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The Travels of a T-Shirt in the Global Economy: An Economist Examines the Markets, Power, and Politics of World Trade Paperback – Mar 3 2009

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 336 pages
  • Publisher: Wiley; 2 edition (March 3 2009)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0470287160
  • ISBN-13: 978-0470287163
  • Product Dimensions: 15.2 x 2.3 x 22.9 cm
  • Shipping Weight: 408 g
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: #195,890 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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Product Description



"Engrossing . . . (Rivoli) goes wherever the T-shirt goes, and there are surprises around every corner . . . full of memorable characters and vivid scenes."

"An engaging and illuminating saga. . . . Rivoli follows her T-shirt along its route, but that is like saying that Melville follows his whale. . . . Her nuanced and fair-minded approach is all the more powerful for eschewing the pretense of ideological absolutism, and her telescopic look through a single industry has all the makings of an economics classic."
The New York Times

"Rarely is a business book so well written that one would gladly stay up all night to finish it. Pietra Rivoli's The Travels of a T-Shirt in the Global Economy is just such a page-turner."
CIO magazine

From the Back Cover

Praise for The Travels of a T-Shirt in the Global Economy

"Engrossing... [Rivoli] goes wherever the T-shirt goes and there are surprises around every corner....full of memorable characters and vivid scenes."


"An engaging and illuminating saga . . . Rivoli follows her T-shirt along its route, but that is like saying that Melville follows his whale . . . Her nuanced and fair-minded approach is all the more powerful for eschewing the pretense of ideological absolutism, and her telescopic look through a single industry has all the makings of an economics classic."

—The New York Times

"Rarely is a business book so well written that one would gladly stay up all night to finish it. Rivoli's The Travels of a T-Shirt in the Global Economy is just such a page-turner."

—CIO magazine

"Succeeds admirably...T-shirts may not have changed the world, but their story is a useful account of how free trade and protectionism certainly have."

—Financial Times

"A readable and evenhanded treatment of the complexities of world trade... As Rivoli repeatedly makes clear, there is absolutely nothing free about free trade except the slogan."

—San Francisco Chronicle

"A fascinating exploration of the history, economics, and politics of world trade...The Travels of a T-Shirt in the Global Economy is a thought-provoking yarn that exhibits the ugly, the bad, and the good of globalization, and points to the unintended positive consequences of the clash between proponents and opponents of free trade."

—Fort Worth Star-Telegram

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11 of 11 people found the following review helpful
Simply A Must-Read Nov. 28 2010
By A. Gift For You - Published on
Format: Paperback
I had the good fortune to be Pietra Rivoli's student years ago --a once in a lifetime experience. Her fascinating lectures never lose your attention the moment she begins speaking, and her book produces much the same effect: you will lose sleep and forget to eat as you stay up reading this story of international mystery.

Her story transports you across continents and centuries from the scene at which a freshly minted Yale graduate revolutionized the world with his invention in 1793; to the heart of modern cotton country; to the trading ports of 18th century Asia; to the inner workings of the halls of power in Washington; to the wacky woolens industry of pre-industrial Great Britain; to a fascinating bazaar in Dar Es Salaam. As Rivoli takes you through this riveting journey, you absorb the surprising economic, political and human insights and lessons that took her years of international adventure and research to uncover. As only the best authors can, Rivoli miraculously manages to impart the reader with years of exhaustively researched and painstakingly-acquired knowledge in one exhilarating read.

Simply put, reading this book is the most enjoyable way you can enrich your mind on the history and future of international trade, protectionism, globalism, and labor activism. I agree that it ought to be required reading for all students of these subjects.
10 of 10 people found the following review helpful
Great Educational Tool For a Georgia Teacher Aug. 17 2013
By John P. Cook - Published on
Format: Paperback
Every so often I read a book that makes me wish I could build a course around it. I would love to teach a media literacy class from Marshall McLuhan's "Understanding Media", or a human geography class from Jared Diamond's "Guns, Germs, and Steel", for two examples. I had that rare feeling also for Pietra Rivoli's "The Travels of a T-Shirt In The Global Economy", except that in this case I was able to bring that urge to fruition. Teaching high school economics is challenging, to say the least, and rarely lends itself to any one singular vision. It is a survey course, with state-mandated standards that must all be checked off by the end of the year. Aside from textbooks, which usually leave much to be desired, meaningful text almost always must be drawn from a plethora of sources, sorted by the standard addressed, and photocopied or projected onto a screen for the students. This is why Rivoli's book is such a windfall for econ teachers. This is a book that directly addresses and informs most of the introductory economics standards. The author draws insights on various economic concepts directly from economists, policymakers, farmers, laborers, scientists, business owners and others. Heavy use of primary sources like these is of great benefit in the classroom. You can see ears perk up when excerpts (in the book) from Eli Whitney's letters are read, or from letters written by young women working in textile mills, for a few examples.

With regards to standards addressed, I will mention just a few of the many. Productivity is an early focal point of the book, and slavery, the cotton gin, the tractor (after the mule), advanced fertilizers, and genetically modified seeds are all explored, and those passages make for great lesson starters. For lessons on supply and demand, I often refer to Rivoli's mentions of Crisco, which is made from cottonseed oil (input costs and complementary goods), and the production of GM "Roundup-Ready" seeds by the company that makes Roundup weed killer (complementary goods again), as well as the passages on subsidies to U.S. cotton farmers. Teaching about the role of government in a market economy is aided by a section detailing corruption, and other examples of the lack of good governance, plaguing cotton farmers in West African countries. Also, the debate over free trade versus protectionism is explored in great detail, with stakeholders from many different vantage points expressing their views.

Aside from the breadth of introductory economic concepts explored in this book, and how interesting and colorful the insights are both from Rivoli and her sources, a central benefit to economics teachers (especially in Georgia) is how relatable this all is to our young people. This book is a boon to Georgia teachers in two ways here. First, teenagers love their t-shirts, so there is some inherent interest waiting to be tapped into. Secondly, cotton farming (and to some extent textiles) often quite literally hits close to home. The importance (and challenge) of relating the concepts to students' actual lives is hard to overstate, and that this book does it for me in multiple ways is really incredible. As both a teaching tool and just plain great read, I give it my highest recommendation.
11 of 12 people found the following review helpful
New Globalization Concerns Outpace Author's Revisions Dec 30 2010
By DRDR - Published on
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
The second edition of "The Travels of a T-Shirt in the Global Economy" claims to address heightened concerns about trade's impact on climate change and multinational offshoring, but to do so adequately would require a far more comprehensive revision. Her book's primary motive was to address turn-of-the-century concerns about unfettered market competition leading to a race-to-the-bottom in labor conditions. These concerns seem quaint today as America struggles with near-10% unemployment and rising global temperatures. Meanwhile, the anti-sweatshop movement has largely addressed many of the problems that originally motivated the book. Nevertheless, this book should be required reading for any adult missing the big picture of the global economy.

The typical American view of globalization is no longer that rich countries are exploiting developing country workers, but rather that China and multinationals are reaping the benefits of lax environmental standards while stealing American jobs. In contrast to 1999, Americans are no longer surprised to discover that Chinese workers prefer manufacturing jobs over subsistence agricultural. Americans falsely believe China's manufacturing output dwarfs their own (this is only true for employment). This shift from selfless to selfish anti-globalization concerns could motivate a larger revision to this book.

The book's prologue concludes with the dramatic revelation that the author's Chinese t-shirt supplier imports cotton from America. This is anathema to the rising "buy local" movement. How can an environmentally efficient world possibly produce a t-shirt by shipping cotton from America to China and then back to America? How can China be producing t-shirts when so many unskilled Americans are unemployed? Later editions would benefit from a greater focus on these questions, and also touch on the role of early 20th century immigration restrictions in encouraging offshoring and labor-saving technology.

Rivoli cites a study claiming that the environmental impact of the t-shirt is mainly at the consumer end rather than the production end, but that answer won't satisfy environmentalists who are already line-drying their clothes. The failure of Tanzania's experiment in self-sufficiency, referenced by the author in Part IV, could have been highlighted more as evidence of the gains from specialization and the global division of labor. Rivoli does discuss how the offspring of cotton farmers have moved on to better lives in other industries. But what happens to older workers who produced Rivoli's t-shirt and later lost their jobs? Economists like to tell stories about retraining and education being crucial to preventing unemployment, but how well is this working in practice?

Although the sweatshop concern motivating Rivoli's story was fleeting, her t-shirt's life story is timeless. She puts names behind the producers and politicians at every stage of the t-shirt's life: the cotton, the textiles, the trade, and the recycling. As trivial as a single t-shirt may seem, the history of its production process is an ideal case study for the benefits of globalization, given the everlasting importance of cotton textiles to industrial development and cotton clothing to human welfare.
3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
What all of us SHOULD know, before we buy... July 4 2010
By R S Cobblestone - Published on
Format: Paperback
The Travels of a T-Shirt in the Global Economy, by Economist Pietra Rivoli, is my second "where do t-shirts come from and how do they fit in the global economy" book. The first was a much slimmer publication, T-Shirt: One small item, one giant impact (also reviewed). This book certainly goes into greater detail, particularly regarding the economic and societal forces affecting the production of cotton, the history of mechanization in production and processing cotton, the affect of the fabric industry on workers and the work environment, and the "last stage" of a T-shirts life in the US, as extraordinary numbers of cast-off clothes are shipped to entrepreneurs in Africa to resell as serviceable clothing, then finally recycled as rags or as raw material to make, once again, into T-shirts.

Here are some of the interesting snippets from this book:

"It takes a little over a third of a pound of cotton lint to produce a T-shirt, maybe 15 cents' worth, so an acre of West texas farmland can produce about 1,200 T-shirts each year" (p. 62).

"Globalization's critics continue to charge that the price of cheap T-shirts is high indeed. Sweatshops spawned by global capitalism exploit the poor and the powerless, forcing people without alternatives to work in prison-like conditions for pennies a day. The factory villages also destroy traditional family structures and cultures, and weaken indigenous agriculture. In short, the critics claim, the cheap T-shirts from China are a victory for US consumers and for corporate profits, but a failure for humanity" (p. 72). However, Rivoli demonstrates that the truth is more complicated. If the textile industry allows young women to escape the drudgery and toil of life, marriage, children, and death on the farm, having an opportunity to develop their own life, perhaps with educational opportunities, is this all negative? Rivoli writes, "Like their sisters in time, textile and clothing workers in China today have low pay, long hours, and poor working conditions. Living quarters are cramped and rights are limited, the work is boring, the air is dusty, and the noise is brain numbing. The food is bad, the fences are high, and the curfews are inviolate. As generations of mill girls and seamstresses from Europe, America, and Asia are bound together by this common sweatshop experience - controlled, exploited, overworked, and underpaid - they are bound together too by one absolute certainty, shared across both oceans and centuries. This beats the hell out of life on the farm [last sentence italicized by author]" (p. 90).

"When the benefits of cheaper T-shirts for millions across the country are placed alongside the costs of job loss for a few thousand in a North Carolina mill town, the public's internal calculator often works much differently than does an economist's. ...Even when it looks futile, Americans seem to want to try" (p. 150-1).

I found the final chapter on "castoff T-shirts" fascinating. Who hasn't taken those extra clothes to their local charity, to help cloth the poor?

They were probably sold by the ton, shipped to Africa, and sold again.

"Observers have sharply conflicting views about the global trade in castoff T-shirts. Is the recycled clothing business a villainous industry - a shadowy network that exploits the goodwill of charities and their donors, and suffocates the apparel industries in developing countries under the mountains of castoffs? Or is it a great industry, a model of nimble, free market dynamism that channels charitable impulses into clothing for the poor? (p. 176-7). In Tanzania, these castoff clothes are called "mitumba" - clothing thrown away by Americans and Europeans, including many T-shirts (p. 190).

"Donated clothing quickly makes its way to mitumba markets, though the trade becomes more illicit and hidden. Researchers in Sweden cite evidence from several countries that suggests donated clothing is unlikely to reach those who have a true physical need for clothing but instead is rapidly sent into the markets. Researchers have also found that clothing intended for refugees in Asia efficiently enters the market. Clothing given away in this manner will still enrich a middleman, but it will be an illegal one. And whether we like it or not, charities are no match for markets when it comes to giving people the clothing that they need or want. trailer loads and ship loads of clothing are often donated following natural disasters such as hurricanes, but without people... to match clothing with customers, most of these donations rot in warehouses. Charities are ill-equipped to provide the sorting, grading, and distribution functions so ably provided..., and so most disaster relief organizations nearly beg the well-intentioned not to send clothing to disaster areas" (p. 202-3).

Interesting stuff. This book is another one in the genre of giving the reader a deeper, richer understanding of where things come from, and why. I also read a book recently about the cut flower industry (Flower Confidential: The Good, the Bad, and the Beautiful. The similarities here are very interesting.
2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
Superlative book on how the global economy actually works. June 28 2014
By R. Hussain - Published on
Format: Kindle Edition
This book is possibly the single best book on how the global economy actually works, that I have read. And I have read a lot of books.

I first read this book about five years ago, in the first edition. I have re-read it practically every year, as I used it in every International Political Economy class I have taught.

The book is both, surprising, and rare. Surprising in the things you learn (e.g. "free markets" is largely an oxymoron - particularly in the places that most espouse it, "technology transfer" by itself doesn't make a poor country better off, African farmers don't resent the subsidies that rich country farmers receive), and rare in that the author appears to have no political or ideological agenda - something that is almost impossible to find in any literature about globalization.

Her epistemological position - that facts cannot really tell us how the world works, but the story can - is brilliantly executed.

The discussion of King Cotton in Part 1 of the book, explaining how and why Texas is a cotton superpower, and the "virtuous circle" of institutions that make it so, should be required reading of every government official in any economy where agriculture is important (which means most economies).

I hope the author finds a way to continually update the book. Perhaps she can accompany the T-shirt to Bangladesh, which appears to be the current global T-shirt factory?

I would give this book six or seven stars if I could.