Business
3:50 am
Mon December 2, 2013

Planet Money Explores The Economics Of T-Shirts

Originally published on Thu December 5, 2013 1:19 pm

Our Planet Money team is making a T-shirt and following the shirt around the world as it gets manufactured — from the farms where the cotton is grown to the factories where the shirts are sewn together. All this week on Morning Edition and All Things Considered we'll be hearing stories about the fascinating world behind that T-shirt.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

This week, NPR will be reporting on a special Planet Money project, making a T-shirt from scratch, and reporting on each step. Our David Greene talked to Planet Money's Alex Blumberg and Adam Davidson.

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Guys, welcome.

ALEX BLUMBERG, BYLINE: Hey.

ADAM DAVIDSON, BYLINE: Hey, David. Great to be here.

GREENE: So, a T-shirt. I mean, we at NPR make T-shirts. A lot of our member stations make T-shirts. Why are we making another one, here?

DAVIDSON: We at Planet Money have been incredibly curious about how this global economy works. And we've come to the conclusion that one of the best ways to report on something is to actually become a participant in that thing. So, when we were trying to figure out what toxic assets are all about - that phrase people heard all around the financial crisis...

GREENE: Mm-hmm.

DAVIDSON: ...we actually bought a toxic asset and watched it die, and found out what was inside of it. And we learned a great deal from that. And so we wanted to participate in the global economy. And we're going to actually follow our T-shirt as it is made around the world. We were inspired in part by the fabulous book, "The Travels of a T-Shirt in the Global Economy" by Pietra Rivoli, which tells this story, in beautiful detail, how every T-shirt you own is touched by dozens, hundreds, thousands of hands in nearly every continent as it's made.

GREENE: OK. So, the potential to learn a ton about the economy. Was it easy to have a T-shirt made?

BLUMBERG: Turns out, turning a ragtag group of public radio reporters into a T-shirt company is very difficult.

GREENE: OK.

BLUMBERG: From the get-go, we approached it all wrong. We thought, OK, first thing, what's a T-shirt made of? Cotton. We've got to get some cotton. So we actually sent our reporter on Chana Joffe-Walt down to Texas. It turns out, a lot of cotton is grown in Texas.

GREENE: Mm-hmm.

BLUMBERG: She talked to some farmers there. That farmer agreed to sell us two bales of cotton, which is sort of a small order for him, but he was like, OK, you're doing this project. But then, all these questions came up. You know, a bale of cotton is, like, 500 pounds.

GREENE: That's a lot of cotton.

DAVIDSON: Yeah. Right. So what do we do? Do we rent a U-Haul? And then it got even more confusing, because I then went to the next step on the chain, which is a spinning mill in North Carolina. This is the place that turns raw cotton into spun thread, or yarn. And I show up and I tell this guy, hey. We're going to be bringing a couple bales of cotton, and we just want to hire you to spin that into thread. He said if I take your random cotton, you're going to have to pay to completely clean all the equipment of this entire factory when we're done, because your cotton is going to pollute my machinery. If I don't know the quality of the cotton, then I can't use that machinery until it's cleaned.

BLUMBERG: It became clear that the way we were going about this was a little bit like saying, I want to make a laptop. I'm going to start by mining my own aluminum.

(LAUGHTER)

DAVIDSON: When you're sitting around, imagining how a T-shirt is made and you say, well, it starts with a seed in the ground, and that becomes a cotton plant, and then that cotton is - that's the opposite of how actual companies think about it.

GREENE: Oh, it is? Why is that?

DAVIDSON: Yes. Because actual companies think about: I have product on the shelf, and that product will have certain qualities. It'll have a certain level of softness or durability. It'll come in at a certain price point. And then they go backwards, and order the right things so that they have the right product they want.

So we were coming at it from the very beginning, and we really needed to start at the end.

BLUMBERG: And the very first thing it turns out we needed to know was: What is our T-shirt going to look like? The new plan was to have Jockey - the apparel and T-shirt company - help us, and use their supply chain. They introduced us to the factories that they use. Those are the factories that we visited. And we finally came up with something, which, with your permission, I'll show to you right now.

GREENE: That would be great.

BLUMBERG: Here we go.

(SOUNDBITE OF CLEARING THROAT)

BLUMBERG: This is a prototype of our design.

GREENE: Alex Bloomberg is taking something out of his black backpack in the studio.

BLUMBERG: All right. And David, you're seeing, for the first time, the official design of the Planet Money T-shirt. Here you go.

GREENE: Ah. What am I looking at, here?

BLUMBERG: What you're looking at...

GREENE: Is that a squirrel holding a martini glass?

BLUMBERG: ...is a squirrel holding a martini glass.

GREENE: OK.

BLUMBERG: So, the backstory to this: What real manufacturers do, apparel manufacturers, when they're coming up with a design, they are trying to figure out: What is the essence of the brand? And that should be your design. So, we got this advice: Think about what Planet Money is, and then try to come up with visual ideas that would represent that. So we thought we'd take these complicated economic concepts, try to make them simple. We're accessible. We're friendly, like a squirrel...

GREENE: Mm-hmm.

BLUMBERG: ...and also we're fun, like a martini glass. But there's also a visual pun embedded in that image.

GREENE: And am I supposed to see it already?

BLUMBERG: So it's a visual pun, and it has to do with this famous economist, John Maynard Keynes, his phrase animal spirits, which has to do with human emotion and the way it interacts with the economy.

GREENE: And we've got an animal and a spirit on here. Now I get the visual pun.

BLUMBERG: There you go.

DAVIDSON: And, David, it's very important that we emphasize we are not, as Planet Money or at NPR, taking a stand on the central economic debate of our time...

GREENE: Mm-hmm.

DAVIDSON: ...basically, John Maynard Keynes versus the Chicago school and the Austrian school. We are not taking a position on that. We simply thought it would be funny to have a T-shirt with a squirrel and a martini glass.

GREENE: You're having a little fun with the T-shirt.

DAVIDSON: Exactly.

GREENE: OK. So, you figure out the design of the T-shirt that you want to make. What comes next here?

DAVIDSON: So once we know what the T-shirt is, then we need customers. And we decided to do it in a very modern way, to figure out who our customers are before we make the shirt.

BLUMBERG: And to that, we had a Kickstarter campaign. Kickstarter is this crowdfunding platform.

GREENE: Uh-huh. Small businesses do that.

BLUMBERG: Yeah, exactly. And we talked to our podcast listeners and our Twitter followers and we said, hey, we're making this T-shirt and here's what it's going to be like. If you want one, go on Kickstarter and pledge 25 bucks. And we figured, you know, we'll raise maybe $50,000 that way. We'll make enough for, like, maybe 5,000 T-shirts. In the end, people pledged over $590,000.

GREENE: Wow.

BLUMBERG: And we're making 25,000 T-shirts.

GREENE: OK. So, what are we going to be hearing about in the coming days and weeks?

BLUMBERG: You're going to be hearing about the world that is behind this T-shirt, and almost every single piece of clothing that you were on your bodies.

DAVIDSON: Just to give you one preview, when we sent our team of Caitlin Kenney and Zoe Chace to Bangladesh, we really wanted an answer to the question: Is it good or bad for Bangladesh that they make T-shirts there? And the complexity of the answers - I mean, they have the beautiful story of two sisters who really show all the good and all the bad that this transformation of Bangladesh represents. And we saw that story again and again throughout the world, that there's not some simple answer to the question. It was as complex as human beings can be.

GREENE: All right. Adam Davidson and Alex Blumberg from our Planet Money team, thank you, guys.

DAVIDSON: Thank you, David.

BLUMBERG: Thank you.

MONTAGNE: And later on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED, our T-shirt began with a cotton picker in Mississippi. You can follow the T-shirt's journey on video at npr.org/shirt. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.