Earlier this week, we were wowed by an elaborate parody of a certain purveyor of anachronistic Americana: Remade Co. cleaved its supposedly superlative subject like an axe splitting a cord of firewood. Today, we'd like to share another brilliantly conceived and produced multimedia project from NPR, one that expresses the opposite sentiment, supplanting the thickly-laid irony with earnest, beautiful reporting from Mississippi, Indonesia, Bangladesh and Colombia. Planet Money Makes a T-Shirt was originally Kickstarted six months ago, bringing in over ten times its $50,000 goal, and the meta-level T-shirt reward tier (the only one available) was both the means to support and the premise of the investigative journalism project.
That $590K most certainly paid off: A custom web experience drives the compelling narrative, which presents an incredible amount of quantitative and qualitative information in an easily digestible format: tightly-edited video complemented by just the right amount of text, stills and archival photography.
NPR has been supporting the self-contained website with additional content & broadcasts this week; here's a brief synopsis (spoiler alert?) and the introduction below, but you should really just check it out for yourself...
The story loosely alternates between man and machine, starting with the technological marvel of the Gossypium itself, featuring bucolic aerial pans of vast expanses in the American South to contrast with the sterile GM labs. A felicitously-named fella named Bowen Flowers is the face of the farmstead, where an iPad app serves as a technological descendant to Eli Whitney's gin as a means of streamlining the process. Part two is a diverting bit of manufacturing porn, a clipshow of the machines that transform the wispy nuggets of raw American cotton into spun 'yarn'—Kubrick-esque one-point perspective set to a generic nu-disco beat (something like a less hook-y version of Daft Punk's "Get Lucky," among other tunes).
Chapter three is the centerpiece, in which a pair of parallel protagonists illustrate the economic impact of the fashion industry on a hyperlocal scale (the accompanying diptychs are a nice touch); it's followed by a shorter segment on the shipping industry—commerce at the global level. Incidentally, the Atlantic recently published a serendipitous companion piece, Craig Martin's "Cyber Monday paean" to the humble shipping container, a chronicle of the standardization of the unmistakable corrugated boxes (though he omits the detail that the longshoremen were bought out).
The fifth and final clip brings it all together, making for a story that is moving without being maudlin—I consumed it in a single sitting—and provocative without being proselytizing. While it might be all but impossible to trace its impact on consumer behavior, it's well worth watching "Planet Money Makes a T-Shirt" as a reality check, if nothing else, as the season of consumption bears down on us. (For similar sentiment in a continuous format, I also recommend Patagonia's "Worn Wear" short doc, a decidedly anti-consumerist series of vignettes that the clothiers "released as an antidote to the Black Friday and Cyber Monday shopping frenzy... an invitation to celebrate the stuff you already own.")
Hat-tip to D-Crit / Anna Marie Smith