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.