Take A Reverse Tour Of The Global Gadget Supply Chain With These Stunning Photos

The unmaking of a smartphone–from gleaming object of desire to a massive Chinese shipyard to a toxic mine in Mongolia.


For three weeks last summer, the “nomadic design studio” Unknown Fields took a reverse tour of the global supply chain, riding a massive cargo ship from Vietnam to a shipyard in Shanghai, visiting a Christmas decoration factory in China, and exploring a mine in inner Mongolia.


Together with a group of filmmakers, journalists, scientists, and artists, they documented each step of the journey of a typical tech gadget made in China. Here’s a stunning time-lapse video, from filmmaker Toby Smith, of the two days they spent on a cargo ship.

“The work we are making is really an elaborate portrait of a city,” says writer and educator Kate Davies, who co-founded Unknown Fields with artist and architect Liam Young in London. “Global supply chains touch everything around us. Criss-crossing the planet, our familiar surroundings are fragments of distant landscapes, they are dug from grounds far away, assembled in factories by people from across the globe, and brought to us by vast planetary infrastructures of a scale we rarely consider. The things we consider to be everyday have extraordinary effects on places we’ve never heard of.”

The filmmakers wanted to tell their story in reverse–an “unmaking of” a smartphone from sea to source, from “final gleaming object of desire” all the way to the “refineries and toxic waste dumps where their ingredients are forged” and the spaces in between.

The scale of each part of the supply chain amazed the designers. Yiwu, the world’s largest wholesale market, is a store that’s as big as a city. “Suburbs are organized around the goods they sell–an area of fake flowers, inflatable toys, or novelty sunglasses,” says Liam Young. “The scale of this market was just unimaginable. It is the landscape where every object that ends up in a 99 cent store or discount shop is first traded. It is a city that every single one of us has an object in our homes that has passed through this city at one point.”

Kate Davies

China’s shipyards were similarly massive. Seven of the 10 busiest ports in the world are in China, and they move some 95% of the world’s goods, Davies says:

“Standing in a port like Yantian, which serves the Pearl River Delta area–China’s manufacturing epicenter–and shifts 30,000 containers a day, you feel like a tiny mosquito on the windscreen of a jumbo jet,” she says. “Dwarfed by ships the size of city blocks, surrounded by thousands of shipping containers filled with millions of boxes of things bound for shelves in other continents–the sheer numbers involved are mind blowing.”


The trip ended at a giant radioactive lake in Mongolia, filled with toxic sludge pumped in from surrounding chemical refineries. The artists collected samples of the sludge, and are now using it to produce ceramic vases–each created with the same amount of waste it takes to produce a battery cell for a smartphone or laptop.

“An advertiser’s description of our technologies is based on lightness and thinness,” says Young. “Terms like ‘the cloud,’ or Macbook ‘Air’ imply that our gadgets are just ephemeral objects. In reality, our technologies are actually geological artifacts that are carved out of the Earth. Our series of vases are a representation of the landscapes our technologies leave behind and we were trying to highlight the scale of these effects.”

Liam Young

The trip was one of a series that the designers have taken every year since 2008. This summer, they plan to visit Bolivia’s lithium mines, where most of the world’s lithium batteries are born. “Our electric future is buried under the ground of Bolivia,” says Young.

“The collaborative aspect of the trip is fundamental,” says Davies. “Bus stations and airports, trains, and buses become impromptu spaces of group discussion. The immersion in the context is crucial, and usefully, much is stripped away by the basic nature of the accommodation, and the often unglamorous modes of travel in these trips. By day five, we are shabby looking, a little smelly, tired, and disarmed, and therefore engaged totally in what we are investigating as a group.”

About the author

Adele Peters is a staff writer at Fast Company who focuses on solutions to some of the world's largest problems, from climate change to homelessness. Previously, she worked with GOOD, BioLite, and the Sustainable Products and Solutions program at UC Berkeley, and contributed to the second edition of the bestselling book "Worldchanging: A User's Guide for the 21st Century."