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Category: Children's Books

Wolfgang Korn

Die Weltreise einer Fleeceweste. Eine kleine Geschichte über die große Globalisierung
[The world travels of a fleece vest]


Hardly anything influences our everyday lives as much as globalization. Still, its impact is hardly comprehensible, even for most adults. In Die Weltreise einer Fleeceweste (The World Travels of a Fleece Vest), Wolfgang Korn explains globalization in a clear and down-to-earth way that is easy for children to understand. He follows the path of a fleece vest from its manufacture to recycling in the so-called Third World. The journey begins in Dubai with crude oil production for the polyester, continues with a used clothing collection in Senegal, and finally ends up on a refugee boat off the coast of the Canary Islands. The vest thus travels around the globe. The author describes the respective countries vividly, making faraway places become much more real than mere dots on a map. He also creates life stories that exemplify the situation of all the people involved in the different steps of the vest’s production and transport. Many passages in this young people’s nonfiction book therefore take on a narrative form. Korn successfully combines fiction with factual information, making the book exciting to read and helping readers understand the world better.

The story starts at the oil wells in the Persian Gulf. To help young readers be able to envisage what is going on, the author leads them right into the setting of the story: “Where are we? Out at sea, but the coast is in sight. And although it is night, a warm breeze is blowing over the water. We are surrounded by light towers rising up out of the water like giant Christmas trees. These are drilling rigs that pump oil twenty-four hours a day.” But what exactly is oil drilling? And why is there crude oil in the first place? Wolfgang Korn clearly and precisely explains where this raw material comes from and how the oil is then loaded onto tankers for shipping. In doing so, he tells the story of a young dockworker Sadek. The boy is from India and has to support his family back home with the little money that he earns as a guest worker in Dubai. Giving the worker a face makes it possible for the author specifically to draw attention to social inequities. That is an important aspect of the book: “Guest workers from the West earn much more—more than double the wages they earn in their home country—working as construction site foremen for skyscrapers, veterinarians on camel-breeding farms, or as engineers on oil rigs.”

This practice combines elements of (in this case, fictional) reporting with classical methods of knowledge transfer. Each step is made real through an impressive description of the different settings and characters. The social structure of a country thus becomes easier for young people to grasp and the abstract concept of globalization becomes tangible. Korn also succeeds at conveying background information. He thereby refers to the economist Theodore Levitt, whose theory he explains as follows: “Never before have so many people exchanged so many things with each other all over the globe. And that concerns not only objects but also ideas, fashions, music—and especially money. No one still works away in isolation. … The way we act, what we produce and buy—everything influences all the other people on this planet. The economy is no longer … restricted, but connected in networks with the entire world; in other words, it is globalized.”

In concrete terms that means in the case of the fleece vest that crude oil from the Persian Gulf is used in Bangladesh to produce polyester. In factories there the vest is also sewn and dyed. Seventeen-year-old Taslima sits at her sewing machine in one of those factories. Her workday generally lasts ten to twelve hours. But today she has to stay longer because the order of “3000 fleece vests for Germany” definitely has to be completed for shipping. For a short moment, Korn lets us share Taslima’s emotional world: She is exhausted from work and has no strength left in her arms. Her eyelids keep dropping closed every now and again. Then she remembers how the monsoon destroys her family’s small clay hut every year during the rainy season. The thought gives her strength and she wants to continue working in order to escape poverty. Here, too, the author draws attention to social injustices by means of a personal story.

But back to the fleece vest: After the finished articles of clothing are shipped from the port in Singapore to Germany, they are put on sale in department stores there. The narrator of the story, a journalist, also buys one. But the “world travels of the fleece vest” are not over yet. It ends up in the charity donation bin. Korn emphasizes that the logic of globalization continues to play a role here as well. There is still some money to be made from the vest. It just has to be sold cheaply enough to people who see value in the refuse of the “First World.” The vest therefore arrives in West Africa, specifically Senegal, where Adrame buys it for 130 franks (about 2 euros). He dreams of leaving behind the poverty in his country and seeking his fortune in Europe. A human smuggler sold him a place on a refugee boat bound for Spain, so the fleece vest returns to Europe. Korn cleverly combines the description of individual fates with facts. He vividly explains that an entire industry exists behind the system of collecting used clothing. This industry transports the sorted out clothing to Africa and sells it there at giveaway prices. Local producers cannot compete with these very low prices. Entire economic sectors in the African countries are being destroyed in this way and the locals are losing their livelihood.

Also, separate boxes offer additional, general information on, for example, Dubai and Bangladesh, oil tankers, and the World Textile Agreement. A box with the heading “Logistics in the Age of Globalization” explains the conditions that a globalized economy needs to function: low wages in the producing countries and low fuel costs, so long-distance shipping pays off. It isn’t hard to see the logical conclusion that human rights and the environment often get trampled in the process. The goal is always to keep production costs as low as possible. “Experts in the large corporations are always asking: How can the production process be broken down further and what individual steps can be produced even more economically? Where are the least expensive raw materials and production parts? Where is labor for my product the cheapest?”

This book offers an impressive description not only of how globalization works, but also of the logic behind it. What makes the book so extraordinary is how the author succeeds in tackling this difficult endeavor in an almost playful way, making it not only understandable but also exciting. The message is: There are human stories behind the products that we buy without a second thought in department stores. If we buy the least expensive products we can find, then we should also know that the price is so low because a young seamstress like Taslima is slaving away in Bangladesh for utterly untenable, low wages. In the final chapter the author asks us to pay attention when shopping to assure that the products we buy are produced under socially responsible conditions. In any case, after reading this book it should be clear that in a globalized world, one’s actions will always have an impact on other people.
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By Eva Kaufmann