A Glimpse Into The Global Forces That Create A Simple T-Shirt

NPR’s Planet Money decided to sell some T-shirts. But they didn’t just buy them, they tracked the production from growing the cotton to delivering them to your door.

Want to produce a compelling story about a topic that usually isn’t a page turner? It pays to follow the classic writing trope: Show, don’t tell.


That’s what NPR’s Planet Money has done with its fascinating multimedia reporting project about the inscrutable global supply chains to go into making our cheap clothing. Rather than tell us all about conditions in factories or talk about how U.S. farm subsidies under gird the domestic cotton industry, the NPR team did something simpler: They decided to make a T-shirt, and smartly, to use the pre-sales (through a Kickstarter back in April) to fund 10 journalists who tracked the shirt on its journey from its beginnings at a U.S. cotton farm then around the world and back.

Similar reporting methods have been put to good use to illustrate a number of important environmental and economic stories in the past. For example, in 2002, food writer Michael Pollan made a name for himself when he went out and bought a cow in order to track its journey through the feedlot system and onto his plate.

NPR’s “Planet Money Makes A T-Shirt,” told with video, text, images and graphics packaged together in a nice web app, starts with a trip to the U.S. cotton fields. We learn that remarkably, the U.S. is the largest cotton exporter in the world–despite the fact that labor is far cheaper in countries that are closer to where clothing is made. Starting the T-shirt journey, the reporters show the modern miracle of farm machine automation, genetic seed engineering, and government support that makes this possible. The Mississippi cotton farm that produced the T-shirt cotton makes 13,000 bales a year–enough for 9 million T-shirts–with a total labor input of 13 people and 26 machines.

Then the T-shirt’s global journey starts. First to spinning factories in Indonesia–a country that hits the sweet spot of lower wages and higher technology–where complex machines turn picked cotton into yarn spools with barely a human involved. Each Planet Money t-shirt, which is being purchased from Jockey, contains six miles of yarn that had to meet dozens of specifications. The exact nature of the specs are a secret formula to Jockey, just like Coke and Pepsi guard their own recipes.

The spooled yarn travels to garment factories in Bangladesh and Colombia (for the men’s and women’s T-shirts respectively), where the focus turns to the human stories of the workers who, especially in Bangladesh, work long hours for barely believable low wages. Conditions vary, but this is the country where as the NPR project was getting started in April, a garment factory collapsed and killed more than 1,000 people in the the most deadly building collapse in modern history.

Finally, the reporting turns to the global container shipping industry, the modern miracle that makes globalized supply chains possibly at all (see “10 Fascinating Facts About The Hidden Industry That Touches 90% Of What You Own”). Of the $12.42 in total costs to manufacture one T-shirt, sending it on a journey all around the world accounted for just 10 cents. (The graphic designer who made the squirrel on the front took 12 cents for each shirt, and shipping locally to deliver to the customers’ front door cost an average of $2.26).


Go watch and read the entire series. It’ll only take about 15 or 20 minutes and can be digested in smaller bits, and it’ll make you think twice about what goes into the clothing you buy. The piece isn’t moralistic. It’s not that everyone should go an only buy organic, handmade in the U.S.A. clothing. It’s just eye-opening and important to understand the implications and stories behind our decisions about what we buy and the market demands we create.

If you also would like to still buy a T-shirt, NPR will be producing a second run next year, and these are on sale now.


About the author

Jessica Leber is a staff editor and writer for Fast Company's Co.Exist. Previously, she was a business reporter for MIT’s Technology Review and an environmental reporter at ClimateWire.