Traces of labour: who made my phone?
There are two weeks to go before our latest pedagogical experiment begins: the free online course called ‘Who made my clothes?’ which we have put together with Fashion Revolution and the University of Exeter. To help to spread the word, CEO Ian will front a small number of ‘Who made my…?’ films which show how we can imagine and find traces of labour in everyday commodities. The first film is about mobile phones and ends with a request. Please try this out and let us know what happens. Then watch the others in this playlist.
Not sure if this is or is not the ‘norm’ but I just received my brand new iPhone here in the UK and once it had been activated on iTunes I found that the home screen (the screen you can personalise with a photo) already had a photo set against it !!!! (Source: markm49uk 2008, np link).
I hope she doesn’t get fired, she looks so bloody happy! I will dedicate my iPhone homescreen to her for the rest of this week (Source: vegasdodger 2008, np link).
markm49uk (2008) iPhone 3G – already with pictures ! (aka “iPhone Girl”). macrumors.com 20 August (https://forums.macrumors.com/threads/iphone-3g-already-with-pictures-aka-iphone-girl.547777/ last accessed 13 June 2017)
Cook, I. (2011) iPhone 3G – already with pictures! (aka ‘iPhone Girl’). followthethings.com (http://followthethings.com/iphonegirl.shtml last accessed 13 June 2017)
Cook, I. (2013) The 14 best examples of shop-dropping… ever. followtheblog.org 23 March (https://followtheblog.org/2013/03/22/paper-activism-in-store-in-things-on-things/ last accessed 13 June 2017)
Woolf, S. (2017) Dear iPhone Girl. followtheblog.org 11 February (https://followtheblog.org/2017/02/11/guest-blog-dear-iphone-girl/ last accessed 13 June 2017)
Commodity activism in a transmedia world: our latest publication
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.
#whomademyclothes? Fazlul Ashraf?
A week ago PhD student Thomas Dekeyser tweeted a photograph of a note found in someone’s Zara jeans. We circulated it at work, and loads of people discussed what language it might be written in and what it could say. We’d found a note on a CD player and found help to translate it before.
There’s a genre of shop-dropping in which factory workers leave notes for consumers in the things they make. Sometimes they’re genuine. Sometimes they’re hoaxes. Sometimes they’re part of activist campaigns. See our post The 13 best examples of shop-dropping … ever for more.
This one was particularly relevant for the Fashion Revolution movement, whose core question is ‘Who made my clothes?’ This note could simply be a direct answer. According to Reddit. Or is there more to it?
Thanks to Thomas and to Brad Garrett for the tipoff.
Guest blog: Dear iPhone Girl
Here’s another excellent example of journal writing from the Exeter Geography module behind our website. At the start of the module, we ask the students to add to their phone homescreens this photo of an Apple factory worker which, it seems, was accidentally left on an iPhone bought in 2009. The person who found this and four other photos posted them online and the quest to find out who she was, why photos of her were on that phone, and what would happen to her after they went pubic went viral (as documented on our followthethings.com page). We ask our students to keep her photo on their homescreens until the end of the module, for almost 4 months. What can happen to you when she looks at you every time you look at your phone, wherever you go? Sophie Woolf explains… to the person who became known as ‘iPhone Girl’.
New note from factory worker found on CD player
Who made my stuff? Look for the letters!
We have decorated our website’s header for the season. It’s all gone a bit Scooby Doo. Our site is a mystery machine full of pesky kids.
‘Tis the season to be haunted. So here are a couple of followthethings examples with a Halloween theme.
Letter from a labour camp worker found in Halloween decorations
[click here and you can read our page on this letter – who made it, how it was discussed, and the impacts it had]
Film of workers injured making Mickey Mouse’s ‘Haunted Halloween’ book
[click here and you can read our page on this film – who made it, how it was discussed and the impacts it had].
The 17 best examples of shop-dropping… ever
If you have just read Ian’s piece ‘What to do if you find a cry for help in your Christmas presents this year’ in The Conversation, a link will probably have brought you here. Where have you arrived? This is the behind the scenes ‘back office’ blog for the spoof shopping website followthethings.com. It’s a website that showcases Ian et al’s research into the making, reception and impacts of over sixty examples of commodity activism – from documentary films, to art works, to activist pranks – whose aim it is to encourage audiences to think critically about their relations with the people who make the things they buy, and about their powers to effect change. It also aims to encourage and inspire new ‘follow the thing’ research and activism, by anyone and everyone who wishes to do this. This post is updated every time we find a new example. It includes some examples that have been researched and showcased on the followthethings.com store, plus other that haven’t yet made it. Please let us know in the comments what we are missing. Thanks.
Our website followthethings.com is designed to bring together and confuse two kinds of ‘shopping’: going shopping for things, and shopping things (i.e. betraying their origins).
Taking new information into stores and leaving it on/in or attaching it to the goods concerned is shopping in both senses of the word. It’s one of the most direct ways of bringing trade justice issues into spaces and acts of consumption. Whether this is done by consumer activists or factory workers, by accident or by design, genuine or faked, it’s called ‘shop dropping’ (sometimes ‘droplifting).
Here’s our list of 16 examples, in date order, with some extras at the end.
1) The Barbies that talk like GI Joe (and vice versa)
Perhaps the most famous example of shop dropping was undertaken in 1993 when the Barbie Liberation Organisation bought a bunch of talking GI Joe and Barbie Dolls, switched their voice boxes and placed them back in store. This video explains everything.
And this handy worksheet shows you how you can make the switch yourself.
2) The letter left in the pocket of a pair of jeans
In the 2005 ‘follow the jeans’ documentary ‘China Blue’, ‘At the end … [factory worker Jasmine] leaves a letter addressed to one such person in the pocket of a pair of jeans. The film simulates the journey of this letter from the boxes in the port, to the ships that transport them, and finally to the up-scale store that stocks the jeans, implying the complicity of Western consumers in the exploitative dynamics of transnational capital’ (Source: Moll 2007 p.163-4). Read more about this film on our site here.
3) The photos found on a new iPhone
Photos and films taken on production lines to make sure that cameras work are sometimes left on cameras and phones for buyers to find. The most notorious are the photos taken of a young woman in a Foxconn factory in China who became known as ‘iPhone Girl’. Posted online by the person who bought the phone in 2008, they went viral online, generating arguments and suspicion worldwide. Read more about the ‘iPhone Girl’ phenomenon on our site here.
4) The Killer Jeans pocket labels
In 2011, to publicise its ‘Killer Jeans’ report, anti-sweatshop group Labour Behind the Label encouraged activists to print out and add to jeans in store the label below. They wanted to ‘hid[e] messages in the pockets of thousands of pairs of designer jeans this week to highlight the serious health risks faced by workers making jeans for designer brands including Dolce and Gabanna and Armani’. Read the story here. Watch a video of this activism in store, here.
5) The Adidas Exploitation price labels
In 2012 War on Want encouraged activists to add 34p price labels to Adidas goods in store to highlight the poverty wages of factory workers making its goods in Indonesia. Read the story here.
6) The film footage found on an HP laptop
Also in 2012, this film was found on a brand new Hewlett Packard Laptop. A TechCrunch post which features this film explains:
It was stored in the My Documents folder and clearly depicts the mundanity of life inside a hardware manufacturing plant. This was taken in the Quanta Chongqing Manufacturing City in Chongqing and the worker seems to be testing the camera on this particular model. Usually evidence of this testing is wiped out. It wasn’t in this case. Essentially, you’re looking at the face of modern manufacturing. He’s not mistreated, he’s not chained to his desk, but he’s building the same thing, over and over again, a prospect not many of us would relish. It’s a mundane view inside a fairly secret world that we as consumers rarely get to see.
7) The letter in the Saks Fifth Avenue Bag
In September 2012, a shopper at Saks Fifth Avenue in New York City found a letter and a passport photo in the paper shopping bag in which the checkout person had places her new Hunter wellies. It was written by Tohnain Emmanuel Njong, a Cameroon national who was making the bags while incarcerated in a Chinese prison. In the letter, we wrote “Maybe this bag could go somewhere and they find this letter and they can let my family know or anybody [know] that I am in prison.” Read our site’s new page on this letter here.
8) The letter in the Halloween decorations
In December 2012 an American consumer posted onto facebook a photograph of a letter found in a box of K-Mart Halloween decorations. The letter seems to have been written by a person who helped to assemble them in a Labour camp in China. It begins ““If you occasionally buy this product, please kindly resend this letter to the World Human Right Organization.” Read our site’s new page on this letter here.
9) The extra price tags in the Apple store
In March 2013 – when this post was first written – Friends of the Earth in the UK marked the opening of an Apple Store in Leeds by adding ‘price tags’ to the goods on sale. In this case, they were pointing out the ‘price’ paid by rainforests in the production of tin that’s in Apple and other electronic goods.
We’re @trinityleeds today to give customers a bit of extra info at the opening of the new #Apple store #MakeItBetter twitter.com/wwwfoecouk/sta…
— Friends of the Earth (@wwwfoecouk) March 21, 2013
10) The labels and letter found in Primark clothes
In June 2014, news stories started to appear in the UK about labels like this being found in Primark dresses.
Shoppers find ‘sweatshop cries for help’ sewn into Primark clothes http://t.co/xmB9OBULlT pic.twitter.com/nNnb1K2FZ1
— ITV News (@itvnews) June 25, 2014
And other examples have started to appear in the news, for example.
Third shopper reveals Primark clothing ‘SOS’ message http://t.co/Z9JprhZfXC pic.twitter.com/NsKqVgXoYr
— ITV News (@itvnews) June 25, 2014
We researched this story so far (see our page here).
11) The secret scrolls made & placed in clothes
In September 2015 ‘Sarah Corbett and other craftivists” set out “to lovingly handwrite messages onto beautiful paper and wrap them delicately in ribbon to place in clothes pockets in shops, fashion show seats and other secret places for people to find.” In making and placing these ‘secret scrolls’, they hoped, would “encourage people to think about who made our clothes, provoke questions and curiosity of the true cost of fashion, show the world that change is possible and celebrate all those creating a more sustainable future of the fashion industry.” In April 2016, they made this ‘how to?’ Mini Fashion Statements video for Fashion Revolution Day. It’s awesome.
12) The sketch and note found in a shoe box
In November 2015, a Reddit user posted a photograph of a sketch and note found in an unopened box of Naturalizer shoes.
Customer finds SOS note in a shoe box from Ethiopian worker https://t.co/1XHoFlQQYd
— Luna Atamian (@Lunatamian) November 7, 2015
The story, too, was sketchy. According to the Daily Mail, “A customer has found an SOS note in a shoe box claiming it is from a scared Ethiopian factory worker whose family were killed by soldiers. The sketched image of the worker with the accompanying note was uploaded to the website Reddit. It was translated by a user who claimed the worker said they were ‘hungry, sad’, afraid’ and pleaded for help. It also alleged that the worker’s family were killed by soldiers”. The post drew thousands of comments, some suspicious because it was posted on Reddit “the viral site that has a reputation as a source of some of the internet’s biggest hoaxes”.
13) the letter found in a pair of Primark socks
In December, an imgur user posted a photograph of a letter saying “Didnt know where else to put this, my dads just found this in a sock bought from Primark can anyone translate?” People responded, for example, saying “guy was framed for a crime he didnt commit and imprisoned, his wife ended up in mental hospital and his father was murdered”, “I’m Chinese and this letter is legitimately asking for help. You might want to report to police or news media”, “with enough attention it could probably hit the news” and “So if this is real, is there ever a good outcome to something like this?” Click the image below to follow the conversation.
14) The letter found in the Walmart handbag
In May 2017, Christel Wallace bought a purse from a Walmart store in Arizona. Inside it she found tiny folded note in a zipper compartment. Her daughter-in-law posted it on facebook asking if anyone could translate its Chinese characters.
Shopper finds ‘note from Chinese prisoner’ in handbag:https://t.co/oQltrt1c4n pic.twitter.com/7JeyIu7GzW
— Dazed (@Dazed) May 3, 2017
The result? It says:
“Inmates in the Yingshan Prison in Guangxi, China are working 14 hours daily with no break/rest at noon, continue working overtime until 12 midnight, and whoever doesn’t finish his work will be beaten. Their meals are without oil and salt. Every month, the boss pays the inmate 2000 yuan, any additional dishes will be finished by the police. If the inmates are sick and need medicine, the cost will be deducted from the salary. Prison in China is unlike prison in America, horse cow goat pig dog (literally, means inhumane treatment).”
Wallace knew about the other examples of prisoner notes being found in commodities including one where the author was found by journalists (see above). She hoped that making her note public might have the same results (see here for the original story).
15) the notes in Zara clothes
In October 2017, Zara shoppers in Istanbul found labels saying “I made this item you are going to buy, but I didn’t get paid for it” in the clothes. The notes were said to have been placed there by the people who had made them in Turkey because their factory – owned by the Bravo corporation – had closed overnight, leaving them with three months of unpaid back pay and no severance (see here for the original story).
Tell #Zara , #Next , and #Mango: Pay Your Workers the Wages They Earned! #JusticeForBravoWorkers #BravoİşçileriİçinAdalet pic.twitter.com/usMxCvtU5o
— Aykut ERSOY (@aykutersoy) October 31, 2017
To date, no more details have come to light about this story.
16) the note in the Advent Calendar box
In December 2017, 13 year old April Dorsett received an Amazon delivery containing an advent calendar from her dad. Her mum asked her if she had read the note her dad ordered with it (it said ‘love from mum and dad’). ‘Do you mean this one?’ she replied. It was hand written on the delivery note in the box: ‘Help me please. PMP STAFF ARE EVIL’. PMP is the recruitment agency that Amazon uses to staff its distribution depots in the UK. April’s Mum posted it on Facebook, telling Amazon that her daughter ‘found this inside of her box and is worried amazon are running sweatshops. … I’ve told her it’s probably a prank but can you just confirm that…’
Teenager ‘finds worrying “help me” note stuffed in Amazon parcel’ https://t.co/ZvtEREkjfH pic.twitter.com/Csy9oMJOqw
— Daily Mirror (@DailyMirror) December 3, 2017
The story was published by national tabloid newspapers The Sun, Daily Mail and Mirror as well as local papers, including the Bolton Post. The Mirror had recently published an investigative piece called ‘Undercover at Amazon: exhausted humans are inefficient so robots are taking over‘ and all of the papers contacted Amazon and PMP for comment. PMP said they didn’t believe that the comment was accurate, but they would investigating the claim with its client Amazon (in the Mirror). Aprils’ mum Kim was worried and surprised: ‘I just hope no one gets in trouble or sacked for writing the note if it’s true. … You wouldn’t expect something like that to happen in the UK. You don’t like to think there is someone working in sweat shop. It’s shocking’ (in the Bolton Post).
17) the note found in the Christmas card pack
On December 21 2017, a short piece appeared in the UK’s Sun newspaper about a note found in a charity Christmas card bought in a pack from a Sainsbury’s supermarket by Jessica Rigby. She asked her friends to translate it, and they told her it was a greeting from a Prison product shop in Guangzhou, China.
Mum left stunned after opening a pack of Christmas cards https://t.co/CNyUGMCoWd
— The Sun (@TheSun) December 22, 2017
The Sun reported that her reaction was to worry that all of Sainsbury’s cards were produced in Chinese prisons, that the charities that raised money through Christmas card sales could unwittingly benefit from forced labour, and that she had heard horror stories of foreigners being falsely imprisoned in these places. The cards were not now so festive. Sainsburys apologised, and advised her to take them back to the store while they investigated. Readers’ comments included “what a nonsense story, who cares where the cards are made”, “If I found the note, I’d have framed it and put on a wall somewhere”, “I think she’s made this story up to try and get on big brother” and “Hats off to her. She has pals who can read and translate chinese. She has raised an issue of great importance. And the Sun has paid her for the story, thus giving her extra spending money for Christmas.”
After I mentioned the HP laptop video find in class, student Elaine King brought this photograph to class to show me. Her boss had found it in her holiday photos taken with a disposable camera. Elaine had, for some reason, kept it. This seems to be a disposable camera’s eye view of a disposable camera production line. How, why and by whom the photo was taken, we will never know…
What exactly is shop-dropping and what’s it like to do??
We didn’t know what this type of activism was called, until we found this Yes Men site that tells you how you, too, can ‘shop drop’. And this interview with Cheap Date Magazine’s Bay Garnett, in which the joys of shop-dropping are explained:
We did this thing called ‘Shop Dropping’ where we used to decorate clothes and drop them in shops. So in Victoria’s Secret we’d leave huge granny pants with a sign saying, ‘please take me home, I’m yours’ – it was just fun! The shop people were so disarmed because you’re putting something in a shop; you’re not taking it away. We did one in Prada, and literally the whole of Broadway was looking. We took this huge dress, a really, really disgusting dress, and we got paints and did like big heart and words saying, ‘I’m really lonely’, or something like that. I can’t remember who placed it, it was either me or Kira, but we placed it on Broadway in that Rem Koolhaas building, and it was just so perfectly placed that the shop people couldn’t do anything. There were queues of people looking – it was there for two hours and it was amazing. Because it was really funny. I mean I couldn’t do that now, because I don’t want to do that. But at the time it felt right, it felt really right. We’d also often go into a designer shop and there’d be all these perfect shoes, and we’d get a pair of really old fucked-up Converse, with writing and stuff on the feet, and put it in and then walk out. So you’d leave it there and wait for it to be found, and then take a photo. We’d spend Saturdays doing that (Garnett in Stoppard nd link).
Some shop-dropping is more deliberate than others, and a popular topic of debate is the truth/hoax value of the ones that seem to be accidental. What we love about them is that they spark our imaginations, and discussions, encourage us to ask what traces of human and other labour we could find on and in our things.
Bezanson, R. & Finkelman, A. (2009) Trespassory art. University of Michigan Journal of Law Reform 43(2), 245-322 [download here]
Biggs, J. (2012) A Unique View Inside An HP Laptop Assembly Line. TechCrunch 27 July
Bonanno, M. (2012) Barbie Liberation Organisation. in Boyd, A. (comp) Beautiful trouble: a toolbox for revolution. New York: O/R
Cantrell, A. (2005) Artists drop while they shop. CNN Money 20 July
Cook, I. (2011) iPhone 3G – already with pictures! (aka ‘iPhone Girl’). followthethings.com
Cook et al, I. (2017) What to do if you find a cry for help in your Christmas presents this year. The Conversation 22 December
Craftivist Collective (2015) Stockholm Craftivists secret scrolls in Fashion Week. Craftivist collective nd
Duggins, A. (2017) Is there a protest message in your new jacket’s pocket? You’ve been shop dropped. The Guardian 18 September
Hart, J. (2014) ‘I found this in a box of Halloween decorations’. followthethings.com
Kelleher, W. & Cook, I. (2014) The letter in the Saks Fifth Avenue shopping bag. followthethings.com
Kelly, J. (2018) The SOS in my Halloween decorations. BBC News 29 October
Kelleher, W. & Cook, I. (2014) Cries for help found in Primark clothes (a.k.a.’labelgate’). followthethings.com
Lambert-Beatty, C. (2010) Fill in the blank: culture jamming and the advertising of agency. New directions for youth development 12, 99-112
Mürlebach, M. (2018) Shopdropping: Materialities, Mobilities, Creative Interventions. Soziologiemagazin: publizieren statt archivieren 11(2), 63-75
Spicer, S., Horgan, A., Rastall, M., Mayers, J., Frost, A., & Donald, R. (2012) China Blue. followthethings.com
Stoppard, L. (nd) Interview: Bay Garnett. SHOWstudio nd
War on Want (2012) Adidas reels under Olympics ‘sweatshops’ protest” press release. War on Want 14 July
Warren, R. (2018) You buy a purse at Walmart. There’s a note inside from a “Chinese prisoner.” Now what? Vox 10 October
YesMenLab (2011) Shop Dropping Product Labels – by the Yes Lab. Destructibles 7 July
To continue the ‘letters from factory workers’ theme, we recommend this evocative book chapter analysing the content of un-sent letters found in the debris of a deadly toy factory blaze in Shenzhen, China in 1993. These were just normal letters home:
Chan, A. (2002) The culture of survival: lives of migrant workers through the prism of private letters. In Link, P., Madsen, R. & Pickowicz, P. (eds) Popular China: unofficial culture in a globalizing society. Boulder: Rowman & Littlefield, 163-188 [download here]
to be continued…
Last updated December 2017
To celebrate followthethings.com’s 1st birthday…
we publish an article (never published) describing the site, its motivations, and its low key ‘opening ceremony’ in the Eden Project’s Humid Tropics Biome on October 2nd 2011.
‘What would you say to the person who picked the banana in your lunchbox?’
Ian Cook et al, Department of Geography, University of Exeter
This are just two of the touching personal messages written by Eden Project visitors during 2011’s Harvest Festival week. Three Exeter University students and I set up a stall by the smoothie stand in the Humid Tropics Biome. We talked to passers-by about the plants that they had seen that day. ‘Which ones had produced ingredients for your clothes, shoes, lunch, anything you have with you?’ ‘Imagine a person who had, for example, picked the cotton in your top, tapped the rubber in your shoes or packed the banana in your lunchbox.’ ‘What would you say to her or him, if you had the chance?’
Almost everyone stopped to talk to us. Many said that they hadn’t thought much about this before. We provided postcards and pencils, and people spent time talking with their friends and family about exactly what they should write. We collected the cards. At the end of the day, we had 160 heartfelt, friendly and sometimes humorous messages.
Among them were [click a photo to see the whole set]:
That spot among the banana trees, coffee bushes and sugar canes was great for getting people thinking and talking about the ways in which the travels of things connect the lives of people. What we tried to do there was part of a much larger project. It’s focused around a ‘shopping’ website called followthethings.com.
Created with colleagues and students from Exeter and Brown Universities, it’s a database of documentary films, art work, journalism and other writing that aim to show the ‘hidden lives’ in everyday things. It has the look, feel and organisation of a normal online store, with goods available from grocery, fashion, electrical and other departments. This is, however, another kind of shopping.
In the Grocery department, for example, you click on the bananas and end up watching a trailer for, and reading all about, a 2009 documentary film that followed a group of Central American banana workers as they took the Dole fruit company to court for using a banned pesticide that had allegedly made them sterile. It’s a gripping ‘David versus Goliath’ courtroom drama. They win. They lose. Who is right? Who is wrong? How do you prove or disprove a case like this? Dole’s lawyers tried to prevent the film being released. This stirred up a heated discussion about corporations’ attempts to censor films that are critical of their treatment of workers. The debate continues…
Dole spent considerable time, money, and energy trying to silence this Swedish documentary … Ultimately these efforts … proved a public relations disaster.
Also in Grocery, you could click on the packet of mixed nuts. That would take you to a 23 minute animated film called ‘The luckiest nut in the world’, first shown on Channel 4 TV in 2002. The nut trade is skewed because the production of US peanuts is subsidised while that of the world’s other nuts is not. An animated peanut tells the story, strumming his guitar and singing Country & Western songs about the inequities of global trade regulation. This has been shown to countless school pupils. Comments on YouTube show that many found this funny, and some admitted that they couldn’t help humming its song about the World Trade Organisation. It seemed to stick in their minds…
No longer stuffy, didactic or earnest, the new breed of documentary … is attracting audiences who would normally shy away from the genre.
Also in Grocery, you could click on the fresh papaya, and find an academic paper that I wrote in 2004 called ‘Follow the thing: papaya’. This is what ultimately brought me to the Eden Project’s humid tropics biome, encouraged me to put this website together, and sparked me to question what we might say to the people who make the things we buy. I did my PhD in the early 1990s when the range of tropical fruits on UK supermarket shelves was starting to expand. All of the papaya on these shelves were grown in Jamaica. So I spoke to supermarket executives and importers in the UK, and to government officials, farm managers, foremen, pickers and packers in Jamaica. I spent 6 months working on one farm, spending long hours talking with packing house workers, washing, grading, wrapping and boxing the fruit with them.
… geographers require new techniques to provide consumers with resources to imagine their location in commodityscapes…
The way that they helped to get thousands and thousands papayas, of uniform size, quality and price from farm to shelf was a complex and often fraught business. Nothing seemed to be straightforward. Nobody along this commodity chain seemed to have a detailed sense of how its various parts worked together. They kept asking me! Everyone admitted partial responsibility, but nobody ultimately responsibility, for the farm workers’ increasing poverty and hardship. This was supposed to be Jamaica’s post-sugar, post-plantation, post-colonial export agriculture. It was. But also it wasn’t. The past was alive and present in the ruined plantation buildings at the centre of the farm, and in the conflicts that occasionally erupted between pickers, packers and their bosses. Meanwhile, these fruits were being marketed in the UK as products of some tropical paradise, where the fruit just fell from the trees.
This experience convinced me that stories of lives and trade shouldn’t be over-simplified. There was no straightforward right or wrong, cause or effect, supply and demand, ‘do nothing’ or ‘do something’ story to tell. When I returned to the UK, I went back in to the supermarkets, and looked for the papayas picked, packed and shipped by the people I had met. They looked and felt very different to me, now. They had much more ‘life’ to them. So, I wondered, how could I encourage people who read my research papers to appreciate papaya – or any commodity for that matter – in the way that I had learned to appreciate them? How could I write about what I had learned in ways that might grab people, stick in their imaginations, provoke thought and discussion, have the same effect on them that it had had on me?
Researching with my students the 50-plus examples showcased on followthethings.com has begun to address these questions. The ways in which different examples try to encourage deeper appreciations of global trade via courtroom drama, cartoon humour, reality TV (have you seen ‘Blood, Sweat and Tshirts’? [not yet on the site]), fake websites advertising things that should but don’t exist (a ‘conflict free’ iPhone?), and many more, is fascinating and important. Now that there’s so much user generated content on the internet, the effects of this work on its audiences is much easier to appreciate. By putting in one place these examples and what’s been said about them, we hope that followthethings.com will inform and encourage discussions about trade justice in schools, universities, and plenty of other places, as well as informing and encouraging new following work not just by filmmakers, artists and academics, but by anyone with a computer and broadband connection. FIY: follow it yourself…
Ian is an Associate Professor of Geography at the University of Exeter [more]. He took part in the Eden Project’s Harvest Festival events on Sunday 2nd October 2011 with students Jack Parkin, Maura Pavalow and Alice Goodbrook. A shorter version of this article was published on the Eden Project Blog on 9 October 2011: here.