book review · ethical fashion · history & philosophy

Book Review: The Travels of a T-Shirt in the Global Economy

Rivoli, Pietra. The Travels of a T-Shirt in the Global Economy. 2nd ed. Wiley, 2014. {Direct Link}

Over the past year, I’ve been part of a “local fiber” study group through the Weavers’ and Spinners Society of Austin. The purpose of the group was to explore current systems of textile production, to learn about the concept of a “fibershed” (regional fiber system), and to create and exhibit works from our own central Texas fibers, dyes, and production systems. We also read two books together. One of these, Pietra Rivoli’s The Travels of a T-Shirt in the Global Economy, has been out for several years, and even inspired NPR’s Planet Money series, “Planet Money Makes a T-Shirt.

Rivoli, a professor at Georgetown University, is an economist and expert in international business. She brings these skills to bear in her work, crafting a work that is nearly exhaustive in its work to trace the full lifecycle of an ordinary t-shirt. At the same time, the book is readable and generally engaging for a lay reader (I did get terribly bogged down in the chapter on US textile import regulations, but perhaps for Rivoli, a staunch advocate for free trade, the suffocating experience of reading about the fiber content of jean pocket linings and sock cuffs was part of the point).

The book is divided into four major sections: “King Cotton,” “Made in China,” “Trouble at the Border,” and “My T-Shirt Finally Enters a Free Market.”

“King Cotton” explores global cotton production, with a special focus on the United States’  longstanding dominance. As an American living in Texas, this section was literally close to home. Here in Austin, it is still quite common to talk with men and women my parents’ age who remember “chopping cotton” by hand during hot Texas summers. American cotton is preferred by textile manufacturers worldwide for many reasons, in particular our grading system, which has a reputation for accuracy and freedom from corruption. This section also features fascinating profiles of farmers on either end of the cotton spectrum: a successful north Texas farmer who takes full advantage of the many technological advantages in cotton breeding, planting, and harvesting; and a former sharecropper from Mississippi, who stopped farming only when the big business of growing cotton required began to require more paperwork and bureaucratic navigation, making it nearly impossible for farmers with low literacy or education to compete.

“Made in China” follows American cotton to China for spinning, knitting, and garment assembly. This section also features an interesting history on textile manufacturing since the Industrial Revolution. Quite consistently, the textile industries have pursued a “race to the bottom,” following cheap (and predominately female) labor, from England, to the Americas, to China, and now to countries such as Bangladesh.

“Trouble at the Border” returns to the US to detail the long battle between advocates for protectionism of US products, and those who argue for more free markets. Rivoli observes, however, that even proponents of “free trade” in the US are far from establishing a truly free market, which she explores in Part IV, focusing on the “mitumba” (second-hand clothes) markets of east Africa. Here, she writes, a t-shirt finally reaches a market truly free from regulation and interference, and she profiles some of the entrepreneurs who make the most of the opportunities to sell American’s cast-offs.

Rivoli accomplishes her aim–tracing an ordinary t-shirt through all phases of its constructions–taking readers on a  fascinating, at times encyclopedic, journey around the world. Generally, her exploration is even-handed, and while clearly an advocate for free and globalized trade, she does acknowledge the social problems associated with globalization, such as the decimation of local textile production in east Africa, or the loss of jobs as US cotton farming and textile production become increasingly automated.

Even as she acknowledges these problems, however, Rivoli seems curiously uninterested in solving them, or even in thoroughly investigating them. She seems to take globalization and automation as inevitable, and it is here that I found myself discontented with the book. In a section called “Aristotle vs. Wal-Mart,” for example, Rivoli acknowledges that there is a longstanding rift between professional economists, who see automation and global trade raising the standard of living generally, and the American public, who resist economic changes that, for example, might close a mill and remove the economic engine of a small town. She notes that Aristotle was also suspicious of foreign trade, although she does not parse what she means when she summarizes Aristotle’s reservations about concerns for “unhealthy influences” on the citzenry. While I appreciate that she acknowledges this gap, her treatment of it strikes me as arrogant. She acknowledges the discontent of both ordinary citizens and Aristotle himself, but not delve more deeply into fundamental questions separating Aristotle from the professional economists: is material wealthy truly the bottom line for human flourishing? Are there moral considerations that can or should qualify an industry’s use of technology? To my mind, these are the most important questions her book raises, but the ones she seems least interested in answering.

Despite my obvious philosophical differences with the author, I still highly encourage everyone who has ever worn a t-shirt to read this book. For millions of people involved in the textile trade–indeed, for all of us who wear commercially manufactured clothes–the cultivation, production, and disposal of fabric has significant social, economic, and environmental ramifications.


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