Customer Reviews: The Travels of a T-Shirt in the Global Economy: An Economist Examines the Markets, Power and Politics of the World Trade, 2nd Edition
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on March 7, 2006
Spurred by a Georgetown student anti-sweatshop protest, Pietra Rivoli took up the task of tracing the life of a (tacky souvenir) t-shirt she buys in Florida, to examine the economics and politics of this non-trivial segment of the apparel industry. Why she buys the t-shirt in the first place remains a mystery. Why she needs one from Florida that she will likely discard is even more of a mystery. She made me think about studying the American practice of souvenir shopping and excess consumption. But her t-shirt has a story worth telling.

Rivoli first adeptly traces the history of cotton as a critical world commodity, including the struggles in England two hundred fifty years ago by the wool industry to combat the comfort of cotton, going so far as to prohibit the use of calico and the requirement that people be buried in wool. The questionable economics of slavery moved cotton production to the United States, but it was and still is the intervention of technology, research and financial capital that made cotton farming so much more productive today. Nonetheless, the ability of Texas farmers to market "low quality" cotton can best be attributed to both technology and federal price supports, up to 19 cents on a 59 cent pound of cotton. Cotton, while still a major commodity in global trade, has probably declined in relative value and share of the world economy. What we may be seeing is more of the slow death of the importance a dated commodity and less of a "race to the bottom" that she suggests.

She then takes us to t-shirt and apparel manufacturing and employment, now on the wane in North Carolina, South Carolina and Georgia. People mistakenly think that these jobs are being sent to China. They're not. In fact, they're just disappearing. Rivoli notes that China, between 1995 and 2003, lost ten times the numbers of textiles manufacturing jobs as did the United States (p. 142), and Chinese workers have little or no safety net or alternative employment, unlike their displaced American brethren. In the ill-fated "race to the bottom," it should be clear that this fate seems to await any industry that is unable to maintain a long-term competitive advantage, and the only way to do that seems to be through protectionism. While t-shirts are cheap, saving textile jobs is not cheap. Saving American textile jobs costs between $135,000 and $180,000 per job saved, according to best estimates (p. 144), costing American taxpayers and consumers billions of dollars. Where jobs are being created is in the lobbying and trade association industry. This section (Part III) is an overwhelming alphabet-soup of acronyms - WTO, AGOA, NAFTA, CBTPA, ADTPA, ATC, MFA, ACMI, LTA, ATMI, and ITCB -- for trade agreements, trade associations, trade and lobbying groups, and other defenders of (primarily) protectionism. The complexity of the letters is exceeded by the complexity of the trade agreements they promulgate. It takes a lot of honest, well-intentioned effort and dollars to disrupt the free flow of trade.

As noted above, Rivoli generally passes over the details of the American retail trade for apparel, other than minimal attention to the hated global icon Wal-mart. She observes the expensive foreign vehicles and SUVs in the American shopping mall parking lot, lined up to drop off used clothing at the Salvation Army van in anticipation of going inside and buying up more equally recyclable apparel. I doubt that those malls contain a Wal-mart, and that there is likely a big difference between those who shop at Wal-mart and those who re-cycle clothes before shopping at Lord & Taylor.

This recycled donation sets the stage for the best example of free trade in the book - the used clothing stalls in Tanzania, where savvy shoppers brand shop at rock bottom prices, haggling and playing the market from dawn to dusk. Discriminating, well-informed, fashion-conscious shoppers happily haggle, engaged in one of Tanzania's functioning markets. She is careful not to buy the `humiliation' argument, the one that says that Africans should be ashamed to wear second-hand clothes. As she notes, some of the used stuff dropped off at the American mall never makes it to Africa; it gets picked off along the way as "vintage clothing" and worn by Americans and Japanese willing to pay "hundreds of dollars" for used jeans. As she notes, while much has remained the same in impoverished Africa, most Africans do dress better today, thanks to this free market.

She offers a short conclusion (pp. 211-215) and analysis. She does see some hope: "Cutting agricultural subsidies, democratization, and giving poor countries a place at the table at trade negotiations are all steps in the right direction." She notes Cordell Hull's view, that global commerce may be the best prevention for war.

The book is relatively short (215 pages), well-written, engaging, and, despite the need to use acronyms, very clear and readable. It is an excellent primer on the problems of protectionism and the intricacies of delivering on truly free trade, while noting that many who espouse free trade really don't want to practice it or, more commonly, be subjected to the competition from free trade.

Three minor quibbles.

She writes deferentially about Tom Friedman, his lions and gazelles metaphors, hardware and software analogies, but forgets that he also says that the world is flat. This book shows that the world markets for t-shirts is not free, fair or flat. And the playing field is not level. It is full of lumps, dips, and massive mountains. And, as Rivoli notes, it was not made or kept this way other than by "snarling dogs", not lions, not gazelles. Friedman has popularized interest in globalization but he has shed little light on its understanding or analysis.

With two or three almost casual asides, she seems intent on laying this travesty of fair or free markets at the feet of George Bush, if only because west Texas cotton farmers are such beneficiaries of federal subsidies. A fairer view would recognize that people of the same political and social demeanor who now fight against globalization once fought --- and still do fight -- for crop price protection for farmers.

Rivoli claims that economists everywhere around the globe appear to have universally adopted, recommended and embraced free trade ("virtually unanimous support among professional economists, a group almost without exception who scorn protectionism in general" p. 148). I am not willing to go that far. But you should go so far as to read this good book.
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on August 17, 2013
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.
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on October 27, 2006
At the beginning of the book, Pietra Rivoli sets out to find an answer to the anti-globalization cries of the activists, to build a case to convince them of the power of the markets in improving the life of the poor. Instead, we discover an intricate web of interrelationships of politics, economics and culture; we realize that the trade skeptics need the corporations, the corporations need the skeptics, but most importantly the sweatshop workers need them both.

This book really stands out in its scope and conclusions. All too often we are exposed to one-sided attacks on or treatises for globalization - this book offers a comprehensive look at both sides, and more importantly it recognizes the importance of both. Amartya Sen (Nobel prize winner) proposed and supported many of the same ideas before, but this book articulates them exceptionally well and offers plenty of real, historical examples to seal the case.

I read this book for a class, but it's a kind of book I would have no hesitation reading on my free time either - it's a solid investment of your time and a real eye opener.
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on July 25, 2005
All of us have an opinion on globalization. We either fall into the protectionist or free trade camp or perhaps somewhere between but few of us have a clear concept of the mechanics of globalization. Alan Tonselson’s book “The Race to the Bottom” tried explaining it using wry statistical economic analysis but Rivoli breathes life into globalization by fleshing out the people involved in the life cycle of an ordinary T-shirt. Her book illustrates this phenomenon to the layperson by demonstrating that globalization is more about history and, more importantly, politics, than about economics.

Her detailed discussion of textile trade politics leaves me to marvel at the fact that I am in fact wearing a T-shirt at all! Teleologically all political activity is aimed at material gain, hence, we are back to economics or as she so aptly demonstrates that politics gets in the way of economics.

Travels of a T-Shirt is an engrossing, informative, enlightening, and exciting book. The most salient feature is her historical discussion of cotton production and the textile industry. If you thought that globalization is a 21st century phenomena think again. Globalization is as old as the human race. Only its magnitude is unique to our century.

Readers will discover that the issues of globalization are not black and white but rather infinite shades of grey. I urge everyone to read this book for I guarantee that they will walk away with a whole new perspective.
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on November 28, 2010
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.
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on August 10, 2006
The only reason I give this book 5 stars is because I can't give it 6! This blessed relief from boring, tedious economic tomes is the best of it's kind since "The Incredible Bread Machine."

After having known the comfortable pleasures of soft cotton clothing next to their skin, the 18th century British public suffered through two generations of itchy woolen undergarments. Why? For the same reason that 21st century garment makers from Bangladesh to Turkey, after playing tug of war for years with the leading American textile industry lobbyist, have suddenly switched sides to tug with him on his end of the rope: Job Protection. The weavers in 1719 Britain did not want to lose their jobs to cheap cotton imports from the east any more than American mills or third world nations with economies dependent on making inexpensive clothing want to see their jobs go to . . . . . .China, in this case.

We learn why that's a mistaken belief, at least in part. Industry jobs aren't going to China, or Sri Lanka, or Mars, for that matter, as much as they are just going - period.

Welcome to the world of cotton growers, subsidies, price supports, trade quotas, tariffs, free markets and, well, not so free markets. The author has penned a superb book which unpacks a complex topic. Using case studies of real folks she captures the nuances of an often arcane subject with astonishing clarity and brevity that spans the globe and time from 17th century England to 21st century Africa where a free market re-packages cheap upscale clothing discards in demand by a fashion saavy, if impoverished, public.

In barely 200 pages you'll understand more about applied econmics than you imagined. You'll appreciate the success that comes to a country (the U.S., eg) where the institutions - farms, market, government, science and the universities - all work, making a "virtuous circle" out of which entrepreneurial resourcefulness can be well rewarded. The third world is missing a lot more than just money to compete effectively.

Well written, fascinating, and timely, it covers the dark side as well as the irrepressable ingenuity of the human mind. Anyone can understand it, and everyone should enjoy it.
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on December 30, 2010
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.
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on August 6, 2008
Upon first glance, it might appear that this book details economic aspects of a
single industry, namely that of T-shirts. You'd be mistaken. It instead offers
an insightful look into several different aspects of T-shirt production,
including agriculture, factory working conditions, free trade (and
lack thereof), and concluding with the world-wide used T-shirt market. Each of
these sections could merit a book topic in its own right, but Ms. Rivoli has
wonderfully combined them into a single book ripe for reading.

Learn about the history of cotton production, including the rise of American
production and why it's still on top. (Hint: the American government has more
than a small role, but farm subsidies aren't the major reason.) Learn about the
back-room political dealings that ensure that some of your clothes come from
Bangladesh and Mexico instead of China, even though China could provide them for
less (and why it might be a good idea to keep things that way). Learn about what
happens to a used T-shirt once it's donated to the Salvation Army, and how it
might end up being sold in a Kenyan's clothing stall instead of your local
thrift store.

There is not a dull moment to be found in the book, and in fact seems to get
more interesting as the book wears on. If there is any fault with the book, it
is that the book was published in 2005 which means that the revised textile
trade agreements from 2006 have been left out. A revised edition would be
appreciated. Luckily, that's the only fault I have with the book. Highly
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on March 22, 2005
I'm from the apparel industry - not fiber, yarn, textile or retail which in the US are separate industries - but apparel, the cutting and sewing and shipping of clothing. Ironically, a week before reading this book, I was given a passionate and amazing talk by an executive from one of the non-apparel companies profiled in this book. When he was done, I told him his business plan, which he detailed, could not have been written by an academic or a consultant, but only by a warrior in the supply chain. Well, this book could not have been written by a warrior, but only by an academic. In its description of the travels of a shirt, it bears close resemblance to a similar story written several years back in the NYTimes magazine. Having said that, this book rocks. Its great. Its a tutorial of how the apparel industry chases the low cost needle from country to country. And it is extremely current. I learned a lot about cotton, yarn, textiles, trade, lobbying, England - but nothing new about apparel, per se. So to me, everyone will learn something new from this book. It is unfortunate the author did not interview Kevin Burke of the American Apparel and Footwear Association. She seems to imply that the AAMA just disappeared. It did not. Kevin is a key player in the "Alphabet Army" the author describes as centered in Washington. Still, as I read the book, I learned the history of one of the members of our organization ([...] a highly successful cotton organization called PCCA. And I saw many names of people I knew first hand. There is so much history to the apparel supply chain I simply did not know - and now I understand it much better. As for my own bias of the divergent sides one takes on trade, I found myself leaning side to side like an old hill billy watching wrestling on TV as I squirmed in response to one sides rhetoric and the others B.S. Its well written. I like to think I'm a good industry writer, but I could not have done what Dr. Rivoli has achieved. Its a great yarn, maybe a little too heavy on the sweatshop, dogma and labor aspects of the issue, but then again, its written by an academic. I'm still waiting after 15 years of touring apparel factories all around the world to find an actual sweatshop. The only one I've ever seen was on a PBS documentary shot in New York of a horrifying factory there. Apparel chases the low cost needle. As Wal-Mart told me personally last decade, "when a US apparel contractor can make a dozen golf shirts at the same quality and price as we're getting from Cambodia, we'll buy them". Apparel chases the low cost needle. China is the world's apparel plant floor. Wal-Mart is the world's retail floor. Reality rules, and it is so inevitable it hurts. Are there any questions?
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on May 17, 2005
A unique and well-written book of international economics for anyone. No hard edges or hard opinions cloud this book's ingenious premise. From someone who has read many books on business and econ, this one is not only feel good but brilliant. Enjoy!
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