Costs of a Championship [Issue 03 Exclusive]
Instant gratification demands we have to celebrate our team’s championship as soon as it happens, but there’s more than we realize in fulfilling this instant desire for championship gear.
It’s one of life’s great under-asked questions. We’ve all seen one side of it, but we’ve never seen the other. Regardless of whether we’ve asked about it or not, it’s a query worth exploring. The answers we can and can’t find to such a seemingly simple inquiry will tell us a lot more about our culture than one might expect.
The question is: “What happens to the winning T-shirts for the losing team?”
In all major sporting championships, the winning team and all of its coaches, trainers, spouses, girlfriends, boyfriends, and children don gear with their team’s name and logo proclaiming them the champions within seconds of the game’s end. Usually, there is also some memorabilia available at the event for fans to purchase before they reach the parking lot. What if the other team had made that catch? What if the basket hadn’t gone in? Somewhere lurking in the stadium’s bowels are hundreds or thousands of inaccurate celebratory garments.
These clothes can never see the light of day, at least not anywhere that people who spend time and money on these sports might come across them. At worst, it’ll cost them branding; at best, it might trigger intense emotions for players and emotionally-invested fans. Every league deals with these awkward lies differently, but none of them have a great answer for its practices. I was unable to discuss the erroneous T-shirts with anybody I contacted, which indicates that they are indeed a sore subject for everybody. Still, there are thousands of hats and shirts that proclaimed Oregon the 2015 NCAA Football Champions and even more that celebrate the Seahawks as Super Bowl XLIX Champs. What we do with that inventory says a lot about our culture.
Textile manufacturing is one of the first steps in a modern industrial revolution. Tracing the trail of former T-shirt hotspots reads like a veritable who’s who of economic up-and-comers, with countries like China, Japan, South Korea, and India gaining their manufacturing prowess by first making shirts. As the current leading source of inexpensive T-shirts, Bangladesh has seen its poverty rate halved, and its average daily wages quintupled since it became a major player in shirt manufacturing in the late seventies. Of course, usually these countries leverage their new factory infrastructure to move on to goods like televisions or microchips, which bring higher profits and more educated workers into their cities. At some point though, this demand has to stop. How many shirts do we really need? How many televisions can we buy?
The economics of inventory have been refined over hundreds of years. Walking the fine line between demand, supply, and scarcity is what maintains healthy commerce—making people wait for basic goods drives up prices beyond reasonable levels, while having too much of them causes prices to fall in a way that’s bad for business. Still, many manufacturers create goods at a steady rate that outpaces demand, only to stockpile them to create an artificial flow that fits their price structure.
In the last few years, images have surfaced of massive lots of new cars, often still half-wrapped in shipping plastic, sitting in fields or on old test tracks awaiting demand. There are entire rows of identical cars, organized by color combinations. Sometimes, new models are introduced while thousands of old, brand-new ones sit unused. This speaks to something concerning in current consumer culture. If we can’t get what we want, when we want it, then we’ll move on to something else. Our impatience puts pressure on manufacturers to have something for everyone at all times, but it can’t be so visible that it gives consumers too much negotiating power.
Somewhere in the magical in-between are the championship shirts. Fans wait years for the opportunity to brag that their team is “The One,” and nothing creates that demand for instant gratification quite like seeing your team’s MVP wearing a shirt made just for that moment as confetti gets stuck in beards, microphones, and cameras. There is an instant, built-in market for such shirts. If the losing team had won, there would be an equal-but-opposite demand—a Newtonian consumerism that disobeys one critical rule.
In T-shirt manufacturing, there is no conservation of matter. Cotton, polyester, and dyes cannot be fully recycled. The same is true of almost all modern goods. Once you convert the raw materials into a finished product, it’s not easy to use that product to make something else. Building more of this year’s model than we need is not good practice when next year’s model is coming soon. The efficiency and low cost of manufacturing is not an excuse for printing shirts for the losing team or building cars we won’t ever buy. Manufacturers would rather eat the cost of production entirely than undermine their Suggested Retail Price. Even if they can turn a profit with these practices, the metals, rubbers, and plastics used to build cars and computers that are never sold cannot be returned to their raw state.
My home state of Texas is one of the top cotton producers in the world, but we simply grow it before shipping it to a processing powerhouse (like China) to mill and dye it. The raw cotton fabric is then shipped again to a shirt assembly factory with the most competitive pricing, which is likely in Bangladesh. Then, the finished shirts are shipped to stores in Germany, sporting events in New York, or maybe even back to Texas. That’s a lot of fuel and traffic generated by a product that may ultimately be shipped to Africa or destroyed (as is some leagues’ practice). In a world engrossed by energy independence, seeking low prices comes at a high cost.
Even growing cotton is a waste-intensive process. Every two pounds of raw cotton consumes nearly three thousand gallons of water, which is enough to sustain nine people for an entire year. Over three million tons of cotton is wasted in the shipping and refining process. That means that four and a half billion gallons of water per year is spent watering wasted raw cotton. This is equivalent to enough water to quench almost fourteen million human thirsts for an entire year. It would be a huge oversight to say nothing of the cotton that gets refined and assembled as shirts, only to be destroyed or sent to some place that likely has much greater needs than snazzy American sports memorabilia. Food and water both come to mind as a greater need. This is ignoring the fact that those shirts have the same ironic poignancy as the famous photo of President-elect Harry Truman holding up a hastily-printed Chicago Tribune with the headline “Dewey Defeats Truman.”
The history of the simple, thirsty cotton shrub is complicated. It’s been grown and harvested on almost every continent and used by humans for at least five thousand years. The money behind it has fueled wars and contributed to the births of nations, spawned clichés, and left scars across the collective memories of a country whose mottoes all contain the word “freedom.” Just under a hundred years ago, it gave my great-grandparents immediate employment when they arrived in the United States. King Tutankhamun still wears his Egyptian Cotton pajamas in his tomb while his gilded sarcophagus tours the nations surrounded by mismatched obsidian obelisks and feline effigies. Egyptian Cotton sheets are still regarded as the nicest bedding extant. It’s been everywhere and is on everything. As a fabric, cotton can weave quite a yarn.
Additionally, that’s just the cloth. Dyes for textiles are made from a variety of natural and synthetic materials, depending on the cost and quality of the garments. Historically, fine dyes for clothing and paints were worth as much as gold or silver. Ultramarine was a popular pigment for much of the Renaissance that traded for more per ounce than any other contemporary commodity. Indigo was the second most lucrative cash crop behind rice in many nations before synthetic dyes were invented. We place a lot of emphasis on the colors of our clothes, and with sports teams wearing copyrighted shades of orange, green, and everything in between, dyes are as important as cotton when it comes to championship T-shirts.
The EPA estimates that dye manufacturers in the United States alone generate over 36,000 metric tons of hazardous waste as a by-product of their processes. That number from a country with strict regulations, modern facilities, and lower annual production than most of the textile giants. Many chemical compounds used in dyes are carcinogenic, explosive or poisonous at some point in their production process. Creating a demand for more of these dyes than is actually necessary only increases the amount of these chemicals being created, transported, and stored on our planet.
The cost of all those losing shirts is much more than the pennies-on-the-dollar prices of bulk orders. It is fuel consumption, waste generation, and the perpetuation of an attitude that works its way up the production chain. When your team loses, if the league doesn’t mandate that the inaccurate memorabilia is destroyed, then it will be silently whisked away to some third-world country in guilt-assuaging boxes. The sting of defeat is lessened by the smiles of people who have no idea what an Oregon Duck is, but they love their new American clothes. The true effect of an attitude of deflected responsibility is not so easily measured or mailed away.
We are capable of viewing losing shirts as a calculated risk, whose cost is easily offset by their winning counterparts. Their low monetary price does not tell the whole story. From farm to factory to shelf, it takes an average of 713 gallons of water to make one T-shirt. We may not be able to ship the water that would produce those shirts straight to drought-stricken regions, but numerous studies point to the ways that water consumption in one place directly impacts everywhere else. Would we regard pouring thousands of gallons of fresh water down the drain as kindly as we might take to shredding the shirts of the losing team in the championship game? What if posters were popular, and we burned them by the dozen-thousand to erase accidental victory announcements? We know to save water and trees, but more abstract concepts like the resources consumed by cotton remain lost on almost everyone’s radar.
When the product we demand en masse is not a fleetingly-relevant ball cap but an even more fleeting phone or laptop, the stakes are raised. Costs are higher, materials more damaging, wage-profit dichotomies more alarming. Since nations typically aspire to upgrade their manufacturing from textiles to technology, this is a logical segue in contemplation.
Product-launch events are starting to look more like Super Bowls, and the ensuing hype and ordering frenzies feel more like emotional reactions to some obscure victory than they do acts of necessity. Unlike commemorative clothing that can be kept as a lasting memento of a special day, tech devices are obsolete almost as soon as they’re made. Still, they are produced with similar flippancy.
I don’t want to indict us for what we use or how we use it. I’m not immune to loving sports or owning a phone, computer, and car. I do love a good T-shirt, but as a consumer with conscious aspirations, I can vote for responsible manufacturing processes by not contributing to artificial demand. I can wait for used cars or phones to reach “it’s-been-out-for-like-three-whole-months’” prices. As long as companies can count on us to desire things immediately, they’ll work inefficiently to meet that demand. If the significance of a championship victory is as lasting as we believe it to be, we shouldn’t need to be prepared with shirts before the event is even over. It’s not a question of dollars and cents; it’s a question of good sense. Bottom line: It doesn’t make much sense to make championship shirts for a team that didn’t win.