Category: “follow the things”

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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Video: ‘Brands are scared of these organisations’

What’s the role of labour rights NGOs in mediating relationships between brands, workers and governments? How do they make a difference to the lives and working conditions of the people who make our things? In this ‘Labour Behind the Label’ video, a labour union president from Bangladesh visiting the UK provides some answers…

Video: how pig parts make the world turn.

We love the work of Dutch artist Christien Meindertsma, and have drawn on her work to explain what the ‘follow the thing’ approach is all about, and how to do it well on our Classroom Resources page. We were reminded of her work today in a seminar in the Exeter Geography series by Ray Chan called “Capitalist pigs: politics of meat production and animal diseases in China.” We’re posting her 2010 TED talk today because it’s awesome. Enjoy!

I think that, in order to take better care of what’s behind our products — so, the livestock, the crops, the plants, the non-renewable materials, but also the people that produce these products — the first step would actually be to know that they are there. 

Christian Meindertsma 2010 | TED Talk

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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Video: The ugly truth of fast fashion.

CEO Ian is putting together the 2020 Fashion Revolution quiz at the moment and, in the process, came across a posting of this 30 minute video on twitter in November last year. It’s an example of the kind of late night North American satirical TV show that its critical eye on supply chain injustice and activism. It’s from Hasan Minaj’s ‘Patriot Act’ Netflix series which ends up in a fake ‘H-M’ store full of alternatively labelled clothing, shoppers and him as a kind of shopkeeper – choreographing some hilariously awkward conversations about the goods on display. His critique is not only about fast fashion, but through it. Watch to the end!

“I want to be a sexy carrot, but I don’t want to destroy the environment”.

Shopper in Minhaj’s H-M store looking at an orange dress

Guest blog: stitched together in this dress

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.  

Eye shadows

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. Continue reading

Guest post: ‘Hard to follow things: natural gas’ by Peter Forman

Our CEO Ian went on a countryside walk earlier this year with colleagues in Exeter’s Geography Department. Their aim was to follow the flow of electricity by walking the route of a power line. Their social media posts about this journey prompted discussions about electricity and difficult-to-follow commodities. One was Peter Forman – from the Institute of Political Science, Eberhard Karls University of Tübingen – who had just finished his PhD on natural gas. We asked him to share his experience of following a commodity whose materiality is especially challenging.

Introduction

Natural gas can be thought of as natural in two senses of the word. First, it forms deep beneath the ground, independently of human action (as opposed to the manufactured gas that was used in the UK before 1970 – this gas was the product of hard labour, workers feeding iron retorts with coal), and second, it is naturalised. Whilst gas plays a crucial role in many people’s daily lives – we heat our homes with it, cook with it, and use it to warm water for bathing comfortably – most of us never give it much consideration. We come home from work, twist the tap on the hob, give it a press, then click! A spark. An eruption of yellow-blue flame. It is there, ready and waiting. It provides heat in an instant and is worthy of no further thought.

Yet in other ways, ‘natural gas’ is far from natural. Its presence beneath the earth is made knowable through a multitude of technologically complex devices, and it is only through the deployment of established knowledges, bodies and technological instruments that it is securely extracted, processed, pressurised, transported, and consumed. This is what Bridge (2004; 396) refers to when he describes how “a whole industry has emerged … dedicated to corralling the waywardness and variability of gas and rendering it a commodity compliant with the workings of the market”. Indeed, it is as a consequence of this dense assemblage that we can understand gas to not simply be there, ready and waiting. Far from it! For without the practices of these diverse actors, it would remain deep beneath our feet, trapped between layers of rock. As it travels (the direction and nature of which is likewise defined by said actors), it could also come to realise a series of what Dillon and Reid (2001) call ‘dimensions of dangerousness’. From it realising its flammability and explosiveness, to it causing significant societal disruption through the interruption of its supply, or it having severe ecological impacts of different kinds (for example, affecting global climate or contributing to  marine crises such as in Puchuncavi, Chile – see Tironi et al. forthcoming), across its travels, natural gas can come to present a series of dangers that generate myriad attempts to perform security around it. Continue reading

Ever wondered ‘Who made my clothes?’ Find out by taking this free online course

Fashion Revolution week finished yesterday. It’s call to arms is the question ‘Who made my clothes?’ Here’s how you get involved, do this yourself.

On June 26th, there will be another way to find out ‘Who made my clothes?’: that’s when a free 3 week online course led by our CEO Ian begins. Here’s the trailer. You can sign up here

How strategic impact documentary can contribute to the Fashion Revolution: the True Cost

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.

Further reading

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