#44. Choose some object that you use or some food that you eat regularly; research and then write the story of how that object or food was produced

IDEA #44. Choose some object that you use or some food that you eat regularly. Research and then write the story of how that object or food was produced—everything from raw materials to processing to transportation to marketing. How many countries or states are involved in your story? Who makes the most money in the process—the people at the raw-material end or the marketing end, or someone in between?

We take for granted almost everything we eat and consume, with few products or services attracting even a small amount of our thought as to their origins or the process by which they were made or brought to us. This activity aims to help the young person explore the complexity of the modern consumer economy.

A powerful fact of economic life is that we are becoming more and more distant, physically and psychically, from means of production. Our lives as consumers are mediated less by an understanding of how things come to be than by the engines of marketing and advertising, which would have us believe that most of what we consume has been created, sui generis, at the stores from which we buy. Famously, many of our consumer goods are produced “offshore,” and diners in most parts of the country sit down to eat food that has traveled hundreds or thousands of miles from where it was grown or even processed.

Because many companies are loath to have us know how highly processed our food is or the conditions under which our clothing or electronic goods are made, this activity will actually require some fairly serious sleuthing. A can of green beans, for example, involves 1) the beans, which were grown somewhere; 2) a can, which was made somewhere from steel processed somewhere; 3) the canning process, which takes place somewhere; 4) the label, made of paper from somewhere and printed somewhere; 5) transportation to a warehouse somewhere, and then a market; and 6) all the mechanisms involved in advertising and marketing the product. Along the way there are government inspectors, fertilizers and pesticides used on the bean fields, energy consumed by tractors, factories, and trucks, and some master hand directing the entire process from “corporate headquarters.” The challenge is to find the details of each step; imagine the challenge in doing the same for a laptop computer, an automobile, or even the DVD of a favorite film.

Library and Internet research will only accomplish so much in this activity, especially if the youngster starts with a very specific product in mind. But persistence will pay off, even though there will be blank spots in research and even the possibility of experiencing some corporate stonewalling; after all, there are business secrets involved in any process, as well.

The truly ambitious student might want to do a comparative study involving the same product today and fifty years ago. The results might be revelatory as to the degree to which globalization has affected every aspect of our lives.

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