After the Super Bowl last Sunday, the Giants were immediately given Championship T-shirts, hats and towels to celebrate their victory. In order to make this happen, the NFL has to produce these items for both teams competing for the title. Some retailers in the teams’ home markets also gamble on pre-ordering championship merchandise in order to be able to offer it to giddy fans right away. This means that, right now, there’s a lot of Patriots Championship gear out there that will never see a retail floor. What happens to all that stuff?
The NFL and most sporting goods retailers donate this no-longer-relevant merchandise to World Vision, a non-profit organization that helps distribute it to developing countries or areas in need of relief, such as Haiti. They also work with U.S. customs to accept donations of confiscated counterfeit goods. Every year, World Vision receives 100,000 articles of clothing — worth an estimated $2 million — through such donation programs. “For years, World Vision has helped us to ensure that no NFL apparel goes to waste,” says David Krichavsky, NFL director of community relations. “With the enormous needs in Haiti and World Vision’s long-term presence there, we know that these goods will go to very good use.”
Well, the good news is that the items are not being destroyed. The bad news is that when these items of clothing are being shipped off to countries in, for example, Africa they flood the market, which ultimately puts local makers and sellers of clothing out of business. This is often referred to as unwanted aid, and it doesn’t only happen with clothing. When it comes to food, too, there has been much discussion of whether in-kind donation based aid actually aids poor countries or just seriously stunts their financial growth. Signs point to the latter.
I do believe that these sports retailers think that they are doing some good by donating this merchandise. However, one fact that is hard to overlook is that they also benefit from this financially since in-kind-donations are tax deductible. This means, in short, that tax payers are subsidizing the printing of this unwanted fan gear. The value of the donation is based on the retail value of the merchandise, not the cost of producing it, which may be a tenth of the sale price. One can see how donating hard-to-sell, unwanted goods in exchange for a write-off and good PR is increasingly appealing to businesses. It also frees them from the responsibility of disposing of these goods. Again, this does not only happen within the clothing industry. American companies donate all kinds of stuff — medicine, outdated equipment, electronics — to these kinds of charities.
Thus, this pattern of over-producing stuff we don’t want here in America only to dump it on poor developing nations, causing lasting financial damage to local economies, is becoming a problem. Upwards of 95 percent of our unwanted clothing — new or used — ends up in the developing world.
Some people are trying to do something about this. A company called Project Repat has developed a business model where they buy back some of the clothing that we have offloaded in countries like Tanzania or Kenya and employ local artisans to modify the items that are then sold in the U.S. 100% of all profits from (re)sales of Project Repat’s T-shirts, bags and scarves support nonprofit organizations improving lives of people in the countries from which they were repatriated. It’s a clever way to support local small businesses and artisans and give the local markets a well-needed infusion. “I went over there expecting to be angry that we dump so much clothing over there, and I realized that thousands of jobs are created from this market,” Project Repat Co-Founder Ross Lohr told GOOD. “Talk about tailors. They are taking their fat American people T-shirts and taking them in and making them fit a Kenyan body type… mixing and matching colors, modifying the designs.” This, of course, depends on our willingness to shell out $25 for the shirts and $30 for the bags and scarves. Project Repat recently ran a successful Kickstarter campaign, so if that’s an indication, they may just be on to something.
Donating this merchandise seems like a no-brainer, but it’s not as easy as “we have these leftover shirts that we don’t need, you need shirts so why don’t we just give you these.” It’s all part of a complicated system that has implications more far-reaching than we may see at first glance — the butterfly effect.
The real issue here is whether retailers really need to produce all that extra stuff. Couldn’t sports fans learn to wait just one or two days to buy their celebratory merchandise? What else could we do to deal with this waste? Surely there must be better ways we could make use of it, through clever textile recycling, reuse or upcycling programs. That, to me, sounds like a financial opportunity right here on the home front. Who’s game?