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Book Review: The Travels of a T-Shirt in the Global Economy by Pietra Rivoli (3/5)

3 Dec

A friend recommended this book to me as a passing comment at a party in 2015. I don’t think he ever thought I’d read it almost five years later. I haven’t seen him in a few years so I don’t know if I’ll ever have a chance to talk to him about it. I’m still glad I read this, though.

Cover image via Goodreads

The Travels of a T-Shirt in the Global Economy: An Economist Examines the Markets, Power, and Politics of World Trade by Pietra Rivoli

Summary from Goodreads:

The Travels of a T-Shirt in the Global Economy takes the reader on a fascinating, around the world journey to reveal the economic and political lessons from the life story of a simple t-shirt. Over five years, business professor Pietra Rivoli traveled from a Texas cotton field to a Chinese factory to a used clothing market in Africa, to investigate compelling questions about the politics, economics, ethics, and history of modern business and globalization. Using the story of the t-shirt to illustrate the major issues of the globalization debate, this uniquely entertaining business book offers a surprising, enlightening, and balanced look at one of the major topics of our time.

I liked parts of this book but it dragged for me as a whole. If it had been boiled down a bit, I would have been gripped a bit more. I thought the cotton subsidies and the history of it in America were interesting. I thought the livelihood that women in China could earn because of t-shirt production was interesting and I liked the stories about how it affected their lives. The history of quotas and imports to the US and how they’ve been used politically was interesting and I was most fascinated about the second-hand clothing market in Africa. So yes, that’s most of the book, but there was still a bit too much in it. Some topics were explored to death while others were hinted at or glossed over. I guess overall it was just a bit too much detail. I liked it when Rivoli talked about her travels to see the t-shirts and what had become of them, but I was less interested in her research.

Rivoli paints a very realistic picture of some of the people in a t-shirt’s life. I liked the political activist best (forgive me for forgetting names, it’s been over a month). Someone who fights for politicians to keep to their word is admirable, even if I don’t agree with his political stance. I liked how he knew he was fighting a losing battle but did it for the people remaining who cared.

I liked how Rivoli talked about the student who inspired her to research this project. A student at a protest accused other attendants of wearing clothing made in sweatshops in the third world. While it may have been true, Rivoli wanted to see where t-shirts came from. I bet I’m sometimes guilty of the same thing as that student and spewing accusations I’m not 100% certain of. Though I don’t think I’ve ever done it loud enough to inspire a book.

Pietra Rivoli (in the t-shirt)
Image via Alchetron

I thought the second-hand clothing market was fascinating. I completely got a market where some people ‘just know’ the value of something. I also liked the insight into where my donated clothing goes. I try to upcycle clothing (quilts or something similar) but I do donate a fair amount as well. I never thought about what happens if it’s not sold in a goodwill store. The economy Rivoli describes where it’s sold is fascinating to me. I loved that in one of the pictures was a triathlon participant shirt! That really struck home with me.

For some reason, the first section on cotton farmers was frustrating to me. I think it’s because Rivoli dives into how the US government has propped up the cotton industry for so long. No one really seems to mind the subsidies and programs there are for cotton farmers. However, I come from a city dependant on the auto industry and when that was propped up, the rest of the country freaked out. (Rant over.) I wanted to like the cotton farmer Rivoli describes, but I kept thinking how lucky he was to be in cotton and not another crop that wouldn’t be as lucky should a bad season come through.

What surprised me the most in this book was how often government intervention stopped the progress of the t-shirt. The secondary market is the only time I can think of where it didn’t come into play. Cotton farming, former Chinese control of the fabric industry, and US import restrictions were the bread and butter of the t-shirt’s life. As much as people try to separate politics from their daily lives, it’s very ingrained in what we do every day.

Writer’s Takeaway: Rivoli had some remarkable research and personal anecdotes to share. I think the anecdotes helped in some parts of her story (cotton farming) and less in others (US imports). In any case, she didn’t balance them as well as she could have and they told a stronger story in some parts than others. Overall, I think she told a great story with what she had even if it didn’t keep me engaged the whole time.

An interesting and informative book, just not as engaging as I like with my fiction. Three out of Five Stars

Until next time, write on.

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Related Posts:
The Travels of a T-Shirt in the Global Economy | Closer readings
book review: The Travels of a T-Shirt in the Global Economy: An Economist Examines the Markets, Power, and Politics of World Trade, by Pietra Rivoli | David Evans’ personal blog