The Travels of a T-Shirt in the Global Economy: An Economist Examines the Markets, Power, and Politics of World Trade

By Welch, Tom | Freeman, April 2006 | Go to article overview

The Travels of a T-Shirt in the Global Economy: An Economist Examines the Markets, Power, and Politics of World Trade


Welch, Tom, Freeman


The Travels of a T-Shirt in the Global Economy: An Economist Examines the Markets, Power, and Politics of World Trade by Pietra Rivoli John Wiley & Sons, Inc. * 2005 * 254 pages * $29.95

With the increasing trade of goods and services across national borders and the erosion of command economies, the enemies of the market have now become "anti-globalists." To them, "globalization"-specifically, international trade and investment-is responsible for poverty and deteriorating living conditions, especially in underdeveloped countries.

Prompted by a protester's assertion about the squalid conditions in which garments are manufactured, Georgetown University business professor Pietra Rivoli set out to find the truth. The result is The Travels of a T-Shirt in the Global Economy, in which she traces the provenance of a single commodity: a six-dollar T-shirt. From a Texas cotton field to a textile factory in China, through the nets of Washington bureaucrats to a Florida manufacturer, she follows the product's life cycle, concluding with its probable fate in an African used-clothing market. In the process, she explores the history of trade in textiles and clothing from the Industrial Revolution to today.

By providing a proper historical perspective, Rivoli underlines the benefits of trade for even the poorest participants. However unpleasant conditions in textile factories have been throughout the ages, workers have willingly sought employment there as an escape from desperate rural poverty. In country after country, the textile industry has provided betterment for workers and their descendants. Especially poignant is Rivoli's litany of former mill towns across the globe that have progressed to the forefront of more modern industries. Since a large portion of the workforce in the industry has historically been female, textile manufacturing has also been a driving force in the increasing autonomy of women in many societies. As such, Rivoli calls "nonsensical" the anti-globalists' efforts to stop the so-called "race to the bottom." She pointedly asks the protesters whom they would wish to condemn to generations of rural poverty.

Another theme of Rivoli s work is that there is little trade that is truly free. Her narrative is filled with stories of attempts to manipulate the market through the power of government. From nineteenth-century slavery to today's taxpayer subsidies and crop insurance, American cotton growers have employed a variety of means to escape the vagaries of the labor market. China uses a system of internal restrictions on freedom of movement to achieve a similar end in the modern textile industry.

Perhaps the most blatant example of protectionism Rivoli encounters is the decades-old, ever-changing, and byzantine regime of textile import quotas imposed by the United States at the urging of a vocal lobby of manufacturers and labor unions. …

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