In the beginning of December, NPR’s Planet Money did a great piece on the journey of a t-shirt. This was funded by more than 20 000 people through their Kickstarter campaign.
Ecouterre wrote a nice synopsis of the 5 movie chapters that make up the Planet Money story. The journalists followed the t-shirts from the cotton fields of the Mississippi Delta to the spinning of the yarn in Indonesia to the cutting and sewing in Bangladesh (women’s shirt) or Colombia (men’s shirt), back to Miami and then to Brooklyn to be printed and shipped to the new owners. Along the way they highlight the machines that harvest the cotton and make the yarn and the fabric, the people who sew the t-shirts, and the boxes that ship the shirts around the world.
I’ve read some rebuttals about the martini drinking squirrel t-shirt. By the way, there is actually a cool story behind the animal spirits design, and there are lots of people who didn’t like the design or pink color. But I think the bigger questions are more important: TS Designs asked why Planet Money didn’t follow a Made in the USA t-shirt, and Lyle Estill wondered why the reporting didn’t include the real costs of a cheap t-shirt: the cost to the environment, and the cost of people dying in the process of making our cheap clothing.
My favorite rebuttal is Stephen Colbert interviewing Alex Blumberg from Planet Money. I think he asked good questions (“Are we helping these people (the garment workers of Bangladesh) or taking advantage of these people?”) that doesn’t have easy answers. Alex Blumberg doesn’t seem to know how to answer the question of sweatshop labor either. The Planet Money piece tries to spin the cheap labor in Bangladesh ($80 per month payment for garment workers for 6 days of work per week) into not-so-bad, since people at least have some job with an income. But I totally disagree.
A while ago I wrote about Kelsey Timmerman’s book “Where am I wearing?”, where he went to the factories where his clothes were made, and through his stories, introduced us to the people who work there. He had a similar argument than Planet Money has: some job is better than no job. But I wonder if a job where you have no rights, no contract, no time off, no health care, can really be a good thing?
A couple of years ago, my husband visited one of his students in Bangladesh. In the capital, Dhaka, he saw garment factories with giant signs saying “No child labor”. But people told him that it is well known when the inspectors will be there. On those days, the children just don’t show up for work.
It is stated in the “Cotton” part of the Planet Money story that the USA is the largest exporter of cotton in the world, and that this dominance is because of the technology used by the USA farmers. Having read The Travels of a T-Shirt in the Global Economy, the book that inspired Planet Money to do this investigation, I think government subsidies are also a big part of this picture. American cotton is artificially cheap because of subsidies, which prohibits other countries to grow cotton crops and compete on the world market.
I wish the Planet Money piece showed us not just the way (most of) our clothing is being made right now, but the way it could be. Made in the USA, organic cotton, fair trade certified clothing, fair labor factories, water-based inks: there are so many better options than a $2 t-shirt (see the explanation of costs at the bottom of the boxes page). Better for the environment, better for the people who make it, better for us who wear it.
Maybe Planet Money should do a follow-up story. And find a better t-shirt designer (hint-hint).