by Stephanie Overby

Economist Examines the Markets, Power, and Politics of World Trade

Jun 15, 20052 mins

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, 2005, $29.95

Rarely is a business book so well written that one would gladly stay up all night to finish it. Pietra Rivoli’s The Travels of a T-Shirt in the Global Economy is just such a page-turner, however.

It begins with Rivoli, an associate professor at Georgetown University’s McDonough School of Business, attending a protest against global working conditions. A young woman confronts the crowd with a question: “Who made your T-shirt?” She intends to provoke guilt—or action—among her audience when she asks whether the shirts they’re wearing could have been made by Vietnamese children chained to sewing machines.

Taking the question as a call to arms, Rivoli sets out on a quest to discover not just who manufactures T-shirts but also who’s involved in each step of the supply chain. Tracing the life of a T-shirt from raw materials to finished product might sound gimmicky, but Rivoli uses the device to gracefully uncover a story of world trade and market dynamics.

To get to the beginning, she starts near the end. Rivoli plucks a random T-shirt from a Florida Walgreens bargain bin. She tracks down the screen printer in Miami to find out where he got the blank shirt. That information leads her to Patrick Xu of Shanghai Knitwear. Xu strips away the first of many author (and probably reader) misconceptions, when he tells her where the cotton he uses came from: Texas.

Each stop on Rivoli’s travels brings surprises. In the story she weaves, social problems stem not from free market conditions, but from the avoidance of them; farm subsidies and importer tax breaks result in lower wages in poorer countries.

Rivoli says she wrote this book to tell a story. However, she’s not entirely without an opinion. Like it or not, she writes, the trade skeptics and the corporations need each other, while the Asian sweatshop worker and the African cotton farmer need them both. To get a full understanding of just why that is, grab this book.