You might notice something funny about the picture above – although they played in the 2004 Stanley Cup Final, the Calgary Flames lost Game 7 and the Cup to the Tampa Bay Lightning. But, of course, the NHL licensed official Flames championship gear in case the Flames did win the Stanley Cup. This is standard practice for many North American professional leagues, including the NHL – as players pull on official championship hats and t-shirts seconds after winning a Stanley Cup or Super Bowl, and fans rush out to snap up championship merchandise, distributors and manufacturers quietly pack up the “loser gear” that was produced in case the other team won the decisive game. In simple economic reasoning, the leagues and their distributors know that the profits to be made by having championship gear immediately available for sale far outweighs the cost of producing a separate set of merchandise that will never be sold.
So what happens to the “loser” gear? As a recent post at The Post Game explains, most often it is donated to international NGOs that distribute it in various developing countries around the world:
For World Vision International and a small number of other nonprofit groups, the gear that proclaims the wrong team champion is a windfall. The leagues can’t very well destroy thousands of perfectly good caps and shirts, sizes ranging from petite to double extra large. So they donate it to humanitarian organizations to hand out in developing nations.
“The clothing has been distributed in more than 100 countries, all over Africa, to Asian nations, to Latin America and Europe,” said Dean Owen, a World Vision executive. “It goes to places of the greatest need, definitely not to Sweden, but definitely to Zimbabwe.”
As with many micro-level issues in hockey, the charitable efforts of the NHL (and other sports leagues) must be situated in their broader sociopolitical context to be properly understood. At first glance, these donations appear to be a win-win: leagues such as the NHL offload useless and potentially embarrassing merchandise, and people living in poverty receive aid in the form of clothing. Sure, t-shirts and hats might not be as high priority as food or medicine, but it’s free and better than nothing, right?
Turns out it is not nearly that simple, and there are some compelling arguments as to why these donations of “loser gear” contribute toward some international aid practices that are very damaging to the economies of developing countries and the livelihoods of their citizens. As with most international development programs, there are two sides to the coin: after the jump I explore the arguments for and against this practice.It should be noted that the clothing donations made by the NHL and other leagues are part of a much broader trend of sending used clothing from high income countries such as Canada and the United States to low-income nations. Many economics and international development experts criticize this practice, and in doing so counteract the glowing reports of “loser gear” donations. For example, a 2008 study published in The Economic Journal concluded that
Used-clothing imports . . . have a negative impact on apparel production in Africa, explaining roughly 40% of the decline in production and 50% of the decline in employment over the period 1981–2000.
The major argument behind criticisms of such donations is that they undermine local economies. Manufacturing is generally considered to be a backbone of economic development, and by providing free or extremely cheap clothing items in developing countries donors are effectively undermining existing clothing manufacturers and destroying the potential for new ones to open up shop. The international development blog Texas in Africa sums up this argument well:
One major factor prohibiting the development of major textile industries is used-clothing donations by consumers in industrialized countries. That is, if you box up your old t-shirts and take them to Goodwill, you may actually be inadvertently undermining the development of clothing production facilities in Africa. Why? Because with a huge supply of cheap apparel that is ready for sale, there’s no need to build factories to produce more.
In other words, every Calgary Flames 2004 Stanley Cup hat or Vancouver Canucks 2011 championship t-shirt that gets sent to a low-income country may by contributing to the destruction of that country’s manufacturing base.
However, it is possible that critics of this practice are overstating their arguments. A 2005 report by Oxfam found a mixed picture of the pros and cons of the second-hand clothing (SHC) market in developing countries:
The trade has clear consumer benefits. This is especially true in countries with low purchasing power, and for poorer consumers. . . . The trade supports hundreds of thousands of livelihoods in developing countries. These include jobs in trading, distributing, repairing, restyling, and washing clothes.
SHC imports are likely to have played a role in undermining industrial textile/clothing production and employment in West Africa, which experienced a serious decline in the 1980s and 1990s. However, such imports have not been the only cause. Increasingly cheap imports from Asia are competing with local production.
In other words, the SHC clothing industry still employs many people (though far less than a strong local garment industry likely would). And, while the provision of free or cheap SHC may have been a hindrance to the development of local clothing industries over the past three decades, it may not matter much anymore given the influx of cheap, mass-produced clothing from manufacturing powerhouses such as China or Vietnam.
Finally, it is critical to include a discussion of the ethics of charitable donations from developing to developing countries. There are a number of excellent books on the subject, including economist William Easterly’s classic book White Man’s Burden. There is a very fine line between well-intentioned philanthropy that empowers disadvantaged people to make changes in their lives and patronizing charity that assumes a deficiency on the part of the recipients and provides unwanted goods that are unquestioningly assumed to be “doing good”.
Certainly there is a risk of creating aid dependency through donations – something discussed with regard to African nations by Dambisa Moyo in her book Dead Aid. But there is also the possibility that it risks perpetuating stereotypes of helplessness, incompetence, and unquestioning gratefulness on the part of aid recipients. Again with regard to Africa, Easterly summarizes this problematic possibility very well:
It’s a dark and scary picture of a helpless, backward continent that’s being offered up to TV watchers and coffee drinkers. But in fact, the real Africa is quite a bit different. And the problem with all this Western stereotyping is that it manages to snatch defeat from the jaws of some current victories, fueling support for patronizing Western policies designed to rescue the allegedly helpless African people while often discouraging those policies that might actually help.
So, given the preceding discussion, where does this leave sports leagues such as the NHL? Should they continue to donate “loser gear” to low-income countries? Or should they find an alternative approach, whether it be local distribution of the clothing or even its destruction? I have a number of (admittedly not fully developed) thoughts on this matter:
- Given the seemingly limited economic impact of SHC donations outlined by Oxfam, the NHL can continue this practice without worrying that it is significantly contributing to undermining local clothing manufacturing industries;
- The NHL should examine the ethics of its donations (see the Oxfam report for an overview of these) and its supply chain, and determine that its charitable efforts are having the maximum benefit and doing the least harm possible;
- Every effort should be made to avoid stereotyping and the projection of patronizing attitudes in discussions of the donations. While the NHL does not appear to promote its charitable SHC initiatives, the high profile of NFL efforts unfortunately suggests that the league revels in the publicity – the NHL should make every effort to avoid patronizing claims of benevolence or helping the disadvantaged;
- Finally, while I have not come across any arguments that incorporate environmental concerns (for example, the impact of shipping and distributing SHC), this should be an important consideration in attempting to develop an ethical stance on the distribution of “loser gear”.
As this discussion highlights, the donation of “loser gear” is an ethically complex issue and is very much part of broader political and international development concerns. Hopefully the NHL embraces this complexity and develops well thought-out policies about its own “loser gear”. And next June, when you watch the Stanley Cup champions pull on their hats and shirts, save a quick thought for the fate of the losing team’s gear and how and where it will find a home.
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