Author traces his underpants back to China

BEIJING (Reuters Life!) - Some travelers follow their hearts, others their heads, but few follow their underpants like New Zealand-based writer Joe Bennett.

Joe Bennett, author of "Where Underpants Come From", stands in a cotton field northwest of Urumqi, China, in this undated handout picture. Some travellers follow their hearts, others their heads, but few follow their underpants like New Zealand-based Bennett. REUTERS/Handout

Bennett’s purchase of a five pack of China-made underpants took him on an eye-opening quest from the checkout in a New Zealand store to the economic powerhouse to unravel the mysterious workings of global capitalism.

Tracing the NZ$8.59 ($6.5) pack back to a Shanghai factory, the rubber trees of Thailand and cotton fields of Xinjiang in far western China, Bennett went behind the scenes to meet the hundreds of people who manufactured and exported his pants.

While leaving him none the wiser as to how much the pants actually cost to make, Bennett says he learnt much from his underpant odyssey, titled “Where Underpants Come From”. He spoke to Reuters recently:

Q: Why underpants? Why not trace an iPod or a garden hose, or any other of things China exports?

A: Because I bought some underpants and not a garden hose. It’s that simple. I bought some pants and they set me thinking. It never crossed my mind to change the subject.

Q: Your trip grew from a peculiarly post-industrial kind of ignorance: you couldn’t fathom how the pants were made, and at such a price?

A: We sit on this cushion of affluence in the West, which very few of us can actually justify because we can’t engage in those industrial, commercial or scientific processes ourselves... Something as rudimentary as making cotton -- I haven’t got a clue. If electricity stopped being generated I wouldn’t be starting it up again.

Q: It was your first time in China. Were you worried about what you might find in the underpants factory?

A: I didn’t go into anywhere that was a sweatshop, certainly, (though) I expected to see pretty grim working factories. I’m very confident that the actual pants in question are produced as close to ethically as its possible to produce underpants in China. Sure, people are working longer hours for less money, but that’s the function of a different economy with a huge labor market.

Q: You note that when you grew up, underpants were a plain, uniform white -- now there’s a rainbow of colors and styles. What does this flowering of fashion tell us?

A: The booming of pandering to vanity in the West and also the huge swelling of commerce anywhere you can expand a market.

Everyone’s house in the West is full of vast quantities of redundant stuff, all of which they bought in the frantic search for happiness, and none of which has delivered. If you wear satin underpants you’re not happier, nor more sexually successful.

Q: So what does that reveal about today’s consumers?

A: Rich, silly and grasping, very much in the manner of donkeys chasing the unachievable carrot. You don’t buy happiness in a department store. But the illusion is an illusion of crucial importance to a Western capitalist society. You must be lead forward to the next consumer good. Forgetting always that the last one didn’t deliver the joy you were hoping.

Q: You predict the death of the boxer short as Westerners are becoming too fat to wear them comfortably. Any other tips?

A: Certainly the hugging hipster is the vogue at the moment. There will be other styles of underpant coming in. It’s hard to predict. But people must keep changing things so that we throw away things that are not worn out.

Q: Did your journey into the unknown leave you wiser?

A: As a result of the whole process of research and travel, I was delighted, just simply delighted. I laughed a lot. I’d expected to endure the journey, and I enjoyed it.

Editing by Miral Fahmy