The Travels of a T-Shirt in the Global Economy

I just finished The Travels of a T-Shirt in the Global Economy, an excellent international trade narrative by Pietra Rivoli. Gary Hufbauer summarized the book well:

This book is unlike any text in International Economics 101. It’s totally entertaining and without those dreadful equations. The Travels of a T-Shirt in the Global Economy tells the drama of globalization through real people and their daily lives. Rivoli recounts the trials of winners and losers on three continents. From a fascinating journey, she distills economic and political lessons that just make good sense.

Many of the topics covered in the book in “Part II: Made in China” and “Part III: Trouble at the Border” will be familiar to Trade Diversion readers (sweatshops, the Multifibre Agreement, Chinese textile quotas), but the text is well-written and compelling. Moreover, I learned a lot about the history of the American cotton industry (such as the shift from the Deep South to Lubbock, Texas, covered in “Part I: King Cotton”) and US dominance of used clothing exports (“Part IV: My T-Shirt Finally Encounters a Free Market”). The latter is perhaps the most interesting part of the book.

It is only at the retail level, and after it is tossed into a Salvation Army bin, that my T-shirt’s life is a story about markets rather than politics. It is political reactions to markets, political protection from markets, and political involvement in markets, rather than competition in markets, that are at the center of my T-shirt’s life story.

While the story of cotton in Texas is about public-private research partnerships and protection, and the story of textile imports is a collection of Beltway lobbyists from the Carolinas, the Tanzanian mitumba market that Rivoli visits is a cut-throat competition amongst hundreds of small entrepreneurs. And it’s fascinating.

1 thought on “The Travels of a T-Shirt in the Global Economy

  1. Loomnie

    Thanks for the summary. I am currently writing a dissertation on the international trade in second-hand clothing and it sounds like this will come in handy.

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