Do you know where your Christmas presents have come from?

Follow the Things

followthethings.com is a spoof shopping website which uncovers a product's journey from factory to shelf.

Do you know where your Christmas presents come from?

As you leave the shops laden with bags of presents this Christmas how much attention have you paid to where the items came from?

Have you thought about whether the products are ethical or environmentally friendly? How much consideration have you given to the working conditions of the people involved in the manufacture of the goods?

If you’re like me the answer is probably very little. But now there is a website that could help you decipher where the items in your Christmas stocking originated and the backstory behind their manufacture.

followthethings.com was the brain-child of the University of Exeter’s Dr Ian Cook, a Cultural Geographer and commodity activist whose PhD research followed fresh papayas on UK supermarket shelves back to the farms on which they were grown in Jamaica.

This ‘follow the thing’ study led to the development of the spoof shopping site, which collects articles, videos and essays about the origins of products.

The site is run by Ian along with Prof Keith Brown from Brown University in America.

Ian appreciates how difficult it can be to get the balance between getting loved ones that perfect gift and shopping ethically.

He said: “The big problem with Christmas is that it is such an intense time and buying presents can be incredibly stressful. It’s a difficult time for any ethical shopper because there is a balance between caring for people you know – buying them things - and caring for people you don’t know, who make those things.”

The followthethings.com content is created by Ian’s students and offers lots of information on how to shop more ethically throughout the year.

Based on class discussions the students pick products and investigate what research has been done on their journey from factory to shelf.

Ian considers the student contributors scholar-activist co-researchers, showing the world what they’ve researched by publishing it online.

Students at the University of Exeter aren't the only ones whose work is on the site. The site also includes student work from Birmingham University, where Ian worked before moving to Exeter, and Brown University.

This year Ian’s students’ festive project was to dissect Christmas crackers. The undergraduates purchased a make your own cracker kit and researched and made six ethical crackers.

One of the student’s crackers explained that making the bang in your Christmas cracker can be dangerous for the people who make it, because of explosions at worst and fulminate itch on an everyday basis.

As one student explained on their ethical crackers blog: “The snap of a Christmas cracker is made using a compound called silver fulminate. This compound is so explosive that even in small quantities it has the potential to explode under its own weight, it has no other practical use other than trick noise makers such as those found in crackers. Yet people who work with it daily, bonding two cardboard strips coated in silver fulminate mixed with grit, are risking contact dermatitis.”

You can find out more about silver fulminate on Wikipedia.

Once the festive season is over some of us hit the January sales for a bit of retail therapy. But this is still fraught with ethical pitfalls.

A new page was researched by students this year on a document called the Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh.

After a garment factory collapsed in April 2013 killing more than 1,100 workers, pressure was put on fashion brands to sign up to this binding agreement.

The agreement ensures people making clothes have safe workplaces, that the brands invest in improvements, that they continue sourcing garments from Bangladesh and provide resources for more comprehensive auditing.

Ian said: “My Christmas advice is that, if you’re buying clothes, make sure the brands have signed the accord. Support them doing the right thing. There’s an updated list online.”

He added: “You can do the same with electronics. Electronics companies have been ranked according to their efforts to eliminate conflict minerals from their supply chains.”

The followthethings.com website is described as ‘another kind of shopping site’ - but the term shopping has a rich double meaning.

Ian explained: “Shopping means to buy things but it also means to betray, as in when you shop someone to the police.

“Followthethings.com is designed, on first impressions, to look like a shopping site where you buy things, but after you’ve spent a minute or two on the site you quickly realise that it’s betraying the origins of those things.”

He finished: “The students’ contribution to the website is scholarly research with an activist edge to it, because you want people to notice what you’re doing, remember it and engage with it.”