5:37pm

Fri December 6, 2013
Business

Planet Money T-Shirt Exposes Issues Of Work, Trade And Clothes

Originally published on Tue December 10, 2013 12:42 pm

All this week, All Things Considered and Morning Edition has aired stories about the global journey a T-shirt makes from seed to finished product. Over the months NPR's Planet Money team spent reporting the series, they tackled questions about trade, work and clothes play in the global economy. There's a whole lot more about a simple T-shirt's journey from cotton to completion here.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

All this week we've been hearing about the making of the Planet Money T-shirt, a global journey that's taken us from the United States to Indonesia, Bangladesh, Colombia and back to the States. The series raised big questions about the nature of the garment industry and the role the very clothes on our back play in the global economy. I'm joined now by Planet Money's Alex Blumberg to wrap up the project. And Alex, when you think about all these stories, is there one single biggest takeaway that you're left with?

ALEX BLUMBERG, BYLINE: Well, the biggest takeaway was that this story is way more complicated than I'd sort of realized and I think sometimes that it gets presented. So our T-shirts were manufactured in two different countries. The men's T-shirts were manufactured in Bangladesh. The women's T-shirts were manufactured in Colombia. And we talked to the CEO of the plant in Colombia that manufactured our women's shirts and he told us this about the garment industry.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Our industry follows poverty.

BLOCK: Our industry follows poverty.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Out industry is like on roller skates. First it was Latin America, then we moved to China. Now China's becoming more expensive, we moved to Bangladesh or moved to Vietnam. And it goes like this.

BLOCK: Alex, that imagine of the industry moving around on roller skates is a really powerful one.

BLUMBERG: Yeah, and it is absolutely true. The garment industry is heavily labor dependent, especially in this phase where they cut and sew the shirts together. And they're constantly looking for the lowest wage labor. And so you can look at that and say this is an industry that is exploiting people in desperate circumstances. And that is sometimes very true.

The other part of it though that we sort of discovered is that there is a reason people in Bangladesh, for example, want to work in a garment factory. We talked to several people who worked in the factory that made the men's shirt. And they described their lives before they came to the factory when they lived in the rural villages where they were born. And they were living very close to the edge. In fact, two of the sisters who made the shirt - the Planet Money shirt - described growing up and losing three sisters to it seems like hunger related illness.

They were eating dirt and the family wasn't able to send them to get proper medical care because they didn't have enough money. And for them, getting a job in the garment industry, even though it is very low wage, very monotonous, it was a small but very significant step up and it allowed them to send money back to their villages where their parents were.

BLOCK: You know, I think I speak for a lot of listeners who have voiced this feeling that they're never going to look at a T-shirt in quite the same way, having heard these stories. And there's one fact that I keep - my mind just keeps bouncing around on and it came in one of the stories from Robert Smith, the notion that one T-shirt contains six miles of yarn.

BLUMBERG: Yeah. I mean, that is amazing. And then, what - to me, the other thing that blew me away was just how complicated and how much thought and effort and precision goes into something that you sort of think of as like a commodity, a T-shirt. You know, just yarn itself, Jockey, the company that helped us make our T-shirt, they have - they spent years developing the yarn that goes into the Planet Money T-shirt.

You know, there's sort of a recipe for yarn and we asked them, hey, could you tell us this recipe and they said, no. They wouldn't share it with us.

BLOCK: That's their secret sauce, I think, (unintelligible)

BLUMBERG: Yeah, it's a closely, jealously guarded trade secret. They wouldn't give it to us.

BLOCK: Alex, I do have to ask you about some criticism that's been directed toward the series because when you announced it and you launched this Kickstarter campaign that would fund the creation of these T-shirts, there were people who said, look, this is an industry that doesn't treat its workers responsibly. There's a lot of exploitation. There's a lot of death.

If you commission these T-shirts, despite your best intentions, aren't you contributing to a really big problem? What do you say to that?

BLUMBERG: This is something that we wrestled with quite a bit. You know, obviously, if we're making a T-shirt and we find out that the factory where our T-shirt is made is employing, you know, underage workers or is using coercive tactics, we didn't find that. I mean, we investigated our factory and tried to find any instance of that. We didn't.

But still, the issue is there and, you know, it gets to this idea that we are all part of this global system unless you work very, very hard and only buy a very select brand of clothing, you're generally interacting with this global supply chain. And it's something that we all have to wrestle with, really. What is our responsibility to the people who make our shirts?

What are their lives like? And to the extent that we were able to shed light on that, I feel good about that.

BLOCK: That's Alex Blumberg with NPR's Planet Money team. And Alex, there is one more story in the T-shirt series coming up on Monday on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. So kind of a coda?

BLUMBERG: Yeah, it's sort of the afterlife of a T-shirt. When we're done with them and, say, we take them to Goodwill, it turns out they go off to very unexpected places.

BLOCK: OK. Alex, thanks so much.

BLUMBERG: Thank you.

BLOCK: And we should say there is a lot more online, a multimedia...

BLUMBERG: Extravaganza, I think, is the word you're looking for.

BLOCK: Extravaganza, OK, where we can go behind the scenes and get a real look at some of these workers' lives. It's all at NPR.org/shirt. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.