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

A cheap souvenir T-shirt reveals a lot about globalization.

Pietra Rivoli is an associate professor at Georgetown University and specializes in international business, finance, and social issues in business at the McDonough School of Business. She became fascinated by the life of a humble T-shirt after listening to comments at a Georgetown protest in 1999 about the "nameless, faceless" person who made her shirt—or any shirt—and what that person's workday and living conditions were like. Rivoli's result is intended to be a story about globalization, not a book that advocates for or against globalization, although economic and political issues are unavoidable.

The T-shirt she describes was purchased at a Walgreen's in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. Rivoli examines the entire creation process from the growing of cotton in Lubbock, Texas, to its journey to a factory in Shanghai where it was spun into yarn, knit into cloth, cut up, and sewn into a shirt. The shirt returns to the United States to the manufacturing plant whose name appears on the label that is screen printed onto the shirt. Then the shirt is tossed into a tension-filled market where consumers must decide if they will purchase products that say "Fabrique en Chine."

Even after the T-shirt is purchased at a retail outlet, its journey doesn't end. Rivoli goes on to describe the global trade in cast-off T-shirts. While we may be familiar with local nonprofit organizations and resale shops, there are others probably less known to most of us which buy used clothing by the pound and create a second life for it by shipping it to other countries, especially in Africa. Even shirts too worn out to be used as clothing gain a second life as cleaning rags, or they can be re-spun into low-grade yarn and turned into new clothing again. The market for recycled clothing is growing, and perhaps it is only a matter of time before China will mark the beginning and end of a T-shirt's life.

Throughout the journey of this T-shirt, Rivoli weaves in discussions of relevant issues such as the development of the cotton industry in the United States, the history of labor laws and labor rights activism, tariffs, import limits, outsourcing, and entrepreneurship. The book is engaging and even includes a few unexpected photos that help the reader gain more understanding of globalization as it really happens to a product so familiar to us all.—Cynthia D. Churchwell