Short Essay on Planet Money T-Shirt

A T-Shirt Is Born

Who knew that a simple T-shirt had such a thought-provoking inception.  From its creation to the retailer and consumer, the T-shirt steps are fascinating and interesting.  One cannot imagine that since its birth, the T-shirt goes through various processes in several environments. 

As an illustration, NPR’s Planet Money, an American podcast and blog producer, conducted research in 2013 to learn how a T-shirt is made.  They set out to find the best cotton and found it at the Mississippi Delta farm.  As a matter of fact, most cotton used throughout the world comes from the United States, where cotton is king.   Cotton is so big in the United States that since 1950 cotton yield has tripled.   How does all pf this cotton get picked?  By using John Deere 7760 pickers – these massive self-driving, finely tuned machines can sense the cotton plant stalks and twist off their cotton puffs.  Cotton will continue to get more productive as the technology improves.  As an example, today a 7760 driver can pick 100 acres of cotton a day. 

Picking and growing cotton is a high-tech business.  Ninety percent of United States cotton is genetically modified; it comes from seeds that are designed in labs to produce more cotton and resist pests. 

After the Planet Money team’s cotton selection, they traveled to Indonesia where the cotton for the men’s T-shirt was spun. 

Similar to the cotton production, yarn is also high-tech.  A machine sucks fibers close together creating yarn.  The product has fewer twists per inch, making Planet Money’s men’s T-shirts softer and more comfortable.  Incredibly, the T-shirts were made with six miles of this yarn.

After the cotton was picked, the yarn spun, all pieces were shipped to Bangladesh for the men’s T-shirts assemblage.  

Yet, under what conditions were the T-shirts made in Bangladesh?  Who are the people behind the assemblage of the T-shirts? 

To understand how Bangladesh was selected to complete the T-shirts, we need to understand the trade agreement introduced in 1974 by President Richard Nixon.   

The Multi-Fiber Arrangement (MFA), an international trade agreement on textile and clothing, was active from 1974 until 2004. The agreement imposed quotas on the amount that developing countries could export in the form of yarn, fabric and clothing to developed countries such as the United States. 

How does Bangladesh fit into this pact?  Let’s take a look at South Korea.  In the 1970’s South Korea had reached their quota and were no longer allowed to export to other countries.  Because Bangladesh was in financial dire straits and South Korea needed to continue their export operations, these entrepreneurs joined forces with South Korea to set up textile factories.  Hence, the Bangladeshi garment district was born.  Today Bangladesh factories employ approximately 4 million people. 

With so much talk of sweat shops and hazardous working conditions, what are the settings for the workers who assembled Planet Money’s men’s T-shirt?      

Let us take a look at two Bangladeshi factory workers – the women who made the men’s T-shirts.  Since the MFA, there have been huge changes in Bangladesh.  These changes have altered the lives of its residents.  Two women that have been affected by these changes are Shimu and Minu.  They work six days a week, 10 hours a day at Deluxe Fashion Limited among hundreds of women.    At the time of Planet Money’s interview the sisters were earning $39.00 a month.  They were hoping for a raise.  There were daily protests going on due to the recent Rana Plaza building accident earlier that year.  An eight-story mixed-use building containing factories, a banking institution, apartments and various shops collapsed.  With a death toll of 1,129 and 2,500 injured, it is considered the deadliest garment factory accident in history, as well as the deadliest accidental structural failure.   Nonetheless, the sisters feel safe in the factory where they work – there are fans and fire exits. 

Minu is married and she, her husband and Shimu live together in a room.  They pool their money to pay the bills and the rent.  Minu sends money to her daughter who lives with their parents.  Shimu occasionally sends money home – she is able to save money and buy whatever items she wants such as a television.  The sisters cook and eat their meals together.   They cook enough food for the three of them to have three meals a day.  Their living arrangement might sound dreadful, but in comparison to the village they come from, the women are living quite comfortable. 

With the sisters’ incomes, their parents are able to purchase meat and fish, they pay for their younger brother’s education and provide financial support for Minu’s daughter. 

The women’s lives are very different from their parents.  In addition, there is also a big difference between the sisters.  For example, their parents chose a husband for Minu, that to date, she regrets and will not forgive her parents for doing so.  

On the other hand, Shimu will not allow her parents to choose a husband for her.  She is saving money for a wedding to a man of her choosing.   Apparently it is a Bangladeshi custom for the parents to choose their daughter(s) husbands and for the husband to take on the responsibility of providing support and lodging for the wife.  Shimu is very adamant about choosing her own partner.

Finally, after all of the fascinating processes have taken place, a T-shirt is sent to the retailers.   But next time I pick up a T-shirt I will reflect on how it has traveled from one side of the world to another and mostly about the people who are part of its production.  I will contemplate about their lives and hopes, but mostly that the factory workers stay safe.  Who knew that a simple T-shirt had such a thought-provoking inception.  From its creation to the retailer and consumer, the T-shirt steps are fascinating and interesting.  One cannot imagine that since its birth, the T-shirt goes through various processes in several environments.

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