I just finished reading The Travels of a T-Shirt in the Global Economy by Dr. Pietra Rivoli, Professor of Economics at Georgetown University. It was quite an interesting book. Here are some things that I learned:
- Some Americans have been voicing their concerns about the negative impacts of cheap labor and clothing from China on our country’s textile and apparel companies. These “groans” by American corporations and others are identical to the concerns raised in earlier centuries by British manufacturers about cheap cotton from India and/or the New England area of the United States. They’re also identical to the concerns raised in the late 1800s by New England manufacturers as the industry moved to the Southern states, and the concerns raised by Southern manufacturers in the early 20th century as the industry moved to Japan, and the concerns raised by Japanese manufacturers in the later 20th century as the industry moved to Hong Kong, Korea, Taiwan, and China. (Chapter 5)
- No matter how bad working conditions are in factories in Chinese, Vietnam, and other developing countries compared to Western standards, those factory jobs still are a significantly-empowering move up for the primarily-female workers who otherwise would be mired in abject rural poverty back home in their village. As the author put it, it may be rough in the factory but it “beats the hell out of life on the farm” (p. 90).
- Global activism has made textile/apparel factory jobs, even in developing countries, much better and much safer than ever was the case during the Industrial Revolution in England and America. (p. 101)
- You have to read the book to understand the sheer lunacy of the regulations, tariffs, quotas, and other restrictions that American manufacturers and lobbyists have gotten enacted into law. That said, nothing is going to save the United States textile and apparel industry. Right now, the author says, it’s “kept alive only by unnatural acts of life support in Washington” (p. 208). Moreover, most of the protectionist measures put into place actually have hurt the American industries in the long run. (Chapter 8)
- China will overwhelmingly dominate the global textile/apparel industry for at least the next few decades.
- There is an extremely robust aftermarket in developing countries for castoff clothing from the U.S., Europe, and other industrialized nations. You know those personal shoppers at high-end clothing stores that will call you when something comes in that they think you’ll like? The same thing occurs in Tanzania except it’s for donated t-shirts brought to Goodwill and The Salvation Army that have made it to Tanzanian street markets. Chapters 10 and 11, which describe all of this, were my favorite part of the book.
- Implementation of textile recycling programs (like we have for newspaper, glass, metal cans, and plastic) would easily pay for itself.
This book took a while to pick up steam but overall I thought it was well worth the read. If you decide to pick up a copy, happy reading!
I give this one 3 highlighters.