It’s great to hear from former students who took the Exeter Geography module that creates so much of our site’s contents. A few weeks ago, we heard from Aidan Waller. He graduated in 2011, and worked as an intern when we were designing and ordering our shopping bags, and getting the site ready for its opening. He was in Thailand, doing some business, when following things came to mind. Here’s what Aidan wrote (published with his permission!).
Whilst travelling through the north of Thailand I stayed in the old capital of the north, Chiang Mai for a week. Whilst in the city I stumbled across a small back street shop with a big dayglo hand drawn sign saying “T-shirts 100 baht”. That caught my eye instantly, brilliant cheap T-shirts, I’d been looking for some for a while now and this place looked perfect.
The shop was amazing, it had t-shirts of nearly every colour and had so many designs that I lost count after twenty. After browsing through the vast collection and picked a couple. There was a big sign that said “No negotiations, these are being sold at manufacturing cost “, I thought I’d try my luck anyway. 200 baht, oh well at least I tried.
That night over dinner I was chatting to my travelling companion about the t-shirts. The designs had all made such an impression on us we wanted to go back. These may not be originals but we’d never seen those exact designs back home in Bristol. What we had seen though was similar designs, similar tees on sale for £10-25 in Bristol, where I live. Now that is an incredible mark up, less than £2 for a tee to buy and over £8 profit. Our business senses were tingling. We had to go back.
Three days later we headed back to the same shop with a goal. 100 of their finest tees. 10,000 baht seemed a very good price, too good almost. The same lad was working as the previous time, his English was a little ropey so it took me about half an hour to get across what I wanted. He even mistook me at one point and lowered the price to 90baht. Looks like the “manufacturing price” was flexible and that the prices were not fixed. I wonder how much they did actually cost to produce?
The shop only had 10 of the tees in the colours, designs and sizes I wanted. The lad told me to come back the next day and he’d have them all freshly made for me. And this is where I started asking all kinds of questions. The lad worked in the shop most days it seemed with members of his family, some as young as 5 or six and others in their 40s. The back of the shop, from what I could see from my brief glimpse, was a small room full of heaps of plain tees. Te tees were so basic. Their edges were not sewn up. They were literally just two tee shaped sections of material joined together. How were they going to get another 90 ready by tomorrow? The lad had told me to come back in 24 hours, a slightly unachievable goal I thought. But I was forgetting, anything is possible in Thailand.
There was a closed door at the back of the shop, it made my imagination run wild. What was behind there? A real Thai sweat-shop? Rows upon rows of workbenches crammed into a small room? Sewing machines, printing machines and other miscellaneous equipment? Or was it just their home behind that door? Were my t-shirts going to be made in an ethical working environment or was it going to be more reminiscent of the intro Banksy directed for the Simpsons? I’d helped to research its page on followthethings.com.
I had so many questions I wanted to ask the lad but the language barriers were extremely frustrating. Even though I hadn’t found the source if my product I’d met some of the people involved in it’s creation and become a link in the chain.
The next day I returned to the shop at 4pm expecting to be told to return tomorrow but to my surprise he was there, waiting for me, smiling with two large bags stuffed full of t-shirts. I checked through them all for print and sewing finish quality, they were all spot on. Stunned I handed over the man 9000 baht (about £175), shook his hand and went on my way.
All these questions that had flooded my mind got me thinking about that Geography module I’d taken at Exeter. Geographies of Material Culture. It’s the one module that I find myself continually referring back to even though I no longer am a part of the academic sphere. What was I going to tell my customers when I got back to Bristol? The full story? Well I didn’t know the full story. I can only trace my t-shirts as far as that little shop, tucked away in a small alley in the old city of Chiang Mai. Then what do I tell them? Nothing? Shall I just brush the t-shirts murky history under the carpet and smile and wave like nearly every other company, corporation or entrepreneur seeking to make money and keep making money does?
If I had the money and the time I would definitely come back here, get a good translator and build a picture of the geographies of my t-shirts. Maybe there’s a student who would be interested in following it up for me?
If you want to get in touch with Aidan and these t-shirts, they’re on facebook.