Last week the folks at NPR’s Planet Money did a week long series on a t-shirt they created.
Last night I re-listened to the podcasts of the series, and I feel like it needs a rebuttal.
I should begin by saying that I thought it was a remarkable piece of journalism. Very well done. But it seems to me that the series has a built in “globalization bias” that we all just accept from the media we consume.
When Planet Money embarked on creating a t-shirt they thought they would start with the cotton—and they found that to be virtually impossible. They concluded that knowing where your cotton comes from is as impossible as knowing where your gallon of gasoline was derived.
Their story reminded me of Lisa Margonelli’s Oil on the Brain; Adventures from the Pump to the Pipeline, in which she travels from her local gas station to the middle east (and everywhere in between) to answer the question of where her fuel comes from. And I believe the Planet Money series was assisted or inspired by Pietra Rivoli’s, Travels of a T-Shirt in the Global Economy; an Economist Examines the Markets, Power, and Politics of World Trade.
Planet Money’s t-shirt traveled twenty thousand miles and crossed three continents, and they marveled about that. They figured the cotton started out in Arkansas, on the Mississippi delta, traveled to Indonesia, Bangladesh, Columbia, and to their offices—where they are presumably shipping shirts to happy Planet Money customers all over the world.
They marvel over efficiency. And low costs. They worked with the people at Jockey who can deliver a t-shirt super cheap. And to their credit they drill into the lives of the garment workers in Bangladesh who are making 13.00 a day. One of the CEOs they interview reflects, “Our industry follows poverty.” I recently took a tour of the Tenement Museum in New York City, which chronicles the despair of early American garment workers. The parallels to current day Bangladeshi garment workers are striking.
Planet Money’s stories seem well researched and are powerfully delivered. They delve into Richard Nixon’s defense of the North Carolina textile industry in a speech he delivered in Asheville, and they explain the “Multi Fiber Arrangement” which began as a bit of protectionism but resulted in the globalization of the garment industry. They drill into “the Book of Everything,” and harmonized codes, and tariffs, and many aspects of the globalized garment trade.
What they leave out is externalized costs. And I don’t think Planet Money is alone in this. I think the whole media is guilty.
Never mind that it is entirely possible to know who grew the cotton in your t-shirt. T.S. Designs has a “Cotton of the Carolina’s” project that provides complete supply chain transparency which goes from “dirt to shirt in seven hundred and fifty miles.” Never mind that you can “meet your fuel maker” almost anytime at Piedmont Biofuels. Somehow the bumper sticker “Know Your Farmer” seems appropriate here. It’s actually easy to know the people who grow your food, or make your fuel, or your apparel if you care to. Tonight I am wearing a pair of Raleigh Denim blue jeans made from NC grown, ginned, spun, woven, and sewn cotton from North Carolina.
Tonight Cappa is wearing a Lumina shirt that was designed in Raleigh, and manufactured in South Carolina. Admittedly their thread came from Japan, and they have not yet achieved the supply chain transparency of others, but knowing your apparel does not have to be the “really difficult” thing that Planet Money makes it out to be.
Sustainability is funny. It tends to start with the built environment. People put up solar panels because they can understand tax breaks or energy cost savings. Fewer people apply sustainability principles to their transportation—but some do. Lots of people understand sustainable food production. But very few bother with where their clothes come from.
The “media bias” that infiltrates all of the Planet Money stories is the absence of the whole story of cost. They didn’t mention the soils where the cotton is grown in Arkansas, for instance. On one side of the road in the heart of Arkansas cotton country sits a Gerber baby food plant. On the other sits a peach orchard. Gerber can’t use the peaches they grow because they are contaminated with the overspray from the cotton crop dusters.
Not included in Planet Money’s t-shirt story is the dead zone in the gulf of Mexico caused in part by runoff from the chemically intensive cotton industry in the Mississippi delta.
When Planet Money marvels about the miracle of container shipping, and how it adds “only a few pennies per shirt,” they leave out the cost of the military protection that went into the fuel to ship their shirts around, and they leave out the cost of climate change caused by the consumption of products that travel twenty thousand miles, and they leave out the cost of air quality—and the resultant human health effects we have to treat as a result of shipping their shirts around.
Jockey can only make a cheap shirt because we don’t make them pay the true costs of the product.
As long as we don’t mind polluting the air, despoiling our water and soil, fouling our climate, and accidentally killing women and children in the name of cheap oil, we can marvel over the miracle of cheap Planet Money t-shirts. After we’ve bought their shirts we can use the money we have saved to hire specialists to help us with our asthma and respiratory problems.
I don’t mean to bash on Planet Money or NPR. I’m a fan of both. I’m a “sustainer” of WUNC, our local NPR affiliate.
But journalism is supposed to give us the whole story. We count on the media for objective reporting of facts—which is often delivered in a painfully simple format: “Here’s what he thinks—he is ‘against,’” offset by “Here’s what she thinks—she is in ‘favor.’” Yet the media seldom bothers to include the environmental costs in a basic story about things we are all presumably interested in—like t-shirts.
I’m not exactly sure what to call this. It could be a “globalization bias,” or perhaps it is a “big is better” blind spot. Maybe it is the human animal’s great love of ever increasing efficiency. “Efficiency bias?” Perhaps our great love of “good deals” clouds the media’s ability to get the whole story?
I won’t be buying a Planet Money t-shirt. But I am grateful to them for shining such a wonderful light on the global garment trade. And while it might not be as good for the local economy, my next clothing purchase will be from our local PTA thrift store…