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Decolonising ‘follow the things’ teaching and learning? Defeated

In the summer of 2020, Geographies of Material Culture, the undergraduate module behind our website, was totally reorganised for online teaching and learning. As detailed in our recent post announcing the launch of its public archive, it brought together 10 ‘follow the thing’ films and 10 followthethings.com pages about their making, discussion and impacts.

This module was also redesigned – from the selection and sequence of these films to the content and appearance of its website – to try to decolonise its pedagogy. Over the past couple of years a brilliant decolonising network has taken shape at our university with all kinds of exciting initiatives involving staff and students all over the place. The changes made to our module were informed and inspired by this wider movement. Some were generic strategies for decolonising a module and others were more tailored to the module, its materials and its aims. Module leader and followthethings.com ‘CEO’ Ian has been trying to channel his white privilege through anti-racist education for over 20 years now (see this from 2000). But this felt like a step change for his research and teaching about the ‘follow the things’ genre of commodity activism which simply asks ‘Who made my stuff?’

If you check the module’s public archive, you will see how the following decolonising strategies helped to shape it. There were five aims:

  • to disrupt the ‘white saviour complex’ of ‘guilty’ Northern (white) consumers wanting only to shop more ‘ethically to help exploited (POC) workers by trying to shift responses to ‘who made my stuff’ filmmaking ‘from guilt to solidarity’ (Young 2003).
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Guest post: when you read everything on the followthethings.com website

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?

A lot.

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Geographies of Material Culture: public module archive launched!

We have some exciting news. We’ve just posted this thread on @followthethings twitter. Here it is again with added whole films and/or trailers.

1/ Hello public archive!

If you’re teaching ‘who made my stuff?’ or if you want to find out more yourself, here’s our Geographies of Material Culture module archive. This is the module behind our website, fresh for 2020-21. 10 epic films. 10 epic http://followthethings.com pages.

Click the cats to get there.
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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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Brandjamming the John Lewis Christmas ad to #stopfundinghate

 

New publication: Teaching media literacy and the geographies of consumption

How can encouraging students to cut up, rearrange and otherwise mess with adverts’ imagery and messages help them to better appreciate the complex geographies of consumption and international trade? How can the teaching of controversial issues build on students’ senses of injustice, mischief and creativity?  We have a suggestion…

Earlier this year, a booklet called Medialukutaitoa vastamainoksista became a booklet called Teaching media literacy and the geographies of consumption These booklets come from a series of workshops developed by former followthethings.com intern Eeva Kempainnen in a variety of educational settings in Finland. The hands-on and entertaining methods she sets out are suitable for a variety of ages, and the booklets are crammed with ‘how to’ advice and excellent examples of student work. Watch our cheaply produced promo, download the booklets by clicking the links, and find out more about Eeva’s work here.

Thanks to Mary Biddulph and Alan Parkinson for their help in this process.

Our 4th #followtheteachers post: on subvertisement workshops

Vuitton

“What the §^*! are we doing here?”

A couple of weeks ago, we published a guest post from Eeva Kemppainen describing the ways in which her work for followthething.com and her masters thesis on trade justice pedagogy in the UK and Finland, had led to her work on a ‘Closing the Gap’ project with Finnish pro-ethical trade NGO Eetti . This is Eeva’s second post, in which she describes how she works with diverse groups of students (using followthethings.com as a resource) and shows the kinds of subverts that her students create.

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Sodastream studies…

Overnight, [Scarlett Johansson]  has become the Marie Antoinette of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, smiling regally and offering: “Let them sip soda.” (source)

We’ve been following carefully how actor Scarlett Johansson (a.k.a Scarjo) was forced last week to choose between her role as an Oxfam Global Ambassador and as the face of soft-drink machine maker Sodastream.

This is the banned TV advert that was due to be shown at half time during Superbowl 2014, the ‘most watched’ TV show in the US. What values are expressed here?

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Commodity activism & making things: the Fairphone.

Earlier this year, journalist George Monbiot wrote about the next mobile phone he was going to buy. It was a difficult decision:

If you are too well connected, you stop thinking. The clamour, the immediacy, the tendency to absorb other people’s thoughts, interrupt the deep abstraction required to find your own way. This is one of the reasons why I have not yet bought a smartphone. But the technology is becoming ever harder to resist. Perhaps this year I will have to succumb. So I have asked a simple question: can I buy an ethical smartphone? … I haven’t yet made a decision. There are all the other issues to investigate, including the remarkably short life of these phones … Perhaps I will wait until FairPhone manufactures a handset. Or perhaps I won’t bother. I might resign myself to less immediacy, less accessibility and a little more space in which to think. George Monbiot 2013 [link]

This is the ad for the Fairphone he was talking about. It’s just been posted online. Please press play.

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We love this project. It starts with the argument that we start with. But they’re not exposing exploitation (see here). They’re not making a banned smartphone game that shows how it’s made (see here). They’re not spoofing the existence of a conflict free phone (see here).

Like these other examples, however, they are putting pressure on manufacturers. By showing that conflict free phones can be made. By making and marketing one. That’s cool and affordable as other smartphones. €325. That you can buy and use (in Europe first). They need 5,000 orders. Here.

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