NPR Makes a T-Shirt
Take a look at the shirt you’re wearing. Odds are it’s better traveled than you are.

National Public Radio’s (NPR) Planet Money recently published a multimedia series on the making of a T-shirt and its extraordinary journey through the world economy.

Believe it or not, your shirt and others like it are a wonder of the modern world.

The five part series follows a T-shirt from cottonseed to ink print. It would seem like a simple process, but the Planet Money special reveals the hidden complexity of a global enterprise.

Behind each of these cheaply produced shirts are multinational corporations and complex trade deals between nations — but, most of all, people’s lives. While the series takes a look at the entire process, it is the human connection that it seems most poised to drive home.

Although the chapters are mostly delivered through a dispassionate reportage, the deleterious effects of the garment industry in the developing world are likely to ignite the passions of most viewers.

Perhaps the most illuminating of these stories is that of Jasmine in Bangladesh.

More than 4 million people like Jasmine work in the garment industry in Bangladesh. Many of these people work for less than 35 cents an hour.

Cramped living and working environments, the absence of electricity and running water as well as disease make life extremely difficult. Jasmine, herself, lives in a small group home without running water and sends most of her earnings to her parents.

However, these hardships pale in comparison to the risk many of these workers face.

For instance, while the Planet Money team was filming, a major garment building in Bangladesh collapsed killing over one thousand workers. The online series shows difficult images of bodies tangled in the framework of the building.

Tragically, without the garment industry, NPR argues, Bangladesh would be worse off still.

In the end, the shirt they made traveled thousands of miles by air, by land and by sea. Even so, it’s total production cost just over 12 dollars. The cost in time, travel and human toil, however, is something a bit larger.

It is a complicated process with complicated results but for people in developing nations that make the goods that the developed world buys, the garment industry’s work is a double bind.

On the one hand, it sustains their entire nation and on the other, it does not sufficiently provide for, or protect, its workers. If nothing else, NPR has created a series that does not shy away from presenting a complex image of an industry, its products and its people.

Chase Colton

Sources: NPR, Al Jazeera