Saturday, 22 August 2015

Flip Flop, by Caroline Knowles

Caroline Knowles, Flip Flop: A Journey through Globalisation's Backwaters, 2014 Pluto Press, London

A friend of mine from Zimbabwe told me that when he was a boy, he used to see people cutting old tyres into sandals. These days, very few Africans wear those homemade tyre sandals, as they can wear cheap flip flops imported from China.

Flip flops are the most commonly worn shoes on the planet. Millions of people wear no other shoes. They are the one of the most common and humble of global commodities. Yet where do they come from and how do they get to their millions of wearers? These are the questions asked by cultural anthropologist Caroline Knowles.

Knowles takes us on a journey with the flip flops. She begins in Kuwait, where the flip flops begin their life as oil. We then cross through Asia to South Korea, where she introduces us to factory workers who turn the oil into plastic, showing us how company life shapes the lives of these workers. We then look at how the flip flops get to the massive African markets and we learn about Somali piracy. Knowles introduces us to smugglers of contraband goods who evade the heavy import taxes levelled by the Ethiopian government. We are introduced to the shoe markets of Ethiopian and learn how the arrival of Chinese imports have altered it and the efforts of Ethiopians to replicate Chinese flip flop production. Knowles introduces us to a wearer of a batted flip flops, Finally, we see how flip flops meet their demise in the vast rubbish dumps of Ethiopia and we learn about the activities of rubbish scavengers.

This book if fascinating because it challenges the image that most people have of globalisation. People tend to think of globalisation in terms of a flow of resources and goods from south and east to the West, yet here we have a route of globalisation that bypasses the West entirely, going from Asia to Africa. Knowles demonstrates that globalisation is not simply about vast multi-national corporations, but it is also about individuals who are involved at all stages of the production, transport and sale of goods. In many ways, the process of globalisation empowers these individuals.

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