Happy ‘shopping’: making & using followthethings.com bags

This post began as a contribution to a special issue of the journal ACME on the new ‘impact’ agenda in British Higher Education. Our shopping bags and ‘ladybugging’ activities seemed to fit this bill, although their ‘impact’ wasn’t measurable (and that was the point). In the end, another short piece on impact was written for the journal. We have revised that original paper to post here, and hope it may be interesting for readers who are keen to use our site and/or bags in their teaching and wider ‘shopping’ activities.

Update September 2016: sorry, we have no bags left to give away. They’ve all gone. If you have one, it’s a priceless collector’s item. If you see someone carrying one, please say hi.


“We need to develop forms of critique that inspire hauntings, feed feelings, come alive, leap out and grab us, … that are not just about vital materiality but are themselves vitally material” (Cook & Woodyer 2012 p.238).

Our website

Screen Shot 2013-09-13 at 8.41.44 PM

Home Page, 13th September 2013: click for today’s.

This post describes the making, distribution and creative use of reusable shopping bags for followthethings.com, a ‘shopping’ site, if you understand shopping to involve betraying the origins of things, like you might ‘shop’ a person to the police. followthethings.com is designed to have the look, feel and architecture of familiar online stores. It’s stocked with examples of art work, documentary film, journalism, activism, academic, student and other work revealing the lives of everyday things, i.e. the relations between their producers and consumers hidden by commodity fetishism. It shows how their makers tried to make these relations apparent, visible, tangible in ways that might move their audiences to act by trying to make them feel guilty, shocked, appreciative, awkward and/or involved in other people’s lives and work. It aims to inform and inspire new creative commodity activism. Our shopping bags are one example.

How we make things

followthethings.com is a massive collaborative project, which I ‘orchestrate’. Undergraduate students research most of its pages, and some have been employed as interns to work on the site. Daisy Livingston was one. In January 2011, she submitted a cotton shopping bag and some documents as her ‘Geographies of Material Culture’ coursework. She’d had a batch made in a factory in China. The documents were the shipping documents and printouts of email conversations she’d had with factory staff. This was the most brilliant coursework I had ever seen. Daisy worked as an intern that summer and I asked her and 4 other interns to design and order some followthethings.com shopping bags, just as she had done before.

The final design, now being 'Made in China'.

The finished design template that we emailed to the factory in July 2011: click for more designs

We searched for shopping bags on alibaba.com, searched through hundreds of bag photos, clicked the ones we recognised, and ended up on pages naming and providing the addresses of factories where they were made, saying how much they cost and who to talk to about placing an order. We designed a bag that could be easily mistaken for a mainstream supermarket bags, using similar colours and insects.  We ordered 5,000 from a company in China to the exact specification of a ‘pp woven’ bag we knew they had made for Sainsbury’s.

Other people making things

To assure us that their bags weren’t made in a ‘sweatshop’, they sent us factory audits conducted according to the Ethical Trading Initiative’s Base Code. The facts and figures were fascinating, but the reports also had pages of colour photos illustrating the auditors’ observations: an emergency light and exit sign, some drinkable water, a first aid box, people working in the coating, cutting, printing, sewing and packing workshops and the room where pallets were stacked with boxes before dispatch. When one auditor visited, they were clearly making Sainsbury’s distinctive Elephant bags. There’s only so much you can learn from examining one of these bags at home. We wanted to learn by designing and having our own made (cf Ingold 2007, Hawkins 2011, Last 2012).

Filmed by a ship-spotter on the River Elbe in 2011

When they were finished, the factory sent us some shipping documents. Our bags would be traveling to the UK on the container ship Cosco Pacific. So, we began to track its journey via MarineTraffic.com and tweeted its location and any stories of ship and port labour we could find along the way (for every tweet, click here). Like this:

The Cosco Pacific left Qingdao port on September 19, docked at Yantian (where, for example, crane operators had been on strike in 2007). It entered Singapore Harbour (where, for example, two Bangladeshi port workers has been found alive and dead in a container in 2011). It then sailed  along the Malacca Strait, across the Indian Ocean, past the Southern tip of India and Sri Lanka, through the Suez Canal and into the Mediterranean, out into the Atlantic, along the English Channel, to Rotterdam, then Felixstowe (where, for example, the UNITE union were attempting to organise truck drivers operating out of the docks in 2011 and the port was expanding). Our bags were unloaded and trucked from here, and the Cosco Pacific then sailed on to Hamburg and continued its journey.

Our bags were finally delivered to us by truck on October 29 2011, unloaded by the driver and his mate at the back door of the Amory Building at the University of Exeter’s Streatham campus. We opened the boxes to see what we’d designed in their full, realised, ‘pp woven’ glory.

first bag out of the box

The first bag out of the box, 29 October 2011.

Another kind of shopping bag

Since then, we’ve been putting them into circulation, just over 3,000 so far: sending them to anyone who emails asking for one or a box of 50 for their class. We’ve also provided them in their hundreds as conference bags. People are now using them, inserting them – if you like –  into the ideological circuits of shopping. They’re the same as other bags, but there’s more life in them: life we’ve found in factory audits, ship tracking, port stories, and their delivery, and life we’ve put into them (Luke 2000, Bennett 2000). They’re also bags of  ‘counter-information’ (Meireles 2009, Demos 2010) because they’re designed for both kinds of ‘shopping’. When people  bring them home , full, from the shops, we’re asking them to research their contents and send us a photo and their findings to put in an online photo set on flickr. Here’s one we posted to start this off:

ftt bagful, Exeter city centre, 12 November 2011

The first bagful of followthethings research, posted on flickr.

This exemplar bag had school shirts from Marks & Spencer, a Tangle Teezer hair brush, Moshi Monsters trading cards and a Spongebob magazine. Added below the photo were links to a 2011 online magazine article about Marks & Spencer’s use of fair trade cotton and a 2007 ActionAid report critical of school uniform supply chain; a 2011 online newspaper report about the Tangle Teezer’s failure to gain financial support on TV’s Dragon’s Den; and 2011 online newspaper reports about the takeover of the magazine’s publisher by venture capitalists and their subsequent winding up of workers’ pension scheme.

The point that this ‘bagful’ photo and research was supposed to illustrate was that, within even the most innocent commodity, there are hidden stories of labour that can, relatively easily, be found and published online (Cook et al 2007) by people working not only at followthethings.com HQ but also at 3,000+ other locations (and counting) worldwide.

Ladybirds escape

Ladybird yarnbombing at the University of Exeter: 21st March 2012.

That was not all… In January 2012, a craft group started meeting in the cafe along the corridor from my office in the Amory Building, which was linked to an AHRC-funded research project on Craft Geographies. Academic staff, postgrads, technical staff and others came along to talk and knit. I’m not a knitter, but I donated a box of 50 shopping bags as ‘craft materials’ and went to the meetings to join in the conversation. We discussed what we should do for international yarnbombing day – the first day of Spring – and ended up knitting and cutting out of our bags a large number of ladybirds to yarnbomb the entrance to the Amory Building (craftgeographies 2012a).

These ladybirds, bags and other materials, images and stories fired our imaginations, mischievously, hilariously and, we thought, with some critical purpose in which our ‘shoppers’ might enjoy participating (cf Treadaway 2009; Merrifield 2011; Cook & Woodyer 2012, Woodyer & Geoghegean 2012). The ‘sympathetic character’ at the centre of our action would not a person but a ladybird  (Canning & Reinsborough 2012). In its short life, each of our pp woven insects had witnessed global trade first hand, met factory workers, dock and ship workers, truck drivers and their mates, all over the world. They knew about world trade and exploitation and their experiences had given them powerful bugging capabilities. Released from the bags, and out in worlds of shopping, she (and sometime he) would watch, learn and wonder.

ftt ladybird outside Arndale Sweatshop.

Caption: The followthethings ladybird ponders today’s Olympic kit revelations outside an (in)appropriately named shop

in 2012, we created and posted on this blog a ladybird release (and bag patching) guide and started to take these ladybirds shopping. Walking around, we imagined what she knew, would notice and think, placed her somewhere, took a photo, thought of a caption and narrative, and posted them in our ‘ladybird spotting’ photo set on flickr, often with a link to an online source that had provoked that thought (for the photo above, it was this newspaper article). There are 65 spots so far and ladybugging has now become the final ‘Guerilla Geography’ mission in a series of 6 which, starting with Mission 1: ‘Get the bag’, can earn you the ‘Champion Shopper’ badge at the top of this post. [NB our mission is currently down for maintenance – check back]

Catching on

This creative playful, imaginative approach tries to engage publics in discussions of controversial issues by appropriating everyday social forms, providing materials and ideas with which to think and create new forms, and encouraging and sharing the results of this collective creativity for others to enjoy, be informed and inspired by, on- and offline (Bishop 2006, Beuys & Schwarze 2006). This is a work in progress. We’re hoping it might catch on…

Update (December 2016)



Beuys, J. & Schwarze, D. (2006) Report on a Day’s Proceedings at the Bureau for Direct Democracy // 1972. in Bishop, C. (ed). Participation. London: Whitechapel Gallery, 120-4

Bennett, J. (2001) The enchantment of Modernity. Princeton: Princeton University Press

Bishop, C. (2006). Introduction // viewers as producers. in her (ed) Participation. London: Whitechapel Gallery, 10-17

Canning, D. & Reinsborough, P. (2012) Lead with sympathetic characters. in Boyd, A. (assembler) Beautiful trouble. New York: O/R Books

Cook, I., Evans, J., Griffiths, H., Mayblin, L., Payne, R. & Roberts, D. (2007). ‘Made in… ?’ appreciating the everyday geographies of connected lives?. Teaching Geography (Summer), 80-83

Cook, I. & Woodyer, T. (2012). Lives of things. in Sheppard, E., Barnes, T. & Peck, J. (eds) Wiley-Blackwell Companion to Economic Geography. Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, 226-241

Demos, T.J. (2010) Another world, and another. in Farquharson, A. & Waters, J. (eds) Uneven geographies. Nottingham: Nottingham Contemporary, 11-19 (download from http://www.nottinghamcontemporary.org/art/uneven-geographies)

Hawkins, H. (2011) Dialogues and doings: sketching the relationships between Geography and Art. Geography compass 5(7), 464-78

Ingold, T. (2007) Materials against materiality. Archaeological dialogues 14(1), 1-16

Last, A. (2012) Experimental geographies. Geography compass 6(12) 706–724

Luke, T. (2000) Cyborg enchantments: commodity fetishism & human/machine interactions. Strategies 13(1), 39-62

Meireles, C. (2009) Notes on Insertions Into Ideological Circuits // 1994. in Doherty, C. (ed.) Situation. London: Whitechapel Gallery, 121-2

Merrifield, A. (2011) Magical Marxism: subversive politics and the imagination. London: Pluto Press.


Thanks to Daisy Livingston, Aiden Waller, Jack Parkin, Emma Christie-Miller, Alice Goodbrook, Doreen Jakob, Angela Last, Tara Woodyer, Chris Bear, Sarah Mills, Amanda Rogers, Becky Sandover, Mia Hunt and one anonymous ACME referee for helping to shape the arguments made here.


One comment

  1. Pingback: Where presents come from: Santa knows! | the festive back office

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