NPR Is Tracing The Life Of A T-Shirt, From Cotton Plant To Store Shelf

A new NPR series follows the life of a T-shirt as it's made to shed light on the global economics of modern manufacturing.

Look down: Chances are, a good part of the outfit you're wearing is made of cotton. You probably know the cotton in your shirt or pants began as a plant, but can you list every single step it had to take before it reached your department store's shelf? That's the objective of a new series produced by NPR's Planet Money.

The series traces the lives of a limited run of T-shirts Planet Money commissioned from Jockey, from their beginnings as puffs of cotton on a farm in the Mississippi Delta. There is nothing particularly special about these T-shirts; they're not made of organic cotton, or handmade in the USA.

"We wanted to tell the story of our clothes the way the vast majority of our clothes are actually made," Planet Money's Alex Blumberg says.

Here are some of the series' key insights:

  • A single U.S. farm can produce enough bales of cotton for 9.4 million T-shirts.
  • Six miles of yarn, or thread, go into one Planet Money T-shirt.
  • The use of huge containers capable of transporting tens of thousands of shirts at a time have made it possible to ship a T-shirt from the U.S. to Indonesia to Bangladesh and back to the U.S. for far less than a dollar in shipping costs.
  • The Bangladeshi workers who produced the Planet Money T-shirts were making about $80 a month. That might not sound like much, but it's far more than the $39 minimum wage that was in place before the collapse of the country's Rana Plaza factory building killed more than 1,000 workers. After the collapse, the country raised its minimum wage from $39 to $68 a month.

Planet Money originally funded the series via Kickstarter, where more than 20,000 people put in pre-orders for a T-shirt of their own. NPR is also accepting orders for both men's and women's T-shirts through the end of this month.

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