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Globalization and Flip-Flops

flip flopThe Flip Flop Trail is a relatively recent (2014) anthropological study by Professor Caroline Knowles, in which she explores the day to day lives of the people involved with the manufacture, distribution, consumption and disposal of the humble ‘flip-flop’.

Professor Knowles has been following the flip-flop trail since at least 2006 (so that’s over ten years now!), and chose to study it because it’s the world’s most popular shoe: ‘everyone owns a pair of flip-flops’. I’d like to be smug and say I don’t at this point, but actually I do.

This has to be one of the best multi-layered resources available for introducing the basic idea of a ‘global commodity chain’ (1) a key aspect of economic globalization, while simultaneously showing how deeply-complex such commodity chains are once we start trying to incorporated the study of the people actually involved with the process.

Flip Flop.png

The web site (The Flip Flop Trail – I suggest you check it out!) offers a kind of ‘overview of insights’ into the many stages of the trail… from the manufacture of oil (‘globalization is oil!’), to ‘plastic city’ in China where the flip flops are made, and then on to Ethiopia, the country with the largest demand for cheap footwear, where consumption and disposal are explored.

The web site doesn’t even touch on the UK, but as Professor Knowles, says, this is just one of many trails, and it’s pretty much inevitable that many of our flip flops have travelled parts of this same trail.

This is a useful resource to demonstrate the complexity of economic globalization, and to demonstrate the transformationalist view of globalization, as it shows the many and dynamic ways in which flip-flops are interwoven with local cultures.

However, students may like to consider whether this kind of analysis is really that useful…. it might be better to be more critical? To highlight the extent of inequality along certain parts of the trail, or maybe focus on developing a green-critique of the whole process, for example?

NB – I haven’t read the book, it’s only just stopped being prohibitively expensive, so it might be more critical than I’m expecting.

(1) I’m fairly sure, given her transformationalist leanings that Knowles uses the term ‘trail’ rather than ‘chain’ to denote her view that globalization is precarious.

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What is Economic Globalisation?

Economic Globalisation involves the global expansion of international capitalism, free markets and the increase in international trade, a process which has accelerated since the 1950s. Nearly every country on earth now imports and exports more from and to other countries than it did immediately after World War Two, and even ex-communist countries are now part of the global capitalist economy. Britain for example imports around 60% of its food, with only 40% of the food supply being grown in Britain, and if you take a look around any class room, or any living room, and you will probably find that the majority of products were imported from somewhere else.

Some of the key features of economic globalisation include:

The emergence of global Commodity chains – manufacturing is increasingly globalised as there are more worldwide networks extending from the raw material to the final consumer. The least profitable aspects of production – actually making physical products, tend to be done in poorer, peripheral countries, whereas the more profitable aspects, related to branding and marketing, tend to be done in the richer, developed, core countries.

The role of Transnational Corporations (TNCs) is particularly important – these are companies that produce goods in more than one country, and they are oriented to global markets and global products, many are household names such as McDonald’s, Coca Cola and Nike. The biggest TNCs have annual revenues which are greater than the economic output of middle-income countries. Apple, for example, generates more income than Finland does every year, and many oil companies such as Shell and Exxon-Mobile generate revenue several times that of the poorer countries they extract from.

TNC logos

The global economy is Post Industrial – as a result it is increasingly ‘weightless’ (Quah 1999) – products are much more likely to be information based/ electronic, such as computer software, films and music or information services rather than actual tangible, physical goods such as food, clothing or cars.

The electronic economy underpins globalisation – Banks, corporations, fund managers and individuals are able to shift huge funds across boarders instantaneously at the click of a mouse. Transfers of vast amounts of capital can trigger economic crises.

global electronic economy