For the past six weeks, Exeter Geography graduate Natalie Cleverly has been working as a nicely paid intern on the ‘follow the things’ project. She took the Geographies of Material Culture module that’s generated our site since 2008, but in its new 2020-21 online iteration. And, this summer, she read every ‘compilation’ page on our website, looking for timely events about each page to post on our Twitter and Instagram because they happened ‘on this day’. As Natalie was finishing up, we asked her what it had been like to read the whole site. We don’t know anyone else who has done this! What do you learn? What’s been happening to ‘follow the things’ activism since we first opened our store ten years ago? Here are her thoughts.
Last September, I began the Material Cultures module at Exeter University. Since I’d chosen the module five months prior, the world had turned so upside down and inside out that I’d forgotten what I’d even signed up for. But I was fascinated. Particularly by followthethings.com itself. It wasn’t like any research project I had seen before. I reached out to Ian – who ran the module and the website – ‘Is there any way I can help?’.
And here we are. I’m not a followthethings.com expert, but after reading through 70+ pages of the website (almost the whole thing!) I’ve gained a good insight. So, what did I take away from sifting through all these years of content around activism / filmmaking / grassroots organising / following-the-thing?
But the most significant thing that stood out to me was witnessing how these conversations and responses had changed over time. From approaches to activism and discussions on sweatshop labour, to corporate backlash and PR campaigns.
The extent to which things had changed was clearest to me when watching ‘A Decent Factory’. I was shocked. Not just because the opening scene revealed three naked businessmen by a lake chatting about global trade at a Nokia top management seminar. I mean… that was part of it.
But it was the documentary’s candour and openness about their global ethical obligations as a growing company. They seemed genuinely interested in how to approach their corporate social and environmental responsibilities abroad. The absence of secrecy and discreteness when revealing the conditions behind how these products were being produced shocked me. How often does this ever happen?
At one point one Nokia manager even asked their team, “I think the question is, how much are we really trying to change the world to be a better place in those kinds of countries?”. Another member responded, “or, do we want to make the illusion that we are clean?”.
This felt like the big question that probably circulates around a lot of large organisations behind closed doors. Yet here it was, being asked openly and frankly, in front of a camera.
It felt like a whole different world to the one that I know of. This is a world where corporations launch full-blown attacks on independent filmmakers to suppress information about how they treat their workers (see Fredrik Gertten’s 2009 Bananas!* doc). It’s one where a multi-trillion-dollar company would order the police to suppress a small-scale protest (see the Yes Men’s 2010 iPhone 4cf – ‘conflict free’ – prank). A world where a corporation, renowned for their poor track record of using sweatshop labour, would launch an advert advocating for social justice (see the Nike 30th Anniversary ‘Just do it’ 2018 advert starring Colin Kaepernick).
So, this got me thinking – what has changed in these years? With the internet, it is easier now than before to spread information and images across continents and countries. To make the faces and experiences behind the typically dehumanised commodities visible. And activists have taken advantage of these channels by using filmmaking, label-dropping, culture-jamming, etc… Simultaneously, as social and environmental issues are entering more mainstream discussions, corporations are under increasing pressure to uphold an image of social morality. So much so, that they often panic. And that panic can manifest through attempts to suppress and discredit claims made against them OR in desperate attempts to launch PR campaigns that attempt to transform the social image of their company.
But instead of having these conversations openly, like Nokia did in 2004, these conversations are happening privately and with strategy.
If companies had the opportunity to have an open dialogue about corporate responsibility in the early 2000s, to others now launching full-blown legal attacks on their criticisers less than 20 years later, what could change in the next decade?
And another question is, how will this impact how the followthethings.com project looks as it approaches its 10th anniversary in September this year? What new forms of activism will show up, and how will companies learn, adapt and respond? Will they continue to try to establish an illusion of social responsibility and a pretence of care? Or will these conversations and connections be too visible to suppress that large corporations will make the leap to forge genuine change?
We hope for the latter. But until then, followthethings.com’s pages and the stories behind them will keep expanding with varied and meaningful ways of making the connections between consumers and producers visible. And whilst at times the pages might make you fall back with laughter, or cry uncontrollably until you shake, as long as they continue to find ways to keep these conversations going and growing, then that’s what matters.
5 July 2021