Pietra Rivoli is a professor of business at Georgetown University. She earned her B.A. and PhD at the University of Florida in Finance and International Economics (Georgetown University). According to her professor profile on the Georgetown University website, she has a special interest in social justice issues in international business. This is reflected throughout the book by discussing the effects of the textile industry in different parts of the world throughout history from the United States to Great Britain to China. Her book The Travels of a T-Shirt in the Global Economy, published by John Wiley & Sons Inc., has been published in fifteen different languages. In Roger Lownestines review of the book in the New York Times he applauds Rivoli and states “real authors do not write about their subjects so much as they use them to tell a story” (Lowenstein). Rivoli uses her $5.99 t-shirt from a Walgreens sale bin to tell a story that travels across not only the world but time as well.
Rivoli begins her book with the inspiration of her story. She was walking through Georgetown University in 1999 and there were students protesting globalization. The protestor with the microphone yelled “Who made your t-shirt? Was it a child in Vietnam chained to a sewing machine was it a young girl in India earning twelve cents an hour living 12 to a room?” Rivoli did not know exactly where her t-shirt came from and she was wondering how did this young activist know. That is when Rivoli was inspired to tell the story of a simple $5.99 t-shirt.
The book is divided into four parts and each part contains three chapters. The first part is titled “King Cotton” and begins the story with where the cotton was farmed to create the t-shirt, the Reinsch family farm in Smyer, Texas. The three chapters of this section of the book describes the history of cotton, the business of cotton around the world and the history and current life of the Reinsch farm. Some of the more interesting points provided in this section of the book consisted of he turn that cotton farming took after slavery was abolished in the United States. Once cotton farming started to move west to Texas there was concern about how the farmers were going to be able to harvest their cotton before it was damaged due to weather or not being picked before the end of the season. There was sharecropping and the development of machines slowly overtime but there were a couple of odd things they tried along the way. One of the solutions that they tried was importing monkeys and trying to train them on how to pick the cotton. That didn’t work out so well. Another solution that wasn’t quite as odd was during WWII when the men left to go to war there was a need of help to harvest the cotton. This is when people from Mexico were hired to come and work for the season so the farm could still harvest the cotton and make their profit. These people were called ‘bracer” and even though they were only permitted as an “emergency wartime measure” the program ran well into the 1960s. According to Rivoli, the United States is the leading exporter of cotton. The name of the country to where the majority of the exported cotton goes is considered to be a taboo of sorts: China.
China is where the next stop Rivoli’s t-shirt takes and part two of the book takes place. Part two’s is divided into three chapters. The first discusses how china is the leading exporter of textiles in the world and how the factory that Rivoli visits appears. The second chapter is about what Rivoli describes as the “race to the bottom” which is the history of textile mills and factories in different parts of the world and the treatment of employees that work there. The third chapter discusses the history of the textile industry in the particular factory the t-shirt was created and how other industries such as electronics and cars have effected it. What was most interesting in this section was how it relates to the statements made by the protester that inspired Rivoli’s journey. The protester states that these shirts were made by young girl’s that live twelve to a room making a very little wage. What Tivoli discovered was that the women that work in the textile mills in China like the fact that they work and make their own money. Many women go to work in the mills because it is better than working on the farm or being in a marriage they do not want to be in. The conditions are still very strict but these women feel free at the same time. They use their money to do what they please such as buy a dress or see a show.
The third section of the book discusses the t-shirt coming back to the United States. This is where most of the issues of free-trade and globalization are discussed. There is how the imports of textiles effect the textile industry in the United States. The policies of textile trade are also heavily discussed in this part of the book. Rivoli discusses how policies are constantly changing when it comes to textiles. A shipment of t-shirts coming to the United States might be ok when it is ordered but by the time it arrives some of the items on it might violate trade policies and have to go back. There is so much that effects the textile industry in the United States that people are not aware of because it is overshadowed by other controversial topics in the news. The fact is that the US textile workers were against the importing of textiles into the U.S. because it was taking away their jobs. The problem was that it was cheaper to import the t-shirts and yarn that the women in China made. Those women were also happy to do it for a fraction of the amount it would cost for a worker in a US mill.
The final section of the book ad most interesting discusses what happens to t-shirts as Rivoli states “toss them out”. She isn’t referring to as throwing them away but what happens to clothes when they are donated after they are no longer needed. After being sorted through a few times by the donation center and other resale shop owners, the unwanted garments are sent to Africa. This section of the book specifically discussed a market in Tanzania where the shirts Americans were willing to pay so much money for are sold for a quarter. The market here is the only time in the t-shirt’s travels to be considered in a free-market. There is no tax or tariffs. The second hand clothes are purchased by sellers and then resold at the market for a profit.
This book was enjoyable. It was easy to follow because it focused on one good throughout the process. One thing I disliked was the way Rivoli talked about consumers. She described the “soccer moms” she saw dropping off garbage bags of clothes to the salvation army as taking out the trash to make room for more stuff they don’t need. I feel that she could have executed this part of her book better. Most people that donate clothes are getting rid of clothes that don’t fit or no longer want. Rather than throwing them away they like to think that they are doing a good deed by donating them so the clothes can be purchased at a lower price by somebody that cannot buy them new. They way she describes the consumers is so negative it is like she forgets that they are the ones that stimulate the U.S. economy. Even though that t-shirt was made in China, the cotton grew in the United States therefore, there is still some stimulation to the economy. Also a young girl in China is living independently rather than forced into a marriage she does not want because someone bought that t-shirt. Consumers do need to be more informed on what their purchases effect but that doesn’t mean people that are informed should look down on the uninformed.
Lowenstein, Roger. “Travels with my Florida Parrot T-Shirt.” New York Times 21 Aug 2005, n. pag. Web. 30 Mar. 2014. <http://www.nytimes.com/2005/08/21/business/yourmoney/21shelf.html?pagewanted=print&_r=0>.
Rivoli , Pietra. 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 Inc., 2005. Print.
“Pietra Rivoli Bio.” Georgetown University. N.p.. Web. 30 Mar 2014. <http://explore.georgetown.edu/people/rivolip/?action=viewgeneral&PageTemplateID=360>.