NPR’s Planet Money set out to make a T-shirt; not just any T-shirt, a T-shirt that could tell the story of its own conception from seed to store. Aside from an illustration of a squirrel swilling a martini glass on the front, the garment is as run-of-the-mill as it gets, made by Jockey from 100 percent conventional cotton. Planet Money sent a team of 10 journalists to document a journey that begins at cotton farm in the Mississippi Delta, continues to factories in Indonesia, Colombia, and Bangladesh, then rounds back home to a shipping container in Jacksonville, Flor. The result is a deftly executed multimedia project that puts faces to the social and economic inequities behind a $30 T-shirt’s creation.
BEHIND THE SCENES
The entire package is divided into five digestible sections, most of them no longer than two minutes. In “Cotton,” we learn that the United States exports more cotton than any other country in the world, thanks to a potent combination of superior harvest-and-ginning technology—”essentially, giant robots”—and lab-designed seed. The farm Planet Money visited grows enough cotton in a single year to make 9 million T-shirts—or a T-shirt for every single person in New York City.
The entire package is divided into five digestible sections, most of them no longer than two minutes.
“Machines” compares the formula for spinning yarn to the recipe for Coke, a closely guarded secret that has to meet dozens of specifications, including thickness, tenacity, amount of twist, and the direction of twist. At Jockey’s fabric mill in Indonesia, the team finds a rare “sweet spot” in the middle of the global T-shirt trade. Although wages are lower in the Southeast Asian nation than they are in developed countries, Indonesia has the benefit of an educated workforce, inexpensive yet reliable electricity, and a relatively stable government.
“People” takes us to Bangladesh (in the case of the men’s T-shirt) and Colombia (for the women’s T-shirt), where we meet two women with similar jobs but strikingly different lives. Bangladesh is vastly poorer than Colombia, and the role the garment industry plays in the lives of its four million workers is deeply flawed. In Colombia, a voiceover says, the garment industry is just an industry. In Bangladesh, however, it’s a social upheaval, filled with more risks that possibilities.
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“Boxes” is a paean to the “unsung innovation” at the heart of the global supply chain: the shipping container. Despite the thousands of miles Planet Money’s cargo travels on a flotilla of ships, trains, and trucks, the entire journey costs just pennies per shirt, or a “tiny fraction of the cost of raw materials in our shirt [60 cents], far less than the cost to print the design on our shirt [90 cents], and a drop in the bucket compared to what it cost to take our shirts on the final leg of their journey from our warehouse to you [$2.70].”
Behind every garment is a “world; a person with dreams and hopes who wants to get ahead.”
Finally, there’s “You,” which introduces us to people like Brian Martinell, a seed engineer in Madison, Wis., who brews his own beer and mead, and Ernesto Alas, a ship captain from Cartagena, Colombia, who enjoys playing pingpong and singing karaoke at sea. Jasmine Ahkter, a garment worker in Chittagong, Bangladesh, has a recurring dream where she’s in a boat that sinks in the middle of a river, but she manages to swim to shore.
Behind every article of clothing, says Doris Restrepo, a garment worker in Medellin, Colombia, is a “world; a person with dreams and hopes who wants to get ahead.”