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.
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.
I felt overwhelmed. But the last section of the course showed me that hope exists in the scope for creative action that confronts these systems of exploitation. After Sarah Ditty’s talk, I had clicked across MAKE SMTHNG Week, a movement of makers and social media campaign partnered with Fashion Revolution that challenges consumerist culture (MAKE SMTHNG 2018). ‘I should get involved’, I thought, and promptly forgot about it.
We responded to our terrorist talc findings by creating a spoof make-up website. My role was to photoshop an eye shadow palette featuring shades like ‘Taliban Tint’ and edit a promotional video. It felt immoral to produce a humorous video about appalling terrorist activities. But, as I sat in my bedroom, dubbing over a make-up tutorial with our satirical shade names, the discomfort faded into sheer delighted mischievousness. It clicked.
A risk worth taking
As Cameron (2015, 274) states, ‘given low levels of public engagement in these issues … humour is a risk worth taking’. In a society that is complacently ignorant to its complicit role in injustices, the uncomfortable risk of overstepping helps to bring the realms of public engagement and social consciousness closer together.
Craftivists argue that ‘anyone can use their skills and passions to fight for their global neighbors’ rights’ (Corbett and Housley 2011, 347). The editing process showed me the potential activist power that I already have as a dabbler in arts and crafts. On top of this, I recognized how ‘the explosion of social media … has put powerful new tools at our disposal’ (Boyd and Mitchell 2012, np). Activism no longer felt unattainable to a humble university student without an established platform.
Armed with my Textiles GCSE
I remembered the MAKE SMTHNG campaign. How could I take part? I had already found how ‘the global maps of clothing supply and retailing expose our complicity as consumers in the production of deeply unequal geographies of fashion’ (Crewe, 2008: 25). So, armed with my Textiles GCSE and a sewing machine, I embarked to explore ‘the activist potential of amateur, domestic crafts and the quiet activism of everyday making’ (Hackney 2013, 169).
I wanted to support MAKE SMTHNG, but was also compelled to use the opportunity to re-connect producers and consumers in a more concrete sense than I had done through research. There was something alluring about breaking down the producer-consumer binary and literally ‘putting [myself] in the picture, the process’ of making a commodity’s production story (Cook et al. 2007, 1113).
I found Genesh
I started looking for materials. Shari Daya (2014, 812) highlights that commodity stories can construct Southern producers’ lives as less rich and mundane as they really are. I hoped to find a real story that I could connect to, the rich and mundane version. I found the perfect fabric. I found Genesh.
Genesh produced this organic material, sourced by a Welsh online fabric shop that sold it to me. Genesh and his family live in Kerala, India. His business produces organic cotton fabrics in small batches, dying them by hand and weaving them on small powerlooms. His business employs others in their community, including some older women as bobbin- winders. They sit in the portico of the home listening to the radio as they work, and Genesh says that “they are very lovely people” (Organic Textile Company 2018). Such beautifully rich and mundane details made me look affectionately at the dress I had just made with Genesh’s fabric.
I uploaded the dress, and Genesh, to my Instagram story, excited to show that Genesh and I had created this dress together. But the sewing process had raised another concern. As I watched the sewing machine needle repeatedly punch through the fabric, it dawned on me that it wasn’t just Genesh and I. Another story was being stitched into the garment.
Researching Global Witness’ website, I had scanned through countless reports documenting mineral controversies. I had no idea what my sewing machine needle was even made out of, let alone about the lives it had touched in the process of getting to me. Jane Bennett (2010, 54) says that ‘a life tears the fabric of the actual without ever fully coming ‘out’ in a person, place or thing’. The needle had pierced the dress with its own unknown stories, even if it didn’t constitute the final commodity I had just uploaded to Instagram.
I took to Google: Bernina sewing machine needle 60/8. Material is ‘stainless steel’. What even is stainless steel? Wikipedia: ‘ferrochrome’. An alloy. OK.
Google: ferrochrome producers. Scroll…scroll…scroll: ‘Glencore’. I recognised that name. Where had I seen it? Global Witness search bar: Glencore.
Bingo. Glencore’s mining activities have corruptly enriched Dan Gertler, an Israeli billionaire and middleman, to gain control of Katanga Mining in the Democratic Republic of Congo (Global Witness 2014a). Global Witness found that Gertler’s corrupt deals have lost the DRC more than twice the country’s annual spending on healthcare and education combined (Global Witness 2014b), while 64 percent of the population lives in poverty (World Bank 2018).
I was annoyed that Gertler and his corrupt exploits could have smeared themselves over my ‘ethical’ dress. Iris Marion Young (2004, 130) says that ‘global social and economic processes bring individuals and institutions into ongoing structural connection’. Through these complex processes, my sewing machine needle had woven me, Genesh, Glencore and Gertler together into this dress.
Get back in my dress
Fine, I huffed. If Gertler insists, then he’s welcome to get back in my dress.
I took to photoshop again.
Cultural activism aims to ‘foster dialogue’ (Duncombe, 2016, 121). Dialogue was definitely fostered when my housemate saw I had edited the face of an Israeli billionaire onto a photo of her wearing my dress.
After I explained why, we agreed the dress isn’t really Gertler’s style, after all.
Bennett, J. (2010) Vibrant matter: a political ecology of things. London: Duke University Press.
Boyd, A. & Mitchell, D. (2012) The Beautiful Trouble Manifesto, in Boyd, A. (comp). Beautiful trouble: a toolbox for revolution. New York: O/R.
Cameron, J. (2015) Can poverty be funny? The serious use of humour as a strategy of public engagement for global justice. Third World Quarterly 36(2), 274-290.
Cook, I., Evans, J., Griffiths, H., Morris, R., Wrathmell, S. (2007) ‘It’s more than just what it is’: defetishising commodities, expanding fields, mobilising change…Geoforum 38(6), 1113-1126.
Corbett, S. & Housley, S. (2011) The Craftivist Collective Guide to Craftivism. Utopian Studies 22(2), 344-351.
Crewe, L. (2008) Ugly beautiful?: Counting the cost of the global fashion industry. Geography 93(1), 25-33.
Daya, S. (2014) Beyond exploitation/empowerment: re-imagining Southern producers in commodity stories. Social & Cultural Geography 15(7), 812-833.
Duncombe, S. (2016) Does it work?: The Æffect of activist art. Social Research 83(1), 115- 134.
Global Witness (2014a) Glencore and the Gatekeeper. [Accessed 6 December 2018].
Global Witness (2014b) Glenore unfazed by muddy Congo deals. [Accessed 6 December 2018].
Global Witness (2018) At any price we will take the mines: the Islamic State, the Taliban, and Afghanistan’s white talc mountains. [Accessed 6 December 2018].
Hackney, F. (2015) Quiet activism and the new amateur. Design and culture 5(2), 169-193.
MAKE SMTHNG (2018) MAKE SMTHNG Week. [Accessed 6 December 2018].
World Bank (2018) The World Bank in the DRC. [Accessed 6 December 2018].
Young, I.M (2004) Responsibility and global labour justice. The Journal of Political Philosophy 12(4), 365–388