Three years ago Adam Davidson, Planet Money’s co-founder, had an idea: let’s make a T-shirt. His idea wasn’t to diversify Planet Money, NPR’s podcast and blog covering the global economy into a new business, but to tell the story behind the T-shirt’s creation.
What’s so interesting about T-shirts? Davidson, who was inspired by Pietra Rivoli’s book The Travels of a T-Shirt in the Global Economy explained that T-shirt turns out to be a great lens through which to view the world economy. “Every T-shirt you wear tells the story of the economy we all live in.”
Three years later Davidson’s idea became a reality, with a series of podcasts on NPR documenting the T-shirt’s journey from the cotton fields of the Mississippi Delta through the different manufacturing phases in Indonesia, Colombia and Bangladesh all the way back to the U.S in a container.
This series provides some important insights on the world economy, globalization, trade and consumption. Here I’d like to focus on the 4 lessons in sustainability I found most interesting in this series:
1. The new radical transparency – “What distinguishes ethics of sustainability from general ethical principles is its emphasis on remote responsibilities, that is, our moral obligation to consider the impact of our actions on people and places far removed from us,” writes Prof. Gillen Wood.
Yet, the problem is that most people have no idea how the stuff we consume gets made, which is one of the reasons why they don’t exercise this moral obligation. There’s a virtual wall between us and this process that we just can’t pass through. This is I suspect why we’re so fascinated with stories from this hidden world.
Planet Money’s journey to the world of T-shirt creation shows this wall is actually not too difficult to pass through, which makes you wonder why we don’t see this kind of reporting from businesses. Why don’t 99.9 percent of companies have a websites like the one Planet Money created for every major product they sell? Is there a reason that companies that truly believe in transparency and responsibility won’t meet this bar?
It might look like a radical form of transparency but it’s actually not that radical when you really think about the information disclosed. This is just about helping consumers to make their remote responsibility a little less remote.
2. The T-shirt phase – Following the tragedy of the Bangladeshi building collapse last April, Planet Money tried to answer a question many apparel companies and consumers have been asking themselves – Is buying a t-shirt from Bangladesh a good thing or a bad thing for the people of Bangladesh?
Many countries must go through “the T-shirt phase,” a step on their journey up the ladder of economic development. The journey begins with manufacturing low-skill products like T-shirts. In the last 200 years, we have seen many countries go through the T-shirt phase, from the U.K. and parts of the U.S. to Asian countries like Japan, Korea and Hong Kong. And now it’s Bangladesh that finds itself in this phase.
This is a brutal phase but as Planet Money put it, history shows us that “if you suffer through this phase there’s a reward waiting,” i.e. economic prosperity is available, like that seen in South Korea. While this analysis offers some hope to Bangladesh (though it seems to be stuck in this phase for longer than other countries), I’m afraid that some companies and consumers will see it as a justification to ignore the poor working conditions in many factories in Bangladesh. After all, if the economic boom is just around the corner, why make so much fuss over few years of hardship?
3. The future of Bangladesh is Colombia and the vice versa – the Planet Money T-shirt was manufactured both in Bangladesh and Colombia, so the team had an opportunity to learn about the differences between these two countries. There’s no doubt that Colombia is a better place for workers with higher pay and better working conditions, including mandatory stretch time. The workers in Colombia are also more efficient and provide better quality products and therefore the factories in Colombia can ask for higher prices.
It’s clear that Colombian standards represent the future for Bangladeshi garment workers should they pass through the T-shirt phase. The local garment industry should evolve and get more professional (which is not that unrealistic if you listen to Oliver Niedemaier). The only problem is that Bangladesh also represents the future for Colombia’s garment industry – as Planet Money learns, the American company it works with intends to move its T-shirt production from Col0mbia to other countries where the manufacturing is cheaper, including Bangladesh.
Apparently, in the world of apparel low prices win over better working conditions after all.
4. Sustainability is still not part of the story – While I was very impressed with the comprehensive reporting on some of the main social and cultural aspects of the T-shirt life cycle, I was a bit disappointed with the lack of coverage on the environmental impacts of the T-shirt.
I was hoping that the Planet Money team would present not just the calculation of the costs per T-shirt ($12.42), but also the true cost of each T-shirt, calculating its environmental impacts. In addition, no questions were asked about the large amounts of pesticides and water used for growing the cotton or the carbon footprint of the 20,000 miles the T-shirt traveled around the world through the manufacturing phases.
I believe that it’s not that Planet Money team didn’t care about this point, but that they tried to reflect the way the global economy operates. In this economy, the economic consequences of natural capital degradation are still not sufficiently measured. Therefore they are not part of this T-shirt’s story.
Raz Godelnik is the co-founder of Eco-Libris and an adjunct faculty at the University of Delaware’s Business School, CUNY SPS and Parsons The New School for Design, teaching courses in green business, sustainable design and new product development. You can follow Raz on Twitter.