Earlier this month, 13-year-old April Dorsett got an advent calendar in the post. It was from her dad, newspapers reported, but the note inside read: “Help me please. PMP staff are evil.” PMP is an agency that recruits Amazon’s distribution centre workers. April’s mum photographed the note and posted it on Facebook to Amazon saying she “found this inside of her box and is worried amazon are running sweatshops … I’ve told her it’s probably a prank but can you just confirm that?”
This isn’t an unusual story. Messages like this are one of the most direct ways to bring trade justice issues into spaces and acts of consumption. Whether by activists or factory workers, whether by accident or by design, whether genuine or fake, this form of commodity activism is called “shop dropping” (or sometimes “droplifting”). It’s the opposite of shoplifting. It adds extra surprise to giving and receiving presents. It’s a treasure hunt for everyone to enjoy.
This holiday season, your mum might find in the shoes that you buy her a note with a strange drawing and some writing you can’t decipher. Your sister might find in the side pocket of the pair of cargo pants you get her (which she pretends to like) a note in another language. You might find a note in the fancy paper bag containing the wellington boots that you buy for yourself that starts “HELP, HELP, HELP”. You might turn on the new laptop or smartphone your partner buys you to find photos or some film footage of the people who worked on its production line, just doing their work, or looking you right in the eye, smiling and making peace signs with their hands. These messages may be anonymous or they may be signed. They don’t always get into the news (although all of these examples did). They don’t always get noticed. But they do keep appearing.
What to do
If you want to find messages in your presents, you will have to be vigilant. If you do find one, you will have a responsibility to the person who wrote it. If you decide to make it public, our shopdropping research says that this is how its story could unfold:
- You take a photograph of your message and upload it to a platform like Facebook or Reddit.
- You explain what you have found, with what commodity and ask if anyone else has found something like this.
- (Optional) you tag the brand or retailer to ask them what’s going on and to confirm any claims made.
- If it’s a note that’s written in a language that you don’t understand, you ask for help with a translation.
- Sometimes when it’s a HELP or SOS message, the person writing it is asking you to do something, like “let my family know or anybody [know] that I am in prison” or “resend this letter to the World Human Right Organisation”. You might want to do this.
- Your post might get shared to others on social media who are intrigued by the mystery and are excited to get to the bottom of it.
- It might get picked up by your local newspaper as an amusing shopping story, and then by a national newspaper if you’re lucky.
If this final step happens, the comments on your online story may get really lively. People will wade in with all kinds of practical suggestions for finding the real person, worry that the brand might find and sack them (and say you helped by tagging them), feel bad for laughing, accuse you of faking the message for five minutes of fame, join angry, sarcastic, philosophical debates on the nature and history of free market capitalism, suggest conspiracy theories that the brand has engineered this scandal, debate the wider ethics of Christmas and consumerism … you won’t believe it until you see it.
But your post will have helped to keep alive important debates about trade justice and global capitalism – debates many of us know about but are not attracted to take part in. At Christmas, or at all.
I’m always on the hunt for my personal message. Last year I found my first. I’d bought our daughter a JVC wireless hifi system for her birthday. Opening the box, we noticed a piece of masking tape on one of the speaker grills. With some handwriting on it: 天线凹. I posted photos on Facebook and sent one to my niece who had studied Mandarin in Beijing. She asked her Chinese friend and the translation pinged back later the same day.
“There’s a dent in the aerial”– that’s what it said. A note accidentally left there after it had been through quality control in the factory. Maybe. The aerial didn’t have a dent in it – it must have been replaced. We’d been accidentally shopdropped. This wasn’t a plea for help, it was a tiny trace of the labour that went into making that thing. A tiny trace of the life and work of a factory worker who had helped make this hifi system for me to buy for my daughter.
Christmas shopdropping isn’t the kind of activism that congratulates us for buying ethically or berates us for conspicuously over-consuming. Buying, giving and getting gifts can be emotionally charged and delicate enough already. Shopdropping vigilance goes with the festive flow. When presents are opened, you search for messages from people who helped to make them for, or deliver them to, everyone there. If you find one, you might read it out and discuss what to do with it (using the list above).
So, this holiday season, let’s think about the people who made our presents. Appreciate what they have done for us. Respond to their appeals for solidarity and help. Make mischief. Spread the word. Keep the conversation going.