Review: The Travels of a T-shirt in the Global Economy (Part 1)

In addition to “A History of the World in Six Glasses”, “The Travels of a T-shirt in the Global Economy” by Pietra Rivoli was included in the Semester 1 reading materials that the class received in late July.  Interestingly enough, the inclusion of the book was a “mistake” in that the material isn’t going to be covered during the London residency. But knowing that I’d eventually need to read the book, I figured this week was as good a time as any!

The front cover of the book sets a very high standard of what to expect from the material contained inside:

…has all the makings of an economics classic. – New York Times

After reading the about the life story of the author’s T-shirt, I have to strongly disagree. This book is no “Wealth of Nations” or “The General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money”, but rather a collection of seemingly disjoint anecdotes spanning history, politics, sociology and (sometimes) economics.  Worse yet, the author’s references to the changes since the first edition of the book felt too self-aware; by reading the second edition, I felt that I missed out on the evolution of thought since the first edition. Instead, the reader is just presented with two conflicting ideas in summary form, without necessarily developing whether the current thought improves upon the ideas stated in the first edition.

I think this book suffers from one major flaw: in trying to discuss all sides of the story without ‘demonizing’ any one group or taking too strong of an opinion, the reader never has the motivation to move on to the next page.  If you do decide to turn to the next page, the topic will likely have changed completely, leaving the story hard to follow. Overall, the book continually left me wondering “Why I am still reading this?” If the answer to that question was anything other than “for class”, I’d have stopped after the first half.

With all that negativity out of the way, there were a few interesting things that I learned from this book that made the overall read worthwhile.  The first half of the book, roughly covering growing a boll of cotton to making shirts to textile quotas, wasn’t particularly interesting, mainly because it was more focused on the government influence in the marketplace.  More political science than economics. However, the second half of the book covered what happens to a t-shirt at the end of its “first life” when it is donated to charity, which to me was a whole lot more interesting to read about.  It never occurred to me that a donation to Goodwill or the Salvation Army in the U.S. really isn’t that useful in terms of clothing Americans.  I’ll write about that in part two of my review.

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2 comments to Review: The Travels of a T-shirt in the Global Economy (Part 1)

  • markblaszczyk

    Although you make a lot of valid points, I enjoyed the book. I found the part about the cotton farming to be very interesting. It opened my eyes a bit. I do agree the most interesting part was about what happens to a t-shirt after donation. At one point of my career former t-shirts and I had a very close relationship. We slept in the same room together, shared tight spaces together, and they kept my living quarters from flooding. Overall I would recommend this book to others. For those looking for something that does more than talk about straight business and economics this is a good read.

    • Even though I said I didn’t find it interesting, I have since found myself thinking about the role of genetic engineering and mega-farming companies. Especially that GE can actually be a problem for developing countries, since they don’t necessarily have the resources or education to follow the instructions. Can’t just plant those seeds in the ground and let the sun shine down.

      So maybe the book is growing on me, though I still don’t think I’d actually ‘recommend’ it. Perhaps just not strenuously ‘not recommend’ it.