It’s Fashion Revolution Week this week. To mark this, we’re showcasing our favourite examples of cultural activism which have supported its #whomademyclothes call to action. On Monday, we showcased the Guerrilla Projections of documentary photographer Ismael Ferdous. On Tuesday, we showcased the gentle Shop-dropping activism of the Craftivist Collective. And yesterday we showcased the power of Disobedient Objects like Fashion Revolution Germany & BDDO’s €2 T-shirt vending machine.
Today’s post focuses on a strategic impact documentary called the True Cost. This aims to unravel fast fashion’s grim and gritty supply chains in the wake of the Rana Plaza collapse. It juxtaposes scenes of fashion models strutting catwalks, YouTube shopping hauls, footage of Black Friday shopping chaos, TV news footage of garment workers sewing clothes in cramped factory spaces, talking head interviews with factory workers and owners, farmers, former corporate executives, academic experts, famous activists and ethical fashion royalty, brands working ethically, key people from NGOs like War on Want, and champions of free market economics.
What’s distinctive about the True Cost and the impacts that it has had is that it was crowd-funded, released via iTunes and Netflix, and tries to channel its audiences’ concerns to ‘do something’ through public screenings with panel discussions, its website and associated social media. This film enrolled its audiences from its crowd-funding forwards. It was a conversation, a collaborative ‘do something’, from the beginning. Despite its lack of mainstream funding or cinema listing, the making, reception and impacts of this film in relation to the Fashion Revolution have been nothing short of stunning. We’re posting this today because CEO Ian is on a True Cost panel in Portsmouth tonight. It’s a textbook example of the emerging genre of strategic impact documentary.
Judith Hefland & Anna Lee (2012) Put movies in the hands of movements. in Andrew Boyd (comp.) Beautiful trouble: a toolbox for revolution. New York: O/R, 164-5
Kate Nash & John Corner (2016) Strategic impact documentary: contexts or production and social intervention. European Journal of Communication 31(3) 227-242
In January 2007, the container ship MSC Napoli was run aground in rough seas off the Jurassic Coast World Heritage Site in South West England. The unfolding drama of oil spillage, containers washing up on shore and their contents being salvaged near the village of Branscombe was international news. The wreck and its aftermaths was also researched in incredible detail by a well established local history group called the Branscombe Project whose members produced and exhibited original art work in response to it. Much has been written by journalists and academics about the Napoli, and artists (notably Melanie Jackson) have drawn it into their work. But it’s the inside story that emerges from this local research is perhaps the most interesting. At the end of her often-given talk, Barbara Farquharson – formerly an academic archaeologist and anthropologist and member of the Branscombe Project – has said that:
“When you think about it, the creation of World Heritage Sites are part of a global phenomenon involving the creation of iconic places that are both physical and cultural. So in a curious way the beaching of the Napoli hits the cross-wire between global cultural and environmental and economic and political issues” (Farquharson 2009, np).
The Napoli wreck is a brilliant insight into the geographies of material culture, the out of sight geographies of trade, and ways in which art and social science can make sense of its complexities. So the Napoli at Branscombe is worth revisiting for anyone who’s fascinated by these issues. We end with a reading list:
There’s an academic publications page on our blog that gives a taste of, and provides access to, our research papers about the followthethings.com project. A book chapter has just been published in an open access e-book that brings together a series of lectures in Switzerland asking if and how social scientific research can transform society. Our answer is a qualified yes.
Cook et al, I. (2017) followthethings.com: analysing relations between the making, reception and impact of commodity activism in a transmedia world. in Ola Söderström, Laure Kloetzer & Hugues Jeannerat (eds) Innovations Sociales: Comment les Sciences Sociales contribuent à transformer la Société, MAPS: Université de Neuchâtel, 50-61 Full Text
What we are keen to find out are what filmmaking, artistic and activist tactics lead to what kinds of public and corporate responses, and with what kinds of impacts on whom. There is an established argument that, when this work is didactic and tries to enroll its audiences through blame, shame and guilt, it tends to fail. Audiences feel powerless, overwhelmed, apathetic, and angry at those making them feel this way rather that at the injustices exposed (Barnett 2010, Sandlin & Milam 2008, Cook & Woodyer 2012). Even the most cursory examination of our website suggests that the elements of, and relationships set out in, this argument are quite narrowly defined. To illustrate this, we offer below a taste of what’s to come from the analysis of the followthethings.com archive. We provisionally outline one engagement tactic, one kind of consumer response, one kind of corporate response, and one kind of impact.
‘Would people still love a bargain if we bought these issues closer to home?’
‘Money is the journey we send it on.’
It’s fairtrade fortnight, the time of year when companies and NGOs make the relations and responsibilities between the producers and consumers of everyday things mainstream news. In this post we highlight two contrasting videos in which these relations are a) brought close to home through the delivery of food and b) stretched out through investing money (perhaps the most fascinating commodity) in an ethical ISA. Watch and discuss…
Follow the produce: the home delivery service they weren’t expecting
Follow the money: the most rewarding cash ISA in the world
In January 2007, the drama of the MSC Napoli container shipwreck was unfolding on the East Devon coast. Our CEO Ian wrote a book chapter about this with Divya Tolia Kelly. This wreck provided vivid insights into the hidden geographies of international trade. It was published in 2010, and made available freely online without the photographs. In 2013, we re-created these photos in LEGO, although the pieces we had available meant that 100% faithful re-creations were impossible. Here’s the chapter and below are the re-creations, adapted for the 10th anniversary. What can they add to our understanding of what happened? That’s the question for those who practice Political LEGO.
See here for the original set on Flickr, with links to the photos re-created.
This is one of the questions that drives our work at followthethings.com. We tend to find our answers – yes, no, maybe, depends, etc… – in the user-generated comments on video-sharing websites like YouTube and in the comments on newspaper reviews. We’re currently wading through thousands of comments on a 2015 ‘follow the fashion’ film called The True Cost, and came across this powerful video response. We’re giving a paper about the True Cost and fashion activism at a conference next month. There’s an argument in the literature that work like this makes prescriptive arguments about responsibility that are so infinitely demanding they can generate a sense of powerlessness in consumer audiences. This doesn’t seem to be the case, at least for this viewer. Watching this film was a powerful experience. For us, this kind of response changes the question that’s asked. Now it’s ‘how do ‘follow the things’ documentaries affect their audiences? What vocabulary can we develop to describe this? That’s what we’re working on.
Passengerfilms – a London-based ‘car crash of cinema and geography’ – invited Ian to suggest a film and panel discussants for a screening in February this year. He chose Sasha Friedlander’s documentary Where Heaven meets Hell in which audiences get to know four men who mine sulphur from inside a live volcano in Indonesia. A new followthethings.com page was published on the film and he recommended it again as part of the film programme for the Museum of Contemporary Commodities in Exeter. The screening is tonight. Is all sulphur mined in volcanoes? NO! Says London panellist Prof Gavin Bridge in this guest post. It is ‘mined’ in more surprising places…
Where Heaven Meets Hell conveys the aspirations, social relations and hard physical labour of a group of men who earn their living by prying chunks of sulphur free from the mouth of an Indonesian volcano. Viewers are drawn into a world of work one can scarcely imagine exists – a world of cloying smoke, hacking coughs, scarred muscles and bodyweight-loads hauled up over the volcano’s rim and down the mountain to be sold. The filmmaker, Sasha Friedlander, artfully works a trope familiar to other ‘revelatory’ commodity stories, exposing the social lives through which natural materials become objects of economic exchange. Continue reading