Episode 500: The Humble Innovation At The Heart Of The Global Economy : Planet Money Our women's Planet Money T-shirt got to you thanks to an overlooked innovation that's essential to the modern global economy. The innovation: a big, metal box.
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Episode 500: The Humble Innovation At The Heart Of The Global Economy

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Episode 500: The Humble Innovation At The Heart Of The Global Economy

Episode 500: The Humble Innovation At The Heart Of The Global Economy

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  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/432909854/432913079" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

DAVID KESTENBAUM, HOST:

Hey, everyone. It's David. This month, we are playing some of our favorite episodes from that T-shirt project that we did last year. You know, we designed these PLANET MONEY T-shirts and then we followed them all around the world, tracking every step as they were made. Some of those T-shirts, you may own one. In last week's episode, we were in Chittagong, Bangladesh. We met some of the people who were working in the factory that made the men's T-shirts.

Before that, we went to a cotton farm in Mississippi. On the show today, we are going to South America, going to Columbia. That's where the PLANET MONEY women's T-shirt was made. And this one is the story of how those T-shirts got home, how they came back here to the United States. And it explains why so many things are made collectively, really, by people all over the world. Here it is.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

KESTENBAUM: I'm standing by the ocean at a port in Colombia in Cartagena. And one of the biggest ships I've ever seen has just pulled in. This is the ship that our women's T-shirts are going to be on. And I have to say, this is way more ship than we need. The deck is many, many stories overhead, and the ship is so long, you can't imagine turning this thing around. You can't imagine steering it.

So, of course, I want to meet the captain - the captain who will be safely bringing our 6,000 T-shirts back to Miami - and whatever else is on board here. But even getting permission to stand here at the port was difficult. And now we want to see the king of the ship. It starts to rain pretty heavily, so we take shelter under a tarp with a bunch of dockworkers - the dockworkers, me and our translator, Camila (ph).

Ask them their advice on how we can get the captain to come say hello.

CAMILA MEJIA: (Speaking Spanish).

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Speaking Spanish).

MEJIA: (Speaking Spanish).

KESTENBAUM: The news is not good.

MEJIA: They say it's really difficult to make this possible because you have to ask first, the first officer, then the second officer, then the sailor that is on top and then asking the captain, and if he says OK. So it makes really difficult to...

KESTENBAUM: (Laughter).

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Speaking Spanish).

MEJIA: He says it's like talking to Obama.

KESTENBAUM: But, you know, we've come all this way. We have to try. And I figure our best chance is to write a letter to the captain of this huge ship that's towering over us. It's dark out now, so I sit down with a flashlight and a piece of paper at this picnic table under the tarp. But I don't really know what to say. I don't know anything about the captain. Is he a friendly guy? Is he mean? Does he have a peg leg? I don't even know his name.

How do you begin this? All right. Dear captain, I am a reporter - I'm writing in caps. I have no idea why.

Here's what the letter said - Dear captain, I'm a reporter with National Public Radio. I'm out here in the rain because one of these containers has some special T-shirts in it that we had made. We are doing a project following their creation. We'd love to meet the captain who will safely carry them to the United States. What do you say? Thanks in advance. I realize this is an odd request.

Think it's OK?

MEJIA: It's perfect.

KESTENBAUM: All right.

I put the letter in a Ziploc bag and cross my fingers. Our T-shirts, they traveled a very long way. If you got one of the men's shirts, here is its itinerary before it arrived at your door. Cotton for the men's shirts came from a field in Mississippi. The cotton then got sent all the way to the other side of the planet to Indonesia. In Indonesia, the cotton was spun into yarn. Then the yarn got packed up and sent five countries over to Bangladesh. In Bangladesh, the yarn was knitted into fabric, cut and sewn. Then your shirt got boxed up with others and sent off again. This time, traveling through the Suez Canal and the Straits of Gibraltar back to the United States, where I will point out, the cotton was grown in the first place. Total distance traveled -over 20,000 miles for just a little T-shirt.

Hello, and welcome to PLANET MONEY. I'm David Kestenbaum. Today on the show, the story of one humble, often ignored innovation that really made all this travel possible. It's a big reason why so many of the things we own, including your simple shirt, was made collectively by people in so many different countries so far apart. It's a big reason why our global economy is so very global. This innovation - it's a box, a huge, metal box.

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(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

KESTENBAUM: These boxes, you can see them at any port. Actually, at the port in Colombia, they're about all you see. There's the ship and then row after row of boxes.

It's like you're in a maze of containers. Shipping containers, you've seen them even if you don't know it. That truck next to you on the road, sometimes the back of it - the back of the truck - that is a container that not long ago had been on a ship and before that, maybe on the other side of the world.

One of the advantages of containers is that they're pretty much identical. That is not an advantage, though, if you're trying to find a particular one. I knew the PLANET MONEY shirts were in a blue container - not very helpful. About a third of them seem to be blue. It did have a number on it, but, you know, your eyes glaze over. Fortunately, our colleague Marianne McCune, who'd watched the shirts get packed, helpfully wrote the words PLANET MONEY on our container in what she had at the time - lipstick.

Oh, there it is. Yeah, M-O-N - that's it. It's still there (laughter). Marianne McCune, your lipstick held up.

Now, maybe big, metal boxes don't seem like much of an innovation, but there was a time not long ago when there were no containers. In the 1950s, a ship might have to get loaded with 200,000 different items by hand. Imagine guys carrying stalks of bananas, fishmeal, random stuff in sacks and boxes and cartons and barrels all getting packed tightly together by people like this guy.

ANTONIO SALCIDO: My name is Antonio Salcido. I am 84 years old. I worked as a longshoreman - hole work, dock work, driving a forklift.

KESTENBAUM: Salcido's first day on the job was in 1949 at the Port of Los Angeles. The boss told him to go over to hatch number one on this huge ship. As it happens, the guys there were loading cotton - who knows? - maybe destined to be a T-shirt. The bales of cotton were big and heavy. A single bale weighed 500 pounds. Salcido had no idea how to move one, but some of the guys were really good at it. Bales were basically round, except for one flat section. So you just get this big, 500-pound thing rolling.

SALCIDO: You go flat, round, flat, round. So whenever it goes flat, you really put an extra bit of pressure to get it to the round side. It's very difficult.

KESTENBAUM: It's easy to romanticize these days of hard-working men, laboring side by side. But that romantic vision would leave out cattle hides - Salcido's least favorite cargo.

SALCIDO: They were slimy, often had maggots, and they were stinky as hell. I mean, it was just horrible. I've never smelled anything like hides.

KESTENBAUM: It was also a dangerous job. Salcido remembers one man who was crushed by a steel pipe. And if you were shipping stuff, the system wasn't ideal either. As fast as these guys were working, it still took a long time to get stuff on and off a ship. Even with 50 or a hundred people working, a ship might sit in port for weeks while it was unloaded and then reloaded. And stuff sometimes disappeared from the docks - whiskey in particular.

SALCIDO: (Laughter) Well, pretty much everything used to disappear. They called it plunder. And essentially, I mean, you know, you hide it in your coats. A lot of the whiskey was drunk on the job. You'd put stuff in your lunchbox. So you'd find a way to make off with it. You know, it wasn't anything that was condoned, but it was - it happened.

KESTENBAUM: Did you ever take anything?

SALCIDO: Well, sure, unfortunately, I'll say. I mean, I consider myself basically honest, but I have to admit that about three times that I can remember I did take something. And then, unfortunately, your conscious bothers you afterwards.

KESTENBAUM: Salcido says he took two fishing reels and a derailleur from a bicycle. This carrying and stowing of things by hand, this was the way it had been for centuries, and it continued really until one guy came along, a guy who had no experience with ships at all. His name was Malcolm McLean. Marc Levinson wrote a history of the container called "The Box." McLean, he says, owned a trucking company, and he was thinking about a different problem entirely. McLean's problem - it was taking a long time for his trucks to go up and down the East Coast. This was the 1950s, and the interstates hadn't been built yet.

MARC LEVINSON: And he originally had the idea that maybe if he could buy a ship, he could put the trucks on the ship in New York, send the ship down the coast to North Carolina and offload the trucks there. And he would avoid the traffic.

KESTENBAUM: It was a way to avoid traffic.

LEVINSON: It was a way to avoid traffic.

KESTENBAUM: (Laughter) McLean eventually gave up on the idea of driving trucks onto ships. A truck, after all, is just an engine attached to a box. So why not make the box detachable? But McLean faced a number of hurdles. For one, this idea of strapping a bunch of really large, heavy containers onto the deck of a ship, that struck some people as potentially unwise.

LEVINSON: The big concern was, well, what's going to happen when this ship gets into a storm? Is water going to leak into these containers and ruin the merchandise? Will the containers tumble into the sea? Will the containers cause the entire ship to capsize?

KESTENBAUM: To address these concerns, Malcolm McLean had a bunch of containers built, affixed them to a ship and sailed them up and down the east coast until they got into storms - the result, no problems. Ship and containers were fine. Still, containers did not just take off. There was one group in particular that did not think much of them, the longshoreman. Tony Salcido remembers seeing his first container. It did not make him happy, for obvious reasons.

SALCIDO: I think the majority of the longshoremen down there just saw it as a loss of jobs.

KESTENBAUM: But what about the idea that it was a cheaper way to do it, and that it would save all this labor?

SALCIDO: Well, of course, you know, that never entered my mind exactly, that, you know, it was a cheaper way to ship goods because, you know, we were more concerned with our own livelihood and putting food on the table.

KESTENBAUM: The unions and the shipping companies fought over this for years. The details could fill a book. But in the end, the shipping companies eventually agreed to pay into funds that would compensate the workers. There was one other major obstacle. And it's the sort of thing that when you have a great idea like containers, you probably think, oh, that's just a detail. But for containers to work everywhere, everyone had to agree on how big they were going to be. Trucks and trains in different countries were different sizes. Marc Levinson says this mind-numbing thing, international standards, took a long while to sort out.

SALCIDO: If you can imagine spending 10 years sitting in smoke-filled rooms, talking about how thick the end wall of a container should be, well, there are people who actually did that.

KESTENBAUM: With these standards in place, the number of container ships finally started to grow. By the mid '60s, Malcolm McLean, the guy who dreamed of driving trucks onto ships to avoid traffic, he had put together an impressive fleet of container ships. His company, called SeaLand, even started making container ship runs to Europe. Marc Levinson writes that one of the first cargoes to come back in those containers was whiskey, which, when locked in an anonymous container, wasn't going to disappear. Containers popped up everywhere, and they greatly reduced the cost of shipping. Whole distribution systems were set up around these big boxes that could be easily moved from ships to train to trucks. Our T-shirts, for example, no one had to load cardboard boxes of shirts onto a truck then off of a truck and onto a ship and off of a ship and into a train car. No, the T-shirts got put in a container at the factory, and no one was going to have to touch them again until the container arrived at its final destination in the U.S. Marc Levinson says containers are a big reason why so many things get put together in stages all over the world, why no one thinks twice about sending cotton to the other side of the planet to get woven into thread.

LEVINSON: Modern globalization could not have happened without the container. If you had to be loading every little bag and barrel and box separately onto a vessel, if you had a vessel spending two weeks in port every time it had a port call and 200,000 items being loaded off and 200,000 more being loaded back on, it would be impossible to have trade on the scale that we have today. It's containerization that made that possible.

KESTENBAUM: The cost of getting our T-shirts all the way home by ship and train and truck - in the final tally, it's barely going to show up - pennies per shirt. At the port in Colombia, a big bulldozer of a machine grabs the container with the PLANET MONEY shirts off a stack, whisks it over and puts in gently on the ground next to the ship. Our shirts are almost on board, and time is running out to meet the captain. But just then, next to me, as if out of nowhere, a short, trim man appears.

Hi, my name is David.

ERNESTO P. ALAS: Yeah. Captain Ernesto P. Alas.

KESTENBAUM: Captain Ernesto P. Alas, the captain of the giant ship. He's 63 years old, from the Philippines, speaks a little English - a little of everything, actually. And it turns out, I didn't even need my note to get to meet him. Someone got word to him that some reporters wanted to talk, so he came down. But he liked the note. And he asked to keep it. And then, Captain Alas, he invites us on his giant ship. We walk up the gangplank. It's a long way to the deck. We pass the ship's name, which is painted in big letters on the side, Hansa Kirkenes. When we get to the top, we look down into the belly of this ship. And it is just container after container after container. Here are some numbers. In a single container, you can fit about 80,000 T-shirts. Alas tells me that the ship can carry 700 containers - meaning if this were a pure T-shirt ship, that would be over 50 million T-shirts just on this ship. And frankly, this ship is a number of years old. There are much larger ones now. Captain Alas leads the way up more stairs to what they call the wheelhouse, which has these big panoramic windows. We're way up in the air now. It feels like you're looking out of the top if a tall building. And my question of how you steer such a huge thing - turns out, this is called the wheelhouse because it has a steering wheel. It's surprisingly small, though, like it's been taken from a go-kart.

I thought the wheel would be bigger.

ALAS: No, that's your (unintelligible) Magellan.

KESTENBAUM: Magellan? (Laughter).

The captain says that life on a container ship these days, it's actually pretty uneventful. He's been boarded by pirates once. They stole some ropes. Sometimes, he sees whales or flying fish but not usually. Most days, the ship just plugs along. Containers changed life for sailors. The ships these days get loaded so fast there often isn't time for anyone to go ashore. The crew eat here. They sleep here. One crew member we ran into was in his pajamas. They keep the ship in shape. And sometimes, they play pingpong.

This ball acceptable to you, Captain?

ALAS: Yeah.

KESTENBAUM: OK, OK. Oh, all right, OK, the captain's good at pingpong.

The points are short. The captain wins easily, as apparently he does most of the time. Captain Alas and the crewmembers I met told me that they are on the ocean for most of the year. They're on the water more often than they're on solid ground, carrying T-shirts and food and cars and all the stuff of the world, all over the world. One of the challenges for the captain of a container ship is morale. Everyone on board is away from their families. There's Internet, but it's pretty slow out in the middle of the ocean.

Is there a room to watch movies in?

ALAS: Oh, yeah, they watch movies. We have a - as a matter of fact, we have no new - so like, we knew you are singing. We just...

KESTENBAUM: Oh, karaoke, karaoke.

ALAS: Yeah, karaoke, karaoke.

KESTENBAUM: You have a karaoke machine on boat. (Singing) Lying beside you, here in...

We tracked down the best singer on board, Arnelle Rioflorido (ph). He was on his way to fix something, but he stopped to sing.

ARNELLE RIOFLORIDO: (Singing) Softly you whisper. You're so sincere. How could our love be so blind? That's all I can sing (laughter).

KESTENBAUM: These are the people who are going to take our T-shirts from Colombia to Miami. Before they pull out of port, the captain and I watch as our container gets loaded onto the ship. The man operating the crane is way overhead. I can barely make him out. He maneuvers the arm of the crane over the container and lowers the gear that will grab it. If you've ever been to a boardwalk arcade at the beach and played that game the Claw, where you try to pick up a stuffed animal, it's like that, except that the stuffed animal can weigh two tons, and you really don't want to drop it. The container, 40 feet long, goes up in the air and over to the ship. The whole thing takes about one minute.

Thank you very much.

ALAS: No problem (laughter), safely on board without damage (laughter).

KESTENBAUM: There it is, our container, with the words PLANET MONEY T-shirts written on the end in lipstick, going below deck of Hansa Kirkenes, a giant container ship bound for Miami.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "EXODUS I")

JON LEMMON: (Singing) Sail through those starry lights and see what we can find.

KESTENBAUM: We have a great video from this project. It's at npr.org/shirt. And if you watch the part with the container ship closely, for a second, you can see the captain there. He's the guy attaching the GoPro to the front of the ship as he leaves the port. On Wednesday, we are going to have one more T-shirt story for you. This one, we're going to find out what happens to T-shirts after people throw them out. We visit a giant, used-clothing market in Nairobi, Kenya, which has this pretty amazing selection, including a T-shirt from a very particular bat mitzvah. We try to track down the original order.

A few special thank yous today, thanks to Roxana Avila (ph) in Colombia who helped set everything up and Camila Mejia (ph) who did translation for us. Also thanks to the many people at Compass who run the port there and allowed us to come hang out.

We'd love to know what you think. You can send us email at planetmoney@npr.org. Our show today was produced by Darian Woods. Thank you, Darian. I'm David Kestenbaum. Thanks for listening.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "EXODUS I")

LEMMON: (Singing) There might be a planet with green plants to ease our mind, to ease our mind. A place where we can start again, we'll do it better this time.

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