Free T-Shirts (As Long As You Don't Care Who Won the Super Bowl)

Well it's Superbowl time yet again, and this shall be my fourth Super Bowl here in Peru (Saints, Packers, Giants). I've always made a point of watching it as it's a good 'coming together' event for volunteers...and more so helpful that the Steelers were in one of ém. But ever since undergrad (Thank you Matt Krain for ruining the Super Bowl), I always think about 'T-ShirtTravels'  aka 'What Happens to the Pre-Made Championship T-Shirts of (the Losing Team)'.

The short of it though is that there exists a surplus of of apparel that can't be sold in the states – used clothes, factory errors, New England Patriots Superbowl Championship t-shirts, etc. That surplus winds up shipped to developing countries all over the world, and donated or sold in local markets. This all sounds wonderful, right? Free clothes for all the poor people!

But who is actually naked for lack of clothing?
And are these shirts really SWAG or something that is really doing more harm than good. The truth is, in general, physical donations are almost never a great way to donate: it costs time, money, logistics to send the bulk goods somewhere; these goods might actually not be needed or wanted; it can actually hurt in the long run (and not just aid dependency).

One of the big ones is that the influx of cheap (or free) goods ruins local industries. In the case of the t-shirts, since they arrive free and can be sold for less, thus ultimately hurting local production of clothes...people weren't naked before all these t-shirts came along. Less production means less output, which means the local textile business looses money. On top of that, the workers risk loosing their jobs and even raw material providers (cotton for example) are adversely affected because there's less demand for their product.

The problem therefore is the donor. Donating physical things makes all of us feel good, since it's something tangible (and it's a lot less painful than giving cash. However, cash is a lot more useful to organizations as they can buy local products and use the money where it's most needed.

Peru, for it's part, has taken some straightforward measures against the influx of second hand clothing – such as making it illegal to import used clothing into the country. How do they enforce that? Well, they do and they don't. Through the mail system, anything weighing over 1kg is opened and checked in the presence of the recipient. While all of my packages consist of candy and books, I've been behind people in line who get pretty angry when the post-office refuses to release their package even if only part of it has used clothing. However, if missionary or volunteer groups come and bring a large amount of t-shirts or donations, it gets a little grayer. When coming from the airport, their items might be searched, but might not. And I have seen a bunch of second hand t-shirts in rural zones where I know missionary and NGO groups have worked before.

It's a tricky line. People always like free and cheaper stuff.

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