Economy
7:24 am
Sun December 1, 2013

Planet Money Makes A T-Shirt

Originally published on Mon December 2, 2013 7:55 am

Transcript

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Rachel Martin. Earlier this year, NPR's Planet Money team decided to make a T-shirt for their fans.

ZOE CHANCE, BYLINE: What does it say?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Let meput it on. Planet Money. Wow.

MARTIN: But this bit of public radio garb was different. This shirt would come with an autobiography. The Planet Money team set out to understand how the T-shirt was made and just who made it - from cotton field to final stitch. Alex Blumberg of Planet Money explains.

ALEX BLUMBERG, BYLINE: This T-shirt design that you take for granted, that maybe you don't think about, what you don't realize is there's an entire world behind it.

MARTIN: And that world tells the story of the modern global economy.

PIETRA RIVOLI: So many people think global economy - it's way too complicated. I can't possibly understand that. But if you follow this really simple product, you get a great lens on how it all works.

MARTIN: That was Pietra Rivoli, an economist at Georgetown University, who served as an advisor to our Planet Money team. So, just where was their T-shirt born? Let's start with the cotton.

BLUMBERG: As near as we can tell, our shirt started its life possibly on this guy's farm.

BOWEN FLOWERS: OK. My name is Bowen Flowers. We're standing on one of my farms we call Omega.

BLUMBERG: So, Bowen Flowers is a cotton farmer in Clarksdale, Mississippi. We're not sure it came from his farm. In fact, it might not have come from his farm. It turns out tracking a single T-shirt back to a single cotton farm...

MARTIN: It's hard.

BLUMBERG: ...yeah. It's like tracking the gas you put into your car back to a single oil well. But we're pretty sure that most of the cotton in our shirts comes from the United States.

MARTIN: So cotton comes from U.S., then what happens? Where next?

BLUMBERG: From there it has to get spun into yarn, which most of us would probably call thread. And that happens in Indonesia and Colombia. And then it gets sewn together in factories in Colombia and Bangladesh.

RIVOLI: So, the interesting thing about the T-shirt so far is it's almost totally automated up to here. You know, the farming, the spinning, the knitting - it's all done by machines and technology. But when you get the garment factory, that's where the people come in. You need human beings and sewing machines to stitch the sleeves to the body and so forth. For that reason, this phase of the T-shirt's life tends to gravitate toward where labor is very abundant and very cheap.

BLUMBERG: And that certainly describes Bangladesh. They're expected to announce a near-doubling of the minimum wage. They are still going to be the lowest-wage country of the top 20 clothing exporters in the world.

MARTIN: So, there's an ethical question here, right? You're talking about people who were making very little money to manufacture T-shirts - your T-shirt. So, how did you think about that, Alex? Did you come down on one side or the other?

BLUMBERG: You know, my question was there are four million people working in the garment industry in Bangladesh. And what we wanted to find out is why. So, we talked to a couple of workers who worked on the Planet Money T-shirt - some sisters named Shumi and Minu. And they came to the city from rural villages, where the poverty was even more desperate. They had three sisters - all of them died when they were kids. The parents had to skip meals in order for the kids to eat. And that job in the city, even though it is just a couple of dollars a day, it's way more than they would have made in their village. Right, Pietra?

RIVOLI: Well, and you don't just see it now. I mean, it's a remarkable historical pattern from farms to factories for over 200 years. You know, it happened in the U.K., it happened in the U.S., it happened later in Japan and China. You know, none of us would want to say, no, you have to stay in these miserable rural conditions. But at the same time, the garment factories, the governments, the Western brands, all of these different bodies, they need to take responsibility, not just for fair levels of pay but also, of course, for safety and basic worker rights.

MARTIN: Pietra Rivoli of Georgetown University. She's the author of the book "The Travels of a T-Shirt in a Global Economy." And Alex Blumberg of NPR's Planet Money team. Their T-shirt project begins airing this week on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED and MORNING EDITION. And if you want to check out videos of people who put this shirt together, go to our website, npr.org/shirt. Thanks so much, you guys.

RIVOLI: Thank you.

BLUMBERG: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.