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Geography students map origin of their own clothes in research project

Andrea Lynn, Humanities Editor


CHAMPAIGN, Ill. —  Geography students at the University of Illinois have literally mapped the clothes on their backs to examine regional patterns in apparel manufacturing.

So, what did they discover about where their jeans, sweatshirts and socks were made?

The top supplier of the students’ clothing was China, a blowout competitor at 16 percent of the items the students considered. Mexico was a distant second at 8 percent. The three other contenders were Honduras and Vietnam, tied for No. 3 at 5 percent; and Indonesia, in last place at 4.5 percent.

Only 7 percent of the items the students examined were made in the USA.

The project was the final computer mapping exercise for 515 students in Thomas Bassett’s “Geography of Developing Countries” class this fall. About 400 of the students fully participated, by pulling 10 items of clothing from their closets or dressers; the whole class worked together to report on where the items were made.

“We then mapped the data – about 3,750 items – and talked about its meaning in light of the end of the Multifibre Agreement and the prospect of China becoming the apparel factory of the world,” said Bassett, a professor of geography.

Bassett also said that the class’s discussions were informed by reading Pietra Rivoli’s “The Travels of a T-Shirt in the Global Economy” to put these patterns in a political-economic perspective.

The students were required to write papers based on their research, considering questions such as: what regional patterns in apparel manufacturing stand out?; what percent of imported clothes originate in East Asia, South Asia, Central America and other world regions?; and what factors help to explain these regional patterns?

Bassett asked his students in 2004 do the same project. So, with that data – and with their own – his 2007 students could follow trends.

They found that in 2004, China also ranked as the top supplier of student clothing, but it was only 14 percent of the market. Mexico was a close second at 13 percent. Honduras was still ranked No. 3 at 5 percent; Indonesia and Vietnam were tied at 4 percent. Thus, in the past three years, China, Indonesia and Vietnam have trended up in supplying clothes to U.S. college students, according to this study, while Mexico has trended down and Honduras has remained the same.

How does the professor explain these trends?

“The data for China are surprising,” Bassett said, noting that the Multifibre Agreement, which ended in 2004, had established quotas on the number of apparel items each country could export to the U.S.

“Many thought that China’s share would dramatically increase with the end of this agreement. But our data show a surprisingly small 2 percent increase in apparel imports from China between 2004-2007. Now it’s possible that the clothes students are wearing are 2 to 3 years old, but this would require more research to determine.”

Bassett said he believes that the biggest lesson students got out of the mapping exercise is “the realization that we are connected in rather intimate ways with people from around the world, many of whom earn less for a 12-hour-day in a factory than students earn per hour at the minimum wage.”

“The maps on our backs trace the links in global commodity chains,” Bassett said. “Seeing these links gives form and meaning to the abstract notion of economic globalization.”

He also believes that through readings, videos, and the mapping exercise, “students realize that geographies of globalization are enabled by advances in communication and transportation systems, but also by trade agreements, outsourcing and subcontracting that have turned the world into a global assembly line.”

Bassett said he has asked his students to do a similar mapping exercise for the past seven or eight years. What is unique about his project, he said, is the large number of students who are learning how to make maps.

“By learning how to make maps, students learn that all mapping is subjective – it depends on variables you choose to map, how you display them, and the number of classes you use. At the end of the exercise students appreciate the power of maps to show this and not that.

“Now that’s something to take away from this class.”