In her book, The Travels of a T-shirt in the Global Economy, Pietra Rivoli takes on the intricacies and complexities of trade and globalization through following the path of a T-Shirt she purchased from Walgreens for $5.99. It is a very informative book and her writing is such that the reader is left feeling both well informed on the issues discussed, as well as entertained.
Rivoli breaks up the book into 4 sections. In Part I, “King Cotton,” we are brought to an area in West Texas, an area that boasts to be home to much of the world’s cotton. In fact, the main city, Lubbock, calls itself the “cottonest city” in the world (Rivoli 3). Cotton, it would seem, has a very sordid past. “The worlds first factories were cotton textile factories” (Rivoli 9), and these came about during the Industrial Revolution in England. Demand increased so much during this time that it became necessary for Britain to look elsewhere for its cotton. The winner here was the American South. But based on the graph on page 10, the American South did not really start to trump its competition until roughly 1821. Perhaps the real cause for the American successes was the fact that cotton production relied heavily on slave labor. Slavery, sharecropping, and factory farming were how farmers were able to reduce the risk of competition and labor shortages during harvest season. As Rivoli says on page 24, success depended upon avoiding—not competing in—the labor market.
Next, we learn about how technology advances and mechanization has finally solved the labor problems, and about the policies and subsidies that ultimately led to America having the top spot in cotton production—from the Agricultural Adjustment Act of the 30’s to the subsidies of the Farm Bill of the early 2000’s.
In Part II of the book, “Made in China,” Rivoli goes on to discuss what happens to the cotton after it leaves Texas, and subsequently, the United States. Its destination: China. As she weaves the story of her T-shirt from factory to factory, what I think she is really trying to highlight here is the story of the sweatshop, its workers, and what she refers to as “the long race to the bottom.”
From what I gathered here, a major component in the race to the bottom, historically, has been a surplus of labor. The race to the bottom needs its labor surplus to be willing to work in the type of environment that sweat shop factories foster: long hours, boring monotonous work, low wages, limited benefits. Every cloud has a silver lining, however, as later on in Part 2, Rivoli points out that maybe losing the race to the bottom, and being the current bottom, isn’t the worst thing: The countries that have lost the race to the bottom are some of the most advanced economies in the world today, but they share a common heritage in the cotton mill and the sweatshop as the ignition switch for the urbanization, industrialization, and economic diversification that followed (99).
Other important aspects of this section is that working in the sweatshops often afforded new freedoms to the factory workers, such as being able to leave home, escape planned marriages, buy their own fashionable clothes, and most importantly, escape the harsh and difficult life of working on the farm. Through an account of a woman from 1800s Britain, Rivoli shows us that the alternative to factory life was considered much more difficult, and generally less appealing. She also gives thanks to activists for their part in the race to the bottom, saying that the “generations of activists—today’s included—have changed the rules of the race and raised the bottom, making it a much better place than it used to be” (101).
In Part III, “Trouble at the Border,” we meet the T-shirt back on U.S. soil as it prepares to reenter the country. This chapter really dives deep into the issues with “free trade” agendas from the American side of things. How we set quotas on incoming apparel, the...