Episode 496: Where The Planet Money T-Shirt Began : Planet Money We made a T-shirt, and followed it every step of the way. First step: a high-tech cotton farm.
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Episode 496: Where The Planet Money T-Shirt Began

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Episode 496: Where The Planet Money T-Shirt Began

Episode 496: Where The Planet Money T-Shirt Began

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If you were to visit the PLANET MONEY offices, you would notice something strange. Tucked into corners around the office and in boxes underneath our desks are hundreds and hundreds of T-shirts. T-shirts in grey and pink, they have a squirrel on them holding a martini glass. These are the official PLANET MONEY T-shirts. And if you've been following the show for a while, you know that we actually manufactured this T-shirt ourselves. When I say that I don't mean we just put a logo on them, no. We actually partnered with a big apparel company called Jockey who helped us design and construct these T-shirts almost from scratch. And then we documented the whole process from start to finish.

What we found in these stories was that our T-shirt was touched by all these people around the world. They were people in rich countries with advanced degrees helping us with our T-shirt and some of the lowest-paid workers in the world. Our T-shirt, we estimated, traveled 20,000 miles, all these different countries, three different continents. And we brought all the stories to you. So this month, on Wednesdays, we are going to replay some of our favorite PLANET MONEY T-shirt stories. And as a special treat for you, if you stay tuned till the end, we will tell you how you can enter to win some of our extra T-shirts. We have really got to get these things out of the office.


R. SMITH: Hello, and welcome to PLANET MONEY. I'm Robert Smith. Today on the show, producer Jess Jiang and I travel around the world to search for the birthplace of the PLANET MONEY T-shirt - talking here about the cotton farm, the cotton field. Our T-shirt was made of 100 percent cotton, but tracing it back to the place where that was grown was this big mystery for us. It required a lot of detective work.

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R. SMITH: Imagine going into a gas station. You've just filled up your car and going to the guy who works behind the counter and saying, hey, you know, I was just wondering, where did this gasoline come from? I mean, not the company, not Texaco or Exxon - whatever. I mean, exactly where was the well that produced the oil that got refined into my gasoline?

JESS JIANG, BYLINE: Or going to a car plant and asking them where did they mine the ore that made the steel that went into that car door.

R. SMITH: This is how we felt a few months ago when we started to ask a pretty basic question about the PLANET MONEY T-shirt - where is the farm? Where is the farm that made the cotton that made our T-shirt? And people just laughed when we asked this, even the Jockey corporation. Now, they're the company we're working with to make our T-shirt. They helped us find the factories and all the players, but even they couldn't tell us where the cotton came from. But they did - they did recommend a place that we could go to find the answer. It's a place halfway around the world - a factory in Indonesia called Indorama. And so we packed our bags, and we went.

JIANG: Anil Tibrewal, he's the chief sales guy at Indorama, and he met us at the factory gate.

R. SMITH: There is this sort of amazing smell here.

ANIL TIBREWAL: It's the cotton smell.

JIANG: It does smell natural.

TIBREWAL: This is natural. If you go to the cotton fields, pick up a ball, smell it. It's almost similar like this.

R. SMITH: A little bit like the earth where it came from.

Anil told us, come with me, I will show you where your cotton came from. And so he brought us into this warehouse - actually, it's like two warehouses, and they are giant. It is humid in there. It smells like yeast. And there are thousands of bales of cotton stacked all the way to the rafters. And there's little signs on each one that says where the cotton came from. And it's like the United Nations back there. You got Brazil. You got Greece. They happen to wrap their cotton bales in blue plastic, just like their flag.

JIANG: We also see giant columns of Australian cotton, columns that are two or three stories high.

R. SMITH: Anil said that he thought our cotton for our T-shirt probably was all the way in the back. And he brought us back there, and I got to say it came from a pretty surprising place.

JIANG: Is this from Arkansas?

TIBREWAL: Memphis. This is Memphis.

JIANG: Oh, Memphis.

R. SMITH: This is Charlotte, Charlotte. This is all...

TIBREWAL: This one the same lot. We won't...

R. SMITH: Is this Charlotte all the way up?

TIBREWAL: This whole lot of bales is American cotton.

R. SMITH: There's a little tag on each and every bale, and I see Marmaduke, Ark., Halls, Tenn., Lyon, Miss. It's like going on a road trip down along the Mississippi River Delta. Now, this, on the face of it, does not seem to make much economic sense because of all the countries in the world, there are hundreds of places that can grow cotton, any place that has warm weather and enough sun and the right soil. There are places that are much, much closer to Indonesia that can grow the cotton, places where the land is cheap, where the labor's cheaper. So why ship a bunch of cotton from the furthest place away that you can find from Indonesia? Why does this place get so much cotton from America? And guess what? They are ordering more every day.

ANUPAM AGRAWAL: Today, I have decided to buy 2,000 tons of American cotton - 4,214.

R. SMITH: Just today you did?

AGRAWAL: On the farm. Without even seeing the crop because the crop is only going to come out next year.

R. SMITH: That's Anupam Agrawal. He's a big boss around here. And to understand why in his eyes American cotton is king, you have to understand exactly what they do at this giant factory in Indonesia. Indorama is a spinning plant. They take raw cotton and they spin it into yarn.

JIANG: OK, yarn.

R. SMITH: Yarn (laughter).

JIANG: Whatever image you have in your head, just forget about it. Stop thinking about grandmas knitting scarves. Yarn in the textile business is the stuff you and I might call thread.

R. SMITH: But they do not call it thread.

JIANG: No, they yell at you whenever you call it thread. So look closely at your T-shirt. See those tiny, little lines? That is yarn. It's the stuff you knit or weave together to make fabric.

R. SMITH: And you can tell we're speaking about yarn in sort of an odd voice because yarn, once you look into it, is incredibly complicated. Randy Schelling is one of our advisers from Jockey. And he told us that when they design a T-shirt, they spend a lot of time creating the perfect yarn with just the right qualities.

RANDY SCHELLING: You have the twist, the amount of twist, the direction of the twist.

JIANG: They even specify fiber content and something called tenacity.

SCHELLING: Newtons per tex on the yarn. That's the relationship to the size of the yarn and the amount of strength.

R. SMITH: So that's if you tug on it, if it's going to break.


R. SMITH: We asked Randy how many different kinds of yarn you could come up, and he said, basically, the number is infinite. So we asked him, what about the PLANET MONEY yarn? Can we have a copy of this spec sheet for the yarn, so that, you know, we could post it on our website, show you exactly what kind of yarn is in our T-shirt?

SCHELLING: No, I don't believe so (laughter).

MARION SMITH: That's our special sauce.

R. SMITH: That was Randy's boss, Marion Smith, at the end there. He says that yarn is a trade secret. They share it with nobody - not us, nobody. It's like the recipe for Coke, only so much softer on the skin.

JIANG: The reason all this obsession and secrecy about yarn is that yarn has to be perfect. There's six miles of it in your T-shirt.

R. SMITH: Six miles.

JIANG: And it all has to be exactly the same thickness, the same tenacity, the same strength or else the PLANET MONEY T-shirt would feel funny. It wouldn't fit right, and it would warp.

AGRAWAL: Creating the best possible yarns in the world, you need the best possible cotton.

R. SMITH: And this is why Anupam Agrawal - and everyone else here at Indorama - loves American cotton. It's the best - and I can say that as a Canadian. The American cotton is long. It is strong and fairly white - everything you want in a cotton. But more important to the folks around here, it is consistent. When you open bales of American cotton, you know exactly what you're getting. And that's important because Indorama makes all this perfect yarn with perfect robots, lots and lots of expensive robots. And as you may well know, robots hate anything that is not consistent. So Anil takes us into the plant, the plant itself. It's big as a football field. And there is hardly a worker inside. These are beautiful machines. They are, like, immaculate.

TIBREWAL: And very expensive.

R. SMITH: Very expensive, he says. And here's what all those machines do. The cotton gets sucked into sort of a long, thick rope. It's like an infinite ponytail. And this ponytail dips and swirls above our heads. And I reach out and grab a little bit of it - feels like cotton candy.

It's so light. And if you touch it, it almost falls apart it's so fragile.

And now the twist - literally, the twist. This ponytail starts to speed up, starts to spin and twist. And suddenly, this big, thick ponytail is very thin and extremely strong.

JIANG: Indorama puts out enough of this very strong yarn to make a T-shirt every second. That's enough yarn in a day to circle the globe 24 times.

R. SMITH: It took us a long time, but we did that calculation with Anil. Now, occasionally, this yarn will break, and this is where the few workers in the plant come in. There are these women. They have long headscarves. And they come up to the little, broken piece of yarn and they literally just sort of snap it with their fingers, and they twist the broken yarn pieces back together.

Other than the women who come and, like, pick up the thread and fix it, there is no human who touches this at all.

TIBREWAL: No, they are not touching here. Why should you touch the product by hands? You are destroying the product.

JIANG: But what's destroying it? My hands are clean. I washed them.

TIBREWAL: No, your hands are not clean. Dirty hands are bound to touch it. And then, look at this. The yarn is destroyed.

R. SMITH: So this goes to one of the big reasons that Anil chooses American cotton - Americans are just as obsessed with purity as the Indonesians are. And this may sound strange, but, if anything, the American farm is more high-tech than this Indonesian factory. And American cotton, if possible, is touched by fewer human hands - not even this guy.

BOWEN FLOWERS: My name is Bowen Flowers. We're standing on one of my farms we call Omega.

R. SMITH: This is Clarksdale, Miss. It's one of the towns that we got from the tags on the cotton bales back in Indonesia. It's the Mississippi Delta. It's the home of the blues, the guitarist Robert Johnson, and as far as we can estimate, we narrowed it down to generally this area. But this - we're going to call it now - this is the birthplace of the PLANET MONEY T-shirt.

JIANG: We're standing on Bowen's field, and it's just immense - white, white, white cotton all the way to the horizon. From afar, it kind of looks like snow.

R. SMITH: Yeah, except it's really hot out. We grabbed this bunch of cotton back at the warehouse in Indonesia when no one was looking, and we brought it back here to its ancestral home.

Can you identify it? Is that yours?

FLOWERS: (Laughter) Don't know but it looks like the same as all the cotton around this area. That's for sure.

R. SMITH: Bowen is one big farmer - in both senses of the word. He has 4,000 acres of cotton across several fields. That's one of the largest spreads in Mississippi. And he's also 6-foot-7. The plants only come up to his belt buckle. Now, when I started working on this story, I never really imagined that we grew this much cotton still in the United States. All of my images of cotton picking were from history - you know, plantations, slavery, sharecroppers living in little shacks at the edge of the field, handpicking cotton. That is not the way it works these days.

JIANG: This is the John Deere 7760. It has that iconic green color, and it's big as a house boat. Bowen bought five of them just last year, and they did not come cheap.

BOWEN FLOWERS: They right at 600,000 apiece. So we've got a big investment. We got to make something to try to make the payments on them every year.

R. SMITH: You bought $3 million worth of equipment last year to pick cotton?

FLOWERS: It's crazy, isn't it? Real crazy (laughter) we might need to have our brain examined (laughter).

JIANG: Bowen makes cotton the way Germans make luxury cars. It's high-tech. It's automated. It's GPS-tracked. These machines, they automatically pack the cotton into these huge cylinders the size of SUVs.

R. SMITH: One driver can do a hundred acres a day, which is something that they couldn't even dream of a few years ago. And Bowen can sit back and watch the progress and the statistics on a satellite map on his iPad.

FLOWERS: I could be at the house doing office work and check and see how they're doing.

R. SMITH: Even though it's a pretty sweltering day in Mississippi, Bowen never breaks a sweat. In fact, he never really gets out of his air-conditioned truck. He just drives around, looks at his iPad, talks to people through the window. And as cushy as it is for Bowen, for the farmer, the driver of the John Deere has an even sweeter gig.


R. SMITH: We're climbing up the ladder into picker number three to hitch a ride with Martovia Latrell Jones. Everyone calls him Toto.

JIANG: He was named after the dog from "Wizard Of Oz."

R. SMITH: Yeah, by his grandmother. And once we're all packed into the cockpit of this John Deere, Toto puts the machine into gear.

JONES: Whoa.

R. SMITH: And then Toto just let's go.

You just took your hands off the wheel. You don't even have to touch it.

JONES: Yeah, pretty much everything driving itself.

JIANG: OK, Robert, we kind of nerded out over this machine because it was so amazing. The picker feels the cotton plant and makes all the adjustments. And just like the workers in Indonesia, Toto just has to sit back and let the machine do its work. He can call his wife on the cellphone, eat his lunch, sing along to the blues station.

JONES: Y'all might not like my singing.

R. SMITH: Toto tells me he has a lot of time to think up here. He was raised by his grandfather named George Jones. And George worked on a cotton farm before all of this technology. George told him what it used to be like.

JONES: Had to get down on their hands and knees, get blisters and splinters in their fingernails and everything.

R. SMITH: You do realize that you probably harvest more in five minutes than he did all day long?

JONES: Yeah. I can make a round and pick more than they picked in their whole lifetime.

R. SMITH: And so up here in the John Deere 7760, it makes sense that the PLANET MONEY T-shirt is made out of American cotton. You can see how it's cleaner, how it's pristine, it's better quality, and there is one more thing that American cotton has going for it - it's not that much more expensive than cotton from incredibly poor countries. And this gets to the final reason why America exports more cotton than anyone else in the world. According to a lot of people, our competitors especially, the United States cheats. The United States stacks the deck, and we do that with a very complicated mix of subsidies and other kinds of support from the U.S. government. We called up Pietra Rivoli. She's been sort of an inspiration to us on this project. She's an economist. She wrote a book called "The Travels Of A T-shirt In The Global Economy." And she says that as much as possible, the U.S. government has taken most of the risk out of farming. And let's just think about that sentence for a little bit. Farming is one of the most risky businesses there is. I mean, it's in the Bible, right? Plagues, blights, droughts. The U.S. government basically has a program for every one of those.

PIETRA RIVOLI: There are bad things that can happen. Prices can fall. There can be too much rain. It can be too hot. It can be too cold. A lot of those risks are protected against by government programs, particularly insurance subsidies.

R. SMITH: So basically they give them cheap insurance.

RIVOLI: They give them cheap insurance.

R. SMITH: And as they say on the late-night infomercials, that's not all.

JIANG: The government, they also send a check.

R. SMITH: They send a check - straight out subsidy. It is a complicated formula. We went over all the books with Bowen Flowers, but we estimate that for the 4,000 acres of cotton that Bowen and his family farm this year, his operation could be expected to get around $100,000 in government support. And to be fair, other countries also support their agricultural products in various ways, but nobody - I got to say - does it as effectively as the United States of America, where you see subsidies and technology combining into this tightly linked team. It's almost an organism.

You know, you take, for example, the $600,000 John Deere pickers that Bowen bought. It's a huge investment. That would be risky for any small businessmen. But because the government has removed much of Bowen's others risks, he can not only buy the machine but also look at getting a larger farm to use all those machines on. And because Bowen is willing to make that investment, John Deere is willing to make new and better models every few years. And a bunch of guys in Indonesia get clean, consistent cotton at a bargain price.

Now, from the outside, this looks like a private market at work, but like a lot of so-called free markets in the United States, underneath it is your U.S. tax dollars, enabling the whole system to exist.

Back up in the cockpit of the John Deere cotton picker, Toto can watch his progress on this cool little computer screen. It tells you minute by minute how much cotton is coming off the plants. And the green lights mean that everything is going perfectly this fall. They're on track to harvest 6 billion pounds of cotton. That's enough cotton, in other words, just from one farm in Mississippi to make a T-shirt for every person in New York City.

JONES: Once it leave here, I know it goes, like, maybe a thousand different places before it becomes a T-shirt. So I would like to just see that one day, just, you know, see where all the - what all other happens after it leaves the cotton gin.

JIANG: We told Toto about Indonesia and all the robots and the miles and miles of yarn and how the project will follow the yarn in Indonesia to the sewing in Bangladesh and to Colombia.

R. SMITH: And when you finally get the PLANET MONEY T-shirt you ordered, you know, this part of the process, the cotton, the spinning, it becomes invisible because no T-shirt ever on the label says oh, born in the fields of Mississippi or spun in Indonesia. Anupam Agrawal, the boss back at Indorama, he says this part is occasionally frustrating.

AGRAWAL: You would never imagine how much effort, investment and time is spent in creating a quality which you just go and pick up, you know? When I see people picking up a T-shirt and then just putting it back in the shelf in a store, I thought, hey, man, we worked very hard to make that yarn which has made that T-shirt. So come on, give it some respect.


COMMON: (Rapping) Let's shake off the dust from the cloth. Oh, you're worried about when people stop and stare. That's just a tear on those beautiful clothes you wear.

R. SMITH: We're always interested to hear what you think of the program. You can email us at planetmoney@npr.org. And for those of you who listened this whole time just to win a free T-shirt, or perhaps you fast forwarded to the end - very sneaky - here's how you do it - email us at the address I just gave you - planetmoney@npr.org - and write the word cotton in the subject line - C-O-T-T-O-N. We'll pick, like, say, 10 entries at random, so make sure you have your name in the email and the size of T-shirt that you would like and whether you would like it to be the men's or the women's T-shirt, gray or pink. And I should say we cannot afford to send this overseas - I'm so sorry - so domestic entrants only.

JIANG: Find us on Facebook, Twitter, Spotify; I'm Jess Jiang.

R. SMITH: And I'm Robert Smith. Thanks for listening.


COMMON: (Rapping) Yeah, that's the thread that helps us move ahead. You hunger for affection will always be fed. Thank God we never sped. Let love take its course. It's what's inside of us, no need to outsource the cloth. Oh, you're worried about when people stop and stare. That's just a tear on those beautiful clothes you wear. Cut from the same cloth you just want to wear. But that's just a tear.

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