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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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"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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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on (beta) 67 reviews
10 of 10 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 sit in Pietra Rivoli's classroom at Georgetown as a student--a once in a lifetime experience. Her fascinating lectures never lose your rapt attention the moment she opens her mouth, and her book produces much the same effect: you will lose sleep and forget to eat as you stay up reading. Reading her book is almost like sitting in her office over a cup of tea and having her recount a story of international mystery and adventure.

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 greedily devour 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.

As you read, you soon find yourself picking up on the same economic and political patterns you find at play in each region and each time period. As you absorb these patterns, you begin to expect and predict the same sequences of events you encountered in a similar situation in a different time and place. Reading this book is the most enjoyable way you can enrich your mind and instincts on the history and future of international trade, protectionism, globalism, and labor activism. I agree with the other reviewer that it ought to be required reading for all students of these subjects.

Having personally worked in the Int'l Trade Administration of the US Dept. of Commerce, I can tell you that this book began to illuminate a lot of the conflicting forces of free trade and protectionism that mystified me as I witnessed them operating simultaneously within the same government building. Having also worked in the private sector of Int'l Trade, this book has been absolutely invaluable to me in my business, and also makes a much-appreciated gift for colleagues. I'm sure it will prove equally illuminating and dear for anybody else who participates or is simply interested in the global marketplace.
7 of 7 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.
9 of 10 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.
2 of 2 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.
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
Fascinating Look at the Connections and Complexities of Globalization April 29 2010
By lmt324 - Published on
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
As an economist telling the story of t-shirt bought at an American drugstore, Pietra Rivoli weaves together a narrative of the connections and complexities of globalization. Arguing that the life of her t-shirt is not influenced heavily by markets, Rivoli instead insists that history, politics, and creative strategies of market avoidance are the major factors determining this life cycle, which is composed of four journeys. Cotton is grown and harvested in the United States before being sent to China. Once there, the cotton is spun into fabric and perhaps at the same factory or another location, the fabric is then made into a t-shirt. At this point, the t-shirt comes back to the U.S., where it is bought, sold, and eventually thrown out or donated to a thrift store. And what turns out to be perhaps the most interesting part of the book, our (Americans) used clothing is sent around the world, particularly to African countries. The selling and buying of used American t-shirts has created a new industry and market that only typifies the worldwide links that globalization creates.

A serendipitous mix of ecological conditions, policies, economics, and history facilitated the U.S.'s rise to cotton dominance. To start, cotton factories and innovation in the growing, harvesting, and manufacture of the crop helped give the U.S. advantage of any other cotton producing country. Slave labor was, as Rivoli states, "the first significant American `public policy' that served to protect cotton growers from the perils of operating in a competitive market...a risk growers were loathe to assume" (pg. 11). Other countries, such as India and China did not yet have a modern market that would enable them to compete with American cotton production. Even though the U.S. did not have to rely on a labor market and could instead use slave labor in the cotton fields, Rivoli suggests that the U.S. also had in place "institutions necessary to support factory-style cotton production," those being chiefly property rights, incentive structures, what she calls "governance" and what will and continues to play a major role in cotton production and in the modern, American textile industry.

Rivoli makes a strong argument that the avoidance of the labor market was a successful and enduring strategy of earlier cotton producers. This is a technique that continues today in an interesting way. No longer do cotton producers have to rely on any manual labor on the farms. As cotton production shifted from the southern U.S. to the largest cotton producing state of Texas (environmental and technological reasons primarily) and as the main example of the Reinsch farm illustrates, an eighty-seven year old man can now work his 1,000 acre cotton farm essentially alone, with the use of different technologies that have enabled him to produce about 500,000 pounds of cotton that will make 1.3 million t-shirts. Partnerships with local schools, such as Texas Tech University, which specialize in various cotton production methods, along with tractors and other machinery allow for the extensive harvesting of cotton fields. Even with government sponsored initiatives, such as the Bracero Program that allowed Mexican laborers to enter the country for agricultural work (started in 1942), farm machinery could do the work of many men in various weather conditions. Furthermore, genetically modified cotton seeds have given even more advantages to growers, even though the safety of certain genetically engineered crops and food still remains questionable. Rivoli's discussion of Monsanto's monopoly on genetically modified crops and products aimed at creating the most efficient cotton growing is one of the highlights of the book, one that deserved more attention. Monsanto's questionable tactics raise concerns over the freedom for producers of any crop to maintain a sense of detachment from Monsanto's ever widening political and economic grasp.

From the cotton fields of Texas, the cotton is sent to China, where workers spin the cotton, knit it into cloth, cut it into pieces, and then sew it to form a t-shirt. Here, the story focuses heavily on the working conditions in the various clothing factories that have been springing up all over China. Rivoli's glimpse into the lives of factory workers seems almost standard, at least for anyone with any knowledge about sweatshops. In the chapter, "Cotton Comes to China," Rivoli writes about several experiences she had when visiting the Shanghai Brightness Number 3 Garment Factory. Workers are subject to harsh working conditions, make little money, and work tremendously long hours. The next few chapters deal mainly with reasons why China, and other Asian countries have become preferred destinations for the manufacture of t-shirts and other apparel. This "race to the bottom" refers to the idea of making as much profit out of a product for the least amount of money; accordingly, sweatshop like factories are places in which these garments can be cheaply produced through the hard work of low paid staff. Throughout this section, Rivoli makes excellent comparisons between modern Chinese workers and English cotton mill laborers at the beginning of the industrial revolution. This comparative aspect does not seem to suggest any earlier stages of globalization, but rather that distinct historical processes are similar to the same ones today and also that history has had a profound affect on today's modern economic and political practices.

Once the cotton is fashioned into t-shirts, they are shipping back to the U.S. to be sold to consumers. Here, Rivoli presents another interesting and less noticed aspect of the global clothing trade, that being the "governance" of the U.S. textile industry. The American textile and apparel trade, according to Rivoli, "is one of the most managed and protected manufacturing trade in U.S. history" (pg. 143). While this section is of interest, it is the most complex and confusing due to the shear number of different textile policies that have been influenced by political interests. Rivoli does an outstanding job of presenting two different sides of contention in the textile industry, one who would rather see textile manufacturing remain in the U.S. and not outsourced to other countries, and the other that is more "pro-trade" in relation to places like China, which quotas for textile imports to the U.S. were lifted as of 2009. This section provides the most examples that relate to the overall argument that the cotton industry's success is tied to market avoidance because as is clearly shown, policies enacted to protect American cotton growers and producers have played a far bigger role than any market interactions.

The last section and part of the t-shirt's life cycle focuses on an emerging market of donated clothing. Specifically, an American company is profiled that buys bulk donated clothing and then sells it to customers all over the world. These sellers of donated clothing must be very adept at knowing what their customers want and most often they are; they must satisfy the need for certain kinds of clothing, Japanese buyers might covet certain t-shirts, while European buyers are looking for particular jeans. The phrase that sums up these few chapters is, "one man's trash is another man's treasure." After the clothing is bought by foreign buyers, it continues to trickle down to the local economies, where second hand shirts from wealthy American's, some with sport's team logos other's with trendy designs, are sold by small entrepreneurs at community marketplaces.

As an economist, Rivoli's take on the global economy is refreshingly broad and incorporates much historical and political background. My major complaint is the lack of focus on the cultural aspect of the life cycle of a t-shirt. While the reader can imagine how certain political or economic factors as a result of the production, manufacturing, selling, and redistributing of a t-shirt could have a profound affect on local, regional, and national cultures, but it is left mostly vague with a focus on other topics. Nonetheless, the clear, informative, and well written book is a must read for anyone interested in contemporary issues in globalization, politics, or economics. The overall strength of the book, as I have stated before, is highlighting how connected the world, especially when policies of one entity, whether business or government affect practices, processes, economics, and politics places on the other side of the world.