Objective: to explore how familiar commodities or products are actually produced, exchanged and consumed.
Intro: We rarely give thought to the networks of people, places, and flows that make possible the incorporation of products into our daily routines. This exercise is designed to do precisely that; emphasizing the way in which people and places are connected even when the infrastructures and channels that enable those connections are often veiled or hidden from view. In this exercise we encourage you to trace back a product from its point of consumption, identifying the various channels and stages through which it travels.
First select a product that you use or consume on a regular basis such as a food item, a favorite article of clothing, or some other less obvious commodity that figures in your daily life, such as the electricity that powers your home, the water you drink or the fuel that powers the vehicle you drive. As best you can, determine and then map the product’s source either as a particular location or as a region or country. Using web-based and more traditional sources describe the place of origin, paying particular attention to the role that the product plays in the economy of that country or place. In the case of foodstuffs, garments or products like oil, you may well find that the commodity plays a highly significant role in the community.
Then trace the network of the product to you. A commodity can be tricky. While food and drink items may be labeled with a country or place of origin, the utilities that we use or the gasoline that we buy are generally anonymous in regard to their place of production. In part, this is because some products are composed of elements with diverse origins that are subsequently blended together via an infrastructure grid in the case of gas and electricity or a refinery in the case of gasoline. Even when food products or garments are labeled with their place of origin, the commodity and its components are likely to have passed through various places before reaching its made in location. Despite these caveats, it should be possible to at least begin to reveal the geographies of the networks that make possible the production and movement of the product. And we should not forget that the consumption of a product rarely represents some terminal point in its journey food products generate human waste, fuel combustion produces a variety of byproducts (some harmful, others benign), while whole commodities themselves are often recycled or re-used via second and subsequent cycles of sale, consumption, and use.
Now try to find out what you can about the conditions under which the commodity is produced. What kind of labor is involved in its production and how is that labor organized? Using the International Labor Office Bureau of Statistics website (www.ilo.org/public/english/bureau/stat/index.htm) you should be able to get a reasonable idea of the average wages in the occupation or industry of interest. How do these wages compare to the equivalent industry in your home country? Data on average wages provides insight into nature and conditions under which commodities are produced but this is clearly only one part of the puzzle. As best you can, try to determine the route that the commodity is likely to have traveled to reach its destination. Questions of transportation and distribution have become strangely marginalized within contemporary economic geography but they provide, along with finance, the grease that enables the grinding wheels of the economy to turn. Determine, if you can, the mode by which the product has reached its destination. In the case of tangible commodities then the principal transportation modes are simple air, sea and land transport. But increasingly the product a ringtone for example or a satellite TV program is likely to have traveled along a virtual or digital highway moving from one electronic device to another.
As you trace the life of the commodity then bear in mind that the association between product and company is often far more complicated than one of simply revealing the company name. Many industries most classically garments and textiles exhibit a pattern in which brand retailers sub-contract the production of clothing to nonbrand manufacturers and distributors. US companies such as Abercrombie and Fitch or Nike have few if any manufacturing facilities of their own. At their core, they are very largely brands rather than manufacturers.
Turn in a paper with the information above. This can be a short paper and could include a map or graphics if it helps for making the point.