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.
— 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.
— ITV News (@itvnews) June 25, 2014
And other examples have started to appear in the news, for example.
— 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.
— 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).
— 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…’
— 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
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
We are going to love this week at followthethings.com HQ.
We’ve redesigned our website’s header for the season. Here it is:
[click the Cherubs’ banner, and you will get to this page]
We’re adding Finland’s favourite chocolate to our site, a new page created by University of Helsinki MPhil student Eeva Kemppainen. She’s working with us in Exeter this Spring. She is creating our first pages to be simultaneously published in English and Finnish.
We’ve started to tweet Valentine’s Day issues, stories and activism. Like this:
On Thursday, all of our efforts will come together in a public Lecture at the University of Exeter. It’s ‘The St Valentine’s Day public lecture: love, following, things.” Here’s the opening slide:
Here’s the description on its facebook event page:
Come take part in a public lecture and discussion that puts chocolate, renowned for its romancing qualities, under the spotlight this Valentine’s Day. Ian Cook (Associate Professor of Geography at the University of Exeter) will be using Finnish chocolate (following them through the world economy as physical goods) as a case study in a broader discussion of trade justice and emphatic socio-economic relations. The discussion will also cover the ways in which this approach to understanding the exchange of material goods can be taught and learned in universities, engaging students in the issue of trade justice activism in critical, creative and enthusiastic ways. The event will take place in the Peter Chalk Centre, lecture theatre Newman C. It will take place at 2pm on Thursday 14th February.
Everyone is welcome.
Yes. A story appeared in Gizmodo today saying that, 55 years ago, Lego bricks were first patented. We are interested not only in their origins, but also in their powers…
For the most part, Lego is one of the great levelers in the toy world: kids love it, adults get excited about it, and you can build practically anything you like out of it. While most wholesome family fun turns out boring or desperate, Lego transcends age and gender and makes everyone want to play.
Here at followthethings.com, we use Lego for our own means,re-creating scenes from ‘follow the things’ examples showcased on our site, posting them on Flickr and hoping that they will generate interest in our site. See a sample from our Flickr set in the right hand column of our blog.
What the Gizmodo article includes is one of Lego’s earliest commercials, in German, illustrating its playful, leveling effects… Enjoy!
When doing the background research for the MoCC banana card (see below), we came a cross these definitions of ‘survival’ and ‘sustainable’ wages in a 2004 report on The real wage situation of male and female workers in eleven banana plantations in Costa Rica, in comparison to a sustainable living wage (link: p.11-12). The research was undertaken by Costa Rica’s Association of Labour Promotion Services (ASEPROLA) and Union of Agricultural Plantation Workers for the UK NGO Bananalink. We found the report on the Make Fruit Fair website. Its definitions of different kinds of wages should be useful in any classroom discussion in which students are asked to look at and/or research followthethings.com examples. It’s not only about the amount of money that people are paid, but what they can do with it…
The Centre for Reflection, Education and Action Inc (CREA) defines four levels of wages according to the categories of ‘survival wage’, ‘wage allowing for short-term planning’ and ‘sustainable living wage’.
In the first category, the marginal survival wage is not enough to cover the adequate basic needs. Even though it is enough to avoid hunger, it can lead to malnutrition, illnesses and probably early death.
Secondly, there is the basic survival wage, enough to meet immediate needs, including basic food, second-hand clothing, minimum shelter and energy to cook, but little else.
Thirdly, is a wage allowing for short-term planning, covering basic survival needs as well as the possibility of a small surplus income that allows for minimum planning. Such minimum planning allows improvement of survival, only from the payday until the next wage. Occasionally, it is possible to buy other basic products.
Fourthly, is the sustainable living wage, which allows workers to cover satisfactorily all their basic needs: food, clothes, housing, energy, transport, health services and education. It also allows the participation in cultural activities such as births and other religious festivals: celebration of First Communion, weddings, christenings, funerals, etc. With this wage, it is possible to save a small amount to plan future purchases of other products and the fulfilment of other needs that may arise.
Additionally, a sustainable living wage allows enough “discretional income” so that the worker can participate in the establishment of small businesses or activities in their communities, contributing also to the development of cultural and civic activities. In this sense, the level of wage makes long-term planning possible.
What we also like is the Make Fruit Fair’s short animation in which bananas and pineapples want YOU to take action on this. They have seen it all…
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
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.
It’s International Women’s Day today. We’re asking smartphone owners to dedicate their homescreen to ‘iPhone Girl’. She was a quality control worker checking iPhones in Foxconn’s Shenzhen factory. Her workmate is said to have taken her photo to check the camera, and then failed to delete it.
It was found by a UK iPhone buyer. It appeared on his new phone’s homescreen the first time he switched it on. He posted his experience and the photos on his camera on the macrumors forum. The rest, as they say, is history…[read our ftt page that tracks this story here).
Young women (and men) like her assembled your smartphone, so let’s acknowledge this today (and every day).