7:47pm

Thu December 5, 2013
Economy

Meet The Humble Container That Moves The Global Economy

Originally published on Fri December 6, 2013 2:49 pm

NPR's Planet Money team is manufacturing its own T-shirt. After the women's shirt was assembled in Colombia, they voyaged by container ship to Miami. The container, a big standardized box that moves easily from truck to ship to train, is the unsung hero of the global economy. It was invented in the 1950s and dramatically reduced shipping costs, ushering in a new era vastly different than the world retired stevedores remember. There's a whole lot more about what it takes to make a simple T-shirt — the journey from cotton to completion — here.

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Transcript

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

And I'm Melissa Block.

Our Planet Money commissioned a T-shirt and all this week they've been reporting on the global economic machine that made it, and it is a global machine. The men's T-shirts traveled half way around the world and back. Cotton grown in Mississippi was sent to Indonesia to be spun into yarn. The yarn went to Bangladesh where it was made into shirts. Those shirts then traveled back to the U.S., 20,000 miles, for a humble T-shirt.

David Kestenbaum caught up with the Planet Money's women's T-shirts where they were made in Colombia. And he has the story of the often ignored innovation that made all this traveling possible.

DAVID KESTENBAUM, BYLINE: This innovation, you can see it at any port. Actually it's about all you see.

(SOUNDBITE OF BEEPING)

KESTENBAUM: It's like you're in a maze of containers.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: (Foreign language spoken)

KESTENBAUM: Shipping containers, you've seen them even if you don't know it. That truck next to you on the road, sometimes the back of it, the back of that truck, it is a container that not long ago had been on a ship, and before that maybe on the other side of the world.

One of the advantages of containers is that they're pretty much identical. That is not an advantage though if you're trying to find a particular one, as I was at this port in Cartagena, Colombia.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: (Foreign language spoken)

KESTENBAUM: Out T-shirts were scheduled to be loaded by crane onto a ship bound for Miami. I knew the shirts were in a blue shipping container with a number on it which, frankly, was not a lot of help.

Fortunately my colleague Marianne McCune, who had watched the T-shirts get packed, helpfully wrote the words Planet Money on our container using what she had with her, in lipstick.

Oh, there it is. Yeah, M-O-N, that's it. It's still there.

(LAUGHTER)

KESTENBAUM: Marianne McCune, your lipstick held up.

The world of containers is not a human sized world. You can fit 80,000 T-shirts in one of these containers. And the ship in port here can carry 700 containers; meaning, if this were a pure T-shirt ship that would be over 50 million T-shirts on one giant ship.

Big metal boxes might not seem like an innovation, but you could argue our T-shirts would not be made where they were, all over the world; the global economy would not be as global without the humble container. To understand why, consider how things were done before.

Before containers in the 1950s, a ship might have to get loaded with 200,000 different items: bananas, fish meal, steel pipes, random stuff in sacks and boxes, all packed tightly together often by hand.

ANTONIO SALCIDO: My name is Antonio Salcido. I am 84 years old. I worked as a longshoreman; hole-work, dock work, jitney, driving a forklift.

KESTENBAUM: Salcido's first day on the job was in 1949 at the Port of Los Angeles. As it happens, he was loading cotton. Who knows? Maybe destined to be a T-shirt. A single bale of cotton weighs 500 pounds. But you could move one if you were good, he says. Bales were basically round, except for one flat section. So you'd get this big, 500 pound thing rolling.

SALCIDO: You go flat round, flat round, so whenever it goes flat you really put an extra bit of pressure to get it to the round side. It's very difficult.

KESTENBAUM: It's easy to romanticize these days of hard-working men, laboring side by side. But that romantic vision would leave out cattle hides, Salcido's least favorite cargo.

SALCIDO: They were slimy, often had maggots and they were stinky as hell. I mean it was just horrible. I've never smelled anything like hide.

KESTENBAUM: It was also a dangerous job. Salcido says he saw one man get crushed loading steel pipes. On days like that everyone would stop work and go home.

And even with 50 or 100 people working, it could take weeks to unload and reload a single ship.

Marc Levinson wrote a history of the container called "The Box." He says the guy who led the move to containers had no experience with ships at all. His name was Malcolm McLean. McLean owned a trucking company and he was thinking about a different problem entirely. His problem? It was taking a long time for his trucks to go up and down the East Coast. This was the 1950s, the interstates hadn't been built yet.

MARC LEVINSON: He originally had the idea that maybe if he could buy a ship, he could put the trucks on the ship in New York, sail the ship down the coast to North Carolina and offload the trucks there. And he would avoid the traffic.

KESTENBAUM: It was a way to avoid traffic.

LEVINSON: It was a way to avoid traffic.

(LAUGHTER)

KESTENBAUM: McLean gave up on the idea of driving trucks onto ships. A truck after all is just an engine attached to a box. So why not just make the box detachable?

Antonio Salcido, the longshoreman, remembers seeing his first container and it did not make him happy. Companies were realizing they could save a lot of money with containers. In part, because they didn't require so many workers like him.

SALCIDO: I think the majority of the longshoremen down there just saw it as loss of jobs.

KESTENBAUM: But what about the idea that it was a cheaper way to do it and that it would save all this labor? You know, all your hard labor.

SALCIDO: Well, of course, you know, that never entered my mind exactly that, you know, it was cheaper way to ship goods. Because, you know, we were more concerned with our own livelihood and putting food on the table.

KESTENBAUM: The unions and shipping companies fought over this for years. The details could fill a book. But in the end, the shipping companies eventually agreed to pay into funds that would compensate the workers.

Containers became standardized around the world. And by 1966, Malcolm Mclean - the guy who dreamed of putting trucks on boats to avoid traffic - had put together an impressive fleet of container ships. His company SeaLand even started making container ship runs all the way to Europe. One of the first cargos to come back in those containers was whiskey. Whiskey used to have a way of disappearing off ships. But when locked in an anonymous container, that wasn't a problem.

The age of containers had begun and it greatly reduced the cost of shipping. Whole distribution systems were set up around these big boxes that could be easily moved from ships to trains to trucks.

Again, Marc Levinson.

LEVINSON: Modern globalization couldn't have happened without the container. If you had to be loading every little bag and barrel and box separately onto vessel, if you had a vessel spending two weeks in port every time it had a port call and 200,000 items being loaded off, 200,000 more being loaded back on, it would be impossible to have trade on scale that we have today. It's containerization that made that possible.

(SOUNDBITE OF BEEPING)

KESTENBAUM: On an early Tuesday morning, at the port in Cartagena Colombia, I watched our T-shirt container get loaded onto the ship. A giant crane, operated by a man far overhead who I could barely see, picked it up. A minute later it was on board.

There it is, our container, with the words Planet Money T-shirts written on the end in lipstick. Going below deck of Hansa Kirkines, a giant container ship bound for Miami.

The cost of getting our T-shirts all the way home, by ship and train and truck? It barely shows up, pennies per shirt.

David Kestenbaum, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.