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Shirt Happens
By Margaret Black

The Travels of a T-Shirt in the Global Economy: An Economist Examines the Markets, Power, and Politics of World Trade

By Pietra Rivoli

John Wiley & Sons, 254 pages, $29.95

‘Who made your T-shirt?” screams a protester at an anti-globalization rally in 1999. “Was it a child in Vietnam, chained to a sewing machine without food or water?” As devastating details roll off the young woman’s tongue, Pietra Rivoli, a professor of economics standing in the crowd, wonders how she can know these things. Like many of her colleagues, Rivoli, a specialist in international business and finance, favors globalization and thinks that the young protester, though sincere, just doesn’t understand. And unlike her colleagues, who disparage as “intellectually empty” anecdotal works—that is, telling a story as opposed to compiling statistical data to suggest an overall theory—Rivoli decides to find out just who did make the cheap ($5.99) souvenir T-shirt she purchased in a Walgreen’s in Fort Lauderdale.

The result is mesmerizing. The story itself is compelling in ways I wouldn’t have believed, and also Rivoli is a gifted, highly entertaining writer. (Of Fort Lauderdale, she notes in passing, “the city bends toward money like a palm tree”). She’s also willing to entertain the thought that she might be wrong. Although Rivoli believed that the protesters were simplistic about a very complex subject—she is certainly right there—she herself came, over the course of the book, to acknowledge greater problems in the process of “free trade” than she had imagined.

The book divides roughly into three sections: The first explores the production of the cotton in the United States; the second leaps to China to examine the processing of garments; and the third delineates the marvelous afterlife in Africa of clothes “thrown away” to charity. Along with the author’s deliciously specific nuggets related to the life of her T-shirt, Rivoli smoothly slips in a lot of beautifully expressed economic history as well as some unrepentant proselytizing for free markets.

The company whose label was sewn in her shirt told the author where specifically in China it had been manufactured. But in Shanghai she was told that the cotton itself had been grown very far away, “probably in Teksa.” Spinning a globe to find this mysterious location, her informant pointed to Texas, so back she came, to West Texas—“desolate, hardscrabble, and alternately baked to death, shredded by windstorms, or pummeled by rocky hail . . . a view of almost lunar nothingness: no hills, no trees. No grass, no cars. No people, no houses”—to speak with Nelson and Ruth Reinsch, the people who had actually planted, raised, and harvested the cotton.

Cotton is a bitch to grow. It requires enormous amounts of labor, but it is unpredictable and is frantically susceptible to weather and pests. The United States became world leader in cotton production by 1860 (slaves, cotton gin, available land), and remarkably still holds that lead today (technology, infrastructure, information, subsidies). But things didn’t look too good at first because the only variety of cotton that grew inland cost too much to process, even with slaves. Ingenuity (Eli Whitney and his gin) solved that problem, however, and U.S. cotton became king. It also, according to Rivoli, fueled Britain’s industrial development, which could never have expanded so exponentially without the vast quantities of cotton supplied by the slave South.

Needless to say, the United States did not establish cotton dominance by means of a free market in labor. Moreover, sharecropping, company towns, and bracero workers helped growers circumvent a free labor market after the Civil War until mechanization and other advances made it possible to raise cotton with practically no workers at all. Rivoli’s quotes from an account by an early 20th-century black sharecropper offer both stark contrast to the experience of the Reinsch family, and an interesting parallel to Third World growers of today (absence of technology, absence of information, absence of education).

You would think that U.S. cotton doesn’t need subsidies, but it gets them. Indeed, the subsidies “exceed the entire GNP of a number of the world’s poorest cotton-producing countries as well as the United States’ entire USAID budget for the continent of Africa.” But their removal, the author believes, would not solve the problem in the short run, because profitable cotton requires “functioning markets and both technical and basic literacy, as well as at least a semblance of the virtuous circle of institutions that support not just agriculture but broader development.” The support alluded to here includes the capacity to develop mechanical technology to cultivate and pick the cotton, to create chemicals to discourage weeds and encourage growth, and to pursue investigations such as made it possible to change nature (freeze the cotton for automatic picking). Research has also turned all the “garbage” left over from cotton production into highly profitable products (cottonseed oil, animal feed, etc.). Nothing is wasted, and how it all gets used is a truly fascinating story.

The middle section—manufacturing in China (where the cheap workers are) and the truly Byzantine, recently ended, system of apparel import quotas (maintained, the author notes, by “dogs snarling together”)—examines the myriad ways that markets aren’t free and that history and politics corrupt pure economic processes. Although it sags in places, the section has strengths, including a hypothesis that the manufacture of cotton fabric ignited the entire Industrial Revolution and an analysis of why young women, past and present, have often preferred the “dark Satanic mills” to life on the grueling family farm under the thumb of father or husband. The “race to the bottom”—manufacturers ever searching for the cheapest labor—need not be so bad, the author points out, if you raise the bottom. Of course one might argue that the bottom gets raised only because of the simplistic cries of protesters. Rivoli nimbly discusses international trade negotiations, and she’s relentless in her exposé of the American apparel lobby, but the most intriguing part of that lobby’s bizarre negotiations was the encouragement of trade in small Third World nations, who bartered with China for U.S. apparel quotes.

In sheer entertainment, the final section returns to the level of the first, as Rivoli explores the world of discarded clothing, its sale and sorting in this country and its second life in Africa. Her example is Tanzania, where “by far” the largest U.S. export is used clothing. Here, at last, in this poor country (“poverty is the weather in Tanzania”) the author finds a free market, in the small-scale, endlessly inventive, market-responsive mitumba or used-clothes trade, Tanzania’s own textile industry having died on the vine. “The fascinating twist, of course, is that while North Carolina has lost its textile industry to low-wage workers from China, the African textile industry has lost to the high-wage workers of America, who live in a land of such plenty that clothing is given away for free.”

Both the used-clothing story and the cotton story offer encouragement for the environmentally conscious, but Rivoli’s enthusiasm here, as elsewhere, seems optimistic to me. She’s assuming that Americans will keep throwing stuff away for others to recycle. But the jobs Rivoli cheerfully sees the American textile workers getting at Wal-Mart don’t really support them. Their luckier pals who go to the BMW plant may continue to throw T-shirts out, but the minimum-wage workers encouraged to apply for food stamps as they accept their less-than-subsistence new jobs are probably going to be more careful. The author gracefully acknowledges the realities of living at the bottom—even the raised bottom—and admits that it’s easier to write about the subject than to live it. But ultimately the system of economics that Rivoli subscribes to has never operated perfectly anywhere, and there is little indication that it ever will.

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