Global yarn

The Travels of a T-Shirt in the Global Economy
OECD Observer

An anti-globalisation activist took the microphone at a 1999 protest in Washington and, after decrying corporate greed and forced child labour in third world sweatshops, she demanded, “Who made your T-shirt?” One of the observers, Pietra Rivoli, an economics professor at Georgetown University in the US, chose to pick up that gauntlet. She expected to prove both “the undeniable benefits of global free trade and the misguided tenets of the anti-globalisation movement”.

This vividly written biography of Ms Rivoli’s $6 T-shirt is subtitled “An economist examines the markets, power and politics of world trade”, and it took her thousands of miles and five years of research. She interviewed the owners of cotton fields near Lubbock, Texas, whose 1,000-acre ranch produces almost 500,000 pounds of cotton lint each year; that’s enough to make about 1.3 million T-shirts. She also spoke with factory workers in Shanghai, observed trade negotiations in Washington, D.C. and chatted with vendors at a used-clothing market in Africa.

Ms Rivoli concludes that the winners at various stages of the T-shirt’s life are adept less at competing in markets than avoiding them. While she set out to validate Adam Smith’s case for free trade, she writes “whatever the positive or negative effects of competitive markets, in my T-shirt’s journey around the world, it actually encountered very few free markets.” Rather, manufacturers and importers with tax breaks and subsidised farmers dominate, in turn forcing poorer countries to lower their prices to below subsistence levels in order to compete.

Ms Rivoli’s treatment of the economics, ethics and political manoeuvrings of the textile industry will draw debate, but her stories from behind the scenes are engaging. Take her comparison of practically labour-free cotton production in Lubbock, Texas which is “bound by soft cotton fibre” to labour-intensive clothing assembly in Shanghai, China. They keep a close watch on each other, though as she points out with humour, the cities “have nothing in common, not even a Starbucks, which Shanghai has but Lubbock does not”.

Parenthetically, this award-winning book shows that, more than just an undergarment, the T-shirt is a model of recycling. Nothing is wasted in the harvesting of cotton; the cottonseed oil ends up in candy bars, peanut butter and potato chips, the cotton bolls, stems, leaves and dirt become cattle feed. At the end of the T-shirt’s life it will most likely travel with tons of other cast-off T-shirts from over-flowing charity out-baskets to African markets via the global used-clothing industry. Here merchants vie with each other and fight for customers to sell their bales of used T-shirts. It is a vast and overlooked business. Ms Rivoli says, “It is only in this last chapter of the T-shirt’s life that world trade patterns are fashioned by economics rather than politics”.

The Travels of a T-Shirt in the Global Economy, by Pietra Rivoli - Publisher: John Wiley & Sons

ISBN 0471648493

©OECD Observer No 251, September 2005

Economic data

GDP growth: +0.6% Q1 2019 year-on-year
Consumer price inflation: 2.3% May 2019 annual
Trade: +0.4% exp, -1.2% imp, Q1 2019
Unemployment: 5.2% July 2019
Last update: 8 July 2019

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