In her book, The Travels of a T-shirt in the Global Economy, Pietra Rivoli takes on the intricacies and complexities of trade and globalization through following the path of a T-Shirt she purchased from Walgreens for $5.99. It is a very informative book and her writing is such that the reader is left feeling both well informed on the issues discussed, as well as entertained.
Rivoli breaks up the book into 4 sections. In Part I, “King Cotton,” we are brought to an area in West Texas, an area that boasts to be home to much of the world’s cotton. In fact, the main city, Lubbock, calls itself the “cottonest city” in the world (Rivoli 3). Cotton, it would seem, has a very sordid past. “The worlds first factories were cotton textile factories” (Rivoli 9), and these came about during the Industrial Revolution in England. Demand increased so much during this time that it became necessary for Britain to look elsewhere for its cotton.
The winner here was the American South. But based on the graph on page 10, the American South did not really start to trump its competition until roughly 1821. Perhaps the real cause for the American successes was the fact that cotton production relied heavily on slave labor. Slavery, sharecropping, and factory farming were how farmers were able to reduce the risk of competition and labor shortages during harvest season. As Rivoli says on page 24, success depended upon avoiding—not competing in—the labor market.
Next, we learn about how technology advances and mechanization has finally solved the labor problems, and about the policies and subsidies that ultimately led to America having the top spot in cotton production—from the Agricultural Adjustment Act of the 30’s to the subsidies of the Farm Bill of the early 2000’s.
In Part II of the book, “Made in China,” Rivoli goes on to discuss what happens to the cotton after it leaves Texas, and subsequently, the United States. Its destination: China. As she weaves the story of her T-shirt from factory to factory, what I think she is really trying to highlight here is the story of the sweatshop, its workers, and what she refers to as “the long race to the bottom.”
From what I gathered here, a major component in the race to the bottom, historically, has been a surplus of labor. The race to the bottom needs its labor surplus to be willing to work in the type of environment that sweat shop factories foster: long hours, boring monotonous work, low wages, limited benefits. Every cloud has a silver lining, however, as later on in Part 2, Rivoli points out that maybe losing the race to the bottom, and being the current bottom, isn’t the worst thing: The countries that have lost the race to the bottom are some of the most advanced economies in the world today, but they share a common heritage in the cotton mill and the sweatshop as the ignition switch for the urbanization, industrialization, and economic diversification that followed (99).
Other important aspects of this section is that working in the sweatshops often afforded new freedoms to the factory workers, such as being able to leave home, escape planned marriages, buy their own fashionable clothes, and most importantly, escape the harsh and difficult life of working on the farm. Through an account of a woman from 1800s Britain, Rivoli shows us that the alternative to factory life was considered much more difficult, and generally less appealing. She also gives thanks to activists for their part in the race to the bottom, saying that the “generations of activists—today’s included—have changed the rules of the race and raised the bottom, making it a much better place than it used to be” (101).
In Part III, “Trouble at the Border,” we meet the T-shirt back on U.S. soil as it prepares to reenter the country. This chapter really dives deep into the issues with “free trade” agendas from the American side of things. How we set quotas on incoming apparel, the likes of which got extremely complex. I think this section really highlights trade inequalities that resulted from globalization. I think it also works to undo the notions that China was stealing away all our jobs in the apparel arena, because despite the complex protectionist measures taken, America still lost lots of jobs in the textile industry.
The author points out that this is because of technology, and that when it really comes down to it, China is losing their textile jobs at a rate faster than the U.S. did (142). She also goes over some of the unintended consequences of the measures such as increased material costs as a result of the increased import barrier (142). She also suggests in this section as an alternative to erecting trade barriers, to instead compensate workers of the losing industries, known as the compensation principle (151). Lastly, with the lift of the measures and quotas by 2005, there will be a new surge in Chinese goods to America, as illustrated in figure 9.1, page 167. China’s percent increase after release from the quotas will measure some 900%.
Finally is Part IV of the book, “My T-shirt Finally Encounters a Free Market.” This section deals with what happens to the clothes after they are discarded, usually through donation to Goodwill or The Salvation Army. In fact, American donations to these kinds of organizations have increased so much that they have begun exporting the recycled clothing, “nearly 7 billion pounds” (Rivoli 176), to other countries. The recycled industry has actually created jobs in Africa as America’s old clothes are regarded as extremely valuable. She ends with a detailed account of how her t-shirt will now travel from the U.S. to Africa.
The book does a really good job taking a diplomatic approach to globalization. For that reason, it does not really emphasize as much a clear-cut winner and loser, as many other writings seem to do. For example, in Richard Florida’s Who’s Your City?, he makes it very clear that “today’s global economy is powered by a surprisingly small number of places” (19). So while Rivoli thinks that even if it’s at the bottom where you start, it’s at least somewhere, you can see that Florida does not necessarily share this point of view. He see’s the world as now comprised of peaks and valleys. Those at the bottom would conceivably be in the valleys. This makes it difficult to connect with those in the peaks since the “people in spiky places are often more connected to each other” (Florida 32). Florida calls this the “peak-to-peak connectivity.
Also, while using her t-shirt, a common everyday item that we can all relate to, as her example, Rivoli sets us up with a view that globalization is essentially a timeline. In For Space, by Doreen Massey, however, we get a different point of view. She believes that it is not to anyone’s benefit to “fail to recognize the multiplicities of the spatial” aspects of globalization (83). She goes on to say that it is dangerous to imagine globalization as spreading from sources of economic power and wealth “across a passive surface of space” (83).
I think this is a very interesting point that is missed in T-shirt. Everything sort of emanates from these powerhouses in the book; first Britain, then the Unites States, and now finally, China. There is one thing that the two seem to share in opinion though, and that is that often times, “free trade” seems to be anything but free: “a free trade agreement should make it easier, not harder, to trade” (Rivoli 120), and “the claim to free mobility…by the worlds poor is rejected out of hand” (Massey 87). What the two are getting at here is that often, because free trade has actually become so convoluted, it is not at all benefitting the worlds poor or rising classes, and in fact, could serve to keep them down.
Over all, I enjoyed T-shirt, and would recommend it to anyone wanting a very approachable and accessible take on globalization and world trade. I think that if I had one complaint, it would be that Rivoli seems to really wander/ramble in certain sections. The details get to be almost to much, and I know that this is a very complicated topic, perhaps editing down some of the excessive parts, such as in the chapters “Sisters in Time” and “Dogs Snarling Together,” where sometimes the information gets quite repetitive. I think that a lot of what was in the chapter “The Long Race to the Bottom” covered the whole factory and sweatshop issues and how it is better than the alternative, etc. that was recovered in “Sisters in Time,” for example. Maybe these two areas could have been merged together. Also, the same thing happens in the next section where “Dogs” covers so much policy stuff that just sort of gets repeated in the next chapter “Perverse Effects and Unintended Consequences.” Otherwise, a fantastic and very informative book!
Florida, Richard. Who’s Your City? New York: Basic Books, 2008. Print. Massey, Doreen. For Space. London: SAGE Publications Ltd, 2005. Print. Rivoli, Pietra. The Travels of a T-shirt in the Global Economy. Hoboken:
John Wiley & Sons, 2005. Print.
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