A losing team’s merch: Sports consumerism feeds international landfills

Photo of a trash heap
Estormiz/Creative Commons

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At Super Bowl LIV, Patrick Mahomes’ naysayers were proved correct when the San Francisco 49ers overtook the Kansas City Chiefs in a resounding win. A year later, in the 2021 NBA finals, the Phoenix Suns edged over the Milwaukee Bucks to win the championship, robbing the Bucks of their comeback story. And last weekend at the Big Game, Stanford beat Cal, marking another year in which the Axe will remain in Palo Alto. What do all of these sports moments have in common?

None of them ever happened.

But it wouldn’t be so out of the ordinary to spot someone in a T-shirt or jersey that claims otherwise — depending on where you looked. These alternative reality T-shirts are quite real and can be found almost anywhere in countries such as Ghana, Kenya or Nigeria.

After large sporting events, such as the Super Bowl or NBA finals, fans want to get merchandise as quickly as possible, and retailers don’t want to miss out on the initial surge in demand. Before the event, manufacturers and retailers produce and stock two sets of merch — shirts, hats, jerseys and more. The losing team’s merch is donated to charity, where it enters the mass of discarded clothing sent abroad, predominantly to Eastern Africa or South America.

Following periods of colonial extraction, these regions were forced by Western governments to undergo rapid economic liberalization, and they were later deemed desperate for basic needs support by the very nations that exploited them. Presently, the United States exports its unwanted trash to these nations under the guise of charity.

Prevailing lines of thought in the United States often dissuade critical thinking — after all, isn’t “charity” a good thing? But the dark underbelly of American consumerism operates in the dark, hiding beneath notions of charity or international aid. It’s a virtually invisible market, far out of sight and out of mind for the vast majority of American sports fans.

But for those living in the final resting spot for the United States’ clothing waste, the effects are quite hard to miss. In Ghana, for example, this cycle ends in environmental disaster. Weekly delivery trucks flood Ghana, leaving bales of textiles that the locals call Obroni Wawu, or “Dead White Man’s Clothes.” This torrent of clothing is a direct result of fast fashion trends in the United States and Europe, a cycle ending in countless items being discarded and “donated” abroad. Ghanaians are forced to divert an estimated 40% of this clothing to landfills. Often, rain carries the clothing to the sea, where it either clogs waterways or accumulates on beaches.

The clothes that don’t make it into the landfill can often be just as harmful, wreaking economic havoc on local economies. Bales of donated clothing are purchased by market traders, who sort through the garments and then resell them. It is a risky livelihood for stallholders, whose income is at the whim of the variable quality of donated clothing. Cheap clothing flooding the market makes it virtually impossible for locally made clothing to become economically viable. In Kenya, for example, the average cost of a secondhand garment from the United States is 5% to 10% of a new garment made locally.

Outside of environmental or economic concerns lies the debate over human dignity. If Americans don’t want to wear a losing team’s shirt, why should Guanians, Kenyans or Nigerians be expected to?

Far from experiencing a shortage of basic needs such as clothing, these countries have been inundated with unwanted textiles. Yet, the United States keeps sending more, patting itself on the back for such apparent generosity.

The fault does not lie entirely in sports’ enterprises, as sports merchandise constitutes only a fraction of exported textiles. But piled on beaches or filling landfills in East Africa, sports T-shirts can easily be found, boasting victories that never took place.

Consumers of sports merch — euphoric from their team’s hard-fought victory — often don’t question how their team’s winning merch can be in their hands the very same day. It is just another feature of the American consumerist landscape. But convenience and consumerism in one corner of the world can hold disastrous implications for another.

As athletes increasingly enter the activism arena, they should use their platform to promote sustainable and just alternatives. Sports enterprises might only listen to their most lucrative players. American sports fans must also ask the hard questions: Is such immediacy and convenience worth it?

After all, a win is a win — even if you have to wait a little while for the merch to arrive.

Sarah Siegel is a deputy sports editor. Contact her at [email protected].