Planet Money T-Shirt

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.

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they leave out is externalized costs. And I don’t think Planet Money is alone in this. I think the whole media is guilty.

-1Never 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.

-3Tonight 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.

-2Sustainability 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…

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8 Responses to Planet Money T-Shirt

  1. Sandy Carroll says:

    I have been thinking of this concept (real costs) in terms of energy efficient things such as Christmas lights. Growing up, we had those “big bulb” strings of lights. Each year we would replace a few burnt bulbs, but the strands my parents had were twenty years old. Then all got replaced with “energy efficient” lights. We bought in because they use less electricity. But what about the fact that when a bulb breaks, most of the stand goes out, and if it’s two bulbs, finding them and replacing them are a time consuming and difficult task. So we run to the store and buy a new strand of cheap energy efficient lights. Most people I know throw out and replace at least 5 of these per year. THAT is the cost we forget when we talk about energy efficiency. These lights were produced and shipped and stored. That is a lot of energy. This part of the picture is lost when you merely compare the cost of lighting one strand vs lighting the other strand. That is not a comparison. How about comparing the cost of creating the number of stands my generation will create and throw away (oh yes, there is the landfill issue as well) as compared to what our parents used?
    Companies do not want this because they make less money selling me a few bulbs each year than selling me a few new strands of lights each year.

  2. Well said Lyle. If consumers paid the real cost of T-shirts–or fuel or food for that matter–they might not spend disposable income in such a cavalier way. Building savings or avoiding credit purchases comes to mind. On the subject of journalism, I have to agree, but i’d like to point out that there is a difference between advocacy journalism (which is what we get the most of today) and traditional reporting which is the way bona fide print journalists are trained.

  3. Hopefully they will start asking where there liquor comes from too! ;)

    • Scot Maitland:
      I can make you NC white oak kegs for your
      prime-time whiskey.
      We also have 2 old “honey” stills…one with revenuer
      ax holes from when they were taken down.
      I also have the HeartPine Doors to
      the first-built gristmill in Cabarrus County.
      I still have my IPO Top of the Hill Shirts.
      Eric could make some anniversary shirts for you.

  4. Sue says:

    I listened to the series also and thought, “Hey, they could have done TS Designs and kept it local!”….but the sad part was that quote about the industry following poverty.

  5. Jen Busfield says:

    Really appreciate your comments and perspective here, Lyle.

  6. Marjorie Williams Murray says:

    I work in the textile industry and I heard the 1st part of the NPR Planet Money piece. I thought they would talk about “local” or even “Made in the USA” as part of the series. When they got to the end of the 1st part I realized that this would be a global economy piece and became disinterested.

    My textile job is part of the Home Furnishing Market which in the last decade has seen the industry shift to globalization. As our t-shirts are now made and shipped twenty thousand miles, think of the furniture industry in NC and shipping furniture twenty thousand miles. That means shipping all the textile and wood components back and forth across continents to make the furniture. This along with the immediate loss of jobs and skill expertise as these jobs are now done at the poverty level where the global consumer goods market is manufactured. It is too complicated to go into in a short comment, but as a general rule we need to pay attention to all of our products that we purchase along with our food and fuel. Local is a movement that needs to be familiar to everyone.

    TS Designs does their part, I live around the corner, and everyone that cares about their community and local expertise needs to continue on the journey to bring light to this global economy and it’s real cost to everyone.

  7. Lyle, eyes opened. heart always open. Life is short = our family says YES to local, sustainable re-use, recycle, upcycle and bury with dignity. T-Shirts included ;-)

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