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Travels of a T-Shirt in a Global Economy

Our take on the book by Pietra Rivoli

The markets, power, and politics of World international trade can be a difficult topic to discuss in the abstract, but when it is focused on a single product that makes its way around the world over the course of its usefulness, the unwieldy issue of globalization is made vividly clear. In the book, The Travels of a T-shirt in the Global Economy, business professor Pietra Rivoli explores the politics and the human element behind the globalization debate by tracking the life story of her $6 T-shirt.

Starting in a West Texas cotton field, her t-shirt is brought to life in a Chinese factory; negotiated in Washington, D.C.; sold in a Walgreen’s drugstore in Fort Lauderdale, Florida; and eventually makes its way to a used clothing market in Africa. Through the story of her t-shirt, Rivoli shows how the advocates and critics of globalization often oversimplify the issues behind international trade.


When Rivoli watched a small demonstration against globalization at Georgetown University in 1999, she heard a woman rant into the microphone about the horrific conditions in which a young girl in India is forced to make t-shirts for American consumers. Over the next several years, Rivoli traveled thousands of miles and across three continents to investigate the truth behind the allegations made by the young activist. The Travels of a T-Shirt in the Global Economy describes the people, politics and markets that created her own cotton t-shirt, and reveals the complex story of globalization in the process. Rivoli explains that she wrote her book not to convey morals but to discover them, and simply see where the story of her t-shirt leads.

Rivoli writes, “While my t-shirt’s life story is certainly influenced by competitive economic markets, the key events in the t-shirt’s life are less about competitive markets than they are about politics, history, and creative maneuvers to avoid markets.” She explains that the “winners” at various stages of her t-shirt’s life are “adept not so much at competing in markets but at avoiding them,” and the effects of these moves to avoid markets can have more damaging effects on the poor than market competition.

The story of Rivoli’s t-shirt, she writes, reveals “a story of the wealth-enhancing possibilities of globalization in some settings but a can’t win’ trap in others, a trap where power imbalances and poorly functioning politics and markets seem to doom the economic future.”



After Rivoli bought her t-shirt in Florida and returned to Washington, D.C., she soon followed its tag to the Sherry Manufacturing Co. in Miami, one of the largest screen printers of t-shirts in the United States. There she discovered that her shirt was one of about 25 million cotton t-shirts allowed into the United States from China under the U.S. apparel import quota system in 1998. Next, she learned that the cotton used to make the shirt had been imported to Shanghai from Smyer, Texas.

While exploring how America has dominated the global cotton industry for 200 years, Rivoli learned about the subsidies paid to U.S. cotton farmers and, she writes, the “astounding entrepreneurial creativity of the American growers.” She explains, “American cotton growers have adapted their production methods, their marketing, their technology, and their organizational forms to respond to shifts in supply and demand in the global marketplace.” Rivoli adds that the poorest countries in the world are decades away from attaining the levels of efficiency seen in all the elements of the U.S. farm system.

The path followed by the cotton in her t-shirt next took her across the United States to a ship which departed from Long Beach, California, and arrived in Shanghai. After it was spun into yarn, knitted into cloth, cut into pieces and sewn into a t-shirt, a “Made in China” label was tacked to the collar before it returned to America.

The final leg of her t-shirt’s journey took it to a Salvation Army bin in Bethesda, Maryland, and on to a village in SubSaharan Africa where it entered the used clothing trade, and was bought and sold by a small entrepreneur. It became mitumba — clothing thrown away by Americans and Europeans, and worn by almost all the men and boys in that part of Tanzania. At the end of its journey, the t-shirt showed Rivoli another side of global trade where small used clothing dealers replace corporations as the focus of global trade and economic democracy.


The Travels of a T-Shirt in the Global Economy presents a story of globalization that not only provides insight into a single product on its global journey through many economies, but it also brings to light the people who make a living from that journey. By telling the human tales beneath the economics and politics of globalization, Rivoli offers a timely, compelling, and relevant story.

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