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My ‘follow the things’ project will entail a detailed mapping of a plain white cotton t-shirt from the high-street shop Primark. Primark itself is a “budget fast-fashion retailer” (Doshi, 2016) that “operates in over 350 stores in eleven countries across Europe and America” (Primark Stores Ltd., 2018) which makes it a relevant example for following one of its many commodity chains. The Oxford Dictionary defines a commodity as “a raw material or primary agricultural product that can be bought and sold, such as copper or coffee” (Oxford Dictionary, 2018). This is why I suggest that cotton is a commodity, as it is a raw material that can be manufactured into something to be sold worldwide.
I will be following the process of cotton farming and the point of which cotton becomes a commodity whereby it has value. Mosco (2009) states that the “commodification [of an item is the] … process of turning use values into exchange values, of transforming products whose value is determined by their ability to meet individual and social needs into products whose value is set by their market price” (Mosco, 2009: 132). This suggests that an item becomes a commodity once there is value added to the item and it has enough meaning and importance to become associated with economic exchange (Mosco, 2009). It is worth considering that when assessing value we must understand that the level of value differs from place to place and there is no universal idea of the value of something.
To begin with, we will explore the beginning of the commodity chain, where the cotton is produced and sourced from. Like with any raw material, there are prime growing conditions that allow for a substantial growth and a greater yield. For cotton, this involves a warmer climate which isolates the areas that are able to produce the crop. “The cotton production zone lies between 37 north and 32 south latitude” which includes places across the African continent and Asia (Directorate Plant Production, 2016: 5). It is for this reason that one of the main sourcing locations for cotton is India (Hendriksz, 2017). Already this provides problems for the country as it is worth noting that “producing 1kg of cotton in India consumes 22,500 litres of water” (Leahy, 2015) which is a staggering amount that Stacey Dooley (2018) also brings our attention to. Leahy (2015) also states that the amount of water required in the production of cotton would be enough to satisfy the needs of “85% of India’s vast population for a year” (Leahy, 2015) but due to poor irrigation practices and farming on extremely dry land, water availability is quite scarce (Leahy, 2015).
Firstly, it is worth discussing the way that the cotton is farmed. To begin with, “the cotton seeds are washed and prepared for planting” (Cultureshock Media, 2015), it is worth noting that this is all done by hand and there is no machinery involved in this process (Cultureshock Media, 2015) unless the cotton is in an “advanced region” (Cotton’s Journey, 2003). After the cotton is washed it is then planted by hand (by the cotton farmers in India). At harvest time, the cotton picking is also done by hand (Cultureshock Media, 2015). The varieties of cotton that are the most common to be farmed are “Upland and Pima” (Cotton’s Journey, 2003). “Once harvested, the cotton will be passed on to mills and factories to be cleaned, spun and woven into cloth” (Cultureshock Media, 2015). There are “millions of farmers in India and Pakistan produce an average of 8 billion kilograms of cotton annually” (Cultureshock Media, 2015) which makes cotton farming part of a large-scale network. Cotton’s Journey (2003) outlines the stages of processing that the cotton crop endures after being harvested, whereby the cotton is ginned and then “compressed into bales” (Cotton’s Journey, 2003). These bales are then sent to the mills where they are processed, creating an end result of either fabric or yarn whereby any contaminators are removed e.g. leaves (Cotton’s Journey, 2003).
I must now divert your attention to the history of cotton, often referred to as “white gold” (Cotton’s Journey, 2003) and how it’s production and sourcing sites have changed overtime. Firstly, it is worth exploring the role of the British Empire and the legalities associated with the production and manufacturing of cotton (Cotton’s Journey, 2003). Cotton’s Journey (2003) states that there were laws to keep the cotton industry within the British colony and to protect the thriving “English sheep and wool industry of that time” as these laws reduced the amount of competition within the market for the cotton industry (Cotton’s Journey, 2003). This has links with the spatialities of cotton production as the laws confined the cotton to the one country (Cotton’s Journey, 2003). The introduction of cotton farming in other regions holds a cultural importance. Deshpande (2018) emphasises the importance of the cotton industry as something that brings the community together and states that it is something rooted in the history of the people in India. When tracing the geographies of any commodity, it is important to realise the histories of production and the reasoning behind the practices of today.
After the cotton is harvested and milled in countries such like India it is exported out across the globe for manufacturing in locations such as China. Sourcing cotton from India has numerous benefits, most of which are outlined by Jadhav and Patton (2018). Jadhav and Patton (2018) collectively outline the fact that the Chinese import taxation on the U.S. has widened the market for India in China. Following this, “India has already signed contracts to ship 500,000 bales… [of cotton] in rare advance deals” (Jadhav et al. 2018). This means that India’s exports will vastly increase. Jadhav et al. (2018) comment that the location of India in relation to China will also benefit the amount of exports India has as India is closer the China than other cotton exporters such as Australia and Brazil (Jadhav et al. 2018). This connotes that China will receive cotton imports much quicker, in what Jadhav et al. (2018) estimates as “2 weeks… [compared to] 3-5 weeks” (Jadhav et al. 2018) which improves the efficiency of production and reduces the time it takes for the product to reach the consumer.
Primark have launched a “Sustainable Cotton Programme” (Hendriksz, 2017). This programme was designed to increase the traceability of cotton products from factory floor back to the farmers (Wightman-Stone, 2018). Furthermore, Wightman-Stone (2018) highlights that Primark have introduced this initiative to improve the standard of living for the cotton farmers and enhance yield through the selection of the best growing areas for the cotton plant (Wightman-Stone, 2018). Wightman-Stone (2018) states that this programme was first introduced in Gujarat, Northern India and has since been introduced elsewhere in locations such as Pakistan (Wightman-Stone, 2018).
There are hundreds of Primark factories globally, namely, 550 in China (Primark, 2018) where there is a considerably large work force. An example of one of these many factories is Changshu Kefu Garments Co Ltd (Primark, 2018). It has been noted that “conditions of employment in terms of wages, working hours, health and safety and representation are likely to be worse” (Howell and Kambhampati, 1999: 110) in places like China, the “world factory” (Ngai, 2007: 83) where the labour is extensive and seemingly cheap. This seems to be the common way we think about the production of such commodities, there is the common geographical idea that as a result of the large population in industry driven locations (globally) there is an almost permanent supply of workers. In reality, Leng (2018) comments that this isn’t the case. According to Leng (2018), the textile industry is suffering immensely due to the reframing of industry. This decline has mean that “China’s market share by value in the global textile and clothing industry fell from 38.6 per cent n 2015 to 35.8 per cent in 2016” (Leng, 2018).
Literature from Ngai (2007) points out that one of the ways to keep production costs low for TNCs (Primark being one of them). This means that regulations for workers in factories are next to none, despite any claimed efforts by TNCs to change this (Ngai, 2007). It is worth thinking about how us, as consumers, are maybe aware of this but choose to ignore it. This will be discussed shortly. Ngai (2007) comments on the living conditions of the workers and how they’re designed with the intent of housing a large workforce in low cost living in a multi-story complex. This is something that Ngai and Smith (2006) name as the ‘dormitory labour regime’ . Ngai (2007) argues that this is to enable rural migrant workers to re-associate their purpose with factory work and efficiency rather than their past in the rural villages and what they’ve left behind.
As consumers, we don’t tend to see the “fingerprints of exploitation” (Harvey, 1990: 423) that go into the production of our commodities. Cluley and Dunne (2012) note that we tend to ignore the conditions that items are made in and consume them anyway, the impacts and consequences are almost pushed aside. One idea is that despite knowing about the conditions under which the commodity is produced, we remain in a state of denial and we tend not to alter our behaviour, or we simply choose to just not know the practices embedded within the creation of the commodity (Freud, 200Id). This draws in on the Marxist concept of ‘commodity fetishism’ whereby the context of the commodity produced is removed and we don’t consider the production of the commodity (McAllister, 2015). Thus, relating to the geographical concept of imagined geographies, the “geographical imaginings of distant and different Others” (Morissey, 2014: 2). Mosco (2009) has labelled this as a form of “double mystification” (Mosco, 2009: 132) whereby our perception of the way the commodity is produced is somewhat distorted into something false. Mosco (2009) suggests that we as a society apply the social into the commodity production which makes it a “social struggle” (Mosco, 2009: 132) rather than a standard production chain.
When purchasing goods, we tend to remove ourselves from the associated stigmas with retailers. The article by Moore (2017) suggests that we are inclined to forget about the production of commodities in faraway places, as they seem too far from home and they are out of reach for us. We ignore what happens overseas and the costs required to fuel our lifestyles. Moore (2017) mentions the collapse of the Rana Plaza factory in Bangladesh, which Hendriksz (2017) describes as the “most deadly accident in the history of the garment industry” (Hendriksz, 2017). This accident is key as it shows the lack of regard that Primark (among other cheap brands) had and may have for the workers in the factory and the very few safeguards that there are for workers in such poor conditions (Hendriksz, 2017; Moore, 2017). Since this incident, Primark has payed greater attention to the structural safety of the factories it sources clothing from and this doesn’t just apply to factories in India (Hendriksz, 2017). Correspondingly, the ethics of Primark are always in question. An article from the BBC (2014) reported that Primark consumer found a “cry for help” (BBC, 2014) note in a garment which suggests that the factory worker wants to escape the working conditions that they operate under. This note indirectly connects the consumer to the worker as it brings attention to the labour costs that go into the products.
What about the actual movement of the commodity? How and where does it travel? Katie Hope (2017) directly states that our clothing has perhaps “been to more countries” (Hope, 2017) than ourselves. Hope (2017) comments that despite our clothing only having a label saying ‘made in’ and then a specific country, there are more locations involved in the production of every article of clothing that we own (Hope, 2017). Furthermore, this removes the distance between the consumer and the producers of the commodities as this label prevents any knowledge of other production sites (Hope, 2017).
There is an ease of access to clothes. We just buy it because it’s there not because we necessarily need it, the role of social media influencers on sites such as Instagram promote the purchase of such goods (Dooley, 2018). The influence of social media extends the sphere of the global geographical scale by lessening the gap between the global and the local body. It has been suggested by Paul Lister, “Primark’s head of ethical trade and environmental sustainability” (BBC, 2018), that it isn’t just the use of social media that helps to sell the clothing. Lister argues that Primark spend very little on advertising schemes as there is a restricted budget, this forces them to use the consumers of Primark fashion to advertise the clothing themselves (BBC, 2018). The “cheap and cheerful” (Shawcross, 2014) clothing range becomes appealing to young people as Shawcross (2014) suggests that it encourages shoppers to make multiple purchases at one time.
Looking at this in terms of economic geography, Timeout (1999) states that “you get what you pay for in terms of shopping experience” (Timeout, 1999). The review of Primark from Timeout (1999) looks at the shopping experience that you can expect in a Primark store and how the price of the cheap clothing reflects the service you receive in store. Timeout (1999) goes on to suggest that this experience is “chaotic” (Timeout, 1999) in the sense that there are articles of clothing everywhere almost like a junkyard whereby there are a mass of people in every direction rifling through the piles of clothes and trying on these articles, in some cases, without going to the changing rooms (Timeout, 1999).
What happens to these commodities when we no longer what them anymore? They become surplus to requirement. Do we throw them away? Give them to charity? Hansen (1999) draws in on the role that the West has in providing new markets for clothing in the South where in places like Zambia, there is a living to be made from these goods. There is the implication of recommodification here as the clothing that was previously deemed as useless and invaluable by the North becomes revalued by the people in the South as something of significance. Furthermore, the geographies of the clothing can be likened to “the body of the body” (Elias, 1978: 78). This association implies a connection between the closest scale (our own bodies) and the bodies of which the clothing are worn on next, Elias (1978) suggests that there becomes a link between the person who previously owned the clothing and the people that wear them next, they somehow become connected to the Western world.
In conclusion, this project has followed the flow of cotton from the site of production to the moment it becomes valueless to the consumers. I have outlined the scales and geographies involved in the production and consumption of a plain white cotton t-shirt. I have also highlighted the role of the consumer in reinforcing the perhaps exploitive working conditions overseas and the blind-eye we give to these practices.
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