Book review – The travels of a t-shirt in the global economy

tshirttravelsI 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.


8 Responses to “Book review – The travels of a t-shirt in the global economy”

  1. When I read this title I immediately thpo0ught of the travels of THIS t-shirt:

    Sounds like something from Chapter 10 or 11, yes?

  2. Hi, Jim. Yes, absolutely. Fascinating!

  3. I look forward to reading this book. My husband is in textiles & I found it interesting how his job has changed through the years. What started out for him as working in the Dye House of an old mill in the back woods of SC has taken him around the world and back again.

    Although the migration of textiles, and well manufacturing in general has always moved to the “lowest bidder.” I think what is striking is how fast it has occurred recently. Textiles was a booming economy 30 years ago.

    OK – so I could go on forever because I live it, but what I think what we are really seeing is the evolution of the Textile industry in the US. The R&D for these companies are still staying state-side. I believe this mimics what is happening in all of manufacturing, and that our corporate culture is redefining itself.

    PS. My husband got to do work in West Africa and has some interesting anecdotes about the donated Goodwill clothing market there 🙂

  4. Rivoli and I share the same editor at Wiley. This book is one of the first I turned to when researching the global apparel industry. I think it’s great that she was able to approach the subject with such an open mind. I visited apparel factories in China, Bangaldesh, and Cambodia and spent a lot of time with the workers and found that life as a garment worker doesn’t always beat the hell out of life on the farm. Many of the workers miss their families and farming with them in the fields.

  5. While the economics of Travels of A T-Shirt in a Global Economy were quite interesting, overall, I was offended by the book. When this book was recommended to me by a friend, I expected to find a story about economics that at the same time might be able to reveal the truth about the horrific journey a t-shirt goes through to end up in your closet beginning with the labor used to pick the cotton to the sweatshop that is involved in the process of making the shirt. Instead, I found myself reading a book written by a Ph.D professor who found it fit to boast her own privilege on nearly every page of the book and call protesters of sweatshops rag tag and uninformed. Perhaps Ms. Rivoli should tried experiencing the life of a sweatshop worker rather than try and run the globe defending it by saying how much better it is than life on the farm. Almost every person in my family has worked in a sweatshop since they were kids and Pietra Rivoli has no idea how terrible it is. Members of my family have been hurt and even murdered by conditions set in place by sweatshops such as ending shifts at midnight and working people to death. I could not believe that she compared work in a sweatshop to a boarding school she attended and it only goes to show how misinformed she is. On top of that, her major piece of evidence, when she interviews a sweatshop worker who said she liked her job proves absolutely nothing. Of course a sweatshop worker will say they like their job to a lady who is about to publish a book with their name written in it. She’d be fired if she revealed the truth. Another thing that bothered me about this book is that the author almost completely dismisses the workers that pick the cotton for Nelson Reinsch. She even goes on to say that his workers and his sons are treated equally which is hard to believe. I doubt his sons are forced to work hours under the sun, receive next to nothing for pay, and have pesticides fall on them regularly. The other thing that is disturbing about this book is that she uses so many stereotypes while writing it such as making broad generalizations about African people and talking about them as if they all lived in mud huts. She also talks about the used clothing markets in Tanzania but obviously is clueless as to what it is really like to have to buy these clothes. No, buying hand me downs in a market is not the same as shopping in a mall, and no not every African is so desperate that they will wear whatever garment the U.S throws at them. She interviews a man who says that used clothes are better than no clothes, and while this is true, she refuses to ask herself the question of whether it is alright that some people wear the latest fashion while others are forced to rummage through market stalls? Finally, her comment about how the Marias of the world can’t afford to get their hair done was ridiculous. There are millions of Marias in the world and not all of them pick cotton for a living. There are doctors, professors, bank owners and lawyers (myself included) that make triple the amount of money she makes so she can stop snubbing them any time now. I could go on and on about racist, stereotypical, and ignorant comments the author has made but the bottom line is that while Pietra Rivoli may be an expert on economics, she is no expert on the process of making a t-shirt. Maybe she should go back and re-think that Ph.D before she writes another one of her books where the only thing to be learned is how blinded she is by her own privilege.

  6. I am astouded at the narrow mind-set of the author. She fails to see the difference between trade objection which occurred historically from businessmen wishing to preserve their profits and the current situation where the objections are from working people who object to losing their jobs as a result of misguided trade policies which take no account of the atrocious working conditions and environmental problems which are all the harder to stomach when one sees that only the corporate elite benefit from this so called free trade. I guess the professor is a celebrated darling in the board rooms.

  7. Disagree with the last two comments. If the government of a country can’t or won’t protect their citizens, the problem hardly stems from their employment options. Live in ‘wishful thinking’ land all you’d like, but the sweatshops aren’t the issue. You make it sound as though Nike swooped in with black hawk helicopters and set up its own local government with the mandate to exploit anything exploitable.
    People can only trade freely if they are free first… don’t you find?
    Jobs aren’t owned by the people working in them. They are a way of producing things. You don’t suppose the people working for those historical business men wanted to keep their jobs?
    I’ll bet YOU benefit from free trade.
    Good grief.

  8. We read this book for one of my classes and I must say that I really enjoyed it. However, I found the first part more interesting than the others and my attention span began to wane as the book continued. I was lost in the amount of regulations and rules the cotton industry has globally and I never realized the complexity of making a single T-shirt. This book will definitely be in my mind the next time I buy clothing.

Leave a Reply