What Happens to All Those Super Bowl T-Shirts?: A Guest Post by Dean Karlan

The Pittsburgh Steelers played in this year’s Super Bowl, but did not win it. Which means that, sitting in a warehouse somewhere, are lots of preprinted “Pittsburgh Steelers 2011 Super Bowl Champion” t-shirts. Ever wonder what happens to them? Dean Karlan, a development economist at Yale, is here to explain in a guest post.

Karlan is president and founder of Innovations for Poverty Action, a research affiliate at the M.I.T. Jameel Poverty Action Lab,?and co-Founder of stickK.com. And he and Jacob Appel are co-authors of a forthcoming book called More Than Good Intentions: How a New Economics Is Helping to Solve Global Poverty.

What Happens to All Those Super Bowl T-Shirts?
By Dean Karlan

The Super Bowl stirred up an old controversy in the international aid community.? What happens to all those preprinted “Pittsburgh Steelers 2011 Super Bowl Champion” t-shirts?? Apparently, each year the NFL gives them to the international relief and development organization World Vision, who then ships them to Africa.

Is this good or bad? And why should anyone care?

This is not the first time these questions have been asked. Less than a year ago, Jason Sadler planned to send a million t-shirts to Africa, only to be bombarded by scathing criticism from the aid blogosphere. Read here for the story, and here for his version of why he ultimately didn’t send the shirts.

Opponents argue that sending shirts destroys local textile economies by flooding the market with free goods and undercutting local t-shirt producers. World Vision responds by saying something to the tune of, “but we spread it out.” That is kind of like arguing that something bad is okay if you do it in small enough doses to lots of people (rather than a large dose to a few people). Of course, such arguments don’t hold water: bad is bad, even if marginally so.

I think World Vision might have a better defense. They could argue that critics of the annual t-shirt migration (or at least all the critics I’ve heard) are thinking about the wrong counterfactual. The choice is not between (a) doing nothing — which, critics infer, would leave Africans to produce and sell 100,000 new t-shirts — and (b) shipping 100,000 t-shirts to Africa. Rather, the choice is between (a) selling the t-shirts in the U.S. as rags (or novelty souvenirs for delusional Steelers fans) and then sending to Africa the proceeds plus the money that would have been spent on shipping, or (b) shipping 100,000 t-shirts to Africa.

In other words, the NFL surely isn’t going to pay local producers to make 100,000 t-shirts after the Super Bowl. That option is not on the table. So in the end, the t-shirt migration has one pro and two cons, and we have no real data to tell us what to do. The pro: some people in Africa get some t-shirts, and hopefully those people extract some value from the t-shirts (either by wearing them or by selling them). The first con: market prices for t-shirts may go lower in Africa, and this adversely affects some. The second con: there may simply be a better way, such as selling the t-shirts in the US and sending the profits, as in (a) above.

Typically, when we see arguments for in-kind goods, they have some sort of positive externalities (bednets to fight malaria, deworming pills) or we think they’re underconsumed because of poor information (education: gated copy here, earlier working paper here). T-shirts? Tough to make that case.

The more I read, the more I was struck: lots of rhetoric, but I could not find a simple evaluation that compared the above tradeoff: hand out t-shirts in Africa, or sell them in the U.S. and hand out the cash equivalent in Africa. Perhaps the outcomes are too diffuse (these shirts are not worth too much, after all, so what would we actually measure? And measuring impact on local prices is a tough nut to crack).

Perhaps the “gift” is simply too small to detect an impact. But, with as little as $0.50, we do know ways to make a noticeable impact: e.g., give deworming pills to schoolchildren in areas with worms, and their health and then school attendance improve.

What do you think?? Better than no aid, but not the optimal aid?? Or actually doing harm, as some argue?

(HT: A View from the Cave)

Tom Rod

The saying goes that if you give a man a fish, your feed him for a day, but teach him to fish, and you feed him for a lifetime.

Sounds great in theory, works well in practice. But sometimes you have to give said man a fishing pole to get started.


If we shouldn't send t-shirts to Africa, maybe we also shouldn't send food. That undercuts African farmers.


I dislike sports so much that I would LOVE to have a "Pittsburgh Steelers 2011 Super Bowl Champion" t-shirt!


What about the marginal benefit to all the people that receive free shirts? Why is this positive effect dwarfed by the people who produce them losing business? Why not just focus the distribution to Africans who otherwise can't afford new clothing, muting the marginal negative impact on demand for African-made shirts?

By that argument, I should burn my leftover coats instead of donating them to the local coat drive. Why clothe the homeless if I'll cut into Burlington Coat Factory's profits? Surely the homeless can scrounge together $25 they would have spent on food and instead buy a cheap coat, and that's obviously better for the economy.


The T-shirts are being given to World Vision (a christian missionary group) they will be given to a country/area where the textile industry is non-christian.

Probably best to send the T-shirts to Bono.


I don't know, this reminds of Bastiat's story about candle makers protesting the existence of the sun, which is unfair competition as it provides light for free. Free stuff is good. And if villagers don't have to spend money on t-shirts, doesn't that free up money to be spent on other goods or services that are provided locally?

Tricia Hanley

I think the T-Shirts should have a big red circle with a red slash over the Steelers faux win and the T-Shirts should be sold in Green Bay and Seattle. Send the money to a good cause, perhaps even a good cause in the US. If I were Green Bay I would be ticked the shirts were out there unchanged at all! Big red NO Circle/slash ASAP!

Doug H.

When I was deployed to the Balkans in the late 1990s, I remember seeing LOTS of Denver Broncos World Champions t-shirts.

What I don't understand about the anti-shirt migration is that in many areas of Africa, I have to believe that there isn't a bustling textile industry and/or people can't afford them so it is a choice of a free t-shirt or no t-shirt at all. Sounds like some aid is better than no aid at all.


Here's an even better idea: don't make the t-shirts in advance. The money that would have been used to produce the t-shirts can then be donated to any number of organizations working in Africa that don't dilute local economies. Of course, here in the US, real hardship means having to wait an extra day to purchase our team's victory t-shirt.


i would think that selling the shirts in the US as an Africa fundraiser could be very successful if you marketed it to the right demographic. "look at me wearing my ironic sports tshirt that also shows everyone that I donated money to africa!"

Sam Gardner

The choice is different: it is between selling the t-shirts at their real value (probably USD 1 per piece), and getting a tax exemption as a gift on the original value of USD 20, meaning a lot more than the USD 1 they would otherwise get.

In essence, it is just a tax scam, facilitated by a tax exempted organisation.


Who exactly is making t-shirts in Africa? From my experience in W. Africa the vast majority of clothes are bought at second-hand booths where these Superbowl tees would likely end up. Other clothes are made from traditional fabric (often produced abroad). Still some non second-hand clothes are imported from China.

This textbook idea that "foreign t-shirts flood market and hurt local t-shirt makers" is much more nuanced in practice. More t-shirts give lost cost alternatives to consumers and does very little to hurt 'local textile economies.'

Plus it's fun for ex-pat workers to look for funny t-shirts at the market.


It seems to be assumed that crappy t-shirts somehow benefit poor people in Africa. How?

Brett Keller

As many (including me) bloggers interested in aid and development have argued, an important question from World Vision's perspective should be "what else could we be doing with the same money?" World Vision spends a lot of money coordinating with donors for these Gifts-in-Kind, sorting things, shipping the t-shirts, and distributing them, especially if they're doing the sort of advanced work they say is necessary to spread out the harm (OK, not their wording, but effectively what they're saying). The opportunity cost is huge. They're spending tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars -- and much more over the years -- to distribute t-shirts when they could be spending it on any number of things: medicine, vaccine programs, health education, microfinance, etc. They can and should do much better!


There's another con to sending the shirts over there. As someone else pointed out, somewhere in Africa there's a kid who thinks the Bills won four straight.

Robert Achenbach

How about we all stop a minute and question the existence of the t-shirts in the first place. They're a result of our "me want now" society - can't people wait a few days to get their superbowl t-shirt in order to avoid the waste? The meaningless virtual glory that goes with sports fans stuff should also give pause - do we really need this? If Africans can be harmed by a bunch of free t-shirts, think what this is all doing to us at home? Plus, where were those t-shirts made? - I'll bet not in the defunct southern U.S. clothing mills but in SE Asia. Oh the inhumanity of it all!!

Rick Starr

Presumably if the T-shirts could be sold in America, why would the owners then send the money to Africa? More likely they would pocket it, don't you think? Perhaps it's that the T-shirts can't be effectively or efficiently sold in the US in the first place, or that the NFL doesn't want a lot of bogus T-shirts sold and makes NOT selling the losers a conditional part of the license.

It there any info that demonstrates that people won't buy a T-shirt if they already have one? I suspect the marginal impact of T-shirt sales across the entire African continent would be de minimus, but cannot prove it.

Finally, I'll just note that a few years ago one local chain here was selling U of Tennessee "championship" shirts, except UT hadn't won. The price? 2 for $1. By the time the retailer got a cut, I suspect there was almost nothing left for the original entrepreneur - who typically sells these things at $10 a whack, and makes out in the good years and not in the bad ones.



I, too, wonder how much good the t-shirts actually do in Africa. Frankly, I wonder how much good they actually do anywhere, but that's really just a style snark.

Sam Adams

"The perfect is the enemy of the good."

Ian Kemmish

Surely one only needs to worry about the "undercutting local producers" if the number of people in Africa who need T-shirts but cannot afford them is less than the number of spare T-shirts you ship. Only if someone who would otherwise have bought one gets one for free does it impact the local clothing economy. If they would instead merely have carried on in unwashed rags, then that impact disappears. (And it might even spur demand for new local clothes amongst those neighbours who can afford them.)

At first glance, it appears that there are enough people in Africa who cannot afford clothing for this not to be a problem (although on the "con" side, one then has to go on and consider how accurately targeted the distribution will be).