Our CEO Ian Cook gave a talk about followthethings.com at an ‘Interdisciplinary Perspectives in Consumption Ethics’ seminar at the University of Leicester in June 2015. Afterwards, the speakers were asked to sit down and explain to camera how they had become interested in ‘ethical consumption’ as researchers. This is what he said…
Ian thanks Dierdre Shaw, Helen Gorowek and Andreas Chatzidakis for inviting him to present, Juliet Schor, Marylyn Carrigan and Caroline Moraes for their great talks, and Andreas for his at-ease interviewing skills.
Like others, I was in two minds. They say first impressions count; but if I’d gone with mine Timmerman wouldn’t have got the credit he perhaps deserves. He begins with a trip to Honduras. It’s brief, the entire experience based on a quick opportune chat with a random worker called Amilcar outside the factory gates. Was Timmerman taking this seriously or just using the motive as a holiday? Where was the in-depth exploratory enthusiasm needed to give the topic of social injustice, well, justice?!
This set the theme for the style of the book throughout. Drive-by ethnography to put an academic spin on it. Timmerman didn’t immerse himself, get involved, recognize the importance of the little bits of everyday that make up the patchwork of life. The chapters were brief reflecting the lack of depth into places: I was left wanting more. I started to become irritated with his light-hearted, fun, immature approach. He shouldn’t have taken the people out to a theme park, he should have bought them food, or some educational supplies. Short sighted. Selfish. It was a very negative first impression.
I contacted Timmerman when undertaking this review. He is such a genuine bloke. I felt guilty for my negative and maybe ‘aloof?’ stance on his work. I’d fallen into the academic trap: I must be critical, I know best! I gave him a second chance… it was an easy read. It wasn’t challenging, why should it be? I’d actually enjoyed reading it, after all.
Timmerman was funny. He injected his happy-go-lucky humour into his experiences. Considering the pessimism associated with his topics, I wasn’t left feeling depressed and helpless. He accepted the enormity of the problems and went, albeit naively, and did his best in the situations encountered. Ultimately, his written style allowed for a wide target audience, furthermore it conjured debate. Was this the right way to go about things?
In a forthcoming followthethings.com page that I researched and wrote with other Exeter Geography undergraduates, you will see for yourself how Timmerman’s style opens a space for discussion and debate. With discussion and debate comes an increase in awareness. Is that not the most important thing to come out of his work? Is the content (and perhaps it’s flaws) merely by-the-by?
Give the book’s second edition a read and see what you think (it is the same as the first but with some added chapters which I will discuss in a minute!). Apart from the overarching issue of style that I have highlighted, you may find like me that Timmerman’s little observations and thoughts stand out to you, academically and/or personally. For example, his decision to pretend to be an underwear buyer rang with ideas of covert research and the associated morals that go with it. Timmerman himself says on the issue: “He’s just trying to make it in this world, I’m completely wasting his time” (p.37).
Timmerman’s ability to capture poignant moments was a highlight of the book for me really overriding my first negative impressions. At the same time, he managed to bring the people of his experiences alive and make them human. He made me think what choices I would have made; would I have given Arifa the $20? What’s my view on boycotting?“To buy or not to buy that is the question” (p.117).
As the book progresses, so does he. He writes of his experiences with a more reflexive attitude. Perhaps it’s important that as the reader you develop with him. First impressions don’t have to count. You enter the book as naively as Timmerman enters his journey. So with him you begin to develop your own personal debates. Personally I enjoyed grappling with myself alongside Timmerman about what it means to be Western- what should I do about it, should I even think about it at all!? “Perhaps we are both better off not thinking about the other’s life”. Conscientious consumer vs. deliberate ignorance. “Can I afford to worry about a garment worker in Bangladesh…?” (p.238). Indeed. Grappling with my moral conscience continues…“It’s unnatural for producer and consumer to meet” (p.67).
Had Timmerman done some background reading here? The assumed naturalness of our commodities, our clothes just appearing on the well socked racks of the High Street…fetishization…invisible human labour…
In this updated and revised second edition, he opens with admitting his flaws in brevity; “I’ve always felt this book was missing something”- turns out he simply ‘chickened out’ of asking the meaty questions! “I think deep-down I didn’t want to know the realities of Amilcar’s life, so I didn’t ask…” In fact he even says that if it weren’t for the complete silliness of him giving Amilcar his T-shirt in the first place, Amilcar wouldn’t have remembered him at all! So his naivety did have its place in the end.
The updated version contextualizes consumerism in the economic downturn and the far reaching effects, from American garment workers to those in Mexico. He tried to get an update of the individuals we met in the first edition. However, although Amilcar’s story created some excitement, the other updates were rather brief and somewhat lacking excitement. I suppose the fact that he could not trace the couple in China at all was if brief on paper, poignant in other ways. Like they were lost forever and it was the tidal wave of capitalism and consumerism that had engulfed them. Two individuals disappeared into the masses…
Overall, the updates for the second addition were perhaps necessary for closure. Timmerman is to be applauded for his enthusiastic uptake of a big idea and for his ability to open spaces for debate. The book is not an instruction manual; it does not lecture the reader nor drill into them the author’s opinions. For this reason they are an important step towards raising a public awareness of our power (or lack of) as consumers.
Ellie Bird / 5 October 2012