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A Spectacular Monopoly

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Rethinking ‘Reduce, Reuse, Recycle’

Growing up as children, we were all told to “Reduce, Reuse, Recycle.”

Collecting glass bottles, aluminum cans and plastic containers was easy to do and felt good. And since it was in line with this simple three-word chant, it seemed like we were doing the right thing. Unfortunately, this chant has not curbed the growing consumerism found in rich, Western countries.

rrrOne reason is that it equates a reduction in the consumption of products with recycling products. These are two very different actions. The easy-to-recognize ‘green triangles’ that are found at recycling facilities and on most products themselves further this inaccuracy.

We have become societies that rely on both to take care of our needs and any associated costs. We have removed ourselves from the debate.

A decision-making hierarchy is needed to change the shopping habits of consumers. Here’s one example of that idea:

  1. Reduce consumption of products.
  2. Reuse these products until they are unusable.
  3. Recycle once they become unusable.

To think about this, let’s look at the fashion industry.

Greenpeace provides an overview of the water depletion, pollution and waste that our fashion choices produce:

  • First, there’s water consumption. 2 billion pairs of jeans are produced every year, and a typical pair takes 7,000 litres of water to produce. For a t-shirt, it takes 2,700 litres of water to make just one– that’s the amount of water an average person drinks over the course of 900 days!
  • Secondly, there’s the dyeing process of which 1.7 million tonnes of various chemicals are used; not to mention the hazardous chemicals like PFCs that leave a permanent impact on our environment.
  • And what about the clothing that doesn’t make it to market? An estimated 400 billion square meters of textiles are produced annually, of which 60 billion square meters are left on the cutting room floor. Each year over 80 billion pieces of clothing are produced worldwide, and after its short lifespan, three out of four garments will end up in landfills or be incinerated. Only a quarter will be recycled.

According to Plenitude: The New Economics of True Wealth by Juliet B. Schor, Americans for instance, consume three times as much as their ancestors did fifty years ago, and they buy twice as many items of clothing as they did twenty years ago. In 1991, the average American bought 34 items of clothing each year. By 2007, they were buying 67 items every year. That’s a new piece of clothing every four to five days!

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Thinking beyond “Reduce, Reuse, Recycle” (Source)

Recycling torn textiles or donating clothes to secondhand retailers does nothing to address these fundamental environmental issues. Fast fashion and the garment industry also causes severe labour rights abuses, especially towards women.

Consumers, especially people who purchase with extreme frequency, need to evaluate the true costs of their purchases.

Let’s look at another example, one that is small is size but has a big impact: the plastic water bottle.

A hundred years ago, Leo Baekeland invented Bakelite, an inexpensive, nonflammable, versatile, and popular plastic, which marked the beginning of the modern plastics industry. In the podcast “How Oil Got Into Everything”, NPR reports how Baekeland’s process put oil into everything we use today: our sneakers, our clothes, and the computer or phone that you’re looking at right now.

It was a discovery that has had far-reaching, negative consequences in the decades that followed.

planet-money-episode-4

Plastic has been a tool for increased industrialization and progress, while also fueling climate change and environmental degradation. It’s been a blessing and a curse. Nothing illustrates this more than the plastic water bottle.

Americans buy an estimated half a billion plastic bottles of water every week. Even with widespread recycling, an estimated 2 million tons of plastic water bottles end up in landfills every year. To counter this, cities like San Francisco have introduced bans on the sale of single-use plastic water bottles on city-owned property. These political steps are useful but must follow a change in consumer perception and action.

Multi-national bottling corporations, like Pepsi and Coca-Cola, backed by lobbying groups, like the International Bottled Water Association, have been marketing bottled water as better than the incredible low-cost alternative: tap water. This is nothing but a sales pitch. In San Francisco, like most cities in North America, an estimated one third of bottled water is repackaged tap water.

 

The solution is to invest in a water bottle, filled with tap water. Cities and municipalities need to invest in clean drinking water with adequate water fountains.

You don’t have to recycle when you reduce your shopping habits.

Selling Off the UK Government to the Lowest Bidder

Government outsourcing–contracting private companies to provide public services–can produce amazing results. The process links government revenue with business tools. When a government’s own in-house capacity is limited, contracting private companies can be an essential solution, whether it’s providing stationary or building bridges.

Outsourcing can also be a stressful exercise, as John Glenn, American astronaut and the fifth person to go into space, responded when asked how he felt sitting in a space capsule getting ready to launch and listening to the countdown: “I felt exactly how you would feel if you were getting ready to launch and knew you were sitting on top of two million parts — all built by the lowest bidder on a government contract.”

Shadow State by Alan White XX, pp.

Shadow State: Inside the Secret Companies that Run Britain
by Alan White
Oneworld, 320 pp.

Following the free-market philosophy of Margaret Thatcher, successive UK governments (whether Conservative or Labour, under Major, Blair, Brown and Cameron cabinets) have increasingly relied on massive private companies to provide essential services, like health care and prisons, previously handled by government departments. Research suggests the market for public service outsourcing has an annual turnover of £72 billion: about 24 percent of the spend on public services in the UK. Four companies dominate this landscape: G4S, Serco, Atos and Capita.

They also pay little in taxes. In November 2013 the National Audit Office (NAO) found that, despite holding government contracts worth around £4.5 billion, Atos and G4S paid no corporation tax at all in the UK in 2012. Capita only paid between £50 million and £56 million, while Serco paid £25 million.

In chapter after chapter, example after example, Alan White’s book Shadow State shines a light on the murky, highly lucrative world of government outsourcing and privatization in the United Kingdom. In addition to revealing the inner workings of the largest companies that perform public services, White examines the government’s responsibility to the public who use these services.

As Mark Fox of the British Service Association notes: “when you outsource or privatize…you don’t outsource political responsibility for things” (pp. 215). On the difficulty of holding the UK’s highly centralized government accountability, White notes: “sometimes things go wrong because of contractors, sometimes it’s almost entirely the government department’s fault, and most of the time it’s a combination of the two. But what’s most important is that if blame for poor performance often seems difficult to disentangle between state and private contractor, that’s hardly helped by the mechanisms we have in place to assess such projects” (pp. 151).

The state and the private contractors it hires wield incredible power in pursuit of profits and reduced budgets. Decisions are often tailored to the benefit of businesses and not citizens. White’s book shows why the private sector isn’t democratic, accountable or transparent. It doesn’t give the people who use the services a say. As shown in the cases below, these flaws lead to wasteful spending, injury and even death.

Outsourced Immigration: Dangerous and Unaccountable

In October 2010 Jimmy Mubenga died “a very public death on the last row of seats on a full British Airways flight that was sitting on the runway at Heathrow airport” (pp. 16). The flight was waiting to go to Luanda, Angola.

Handcuffed behind his back, Mubenga was saying “I don’t want to go” and “I can’t breathe” while three guards restrained him: two were sitting either side and held him down, pressing his head between his legs, while a third leaned over the passenger seat from the row in front and occasionally did the same when he managed to pushed back up. The three guards worked for G4S, which at the time had been contracted to oversee Home Office deportations.

Mubenga, who had fled Angola with his family in 1994 after the government killed his father-in-law and threatened him, was now crying for help. The technique used to restrain Mubenga, which is strictly prohibited because it could result in a form of suffocation known as positional asphyxia, was nicknamed “carpet karaoke” by G4S guards. According to one witness, Mubenga called for help around 50 times as he slowly suffocated. He soon lost consciousness and died of cardiac arrest.

In 2014, the G4S guards were acquitted of manslaughter, despite evidence of racism and denying pushing him down; they claimed that he put himself into that position, bent over in his seat.

Jimmy Mubenga is not the only person to have been restrained to death by guards from outsourcing companies. The use of force during deportations is now commonplace, as are serious injuries sustained by asylum seekers and other deportees. The 2008 Medical Justice report, Outsourcing Abuse, documented the numerous injuries sustained by asylum seekers in detention and during forcible deportations. G4S came out as the worst ‘offender’.

Physical harm, including death, has been reported in several sectors operated by outsourcing companies. Yarl’s Wood, an immigration removal detention centre operated by the outsourcing firm Serco, is a case in point. Located in Bedfordshire, this centre houses adult women and adult family groups awaiting immigration clearance. It also houses “a culture of abuse, racism and violence” according to a Daily Mirror undercover investigation. Women are subjected to sexual advances, abuse and assault by the male security guards, including a guard getting a woman pregnant. Guards use the threat of deportation to silence women forced to have inappropriate relations. One woman had been held for four years, which, when one considers the fact that none of these people have been charged with an offence, seems needlessly cruel. Despite these stories and investigations, Serco’s contract to run Yarl’s Wood was renewed in 2014 for eight more years, and it was paid £70 million for the job.

White notes that “there’s a clear need for our legal and political systems to improve the standards of accountability and it extends far beyond this case or other assaults.” As Clare Sambrook pointed out to White in 2013: “G4S [and other outsourcing companies] operate[s] in many countries where such matters don’t come to light” (pp.26).

The Guardian, which broke the story of Mubenga’s death, only realized there was something up because its reporters tracked posts from passengers on the plane who were using Twitter. Because private companies are accountable to their shareholders and not the taxpayers who fund their contracts, transparency is often lacking. In the aftermath of Mubenga’s death, shadow justice minister Sadiq Khan wrote to the four companies responsible for most of the outsourced work involving detaining and transporting suspects and criminals. He got mixed results (pp. 167):

“Serco responded in the most detail, closely followed by Sodexo. GEOAmey refused to divulge any information, instead directing my request to the Ministry of Justice. G4S did not provide any information directly, instead mentioning that the Ministry of Justice and Home Office would respond formally. Unfortunately, neither did.”

It needs to be said that government also has its role in these failures. As White notes, many problems are due to chaotic governance, not the agents of the state. An exchange from the “Atos Work Capability Assessments”, 17 January 2013, between Labour MP Kevan Jones and Conservative MP Robert Halfon is helpful in highlighting both the lack of accountability by government officials who sign outsourcing contracts and their inability to stop subsequent contracts to under-performing firms (pp. 54):

Mr. Jones: The hon. Gentleman is correct in saying that the first contract with Atos was introduced by the previous government, but why did the preset government renew and extend that contract even though they knew about all the problems that he and others have raised in the House?

Mr. Halfon: This is where I agree with the hon. Gentleman. I was very disturbed when Atos got the contract for the personal independence payments.

Mr. Jones: That happened under this government.

Mr. Halfon: Yes, that is what I am saying. The reasons that were given included the fact that the infrastructure was already in place, and the cost of changing the contractor.

The current system is clearly in a dysfunctional state.

Criminal Justice For Sale: Making Things Worse

The private sector’s role in delivering detention services, for adults and children, is growing but not leading to improved conditions, as Chapter 4 shows. Once people leave detention, they face a probation system that is flawed and seems to be working against them.

In April 2012, HMP Oakwood, in Wolverhampton, opened at a cost of £180 million. The G4S-run prison would house more than 1,600 inmates. The jail was soon branded “Jokewood” due to repeated negative news headlines. There was stories of prison gangs running the institution and protests, where inmates accessed the roof for more than five hours. One prisoner told the Guardian (pp. 83):

“I’ve been in jails all over the country. But this was the worst. It’s a shit-hole staffed by kids who should be stacking shelves.” He added that it was easy to get drugs and alcohol: “It’s easy to get hooch, even easier to get Black Mamba [synthetic cannabis]. The parcels are chucked over the fence.”

Of the 13 private prisons in England Wales, “Oakwood and Thameside in London received a rating of one out of four (‘overall performance is of serious concern’), who two others had a two rating (‘overall performance is of concern’)” (pp. 84). This amounts to 30 percent of private prisons being of concern. What is the figure for publicly run prisons? Nine percent. Of the 121 publicly run prisons, only one received a ranking of one (0.8 percent), and only ten achieved a rating of two (8 percent). “Violence is four times higher at Serco-run HMP Doncaster that at a comparable-sized state-run prison” (pp. 85).

The ratings come after private security companies G4S and Serco came under fire for overcharging the government by “tens of millions of pounds” for providing electronic tags for criminals. It triggered a government-wide review of all contracts held by the two firms.

Services within the courts have also been negatively affected by the injection of private companies. A 2013 statistical bulletin from the MoJ showed that courts weren’t being provided with interpreters nearly once every ten times. On each occasion this led to days being lost at crown court, it cost around £10,000–by December 2013 it had cost the Crown Prosecution Service around £17 million in total (pp. 93). These costs and delays were widespread following the government’s move away from the National Register for Public Service Interpreters, an independent voluntary regulator for the 2,200 qualified, largely self-employed, interpreters to private companies.

One such company was Applied Language Services (ALS), which was acquired by Capita before their £90 million, five-year contract was signed. ALS/Capita immediately started to cut pay to interpreters, resulting in a boycott. Staff shortages impaired the courts weekly: murder cases were delayed, friends had to interpret for each other and cases were adjourned due to lack of interpreter. The government eventually admitted its failure, as one Liberal Democrat MP said (pp. 92):

“The department did not have an adequate understanding of the needs of courts, it failed to heed warnings from the professionals concerned, and it did not put sufficient safeguards in place to prevent interruptions in the provision of quality interpreting services to courts. The MoJ’s handling of the outsourcing of court interpreting services has been nothing short of shambolic.”

In a similar vain, the Probation Service were being outsourced to a handful of private providers, without any meaningful piloting or testing, while also severing the working relationship with local authorities, the health service and the police. Shadow justice minister Sadiq Khan wrote about the dangers to public safety that privatization has brought to the Probation Service (pp. 105):

“I’ve heard some truly alarming reports on the chaos privatization is causing: staff shortages caused by rocketing sickness levels and dozens of unfilled vacancies are crippling the service.

“As a result, a backlog of cases is building up, including offenders who have committed serious, violent crimes like domestic violence. Oversight of sex offenders has been handed to staff without the right expertise. High-risk cases aren’t receiving sufficient supervision. Court reports are going unwritten. Senior management time has been sucked into restructuring, neglecting day-to-day duties rehabilitating offenders. New software designed to assess the risk that offenders pose to the public was rushed into service without adequate staff training. It is a shocking state of affairs, which could have catastrophic consequences for public safety.”

Regarding the justice system in the UK, White concludes (pp. 108):

“Whether it’s in the courts, prisons or probation, the Ministry of Justice has outsourced at a breakneck speed in recent years. In part, it’s been done to save money–but all three cases there’s an earnest belief that private companies can bring imagination and creativity to the sectors within which they operate. However, the problem is that the decisions to outsource appear not to have yielded any particularly impressive results yet, while the rush to impose this brave new vision has upset established workers within the justice sector.”

Private Health Care: Poor Value for Money

A final sector to examine is health care. Founded in 1948, the UK’s National Health Service (NHS) has seen a steady shift towards private firms in recent years, with a rise in the proportion of the NHS budget going to firms such as Virgin Care, Care UK and Bupa. Department of Health figures show that the amount of its funding that has gone to “independent sector providers” more than doubled from £4.1 billion in 2009-10 to £8.7 billion in 2015-16.

One rationale claimed by politicians for the privatization of essential services, like health care, is reducing cost. However, as White shows, private contractors use complicated accounting techniques, networks of corporate partnerships and debt-inducing loans to shift their financial risk from themselves onto taxpayers. Private contractors seek to maximize the number of transactions regardless of demand. Many NHS provider operate a loss-leader model where they take annual losses, surviving on funding secured from investors on the promise of more NHS work. “What would happens if this model failed before it succeeded?” White asks. And answers (pp. 124):

“In 2008 Circle took out a £42 million loan from Barclays to open a new independent sector treatment centre at Nottingham’s Queen’s Medical Centre. It was to be repaid through income from the local NHS buying its services. It seemed Circle couldn’t meet the five percent interest rate, so the NHS paid the bill in full, as apparently the firm had an ‘unconditional right’ to compel it to do so.”

Circle Health is owned by a parent company, Circle Holdings plc, which in turn is owned by a series of hedge funds. In just one year, their profits have gone up 160 percent (!), from £64.6 million in 2010/11 to £170.4 million in 2011/12. This type of corporate welfare has become commonplace. Private businesses profit when things go smooth and taxpayers pay the price when things fail.

Social care is another area the government has been outsourcing, with troubling results. There are around five thousand young people in residential care homes–and around three quarters of these homes are run by private companies. In 2011, the top five providers had turned a profit of £30 million. Companies, like Sovereign and 3i, make these high profits by buying up cheap housing stock around the country, to which vulnerable children can be shunted. By shifting childcare from charities to private equity firms, staffing has reduced and children have been abused. In a 2012 report, published by Social Enterprise UK, figures show “that children’s homes in England–caring for 3,040 boys and 1,800 girls–had reported 631 suspected cases of young residents being sold for sex in the past five years. These are just the reported cases: the true figure is likely to be far higher” (pp. 130). The private sector’s business model of moving vulnerable children around exacerbates some of the problems they’re already facing.

Final Thoughts

Beyond the normal discussions regarding conflicts of interest and inaccurate contract pricing, the public (in the UK and elsewhere) need to question the fundamental theory of government outsourcing and privatization. Unlike public infrastructure, essential services are a matter of life and death. Immigration, criminal justice and health care are fundamentally human endeavors. As Peter Holbrook, the CEO of Social Enterprise UK, notes: “most public services rely on human relationships, so upscaling leads to a huge degradation in the quality of service” (pp. 131).

The growing dominance of a few private contractors has lead the UK government to label them as “too big to fail”, meaning that their financial risk is ultimately held by taxpayers. As the world saw with the global financial crisis in 2008, companies were making record profits while the general public went unprotected from corporate greed. Ultimately, the outsourcing of a wide variety of public services to a few bodies is a risk we can not afford.

Increased accountability and transparency are fundamental to preventing the problems discussed above. One of the best ways to achieve these ends in by implementing local solutions on a smaller scale. The Paddington Development Trust (PDT) is a great example of this. The PDT runs youth services, health centres and academies, has refurbished community centres, and has been involved in many more projects, most of which are designed to create employment and business opportunities to residents. The fundamental decision for a government is whether to let money go to companies or inject it into local organizations.

Alan White closes by balancing the gloomy present with an optimistic future (pp. 249-250):

“The general public barely knows this industry exists. Yet it’s an industry that has been responsible for such poor quality service that lives have been lost, that the nation was embarrassed on a global stage in 2012, that the government has been defrauded, that vulnerable people, young and old, around the country, have been repeatedly let down by the state, and still it remains one of the things on which the political class pins its hope for the delivery of public services. Without true transparency, accountability and a market that allows a proper diversity of providers to flourish, the same horrifying stories will be generated, time and again. Until then, the shadow state continues to thrive.”

A Critique of Sport

“Sport is war minus the shooting,” wrote George Orwell.

For a long time, I have been thinking about sport and its role in society. It can be like simulated warfare, as Orwell notes, with teams commonly attacking each other, injuries abounding. It can also seem like a religious experience, with fans idolizing players and dogmatically watching every game available.

Foul Play: What's WRONG with Sport by Joe Humphreys Icon Books, 271 pp

Foul Play: What’s Wrong with Sport
by Joe Humphreys
Icon Books, 271 pp.

It seems to be a mixed bag of the best and worst in society. Sports are found nearly everywhere and played by nearly everyone at some point in their life.

These are some of the intersections that Joe Humphreys explores in his book Foul Play: What’s Wrong With Sport. Largely based on his football fandom, Humphreys describes in six chapters the virtue and vice of sport. I found the book to be a timeless expose of a world unable to face criticism. Recent news from the world of sport, like fighting between football fans at Euro 2016 or doping at the Rio Olympics, point to the continued challenges found in competitions around the world. I will explore some of the book’s topics below.

Humphreys starts his book with the effects of sport on the youngest of its participants: children. The first chapter, “Sport and Stupidity,” discusses anti-intellectualism within sport. Each sport has its own set of hazards. Hazards that organisations do not like to discuss openly.

Unlike informal play, Humphreys shows that professional sports encourage amateurs to take unnecessary risks when attempting to live up to sports superstars. In the case of American football, the NFL waged a twenty-year battle to hide the dangers of repeat concussions. These dangers are now being seen in high school athletes as well as professionals. For teenage girls in the United States, cheerleading is one of the more dangerous sports and can lead to paralysis. Dangers are exacerbated by several states unwilling to classify it as a “sport” and thereby regulate its safety.

Beyond the potential injury it glorifies, sports incentive people to make dumb decisions that may not benefit them. Take golf, for example. Unlike routine exercise, gold requires specialized equipment and course fees that cost many times more than a gym membership. And all those green, lush golf courses which are resulting in droughts when constructed in water-limited environments. As a society, we need to think long and hard on whether sports like these are beneficial.

In the second chapter, “Sport, Character and Morals”, Humphreys details the Christian roots of both the Olympics Games – re-established in 1896 by Baron Pierre de Coubertin – and the Fifa World Cup – founded by Jules Rimet. Rimet believed that “sport – and above all football – would be the means to teach the world’s masses to appreciate the Christian virtues of hard work, honesty, obedience to rules, comradeship and fair play” (pp. 48). These grand competitions on the world stage followed the trend of “Muscular Christianity” which was established in Britain during the era of Queen Victoria. From its beginnings, Humphreys describes Muscular Christianity, which transformed into modern sport through the establishment of its rules and record-keeping, as a moral experiment. A moral experiment that has gone badly wrong.

Humphreys continues the chapter by discussing the negative psycho-social behavior caused by sport. Psychologists Bredemeier and Shields found that “participation in competitive sports created ‘lower level moral reasoning in both sport and life'” (pp. 53). Team sports dilute personal responsibility and lead to pack behaviors, where no single individual feels responsibility for his actions – they were merely following orders. These negative attributes carry into family and social life.

The more serious players and fans take their given sport the more harmful it can be for their family and friends. Families are forced to move when an athlete gets traded, or worse, separated from their partner and children. Die-hard fans will do anything to not miss a game, sitting for hours watching a game remembering every single minuscule piece of data, while forgetting about the world around them. As Humphreys notes, watching sports in this way, without talking about anything except the game at hand, does not provide the bonding that children need from parents. Nor does the drinking that typically comes with it.

Bullying within sport in another common phenomenon that damages the confidence of lesser-abled children. Think about how jocks and geeks have co-existed. Sport, unlike play, is a test of the fittest, whereby difference, even if only perceived, must be eliminated. These lessons in cruelty, rather than compassion, to one another carry into adulthood and continue as long as sport is thought as “moral.”

Chapter three looks at the aspects of cheating by athletes and the judgement of fans. Fans tend to see cheating by athletes as an anomaly – bad guys who get caught and should be punished. However, as Humphreys shows, cheating is a key part of sport. The good guys who don’t cheat are the real anomaly.

Every sport has cheaters. Sprinters, baseball players and bicyclists use prohibited substances. Footballers and hockey players dive. A tennis player declines to call a ball “out”. Cheating can’t be eliminated. Worse, the honest and fair athletes are commonly chastised by teammates and fans if they hurt their own score; this incentivises dishonesty.

Just as the church claims to judge sinner from saint, sports fans sit as judges on matters of right and wrong in sport. Humphreys comments: “That sport should be associated with heightened judgementalism is hardly surprising. Sport is a theatre of exaggerated emotions, and these can be expressed in a positive or negative sense: in hero-worshipping athletes, or alternatively demonising them” (pp. 104). With instances of lavish spending, assaulting people or crude statements, it’s hard to claim that athletes should be seen as role models.

Two stadiums of worship

Two stadiums of worship

“Sports fandom is often compared to religious belief. But it would be more accurate to compare it to the wrong kind of religious belief,” (pp. 125) writes Humphreys in chapter four. Fans tend to be self-righteous about their particular team or sport, which has a tendency to lead to hatred and violence. This are the same elements found in religious belief.

One similarity, highlighted by Humphreys, between sport and religion in how both are influenced by one’s birthplace. A baby born in a predominantly Christian country by Christian parents tends to ascribe to Christianity, while a Muslim country tends to raise Muslim children. Furthermore, Christians and Muslims will each speak to the dominance of their particular belief while demeaning the others as untrue or not complete. The same follows for many sports teams. Some might worry about the Catholic Church’s move to become more involved in organised sport.

When I was growing up, the local teams found in Edmonton (Oilers for hockey and Eskimos for Canadian football) were seen by everyone as the best, while the neighbouring teams found in Calgary (Flames and Stampeders) were ridiculed at every possible opportunity. No one questioned the fact that this rivalry was little more than a difference in jersey colours, as both teams were made up of professional athletes with equal skills. Almost all team sports have this “us versus them” animosity because it is supported by the sport system to keep fans engaged. Unfortunately, this division often leads to violence as often seen in football hooliganism.

In the final two chapters, Humphreys discusses the politics of sport. As sports journalist Tom Humphries put it: “Politics and sport always mix. In grants, in swimming inquiries, in civic receptions, in anthems, on days of sheer flagwaving nationalism. They mix. Always” (pp.215).

Sport is rarely open to criticism. Across the world, from Manchester, England, to Toronto, Canada, sports teams are taking every precaution to protect their brand. They do this by controlling the media, even becoming the media by creating their own media networks.

Sports brands sell themselves as competitive, entertaining, atmospheric, sentimental, a source of happiness, and a win-win pursuit. Unfortunately, these are all lies. “World” Cups that are heavily Anglocentric and not true competitions. Examples, like Major League Baseball going to court to block fans from operating fantasy leagues because they used copyrighted statistics, highlight the fact that governing bodies in sport are not “servants of the people.” Rather than finding happiness in sport, research shows that fans experience higher-than-normal levels of stress, anxiety and hopelessness due to their strict attachment to competitive sport. We need to stop buying the delusions that sport keeps selling.

The most insidious aspect of modern sport is its use as a distraction. In Manufacturing Consent, Noam Chomsky claims that sport “offers people something to pay attention to that’s of no importance … [and] keeps them from worrying about things that matter to their lives that they might have some idea of doing something about. And, in fact, it’s striking to see the intelligence that’s used by ordinary people in [discussions of] sports. I mean, you listen to radio stations where people call in – they have the most exotic information and understanding about kind of arcane issues” (pp.176). Fans use enormous energy and brainpower collecting statistics on sports, but rarely apply these analytical skills to the outside world. The world might be a better place if they did.

In the final chapter of the book, “Sport, Conflict and Prejudice,” Humphreys delves into the many hypocrisies within sport, as well as its entrenched class differences, racism and sexism. Despite what the International Olympic Committee (IOC) may claim, the 1936 Olympic Games in Nazi Germany did not break down barriers of race. The 1995 Rugby World Cup did not end apartheid and bring peace to South Africa. And large-scale sports tournaments are not good for a host city’s economy. Instead, these examples show how sport institutions tend to re-write history in a more favorable light, even if it’s not true. Sport doesn’t end racism or end poverty. Most of the time, as author Simon Kuper writes, “it makes no difference whatsoever” (pp. 209).

Sport is largely about keeping the status quo. Media is controlled. Regulations are discouraged. Alcohol and tobacco are campaigned for while disregarding public health.

This is the politics of sports. As sports journalist Tom Humphries put it: “Politics and sport always mix. In grants, in swimming inquiries, in civic receptions, in anthems, on days of sheer flagwaving nationalism. They mix. Always” (pp. 215).

To me, this is Big Sport. Just as Big Tobacco and other “Big” corporate interests, sport prioritizes profits over people. This is best seen in the case of sports club owners threatening to move. In my home city, the owner of the Edmonton Oilers, Daryl Katz, threatened to move the hockey team to Seattle if he didn’t get a deal worth hundreds of millions of dollars for a new arena. In the end, he got everything he wanted from the city and provincial government, at the expense of taxpayers and to the relief of his own pocketbook. Big Sport for the win!

In recent weeks, NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick has become famous not just for his athleticism but also for his political protests. By sitting down, rather than standing up, for the American flag and national anthem during games, Kaepernick and others have continued the debate of widespread racism in the country, including the racism found within the sports America watches. As the AJ+ video below shows, you don’t change a racist structure simply by adding athletes of colour and stir. Sports teams have a long history of stereotyping Native Americans.

Seen as microcosms of American life, many sports leagues benefit from the labour of minority groups while being run mostly by wealthy, older, white men. Sports teams are first and foremost tools for making money, from selling TV rights to memorabilia, and not about promoting social justice. Widespread homophobia in sports also attests to this, as modern sport is based on heteronormative teaching, rooted in religious ideology.

In the era of modern sport, women have largely been excluded. In recent years, women have been able to play in female offshoots of male sports leagues. See the Ladies Professional Golf Association or the Women’s National Basketball Association. These sports leagues may be a positive space for female athletes to compete, although they will also need to address many of the issues described above. In the worst scenarios, women play Lingerie Football – the sexist creation of injury-prone competition in uniforms from a Victoria’s Secret catalogue, garters included.

Any progress gained in “ladies” sports has to be measured against the colossal weight of structural sexism with sport. From American football to boxing and racing, women are seen and used as little more than sexual objects in the world of male-dominated sports world. Objects to accent a game or celebration, whether on the sideline or behind the podium. Objects wearing revealing outfits to advertise products. What worse example than the annual Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue. Essentially a reason to sell advertisements between photos of topless fashion models, the magazine went over 40 years without a single female athlete on its cover!

After delving into the psychology, politics and culture of sports, Joe Humphreys remains optimistic at the end of Foul Play. Like the worst forms of religion, sport has embraced fanaticism, judgementalism and irrationality, as well as a lack of self-criticism. And like religion, sport needs to change. Channeling two religious leaders – Martin Luther, who initiated the Protestant Reformation, and Martin Luther King Jr., who led the American civil rights movement – Humphreys sees a future where sport is taken little less seriously than it is today. A future where athletes don’t value winning above all else. A future where spectator are obsessed. A future where the innocent of play of children isn’t lost in later years. Sport needs its own reformation!

I think anyone who is open to looking at sport, for better or for worse, would appreciate reading Foul Play.

The Business of Good Intentions

While working in Ghana back in 2012, I witnessed a distribution of Toms Shoes (here’s my blog post about it), also known as a “shoe drop”. Back then, I assumed their intentions were good and that they might be making a positive difference. I think now is a good time to reflect on this view.

Clothing+Poverty-+The+Hidden+World+of+Fast+Fashion+and+Second-hand+ClothesI found Andrew Brooks’ book Clothing Poverty and the podcast Tiny Spark useful in this process and have used their research below. I highly recommend both of them!

Clothing Poverty shows how recycled clothes are traded across continents, the companies behind clothing donations, and the myths of ethical fashion, such as Toms shoes.

Hosted by Amy Costello, Tiny Spark investigates the business of doing good. Beyond their episode on Toms shoes (which I’ve embedded below), Tiny Spark investigates the world of philanthropy, international aid and development.

After gaining a better understanding of global development and the complexity of tackling global poverty, I am far more critical of Toms Shoes and similar companies espousing ethical consumption. I will focus mostly on their shoe distributions as this is what Toms is most known for and an aspect I witnessed first hand.

From Small Idea to Big Business

Toms was founded in 2006 by Blake Mycoskie after he visited Argentina, traveling and participating on reality TV shows. Blake, who is also the company’s self-declared chief shoe giver, describes the initial idea for the company as follows:

“Instead of a charity with handouts why not create a company where that’s the whole purpose? I thought, you buy one pair of shoes today so we can give one tomorrow. We’ll call them Tomorrow Shoes. No we’ll call them Tom’s Shoes for Tomorrow.” (Toms website)

No matter its moral message, Toms is a for-profit company. And one that is doing very well financially. So, let’s consider their business model in reverse.

Toms has donated more than 10 million pairs of shoes across sixty countries. Based on its buy-one-give-one (B1G1) model, this means that Toms has sold millions of shoes. According to Brooks, “Toms adult shoes sell for between $48 and $140 in the USA, far beyond the cost of manufacturing the alpargata-style shoes, which retail for around $5 in Argentina (which includes the local seller’s profit)” (p. 209-210). Every purchase of Tom shoes is in fact a purchase of two pairs, one for you and one that the company will give away. This amounts to around $10 of cost to the company, the rest is pure profit. And not a small amount, it would seem.

According to Forbes, Toms was valued at $625 million in 2014 after receiving venture capital. Blake’s own shares of Toms are worth around $300 million. Obviously, the company is profitable. But it’s also growing.

Toms has diversified its portfolio in recent years, adding new products to its name. Toms is now a brand (centered around the persona of Blake) and no longer just a shoe company. In keeping with its B1G1 mantra each items also results in donations.

  • TOMS Eyewear, started in 2011. When Toms sells a pair of eyewear, part of the profit is used to save or restore the eyesight for people in developing countries. This is the same model utilized by another B1G1 company, Warby Parker.
  • TOMS Roasting Co., 2014. With each purchase of coffee, Toms works with other organizations, called ‘giving partners’, to provide 140 liters of safe water (a one-week supply) to a person in need.
  • TOMS Bag Collection, 2015. Purchases of TOMS Bags help provide training for skilled birth attendants and distribute birth kits containing items that help a woman safely deliver her baby.

Now that Toms has private investors, one may question whether this growth is for the sake of people around the world or to sell more products and increase profits.

So, what’s wrong with all this good will? Isn’t Toms still helping people? As shown below, it’s not so clear.

Getting Things for Free

One fact not made transparent is the amount of free help Toms gets.

For each shoe donation, Toms works with other organisations, called giving partners. This was the case when I was in Ghana. Many young people travel to recipient countries to participate in these shoe drops, paying their own air fares and returning with testimonials, becoming brand ambassadors. One must question if the cost of a ticket is for the betterment of recipients or the traveler.

Toms also use government officials in their shoe drops. They help identify children in need, spending time traveling for Toms benefit, and store Toms shoes in their office, waiting for the day when they will be distributed. This is time and energy spent on helping a company’s Public Relations, at the expense of government officials doing their actual job. Would we tolerate this in Europe or North America? I think not!

Toms’ brand ambassadors organize events throughout the year to spread its message. One of these is their annual One Day Without Shoes event when the Toms community goes barefoot for the day (see photo below). As Brooks writes, “Images show groups of students walking around college campuses barefoot carrying large Toms flags as if supporting a political party or radical protest movement, rather than endorsing a shoe manufacturing company” (p. 209).

toms-flag1

One Day Without Shoes event.

This is worrying for two reasons. One reason is the fact that college kids are learning about global issues through the marketing of a company rather than by independent and critical means. Would these students and other “brand ambassadors” volunteer their time if it was under a Nike or Wal-Mart flag? Why not? Nike and Wal-Mart both have their own private foundations “doing good”, just like many other large corporations jumping on the corporate social responsibility (CSR) bandwagon.

The second reason to be worried is because this type of corporate marketing event is tapping into the trend of slacktivism. Concerned people can “like” a campaign on Facebook or sigh an e-petition, both from the comfort of a chair. Buying Toms is another slack attempt to change the world, where people spend a day barefoot. True, transformative change needs long-term commitment and rarely comes from behind a corporate banner.

Does Toms imagery play a small role in these events and let the message speak for itself? No! The company is front and center. Talk about free advertising.

Toms is a business, first and foremost. It taps into people’s desire to “do good” and offers a guilt-free shopping experience along the way. But, should Westerners be determining what footwear others in the global South access?

Giving Shoes, Regardless of Need

“Do shoes actually satisfy a real need?” asks Brooks. Well, in the case of Tom, no, they don’t.

A lack of shoes does not stop children from going to school. In fact, when I witnessed a shoe drop in Ghana, many students receiving shoes already had a pair. This is one of the core problems with the Toms business/giving model. They must give away millions of shoes, because millions of shoes are being sold. Need is not causing the demand. Sales is causing the supply.

Tiny Spark and other commentators have documented similar cases as shown in the photo below. Toms and its giving partners have also distributed shoes to schools well stocked with supplies and first-class computing facilities. Clearly, this is a different story to the one the company is putting out.

toms wheelchair

Girl in Honduras with new Converse shoes is fitted with a TOMS shoe. (Tiny Spark)

Ethical consumerism and other ideas that try to solve complex problems through simple solutions or products. One example is the initiative One Laptop Per Child (OLPC), designed at MIT, which provides $100 laptops to children in low-income countries. Although it received the support of the UNDP, OLPC has not led to improved math or reading skills.

Another example is the Soccket, a soccer ball that converts kinetic energy into electric power, designed by a group of Harvard University students. This product, although sounding revolutionary, breaks down easily and costs charities $60 to provide, which is the same cost as being hooked up to the electric grid and provided light for a whole family for years.

Quick fixes rarely work.

The reasons they don’t work is that they miss the most important step of any change: communication. Specifically, communicating with those in needs and asking them what they need and how they think it can be solved. Companies like Toms rarely do this, instead they believe that their external, top-down idea can be applied everywhere and to everyone, all in a day’s worth of work. “Rather than providing products, people should be empowered to escape poverty and not become structurally dependent on handouts” (Brooks, p. 211).

Even worse that wasting peoples’ time and providing useless handouts is the damage done to local peoples’ businesses and economies by thoughtless shoe drops. Toms currently makes most of their shoes in China, like most other large shoe manufacturers, furthering the uneven development of global production and sales. By importing shoes from China to recipient countries in Africa, Latin America and Asia, Toms is flooding the market with free shoes. Local economies are affected, taking away demand from a local entrepreneur’s shoe making or selling business, as documented in Clothing Poverty. If people live in poverty, a pair of free Toms shoes is not going to improve the situation.

Furthermore, the difference is access between girls and boys education is a major problem in the Global south as many cultures prioritize boys, send them to school while keeping girls at home. Toms may be making this problem worse as its shoe drops are given to children at schools, the majority of whom will be boys.

The B1G1 model is driven by the needs of corporations and consumers, not people in need. We (the corporation and consumers) decide, for example, that children living in poverty need shoes. No one asked them. No one consulted them. We decided. And then we feel smug and think that they should be grateful, since we are their noble saviors. Well, we’re not.

TOMS’ Ideology

In addition to the physical distributions of shoes, Toms is handing out its own ideology to recipients. It is literally espousing the idea that Toms, Blake, its partners and its customers are saviors.

In an episode dedicated to Toms shoe (embedded below) Tiny Spark provides further cause for alarm. Laura Freschi of New York University found that many of Toms’ giving partners are connected to Evangelical Christian missionary groups. Some groups confined shoe drop exclusively to Christian schools and churches, demonstrating a lack of impartiality to all children in the area. Other groups were found to wear “Make Jesus Famous” t-shirts while fitting Toms shoes on children, an act of proselytizing connected to Toms. These cases point to Blake’s own ideology, which is inherently part of Toms brand.

Blake has spoken at evangelical Christian groups, like Focus on the Family, which try to limit women’s rights to make their own choices during a pregnancy. This is even more serious considering TOMS Bag Collection is working on maternal reproductive health matters.

This type of neo-missionary ideology and aid that Toms is subtly using in its shoe drops and behind the scenes is a step backwards in global effort to address poverty and child education.

Alternatives

A similar criticism laid out above can be made of many other socially responsible brands. For example, the Canadian charity Free the Children and its for-profit business ME to WE follows this model but to a larger level, tapping into young people’s role models to sell its “ethical” products. Free the Children even requested that a CBC documentary be edited because it may show critical footage of its overseas volunteer-tourism service.

Each of us must ask ourselves, do we really need that pair of Toms shoes, or other “ethical” product? If you’re buying them because you want the style and brand as part of your wardrobe, that’s fine, just be honest about it. If you want to help others, there are better ways.

If you aren’t attached to the Toms brand, but still need a pair of shoes and like the canvas style, then buy a pair of shoes for less and donate the difference in cost to a charity that you know and trust. There are many charities out there that work on helping children to gain access to education and solve other social, political and economic challenges they face due to living in poverty. I would suggest Oxfam, CARE or Unicef as some potential choices.

Better yet, think about whether you really need another pair of shoes in your life. Many stores use a business model of “fast fashion” where trends can change weekly. Replacing clothing and shoes quickly leads to waste and disproportionately hurts people in the Global south. Again, this is a reason not to believe the myth of “ethical consumerism”. If you decide that your shoes don’t need a replacement, then you could donate the cost of a pair of Toms ($48 to $140) and do far more good than a pair of shoes ever would.

Beyond thinking about the financial aspects of shopping, it’s important to question the messages of companies (and all organisations, including the charities I’ve linked above) and their actions. All institutions have their own agendas and, sometimes, these are hidden. As shown above, they may even be counter to what you believe in.