Understanding how the threads of a T-shirt are woven out of political desires to retain power by leaders anywhere in the world may not be shocking, but the author's scholarship and approach delivers a balanced account of free trade and job protection and the unexpected outcomes. Learning about the mitumba markets of Africa adds to the completeness of the story of fibre into t-shirt and to its end as either rag or used article of clothing. Despite the full review of all the academic studies and literature related to the topic, the prose never strays into to academic-speak and the organization of the iconic t-shirt's story from birth to death from a non-abstract perspective makes it a compelling read. In many ways it is similar to Kurlansy's studies of cod or salt; but the insights about free trade bear more weight than just an historical perspective about what happenned with textiles from a macro-economic perspective. Highly recommended. rw
This book was recommended to me by a friend. It is an insight into the globaleconomy that is so well written and clearly explained that it should be required reading in high schools and colleges for Americans to understand the implications of individual responsibility of choices in many aspects of life such as jobs, shopping, travel, voting and you name it!
Fascinating Look at the Connections and Complexities of Globalization
As an economist telling the story of t-shirt bought at an American drugstore, Pietra Rivoli weaves together a narrative of the connections and complexities of globalization. Arguing that the life of her t-shirt is not influenced heavily by markets, Rivoli instead insists that history, politics, and creative strategies of market avoidance are the major factors determining this life cycle, which is composed of four journeys. Cotton is grown and harvested in the United States before being sent to China. Once there, the cotton is spun into fabric and perhaps at the same factory or another location, the fabric is then made into a t-shirt. At this point, the t-shirt comes back to the U.S., where it is bought, sold, and eventually thrown out or donated to a thrift store. And what turns out to be perhaps the most interesting part of the book, our (Americans) used clothing is sent around the world, particularly to African countries. The selling and buying of used American t-shirts has created a new industry and market that only typifies the worldwide links that globalization creates.
A serendipitous mix of ecological conditions, policies, economics, and history facilitated the U.S.'s rise to cotton dominance. To start, cotton factories and innovation in the growing, harvesting, and manufacture of the crop helped give the U.S. advantage of any other cotton producing country. Slave labor was, as Rivoli states, "the first significant American `public policy' that served to protect cotton growers from the perils of operating in a competitive market...a risk growers were loathe to assume" (pg. 11). Other countries, such as India and China did not yet have a modern market that would enable them to compete with American cotton production. Even though the U.S. did not have to rely on a labor market and could instead use slave labor in the cotton fields, Rivoli suggests that the U.S. also had in place "institutions necessary to support factory-style cotton production," those being chiefly property rights, incentive structures, what she calls "governance" and what will and continues to play a major role in cotton production and in the modern, American textile industry.
Rivoli makes a strong argument that the avoidance of the labor market was a successful and enduring strategy of earlier cotton producers. This is a technique that continues today in an interesting way. No longer do cotton producers have to rely on any manual labor on the farms. As cotton production shifted from the southern U.S. to the largest cotton producing state of Texas (environmental and technological reasons primarily) and as the main example of the Reinsch farm illustrates, an eighty-seven year old man can now work his 1,000 acre cotton farm essentially alone, with the use of different technologies that have enabled him to produce about 500,000 pounds of cotton that will make 1.3 million t-shirts. Partnerships with local schools, such as Texas Tech University, which specialize in various cotton production methods, along with tractors and other machinery allow for the extensive harvesting of cotton fields. Even with government sponsored initiatives, such as the Bracero Program that allowed Mexican laborers to enter the country for agricultural work (started in 1942), farm machinery could do the work of many men in various weather conditions. Furthermore, genetically modified cotton seeds have given even more advantages to growers, even though the safety of certain genetically engineered crops and food still remains questionable. Rivoli's discussion of Monsanto's monopoly on genetically modified crops and products aimed at creating the most efficient cotton growing is one of the highlights of the book, one that deserved more attention. Monsanto's questionable tactics raise concerns over the freedom for producers of any crop to maintain a sense of detachment from Monsanto's ever widening political and economic grasp.
From the cotton fields of Texas, the cotton is sent to China, where workers spin the cotton, knit it into cloth, cut it into pieces, and then sew it to form a t-shirt. Here, the story focuses heavily on the working conditions in the various clothing factories that have been springing up all over China. Rivoli's glimpse into the lives of factory workers seems almost standard, at least for anyone with any knowledge about sweatshops. In the chapter, "Cotton Comes to China," Rivoli writes about several experiences she had when visiting the Shanghai Brightness Number 3 Garment Factory. Workers are subject to harsh working conditions, make little money, and work tremendously long hours. The next few chapters deal mainly with reasons why China, and other Asian countries have become preferred destinations for the manufacture of t-shirts and other apparel. This "race to the bottom" refers to the idea of making as much profit out of a product for the least amount of money; accordingly, sweatshop like factories are places in which these garments can be cheaply produced through the hard work of low paid staff. Throughout this section, Rivoli makes excellent comparisons between modern Chinese workers and English cotton mill laborers at the beginning of the industrial revolution. This comparative aspect does not seem to suggest any earlier stages of globalization, but rather that distinct historical processes are similar to the same ones today and also that history has had a profound affect on today's modern economic and political practices.
Once the cotton is fashioned into t-shirts, they are shipping back to the U.S. to be sold to consumers. Here, Rivoli presents another interesting and less noticed aspect of the global clothing trade, that being the "governance" of the U.S. textile industry. The American textile and apparel trade, according to Rivoli, "is one of the most managed and protected manufacturing trade in U.S. history" (pg. 143). While this section is of interest, it is the most complex and confusing due to the shear number of different textile policies that have been influenced by political interests. Rivoli does an outstanding job of presenting two different sides of contention in the textile industry, one who would rather see textile manufacturing remain in the U.S. and not outsourced to other countries, and the other that is more "pro-trade" in relation to places like China, which quotas for textile imports to the U.S. were lifted as of 2009. This section provides the most examples that relate to the overall argument that the cotton industry's success is tied to market avoidance because as is clearly shown, policies enacted to protect American cotton growers and producers have played a far bigger role than any market interactions.
The last section and part of the t-shirt's life cycle focuses on an emerging market of donated clothing. Specifically, an American company is profiled that buys bulk donated clothing and then sells it to customers all over the world. These sellers of donated clothing must be very adept at knowing what their customers want and most often they are; they must satisfy the need for certain kinds of clothing, Japanese buyers might covet certain t-shirts, while European buyers are looking for particular jeans. The phrase that sums up these few chapters is, "one man's trash is another man's treasure." After the clothing is bought by foreign buyers, it continues to trickle down to the local economies, where second hand shirts from wealthy American's, some with sport's team logos other's with trendy designs, are sold by small entrepreneurs at community marketplaces.
As an economist, Rivoli's take on the global economy is refreshingly broad and incorporates much historical and political background. My major complaint is the lack of focus on the cultural aspect of the life cycle of a t-shirt. While the reader can imagine how certain political or economic factors as a result of the production, manufacturing, selling, and redistributing of a t-shirt could have a profound affect on local, regional, and national cultures, but it is left mostly vague with a focus on other topics. Nonetheless, the clear, informative, and well written book is a must read for anyone interested in contemporary issues in globalization, politics, or economics. The overall strength of the book, as I have stated before, is highlighting how connected the world, especially when policies of one entity, whether business or government affect practices, processes, economics, and politics places on the other side of the world.
The Travels of a T-Shirt in the GlobalEconomy, by Economist Pietra Rivoli, is my second "where do t-shirts come from and how do they fit in the global economy" book. The first was a much slimmer publication, T-Shirt: One small item, one giant impact (also reviewed). This book certainly goes into greater detail, particularly regarding the economic and societal forces affecting the production of cotton, the history of mechanization in production and processing cotton, the affect of the fabric industry on workers and the work environment, and the "last stage" of a T-shirts life in the US, as extraordinary numbers of cast-off clothes are shipped to entrepreneurs in Africa to resell as serviceable clothing, then finally recycled as rags or as raw material to make, once again, into T-shirts.
Here are some of the interesting snippets from this book:
"It takes a little over a third of a pound of cotton lint to produce a T-shirt, maybe 15 cents' worth, so an acre of West texas farmland can produce about 1,200 T-shirts each year" (p. 62).
"Globalization's critics continue to charge that the price of cheap T-shirts is high indeed. Sweatshops spawned by global capitalism exploit the poor and the powerless, forcing people without alternatives to work in prison-like conditions for pennies a day. The factory villages also destroy traditional family structures and cultures, and weaken indigenous agriculture. In short, the critics claim, the cheap T-shirts from China are a victory for US consumers and for corporate profits, but a failure for humanity" (p. 72). However, Rivoli demonstrates that the truth is more complicated. If the textile industry allows young women to escape the drudgery and toil of life, marriage, children, and death on the farm, having an opportunity to develop their own life, perhaps with educational opportunities, is this all negative? Rivoli writes, "Like their sisters in time, textile and clothing workers in China today have low pay, long hours, and poor working conditions. Living quarters are cramped and rights are limited, the work is boring, the air is dusty, and the noise is brain numbing. The food is bad, the fences are high, and the curfews are inviolate. As generations of mill girls and seamstresses from Europe, America, and Asia are bound together by this common sweatshop experience - controlled, exploited, overworked, and underpaid - they are bound together too by one absolute certainty, shared across both oceans and centuries. This beats the hell out of life on the farm [last sentence italicized by author]" (p. 90).
"When the benefits of cheaper T-shirts for millions across the country are placed alongside the costs of job loss for a few thousand in a North Carolina mill town, the public's internal calculator often works much differently than does an economist's. ...Even when it looks futile, Americans seem to want to try" (p. 150-1).
I found the final chapter on "castoff T-shirts" fascinating. Who hasn't taken those extra clothes to their local charity, to help cloth the poor?
They were probably sold by the ton, shipped to Africa, and sold again.
"Observers have sharply conflicting views about the global trade in castoff T-shirts. Is the recycled clothing business a villainous industry - a shadowy network that exploits the goodwill of charities and their donors, and suffocates the apparel industries in developing countries under the mountains of castoffs? Or is it a great industry, a model of nimble, free market dynamism that channels charitable impulses into clothing for the poor? (p. 176-7). In Tanzania, these castoff clothes are called "mitumba" - clothing thrown away by Americans and Europeans, including many T-shirts (p. 190).
"Donated clothing quickly makes its way to mitumba markets, though the trade becomes more illicit and hidden. Researchers in Sweden cite evidence from several countries that suggests donated clothing is unlikely to reach those who have a true physical need for clothing but instead is rapidly sent into the markets. Researchers have also found that clothing intended for refugees in Asia efficiently enters the market. Clothing given away in this manner will still enrich a middleman, but it will be an illegal one. And whether we like it or not, charities are no match for markets when it comes to giving people the clothing that they need or want. trailer loads and ship loads of clothing are often donated following natural disasters such as hurricanes, but without people... to match clothing with customers, most of these donations rot in warehouses. Charities are ill-equipped to provide the sorting, grading, and distribution functions so ably provided..., and so most disaster relief organizations nearly beg the well-intentioned not to send clothing to disaster areas" (p. 202-3).
Interesting stuff. This book is another one in the genre of giving the reader a deeper, richer understanding of where things come from, and why. I also read a book recently about the cut flower industry (Flower Confidential: The Good, the Bad, and the Beautiful. The similarities here are very interesting.
The Travels of a T-Shirt in the GlobalEconomy has been lauded by the New York Times, Financial Times, and reviewers worldwide. Translated in fourteen languages, Travels has received numerous awards for its frank and nuanced discussion of global economic realities. Now updated and revised--including a discussions of environmental issue--this fascinating book illustrates crucial lessons in the debate on globalization.
The major themes and conclusions from the first edition are intact, but in response to questions from readers and students around the world, the second edition now includes:Updates on the people, businesses, and politics involved in the production of the T-shirt.Discussions of environmental issues related to both international trade and the T-shirt's life story.A look at the maturing of the anti-globalization movement, and the recent shift in public opinion against internationalism.