By now most people in the western world do have an idea where their inexpensive clothing is coming from. Even more so after the collapse of a garment factory in Bangladesh in April 2013 became world news. Still the online documentary Planet Money Makes A T-Shirt is impressive in the way it gives a face to the people who make our clothes.

Starting as a Kickstarter project, Planet Money Makes A T-Shirt documents the making of a T-shirt from scratch. It is an amazing journey through different lands and connecting different people together. The project was initiated by American radio and television producer Alex Blumberg of Planet Money, and based on a book by Pietra Rivoli of McDonough School of Business at Georgetown University. The story makes you realize that there is nothing ordinary about an ordinary T-shirt.

Self-driving picking robots

The journey starts in America, as the U.S. is the biggest exporter of cotton in the world. The growth and harvest of crops are taken care of by pure technology. The picker machines are self-driving giant robots that can pick 100 acres of cotton a day. Even the seeds are genetically modified to resist pest. As American farmers are cool with it, over 90% of American cotton is genetically modified. As a result, a farm per year can produce enough cotton for 9 million T-shirts.

The American cotton is taken to Indonesia, Colombia, Bangladesh, where it is turned into yarn. Not many humans are involved in this phase, all is done by a series of cool machines with names like Trutzschler blendomat, Schlafhorst SE-8 OE Spinning Machine, Fukuhara Circular Knitting Machine, and Toyota Combing Machine. They spin, turn, pull, twist, heat, wash, and dye the cotton to fabric with consistency and precision. The recipe for spinning threads is as secretive as the Coke formula. One T-shirt consists of 6 miles of yarn and if any of threads is not consistent with the rest, the T-shirt will fall apart after a few washes. 

Jasmine and Doris

Next we meet Jasmine in Bangladesh and Doris in Colombia. They have the same job of sewing the T-shirts, but their geological contexts are far from the same. Even though Jasmine makes one of the lowest wages in the world, around $80/month, that can still help feed herself and her family living in extreme poverty in India. Meanwhile, Doris works under much better conditions and she makes four times as much as Jasmine. In Colombia, the garment industry is just an industry. In India, the garment industry drives a social upheaval that has both risks and possibilities. After the Rana Plaza factory in Bangladesh collapsed in 2013, there was increasing pressure to improve working conditions and wages. Even then Bangladesh will remain one of the countries with the cheapest labor in the world. But for workers like Jasmine a tiny wage rise means a considerable improvement.

Finally the T-shirts are shipped back to the US and the film shows how shipping containers are the key to the global economy. The standardized system makes it possible to send a T-shirt around the world by ships, trains and trucks for less than a dollar. Thanks to this cheap transportation companies can manage global supply chains spreading from the U.S. to Indonesia, Bangladesh, Colombia and back to the U.S.

As Doris from Colombia puts it, this film shows that behind each T-shirt are many worlds of different people with dreams and hopes to get a good life. 25,000 people who participated in the crowdfunding for this project – that only needed 2,000 supporters – demonstrated their willingness to help these dreams come true. Planet Money is a great project, although we have to say that the design of the T-shirt could’ve been better.