Both Oars In T-shirt Mistakes

A colleague who has heard me tell stories about the odd t-shirts that end up in Haiti sent me a link to an article on mental_floss titled "What Happens to the Losing Team’s Championship Shirts?" The piece describes how sports paraphernalia companies “disappear” shirts, hats and other items that proclaim the wrong team as winners. They donate them to relief organization for distribution oversees to people in need. This also happens with misprints and over production.

In the case of Super Bowl XLVI, according to the post, at least some of the un-marketable merchandise produced by NFL-licensed companies will be donated to World Vision, a large international faith based relief-development organization. Since World Vision operates in Haiti, we may soon see New England Patriots Super Bowl XLVI Champs shirts on the streets of Port au Prince. The shirts and hats’ misinformation will likely go unnoticed since soccer—the world’s football—is king here.

Indeed, we do see a lot of odd shirts in Haiti. This is not just due to losing teams, but also the reselling of baled second-hand clothing. My favorite sighting was a young, very macho looking teenage boy sporting a shirt bearing the warning, “I have PMS and a handgun”. I have also seen an older gentleman wearing a shirt proudly announcing “Baby on Board”. These shirts were obviously chosen for their color or utility—not their slogans.

Not everything about this clothing is funny or even helpful. The donated baled clothing is a two edged sword. While it does provide inexpensive clothes, it also puts local tailors and sewers out of work and undermines the local economy in other more subtle ways. It’s a gift horse that needs to be looked in the eye—and has.

The clothes sold in Haiti’s streets are not only cheap because they are used. Often, they come to Haiti as donations only to be spirited off to the informal street market to be sold. This commerce produces no taxes, the revenue that supports roads and other forms of real development. Even when baled clothes are sourced legally, their resale does little to contribute to the local economy.

There is a lot wrong with the informal sector into which these clothes can feed. In the US, we would call it a black market. At best, it is a garage-sale on steroids. Viewed from the perspective of real development, the informal sector is a cancerous, political mess that impedes economic and social advancement. Unfortunately, it is often gilded over by international organizations singing the praises of micro-financing. But, I digress.

What about the cost back home? Is it worth giving a company a tax write-off worth as much as $4 for a shirt that is worth less than 75 cents to its final recipient? What about the cost of shipping and handling to get them to Haiti, which some estimates suggest is over 50 cents? It would be interesting to have a clear statement of the value being given to these unmarketable t-shirts by PR-motivated organizations like World Vision.

My wife has found a modest, but creative solution to the economic dilemma created by the dumping of bales of clothes on Haiti. She has put together a sewing group that cuts up t-shirts and men’s polos and makes messenger and tote bags from the fabric. These bags are returned to the US for sale. I love the irony of a woman buying a bag made from her husband’s cast-off golf shirt.

Finally, what kind of message are these shirts sending? Is giving someone a shirt with the wrong information on it that nobody wants the same as giving someone the shirt off your back? Does the receiver—already marginalized—notice the difference? I wonder. According to one report, World Vision claimed that these donated shirts raise spirits. I am not sure I share the same vision of the world as they do.

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