In the book, The Travels of a T-Shirt in the Global Economy: An Economist Examines the Markets, Power, and Politics of World Trade, Pietra Rivoli endeavors to simplify the intricacies surrounding international trade by focusing on a single product, a t-shirt. This narrowing of an otherwise broad topic allows the author to trace how a product moves around the world in the course of its manufacturing and utility and place it in the broad concept of international trade to understand the dynamics involved in the process.
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Rivoli is a renowned professor economics professor at Georgetown University, and thus contribution through this book adds deep insight into the field of international trade. The widespread campus anti-globalization campaigns of the late 1990s inspired Rivoli to write this book by exploring the politics and human factors behind this debate by following the story of a $6 t-shirt. This paper is an in-depth analysis of Rivoli’s book by focusing on major themes, its strengths and weaknesses, and take-away points.
The second edition of this book was published in 2009 and it is divided into four major sections – Part I: King Cotton, Part II: Made in China, Part III: Trouble at the Border, and Part IV: My Shirt Finally Encounter a Free Market. Each section has several sub-sections making a total of 15 chapters. After purchasing a t-shirt at a Walgreens drugstore in Florida, Rivoli looks at the label and calls the Sherry Manufacturing Company where she is introduced to Patrick Xu, the main supplier of the t-shirts. She learns that the cotton that makes the t-shirts in China is grown in Texas, which marks the beginning of her journey to understand how her 6 dollar got to her and where it will go after she has used it.
Part I: King Cotton
Rivoli starts the book by examining the first step involved in the making of t-shirts, which is cotton farming. The author majors on the history and development of the cotton industry in the US and policies that have helped to sustain the industry and make it competitive in the market. She writes, “American cotton growers have adapted their production methods, their marketing, their technology, and their organizational forms to respond to shifts in supply and demand in the global marketplace” (Rivoli 7). Different factors contributed to the expansion of the cotton industry in the West including slavery, the discovery of herbicides and pesticides, and technological advancement. Therefore, cotton would be mass-produced and exported to China.
Part II: Made in China
Under this section, the author contextualizes the anti-globalization arguments of the late 1990s and early 2000s. She argues that if China did not make the t-shirts, the US would have no reliable market for cotton exportation. She uses simple economic concepts to explain the relationship between China’s manufacturing capabilities (cheap labor) and the export of finished products to the US. Rivoli admits that the majority of workers in China work under sweatshop-like conditions, which is a violation of human rights. However, she notes that human rights activists have forced Chinese companies to improve their working conditions and support human rights.
Part III: Trouble at the Border
The huge influx of imported goods into the US affects the economy negatively by pushing local manufacturers out of business through stiff competition from cheap Chinese products. The anti-globalization movements at the time are concerned with this aspect. Rivoli discusses US tariffs and quotas on goods and resources from China and other countries, such as Japan. The tariffs were revised to allow the influx of goods from China because local companies could not meet market demand for some goods. The new tariffs also allowed the outflow of goods from the US to other regions like Africa.
Part IV: My T-Shirt Finally Encounters a Free Market
In the last section, Rivoli explores how used clothes leave the US as donations to poor countries through NGOs and other philanthropic agencies. While some people argue that such clothes should be given for free, doing so would affect cash flows from these countries. Therefore, the clothes are sold to small-scale traders in Africa who in turn sell to poor customers in those countries.
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The book is written professionally from an economist’s point of view. The language used is simple for anyone interested in reading to understand the complex world of international trade. Rivoli uses a neutral tone, and thus the book sounds unbiased, which is uncommon among economic writers and policymakers. She 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 ix).
Therefore, she writes objectively about the topic of globalization. In addition, she quotes her sources, both primary and secondary, as a way of ensuring scholarly standards in her work. She quotes hard data and figures to ensure that the work is not subject to her personal biases as an economist or the opinions of others. Therefore, it suffices to argue that the book is not a collection of the writer’s opinions, but a concise compilation of evidence-backed with reputable references, which gives the work the academic credibility needed for such a book. Moreover, the book is divided into different subsections to allow readers to follow what is being said, hence it is easy to interact with its contents.
Despite the many strengths associated with this book, it has several weaknesses. First, the book does not take a clear stand on issues through well-developed hypotheses. As such, the author does not make strong arguments in any direction, which makes the book sound like a report. In addition, the book appears like a global road trip report by a travel writer subject to personal opinions and biases. The author is a trained economist, and she is bound to focus on violations of free markets than the infringement on human rights. As such, the author develops the story in a way that favors her views as an economist, which forms a strong basis for bias.
For instance, instead of focusing on the impacts of t-shirt manufacturing on human subjects, she dedicates most of her time to the economy. Moreover, Rivoli took a qualitative approach to address the issue of international trade and the sources used are mainly personal anecdotes, which are subject to bias. The book is also lengthy as 305 pages are long for a novel.
The reader can take away some important lessons from this book. First, the book more of a story about the global economy and the many dynamics involved in the process. Second, there are no right answers when it comes to globalization. On the one hand, poor countries benefit by accessing international markets, which means poverty levels are alleviated. On the other hand, local companies in the US and other developed countries may be pushed out of the market due to the influx of cheap goods. However, the paradox is that local companies cannot meet market demands in the US, hence the need for cheap products from China.
Therefore, economies cannot operate in isolation, and the only way out of this problem is for policymakers to create robust trade policies to balance market demands and at the same time protect local industries from unfair competition. Finally, the idea of free markets is complicated, and the liberalization of markets does not necessarily mean freedom to people. Case in point, the US and the world at large enjoy affordable goods from China at the expense of people working under sweatshop-like conditions.
Rivoli’s book is a fascinating story of globalization trying to unravel the intricacies of international trade by following a single product from its raw material through utilization to “disposal”. Rivoli embarked on a journey to trace how her shirt was made starting from cotton farming in Texas to a factory in China, back to the US, and finally to a remote market in sub-Saharan Africa. The book is written professionally with arguments backed with statistics from reputable sources.
However, it has a major weakness in that the writer focuses on the economics of making t-shirts without highlighting the impacts of such a process on human subjects. Nevertheless, the author attempts to break down the complexities of international trade in a fascinating way and anyone interested in this topic from a simplified perspective should read the book.
Rivoli, Pietra. The Travels of a T-Shirt in the Global Economy: An Economist Examines the Markets, Power, and Politics of World Trade. 2nd edn., John Wiley & Sons, 2009.