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.