Tracing the geography of everyday things

How sushi went global (Flickr).

Research that involves tracing the geographies of everyday things, discovering who made them, where and under what conditions is helping encourage and inform academic and public discussions of the ethics, (in)justices, and possible futures of international trade.

Over the last 20 years Dr Ian Cook, Associate Professor of Geography, has developed a ‘follow the things‘ approach to appreciating the social relations and ethics of international trade. This approach is a relatively new method for the study of Geography and has evolved in stages over the course of Dr Cook’s academic career.

Dr Cook’s research on papaya and hot pepper sauces grown and made in Jamaica and sold in the UK vividly conceptualised and illustrated the social relations of international trade, and was written in a style intended to prompt discussions about the ethics of this trade. This work helped to transform research into the geographies of food and has shaped questions that are now being asked by researchers (academic and non-academic) investigating commodity geographies more widely.

A wide impact

After school teachers and teacher-educators became aware of Dr Cook’s research, he was asked to be an academic participant in the Action Plan for the 'Young People’s Geographies' project. His encouragement of young people to research the lives of their own belongings, and his publishing of ‘how to’ guides in journals read by primary and secondary school teachers, led to the ‘follow the things’ approach being adopted in Primary, GCSE, and A-level Geography teaching. This approach to learning was also an inspiration for the popular ‘Guerrilla Geography’ books and website missions of Mission:Explore.

Qualification and Curriculum Authority curriculum developers have been ‘amazed’ at how this approach can encourage Year 10 students to feel connected with international trade, and teachers have argued that its personal approach to learning made even those students who were normally work-shy respond positively to their studies.

The website, launched in 2011 is a resource for anyone researching or teaching trade justice, including filmmakers, artists, and many other members of the public. Its appearance is that of a spoof shopping site, which gathers together and researches documentary films, art works, activist stunts, journalism, academic and other work that reveal who makes our things.

Evaluations of the site are posted on its ‘peer review’ page where, for example the producer of the BBC TV series ‘Blood, Sweat and Takeaways’ has written that the site’s page on it was ‘a wonderful resource for gathering together all the articles and feedback on the series … It still fascinates me how much of an impact the shows made.'

The site's pages are created by Dr Cook and his students, who work in groups to research individual case studies; they also create and publish their own original work on the site. Examples of this original work include ‘reflective’ writing about the role of tin and tin miners in the production of mirrors, and a heart pacemaker that sings a song of thanks to the miners of the conflict materials that help it to work.

New ‘follow the things’ teaching and learning resources have been written and published on the site’s ‘classroom’ page. These include a Teacher’s Guide to the website and its use in the new National Curriculum for Geography.

Since 2011, Dr Cook has worked with a group of PGCE Geography students at the University of Nottingham who, at a workshop at the 2013 Geographical Association annual conference, presented examples of how they have used the ‘follow the things’ approach and materials from the website in their teaching. Seven teachers have since begun blogging and sharing ‘tried and tested’ ‘follow the things’ classroom resources as part of a new #followtheteachers project.

Lego recreations

To continue this work with teachers, Dr Cook ran a ‘Lego Lab’ in the GA conference’s Ideas Zone in 2014, in which delegates were invited to re-create in Lego scenes from materials featured on He said: “At the end of the day, you were left with all these co-created exhibits; a photo from our Lego Lab appeared on the front page of the GA News and another is now being used to advertise its 2015 conference.”

The 2014 Idea Zone also included a table at which delegates could make and play a game of ‘follow the things’ Ethical Trade Trumps. Invented by a group of Exeter undergraduate students, this card game helps students to learn how different brands can be compared in terms of their ethical policies, transparency and labour rights records. Dr Cook explained how students learn about the complexities of (un)ethical trade through making and playing the game with the things that they own: “It’s very theatrical and very involving. It encourages students to ask why a Wonderbra card is such a good one to have in your hand, and why a Quicksilver one isn’t. It also shows that, rather than there being really ethical or really unethical brands, it depends on which category you choose to play. Why is one company’s labour rights grade better than another’s, for example?”

This ongoing process of collaboration has helped reshape the teaching and learning of international trade in UK schools through the Geographical Association’s submission to the National Curriculum consultation process in 2012, and the inclusion of its recommendations in the Geography National Curriculum in 2013.

Dr Cook’s approach has since led him to join the advisory board for Fashion Revolution Day - an NGO and ethical fashion industry campaign to commemorate the collapse of the Rana Plaza factory in Bangladesh, in which over 1000 garment workers were killed. The’s Fashion department and a special pack of Fashion Ethics Trump cards have become education resources for the campaign and in 2014, Dr Cook invited Fashion Revolution Day campaigners to inform and inspire a week-long Grand Challenge in two disused shops in Exeter’s Guildhall Shopping Centre in which 50 students worked creatively to engage members of the public in conversations about who made their clothes.

Carry Somers, Fashion Revolution Day’s founder, has said of this work “The resources which has provided for Fashion Revolution Day have been indispensable for the engagement of consumers and students, both at schools and Universities.… has shown that, even with the absence of a 'Made In' label on a garment, it is still possible, with a little detective work, to piece together the story behind your clothes.”