Hippo Manchester
October 20, 2005

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The Travels of a T-Shirt in the Global Economy
By Lisa Parsons

The Travels of a T-Shirt in the Global Economy, by Pietra Rivoli, Wiley Books, 2005, 254 pages.

Pietra Rivoli, an economics professor at Georgetown University, sees students protesting for and against Nike and the WTO. They wave signs on her campus and argue in her classes. She says, in the acknowledgments of The Travels of a T-Shirt in the Global Economy,  “[they] have changed my mind more than once.”

It can be a tough debate. After all, what do you do when Pat Buchanan and Greenpeace are on the same side of a thing?

If you are Pietra Rivoli, you pick up a T-shirt and follow its trail: find out just how many people (and where and who) were harmed, degraded or diminished, or, alternatively, uplifted, enriched or set free, in the course of that T-shirt’s manufacture and delivery. In other words, what exactly does “Made in China” entail, and should you buy the thing or not?

The T-shirt Rivoli picked came from a tourist trap in Florida. It bore a “Made in China” tag that identified “Sherry Manufacturing” as its proud parent. Beginning with one phone call to that company, and continuing through many plane trips and interviews, Rivoli determined the shirt’s life path as follows.

The starting gate is in west Texas, where cotton is planted, tended, mechanically irrigated, sprayed with herbicides, chemically frozen, machine picked and finally squished into giant bricks that wait in the field.

Of one 22,000-pound brick, 5,300 pounds is cotton lint that goes to make T-shirts (or maybe jeans or underwear). The rest goes into cattle feed, fertilizer, Fritos, toothbrushes, hot dog casings, paper and other assorted items.

Giant spatula trucks lift the giant cotton bricks; next stop is a warehouse in Lubbock. T-shirt cotton is transferred to a truck that takes it all the way to Long Beach, Calif., with maybe a stop at Denny’s in Arizona. A short wait in Long Beach and then it’s onto a freighter across the Pacific Ocean. ‘Cause there’s nobody within a 6,000-mile radius of the cotton field who could make a T-shirt out of it. Although there are plenty of people within a 60-mile radius of Lubbock who wear cotton T-shirts every day. They need their cotton T-shirts. They want their cotton T-shirts. They have cotton; they expect T-shirts.

So the cotton arrives in Shanghai, China.

At Shanghai Number 36 Cotton Yarn Factory, workers hack open the bales and fluff, smooth, comb, coil and twist the cotton into strands of yarn. They deliver yarn to Shanghai Brightness Number 3 Garment Factory, where workers knit the yarn into fabric, other workers cut the fabric into pieces, and still other workers sew the pieces together, until all the fabric is T-shirts.

Now boxes of T-shirts are trucked to the warehouse of a state-owned export-import company, where they are put on a freighter to be escorted 8,000 miles back across the ocean, through the Panama Canal, to a dock in Miami.

Guys with big muscles lug them off the ship and drive them to a Sherry Manufacturing screen-printing factory and from there, finally, it’s not too far to the T-shirt shop where Pietra Rivoli paws through a bin, fingering this T-shirt and that, and decides to buy a particular one.

She expects she’ll someday tire of it, at which point she might donate it to the Salvation Army, which is drowning in T-shirts and so the shirt will probably not clothe a homeless soul nearby but will end up on a boat to Africa, where it will be sold in a place like Dar Es Salaam for 10 cents or 50 cents or maybe, if it’s a vintage Led Zeppelin concert T-shirt in good condition, $5 (but it isn’t).

The life story of the T-shirt is the core of the book; wrapped around it like ribbons around the maypole are brief looks at the history of cotton farming, textile industry (including Amoskeag Mills), government subsidies, slavery in the South, poverty in China and fashion sense in Tanzania.

Rivoli warns us not to over-generalize from her story, but she confidently concludes that protectionism is a losing proposition that fails to promote the general good, often missing its mark and inadvertently rewarding and punishing various bystanders. “In some cases the political protections make things worse for the poor (U.S. cotton subsidies),” she writes, “while in other cases, they make things better (minimum labor standards).”

And so ultimately we should focus on “including people in politics rather than shielding them from markets,” Rivoli writes. This book — written in an engaging tone in laymen’s terms — is a good start.