‘Geographies of material culture’: 2020’s online module

Dear followthethings.com shoppers

Due to imagined popular demand, we’re posting this year’s revamped ‘module behind the website’ – Geographies of Material Culture at the University of Exeter – week by week between now and the end of the year.

Why? Because we’ve had to totally redesign this longstanding beast for online pedagogical purposes this summer. The in-person module had virtually no lectures, lots of group table-work and meetings, lots of office hour queues, and was a virus-spreading liability.

The module is organised around 10 provocative ‘follow the thing’ films, short and long, each with a newly published, or updated, followthethings.com page documenting its making, discussion and impacts. Where previously, we have tasked our students with researching new pages, this year’s students are analysing them, looking for patterns, lessons from and for ‘follow the thing’ trade justice filmmakers to follow.

What we will be publishing here each week are the ‘asynchronous’ elements of the module we’re running this term at the University of Exeter: the set work that it’s 80 students are getting through each week to prep for a weekly, live, ‘synchronous’ Zoom session (which are just between us, thanks!). These posts will be published when our students are done with them You’ll be one week behind.

We hope you like what we’re up, how we’re doing this digitally. There are pluses and minuses, and being able to share this new approach to our work is – we hope – one of the former!

We start today with the module outline. Week 1’s post will follow later today.

Shop safe everyone

Ian et al x

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Week 1: Handprint.

Here’s how we started our Geographies of Material Culture module last week. See the module outline here.

Week 1: Introduction

We start the module by watching a very short ‘who made my clothes?’ film, produced in the wake of the Rana Plaza factory complex collapse on April 24th 2013, in which over 1,100 garment workers were crushed to death making clothes for high street shoppers like you and me. It captures in two minutes and 46 seconds what this module is all about. So let’s watch it, think about it, read about it, and read around it to focus our minds for the weeks to come.

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‘Provocations & interventions’: cultural activism and the UCU strike

At followthethings.com we’re fascinated with ways in which cultural activism can contribute to trade justice campaiging. Over the past month, our work has ground to a halt as our CEO Ian – in his guise as a UK-based academic – has been on strike. He has returned to work today as the Coronavirus crisis in the UK is beginning to bite. This post is primarily for students at the University of Exeter taking the MRes Critical Human Geographies module on the ‘Geographies of culture, creativity and practice’ . It’s posted here as part of the social distancing digital alternative to a seminar that’s scheduled to take place later this week. But we’re making it public rather than putting it on the university’s ELE system. If anyone visiting wants to add thoughts and links, the comments are open. Thanks!

There are three parts to this post: a) a starter reading for everyone, b) an intro to 2020 UCU strike activism with some allocated readings for each person, and c) an outline of our Skype session later this week.

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Video: ‘Brands are scared of these organisations’

What’s the role of labour rights NGOs in mediating relationships between brands, workers and governments? How do they make a difference to the lives and working conditions of the people who make our things? In this ‘Labour Behind the Label’ video, a labour union president from Bangladesh visiting the UK provides some answers…

Video: how pig parts make the world turn.

We love the work of Dutch artist Christien Meindertsma, and have drawn on her work to explain what the ‘follow the thing’ approach is all about, and how to do it well on our Classroom Resources page. We were reminded of her work today in a seminar in the Exeter Geography series by Ray Chan called “Capitalist pigs: politics of meat production and animal diseases in China.” We’re posting her 2010 TED talk today because it’s awesome. Enjoy!

I think that, in order to take better care of what’s behind our products — so, the livestock, the crops, the plants, the non-renewable materials, but also the people that produce these products — the first step would actually be to know that they are there. 

Christian Meindertsma 2010 | TED Talk

Guest Blog: bright smiles, dirty secrets.

This post is by Talisker Alcobia Cornford, a student who took the Exeter University Geography module that is behind our website last term. At the start of the module, everyone to choose an everyday commodity, zero in on one or more of its ingredients, search online for human and other stories of its making, and then experiment with forms of cultural activism to make these relations public. It’s often more interesting to choose something we have absolutely no idea about, no preconceptions about, like something whose ingredients are chemicals, with names we don’t recognise, listed in tiny writing that’s hard to read, especially when we use them bleary-eyed, first thing in the morning. Like toothpaste. Whose lives are in these kinds of things? Once Talisker finds out, why isn’t her response to shop for a different brand? Why’s she making these spoof ads? Who does she want to see them? Where?


Every morning I clean my teeth, pick up my toothbrush, squeeze injustice onto the bristles and brush, blissfully unaware that my daily routine is part of a wider routine of injustice. The complex network of interrelations branching from my sink is unimaginable, all congregating to produce a tube of Colgate toothpaste. The irony is, the product that is supposed to make my teeth sparkly clean, is riddled with dirty secrets. My 5 minutes of brushing twice a day is a lifetime of suffering for supply chain workers.

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Video: The ugly truth of fast fashion.

CEO Ian is putting together the 2020 Fashion Revolution quiz at the moment and, in the process, came across a posting of this 30 minute video on twitter in November last year. It’s an example of the kind of late night North American satirical TV show that its critical eye on supply chain injustice and activism. It’s from Hasan Minaj’s ‘Patriot Act’ Netflix series which ends up in a fake ‘H-M’ store full of alternatively labelled clothing, shoppers and him as a kind of shopkeeper – choreographing some hilariously awkward conversations about the goods on display. His critique is not only about fast fashion, but through it. Watch to the end!

“I want to be a sexy carrot, but I don’t want to destroy the environment”.

Shopper in Minhaj’s H-M store looking at an orange dress

Guest blog: stitched together in this dress

The pages on the followthethings.com begin as coursework set for groups of students taking a Geographies of Material Culture module at the University of Exeter. They also their own experiments of cultural activism, and write personal reflective journals on what they learn. Kate Brockie’s group were tasked to find a way to draw public attention to the work of mineral justice NGO Global Witness through cultural activism. They chose a talc mining report to work with. Sarah Ditty, the policy director for the Fashion Revolution movement, had kicked off that part of the talk. How could the work of Global Witness and Fashion revolution be connected? Kate scoured the internet, took out her sewing machine, and made her case.  

Eye shadows

Global Witness’s investigations into the ways in which talc mining finances insurgency in Afghanistan shocked me. How could products as harmlessly trivial as eye shadow be fuelling terrorism, disrupting the lives of thousands of civilians (Global Witness 2018)? The Global Witness campaign gave me an unsettling feeling of being entangled in global webs of exploitation, wondering whether everything else I use throughout my day contributes to some kind of injustice. Continue reading

Guest Post: the Christmas Snow Globe

Every year, Exeter Geography graduate and ex-followthethings.com intern Jemma Sherman gives her Dad a snow globe for Christmas. After taking our Geographies of Material Culture module the term before Christmas 2017, she made a new one. Here it is. And here’s what she wrote to him in his Christmas card… [actually it’s Jemma’s coursework. We really liked it].

Dear Dad,

Merry Christmas! I’m looking forward to getting home from Uni to see everyone again. For your present this year I’ve done something different – I hope you don’t mind! You see, I’ve been having these lectures which focus on the hidden lives within my commodities; the people who produce the components, assemble them and transport them. Our most recent task was to create an art-activist project on advent calendars. Art activism includes a “broad range of artists’ practices” (Grindon and Flood, 2014:10), highlighting social, political … and cultural struggles” (Darts, 2004:315). Flanagan (2009:3-4) says an artist is anyone who “creat[es] outside commercial establishments”, “making for making’s sake”. We discovered terrible things about the lives of those making these calendars, with children as young as twelve being exploited (Andrei, 2017). And this got me thinking about what else I get around Christmas time, which led me to our tradition. Well, your tradition really. I love it. Most years you get me a snow globe (if you can find one with a cute enough scene). I know that Carrier (2004:68) says “gifts within the core family are given without the expectation of equivalent in return”, but this year I wanted to give you one. You can open your present now – sorry, I’ve kind of ruined the surprise. There’re just a few instructions you need to follow (read first): Continue reading