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The Vast Pacific. A Magnificent Ship. Your $3 Boxers

Shipping Containers
Photograph by Tom Nagy

Spring sends you out on a fast-fashion spree: $50 cashmere sweaters and $2 socks, $40 sneakers and $3 T-shirts. They might fall apart after four wears, but they're probably cheaper than the postage you'd need to return them to the country in which they were made.

We take this weird discrepancy between distance and price for granted. The rise of retailers like Uniqlo, H&M and Zara is often attributed to "globalization."

What does that mean?

Clothing so cheap it's almost disposable is largely the result of the intermodal shipping container , riding snugly on top of a 55,000-ton super ship . The container has been around since the late 1950s, when Malcom McLean came up with a metal box that could be stacked with others like Legos. Eventually the industry adopted the idea. Today, the Maersk Triple- E class can hold 18,000 containers, or68 miles of containers lined up end to end. McLean's innovation slashed the cost of sewing something in Bangladesh and then transporting it to other side of the planet.

"In 2012, it cost around 2.5 cents to ship a T-shirt from Asia," says Rose George , author of "90 Percent of Everything: Inside the Invisible Industry that Puts Clothes on Your Back, Gas in Your Car, and Food on Your Plate." She observes that "if you compare that to shipping before containerization, the transfer costs of getting anything to port, let alone on a ship, were 25% of the cost of the item." After transport became a marginal expense, all of those other factors, like cheap labor and cheap materials, helped the low-cost apparel industry to explode.

Look at the growth of the retailer H&M . H&M's first store outside of Scandinavia opened in 1976 , eight years after the standardization of the shipping container. Today, H&M has 3,000 stores worldwide, and according to its website , 90% of its clothes are shipped via rail or sea.

"Someone told me that the only things that are transported by air are mistakes," George says. "If a company needs something urgently they'll send it by air. Otherwise it tends to be, you know, fresh flowers."

It's hard to imagine thousands of cans of beer [cost per can to transport by ship: 1 cent] being shipped by jumbo jet, or crates of $3 boxers being driven across Asia and central Europe to a department store in Portugal. "There's no real alternative to shipping, unless you want to reverse globalization," says George.

You don't. Despite the buy-local movement, the container is safe for now -- good news for shipping companies and consumers of cheap socks.

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