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The Travels of a T-shirt in the Global Economy

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Varsha Parthasarathy

on 27 November 2013

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Transcript of The Travels of a T-shirt in the Global Economy

The Travels of a T-Shirt in the Global Economy
Varsha Parthasarathy

Book Plot Summary
My Opinion
How Do Others View Her Work?
Book by Pietra Rivoli

Where does your t-shirt come from?
Pietra Rivoli, renowned professor in the field of economics at Georgetown University, contemplated for years the answer to this question. In a time of globalization, Rivoli saw her students, fellow faculty, neighbors and friends overwhelmed by the intense amounts of imports and exports throughout the United States.
And while her peers and acquaintances were either supporting or fighting globalization, Rivoli searched for the intrinsic characteristics and reasons behind the flow of globalism that began so abruptly and changed the lives of not only the American people, but millions of others around the world.

Where does your t-shirt come from? (Cont.)
This book, regarding a cheap t-shirt bought at retail superstore Wal-Mart, is split into four essential parts. The first part has to do with the basis of the t-shirt: cotton. The second part talks about the process the shirt undergoes while being created in China. The third part discusses what happens as the shirt returns to the United States and faces American protectionist policies. And the last, and arguably most important part, looks at what happens to the t-shirt when America (or other more-developed nations) are finished with the t-shirts.

Part 1: King Cotton
Rivoli looks at the first step in the process of making these shirts: growing the cotton. This part of the novel focuses directly on the history of cotton development, including the creation of the cotton gin by Eli Whitney, which drastically reduced the prices of cotton nationwide.
Furthermore, Rivoli describes the impact of slavery on cotton development, and the costs that abolishing slavery had on the cotton-growers of the nation.
She also focuses on the manifest destiny that drove cotton-growers further and further west. With the spread toward the west, cotton not only became easier to grow, but also easier to protect. Herbicides and pesticides supported the cotton against insects.
And with these technological advancements came the ease by which people were able to grow cotton and export it to China, so that Chinese workers could sew the t-shirts.

Part 2: Made in China
Every anti-globalism argument of the time looked at the impact that Chinese products had on the American economy. But Rivoli puts this into perspective. If China did not sew the t-shirts using the cotton that America exports to the nation, where would we get the cotton?
Probably not from the United States. The reason that America gets so many goods from China, and the reason that China has benefitted from American dependence on its products, is because labor is so cheap in the nation.
Naturally, with cheap labor comes human rights concerns. Rivoli points out that many Chinese companies that make t-shirts depend on workers in sweatshops who are paid incredibly meager amounts to work hours on end each and every day.
But activists have forced these Chinese companies to be more supportive of human rights. And as more and more t-shirts are made, they get exported from China back to the United States.

Part 3: Trouble at the Border
As goods flow back into the United States, more concerns rise regarding the negative effects of globalization in the nation. And this is exactly what Rivoli’s main focus is on throughout the novel – with more goods comes more globalization, thereby igniting fear and negativity within the American people. This is what prompted Rivoli to write the novel in the first place.
So Rivoli discusses American quotas on not only Chinese goods, but also resources and goods from other nations (such as cotton from Japan). She talks about tariffs and their negative effects on the American economy. While they did support American companies, the government could not have even hoped to fulfill demand for the various goods that could be obtained cheaply only from China’s labor market.
So the government was forced to open the gates for international goods yet again. But with the opening of the gates also came a flow out of America of goods to less-privileged people.

This is the last step in the t-shirt process: used clothing travel to other nations through non-governmental organizations and other philanthropic programs. Rivoli mentions that women’s clothing is cheaper and better quality than men’s clothing, a product of women buying more clothing and keeping the clothing cleaner.
However, not all countries (primarily the ones in Africa, which is what Rivoli is looking at), but those that do gain many benefits from the trade and goods from the United States.
However, some people argue that the goods should be given to Africans free of charge. In the status quo, we donate the clothing to companies in Africa, both small and family-owned as well as large and American-owned. However, this would blight much of the income flow that occurs currently in African nations, which could be debilitating to the continent’s already distressed economies.

Part 4: My T-Shirt Finally Encounters A Free Market
The Free Market
The part that I found the most interesting about this novel was the discussion regarding philanthropy to countries in Africa who receive the used t-shirts that Americans have already worn.
I personally believe strongly in philanthropy, and that larger, more successful nations should help weaker nations bring their economies back to a sustainable state. For example, the United States should give African nations aid.
But I also agree completely with the argument that free money isn’t going to help. Subsidized lending, or complete aid, would only allow African governments to shirk their responsibilities in favor of relying on other nations’ aid.
I suggest that we support trade, perhaps with the t-shirts. This will force the governments to become more accountable for the imports and exports through their nations. As Rivoli points out, this will also stimulate the economy by spreading income throughout the nation.

Personally, I believe that this novel is very well written.
Naturally, very few writers are unbiased in their works. This especially holds true for those who write about financial policy and the economy. But in the spectrum of levels of bias, Rivoli is definitely on the lower end.
She herself says, “I have written this book not to defend a position but, first of all, to tell a story . . . not to convey morals but to discover them, and simply to see where the story leads.”
Rivoli’s view of globalization is, comparatively, extremely objective. She not only uses quotations from those whom she interviews, but also uses hard facts and numbers, revealing an work untainted by her own biases and guided by the opinions of others.

Her Argument
As for the novel’s argument, I do not see a very strong argument in any direction. I view the book in the light of a report, as it was intended.
But from the novel’s facts and quotations about globalization, I have developed my own opinion regarding the globalization of the time.
I believe that globalization is vital for the world to succeed. No one country owns enough land or resources to thrive without the help of resources and programs from other nations. For example, the US is unable to utilize its oil resources, so it must depend on Canada and the Middle East for oil.
But at the same time, nations must not impose cultural colonialism on other nations as a byproduct of globalization. For the most part, when it comes to the economy, transactions should stay strictly objective and non-ideological.

Did She Do A Good Job?
Most readers say yes.
“The Travels of a T-Shirt in the Global Economy, Dr. Rivoli’s path-breaking study of globalization, was written with three goals in mind: first, to report rather than to advocate; second, to connect management and global issues in today’s economy; and third, to avoid the bad rap of other business books by being a want-to-read book rather than a should-be-read book. By choosing an everyday object – a T-shirt – that in its life story symbolizes a lot of the ongoing debate about global economics, she accomplished all three.”
--Rod Cox, Executive Management Forum Series
Cox sees this novel as extremely well-written in that it seamlessly weaves together the three goals and knocks out all three in fewer than 300 pages. It is also very relatable; most readers likely have a t-shirt. Rather than putting globalization in the perspective of perhaps the governments and the economies of various countries, Rivoli picks something that she knows most readers will be both familiar with and interested by.

Others Disagree
“It's the perfect set up for a global road trip […] And like all travel writers, the trip - and the lessons it teaches - are deeply colored by the traveller's perspective. As Rivoli is careful to inform us in the introduction, she's a classically trained economist. As such, she often seems more interested in violations of free markets than in violations of human rights. It makes for a bit of an odd journey - fascinating, but there are many times I found Rivoli speeding past the story I wanted to hear towards the story she wanted to tell.”
--Ethan Zuckerman, Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard Law School
Zuckerman argues that perhaps Rivoli is subjective in the approach she takes toward the topic, rather than what she says about it. Instead of looking at the toll that making a t-shirt has on its human subjects, Rivoli focuses simply on the economy.

Rivoli’s considers her work to be “a biography. So if you want to put the book in a genre, my preferred place would be to look at it as a biography. It is a biography of a particular cotton T-shirt that I bought five or six years ago in Fort Lauderdale, Florida.”
It’s very important to look at how the author frames her work, because the author is the one who decides what she wants her piece to convey to the world. It’s incredibly interesting to think that something so small, and so seemingly insignificant, can have a huge effect on not only the economy of one given country, but on all of the economies in the world.

Works Cited
Image URLs

Works Cited (Cont.)
“Transcript of an IMF Book Forum”. International Monetary Fund, Washington
D.C. 19 October 2005. Web. 21 November 2013.
Zuckerman, Ethan. “Trade Protectionism for Fun and Profit!” Berkman Center for
Internet and Society at Harvard Law School. 14 March 2005. Web. 20 November 2013.
Rivoli, Peitra. The Travels of a T-Shirt in the Global Economy: An Economist
Examines the Markets, Power, and Politics of World Trade. Hoboken: John Wiley & Sons, 2005. Print.
“An Economist Examines the Markets, Power, and Politics of World Trade”.
Management Forum Series. 7 February 2007. Web. 18 October 2013.
French, Howard W. “The Next Empire”. The Atlantic. May 2010. Web. 12
November 2013.
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