A few weeks ago, we started to talk about international shipping, the switch to containerized shipping, and the globalization of the textile industry. Yea, you read that right. All this with these 1st and 2nd graders.
The thing that started it all was this podcast, which focuses on the port of Oakland. It tells the story from the beginning, hearing from longshoremen and tugboat drivers, and follows the story all the way through to today, even taking the listener inside a container crane. Because, you see, shipping goods around the world used to be enormously hard, labor intensive work. Ports employed lots of people, because lots of human power was needed to load and unload cargo from the belly of ships. And so, a lot more stuff was made closer to home. Things were trucked across the country. Then, a company called Sealand used the first container. Suddenly, stuff could be loaded in boxes, and those boxes could be put on ships. Instead of each sack of coffee or pallet of cloth being painstakingly loaded, containers could quickly and relatively easily be stacked on ships. Now, all it takes is one operator in a container crane. And so, since shipping is so cheap–so cheap in fact, that the international shipping industry loses money hand over fist–we started getting more and more products made overseas, where labor is cheaper. On that first day, after listening to the first episode of Containers, we took a minute to look at the tags of our t-shirts to see where they all came from. India, Indonesia, China, Guatemala, Vietnam. And off we went.
The following week, we started to look at some data about the Port of Oakland, getting ready to go on a field trip to see it all in person. We work on making graphs and charts about where the goods received at the port typically come from, and what kinds of goods are packed inside all of those containers. Then, we spent a day at Middle Harbor Shoreline Park in Oakland, right smack in the middle of the port, taking a closer look at the container cranes, and watching in awe the amount of truck traffic going in and out, in and out, constantly. So many trucks! So many containers!
Then on Friday, it was our turn to lead morning circle. So, we posed a question to the whole school: where did the shirt you’re wearing come from? And the data we collected was really compelling. The following Monday, we got to work graphing our data, making bar graphs and line plots. As we worked, we noticed that close to half of our shirts came from Asia, with Latin America a distant second. We also noticed that none of our shirts came from Europe or Russia or Australia.
We knew that a lot of the reason that so many shirts came from Asia, which seems very far away, is that container shipping is cheap, and so is labor, but our understanding was missing the human story. So, I went to Newsela, searching for articles about the textile industry. These articles really filled in the story of our t-shirts. First of all, chances are the cotton your t-shirt is made of was grown in the US. You won’t find that on the tag! On top of that, kids might have had a hand in making our clothes! And, women in Bangladesh actively choose to work in the textile industry, because even though it can be dangerous, it gives them freedom to earn their own money and make their own decisions.
That last point really stuck out to us. In our discussions of what we think about the textile industry, most Yellow Banders had a value for affordable clothes, and no discrimination for someone making the shirt here or far away. If the shipping is cheap, why not? People in other countries need good jobs, so why not make clothes? And, people need access to clothes they can afford! Reading these articles (and later listening to the Planet Money episode about two Bangladeshi sisters that work in a garment factory) gave our discussion a lot more depth and empathy. Now we could see that we could both be in favor of affordable clothes, and think that the humans that work to make our clothes deserve to earn a living wage and work in a safe environment.
Then, I saw online that this past Monday would be the 4 year anniversary of the Rana Plaza Factory collapse in Dhaka, Bangladesh. So, I decided we should make our own t-shirts.
And that’s the story of why we’re making clothes during the by Sea arc. In case you were wondering.