It’s great when you get an email out of the blue. Especially if it’s from a former student whose ‘follow the thing’ dissertation is available from your website. And especially if it is, to date, its most viewed example of original student work on the site. Fred was a BA Geography student at the University of Birmingham. I’d supervised his dissertation. He’d enjoyed researching and writing it. Then he graduated and went off into the ‘real world’… but why’s he back?
He returns my email, eventually. He says it’s good to hear from me, especially so given how eager I am to get back into this writing malarkey.
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.