NPR’s Planet Money: ‘Stuff’ has a story

By Dan Hiestand, Houstory

Despite the rain, cold and touch of snow that have set up shop in my community of Eugene, Oregon over the past month, I still enjoy a good bike ride. It was on one of these recent treks, zipping along a trail that shadows the snow-fed waters of the Willamette River, that I heard an fascinating story on National Public Radio’s Planet Money.

Planet Money, T-Shirt, NPR, Houstory

Now, I’m the first to admit that the show’s major topic — the economy — is not typically something I’m interested in. Investments, taxes, mortgages…these are all a great big “yuck” in my book. However, the program has turned these seemingly mundane subjects into ear candy by revealing the hidden stories within the stories. In a lot of ways, I think of it like Freakonomics for your ears.

And like any good storyteller, they put a digestible (human) spin on complex issues. The program segment that recently grabbed my attention was a piece about the manufacturing of a T-shirt. Interestingly, the story protagonist was the T-Shirt itself: Planet Money ordered two sets of the shirt adorned with the show’s logo, and followed the garment’s creation from start (cotton fields in the southern United States) to production (factories in Columbia and Bangladesh) to finish (the customer). One shirt was made for men, the other for women.

Preserve, conserve, #nomorestuff

 

The story is laden with on-the-scene anecdotes, and peppered with astonishing facts, including:

* 13,000 bales of cotton is the equivalent of 9.4 million T-shirts.

* There are 6 miles of yarn in a single Planet Money T-shirt

* The workers who made the Planet Money T-shirt in Bangladesh were making about $80 a month

* 32 people make about 80 shirts per hour in Bangladesh. One sewing line in Colombia had eight people and made about 140 T-shirts per hour.

These facts, coupled with personal, insightful interviews with folks who work the production lines, provided a reminder that essentially everything we own has a creation story that includes actual human beings. I don’t know about you, but for me it’s way too easy to forget that.

What does this have to do with Houstory, The Home History Book archival journal and The Heirloom Registry? Well, nothing and everything.

The nothing is pretty obvious, so we’ll skip that.

Now, onto the everything. This month, as part of its  “No More Stuff/Preserve. Conserve” campaign, Houstory is asking you to slow down, and truly consider what you buy during this season of consumption and giving because not all products are created — or valued — equally.

As this story suggests, product manufacturing is a complicated business. Good (job creation, increased economic opportunities) combines with bad (environmental degradation, unsafe working conditions) more often than not.

I am not proposing that all consumption is bad, or that consumers should dump all that modern life offers and live in a Hobbit Hole. What I’m saying is that this complicated relationship should, at the very least, make us pause before we simply make a purchase online or at the store.

Well, enough about Hobbit Holes and T-shirts. Check out the Planet Money show, and let us know what you think!