National Public Radio’s (NPR) “Planet Money” team just wound up a series about what goes into making a t-shirt, which I caught on my evening commutes. It followed the t-shirt from the fields where the cotton was grown, to where it was spun in Colombia, to the factory in Bangladesh where it was stitched together. It reminded me of Milton Friedman’s brilliant anecdote about how the free market creates the simple pencil.
Over the years I’ve grown accustomed to reporting from NPR that tends to be anti-business, so I was pleasantly surprised with the thoughtfulness of this investigative report. That said, it seems that the reporters were a little surprised themselves with what they discovered. Take for instance this remark in the edition “Planet Money T-Shirt Exposes Issues of Work, Trade and Clothes”:
The other part of it though that we sort of discovered is that there is a reason people in Bangladesh, for example, want to work in a garment factory. We talked to several people who worked in the factory that made the men’s shirt. And they described their lives before they came to the factory when they lived in the rural villages where they were born. And they were living very close to the edge. In fact, two of the sisters who made the shirt – the Planet Money shirt – described growing up and losing three sisters to it seems like hunger related illness.
They were eating dirt and the family wasn’t able to send them to get proper medical care because they didn’t have enough money. And for them, getting a job in the garment industry, even though it is very low wage, very monotonous, it was a small but very significant step up and it allowed them to send money back to their villages where their parents were.
Anyone who knows the history of how the industrial revolution transformed Britain and other European countries in the 19th century or how formerly third world countries, like Japan, became developed countries in the 20th century is well aware of this movement from farms to cities in search of a better, safer and more prosperous life. More recently, it’s been happening in China on a massive scale for the past several decades.
Even in America, the farm remains one of the most dangerous places to work with over 25 deaths per 100,000 workers, not to mention accidents that don’t result in loss of life, but loss of limbs and other horrific accidents that are less common in offices or factories. So far from being a “discovery” for NPR, they should have gone in expecting to tell this story of why workers in Bangladesh are seeking out relatively safer and better paid work in factories.
NPR also seemed surprised to learn that although the t-shirt is often thought of as a commodity, a lot goes into it and companies work hard to get an edge:
[T]he other thing that blew me away was just how complicated and how much thought and effort and precision goes into something that you sort of think of as like a commodity, a T-shirt. You know, just yarn itself, Jockey, the company that helped us make our T-shirt, they have – they spent years developing the yarn that goes into the Planet Money T-shirt.
You know, there’s sort of a recipe for yarn and we asked them, hey, could you tell us this recipe and they said, no. They wouldn’t share it with us.
Once again this shouldn’t have been a surprise to anyone familiar with competition and the free market. There are probably dozens if not hundreds of companies making t-shirts and no doubt margins are incredibly slim, so you should expect firms to invest in technology to give them an upper-hand and to put extra thought and effort behind their product.
Three stars to NPR for tackling this subject in a thoughtful way and discovering what many of us have known for years.