The Unintended Consequences of Sustainability

Just minutes after an event like the Super Bowl ends, sports fans can go online and order T-shirts emblazoned with the winning team’s logo. The same is true for the World Series and other major sporting events. Such instant gratification is possible only because vendors hedge their bets and order tens of thousands of T-shirts for each team in a championship game, knowing that half the shirts they order can never be sold.

What happens to the losers’ shirts is a good example of how sustainable practices can have unintended consequences.

For years, the National Football League got rid of unsaleable merchandise by shredding it, burning it, or sending it to a landfill—hardly a sustainable solution. Since 1996, however, it has partnered first with World Vision and then with Good360 to donate unwanted goods to developing countries. Now, people from El Salvador to Azerbaijan wear shirts that wrongly celebrate the Seattle Seahawks back-to-back victories in Super Bowls XLVIII and XLVIX, while Carolina Panthers fans who venture overseas can bring home souvenirs of their team’s would-be victory in Super Bowl 50.

But unsaleable Super Bowl and World Series T-shirts are just the tip of a very large iceberg. Thanks in part to the popularity of “fast fashion”—where garments are by design both cheap and disposable—clothing donations to third-world countries have exploded. According to Dr. Andrew Brooks, a lecturer in development geography at Kings’ College London, East Africa alone imports $151 million worth of secondhand clothing each year. And Brooks reports that in Uganda 81 percent of all clothing purchases are for secondhand garments.

As importation of unwanted and used clothing by developing countries has increased, domestic production has decreased. An East African garment industry that once employed 500,000 people now employees just 20,000.

In response, the East African Community, a trading bloc that includes Uganda, Kenya, Tanzania, Rwanda, and Burundi, has proposed a ban on imports of secondhand clothing by 2019. While the ban seems unlikely to pass—and is facing resistance from local vendors of imports—the fact that it has been proposed at all illustrates how a well-meaning action in North America can have unintended consequences in East Africa.

So what should consumers do?

One option is to remember that the familiar mantra “Reduce, Reuse, Recycle” represents a hierarchy, not a menu of equivalent options. When you don’t buy something you don’t need or when you pay a little more for something that will last, you don’t have to worry about that product ending up in the waste stream.

Another option is to consider the entire lifecycle of the products you purchase. For example, Thread International pays people in poor Haitian and Honduran neighborhoods to collect plastic that goes into its poly-cotton T-shirts. The company even invites customers to send products back when they’re done with them, instead of to a landfill. As Kelsey Haling, the company’s director of impact, explained in a blog post, “That shirt started as a plastic bottle in the streets of Haiti. It was picked up by an entrepreneur whose life has been changed because of trash. It was processed and blended with cotton and knitted into jersey and cut and sewn into a shirt. Dozens of hands touched it and made it possible. It’s too valuable to throw away.”

By looking at purchases of clothing and other goods in that light, American consumers could learn to live more sustainably without negatively impacting countries halfway around the globe.