“More and more people are looking for (cause-based retail), especially in younger generations,” Williams said. “It’s interesting that even commercials for large companies say part of our proceeds go to something. They’re tapping into the giving back philosophy.”

In 2012, retailers Macy’s and Ikea both donated portions of proceeds from certain sales to different causes.

Also a 2012 Edelman good purpose study found that 47 percent of consumers bought cause-related brands at least monthly. That’s up 47 percent from two years before.

Over half of respondents to the same survey said they believed CEOs should make long-term commitments toward societal issues.

Williams said the interest in cause-based retail is particularly interesting to 18-30 year olds. He got the idea for Agape North while volunteering with youth at his church, many of whom were taken with Toms shoes.

I wanted to create a quality clothing item that someone can wear every day, but that has some meaning behind it.”

–Joe Williams
Owner, Agape North

So far, Agape North has donated more than 2,500 school uniform shirts. The first 500 went to a school outside of Guatemala City, Guatemala. A second donation went to a school in Honduras connected with Presbyterian Day School.

Now Williams is thinking locally.

In the last month and a half, Agape North donated 1,400 shirts to three Memphis City Schools Achievement schools: Frayser Elementary School, Corning Elementary School and Westside Middle School. More recently, Agape North started donating to the Memphis Grizzlies Charter Prep School.

“I wanted to be part of giving back to the city of Memphis, so after we did a couple international donations, I wanted to do some local giving,” Williams said.

Williams spoke to assemblies at all of the schools and administrators from the schools were able to request sizes, colors and logos for the donated shirts.

Williams said that now every shirt bought in Memphis will result in a donation inside Memphis.

Currently, Memphians have to order shirts online at www.agapenorth.com, though someday Williams hopes to have a retail store of his own. Seventeen other retail stores in Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, Missouri, North Carolina, South Carolina, West Virginia, and Middle and East Tennessee carry Agape North shirts, but Williams said he doesn’t want to sell in other retail stores in Memphis.

Retailers, he said, typically do not carry the full line of shirts.

The polo shirts sell for $59 and are meant to rival designer brands like Ralph Lauren in quality. All of the shirts except the T-shirts are made in Peru, which Williams said has stricter labor laws than Asian manufacturers like China and India.

“We chose Peru because the quality of the cotton is the best,” Williams said. “China is one area I didn’t want to go to. I could save a lot of money and have our shirts made there, but it’s not right for who we are as giving back to children. I can’t have that concern. The laws they have to abide by in Peru are very strict.”

The T-shirts are made in the United States.

“The problem is that it’s hard to find good quality fabric in the States that’s not going to make the shirts cost $95,” Williams said.

Like the rest of the retail clothing industry, sales hit their peak in certain seasons like the back-to-school months of late summer, early spring and Christmas time.

Throughout the year, Agape North has ambassadors in schools and college campuses promoting the shirts.

“Education to me is the key to turning peoples’ lives around,” Williams said. “A uniform represents a lot more than a shirt.”

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