Image

I, T-Shirt: Lessons from the Cotton Industry

I remember being a teenager, proudly lacing up a new pair of Nikes as a news story blared on the television. The story reported on the poor children in Asia who crafted my new fashion statement in cruel conditions for mere pennies a day. I won't lie; it stole the luster for me. I was unaware then that there was more to the story than simply poor children in a sweatshop and fancy me in my Nikes. Now that I am older, I recognize that trade and globalization—issues so vital to the extension of human rights—are rarely presented evenhandedly in the media. This is why Dr. Pietra Rivoli's The Travels of a T-Shirt in the Global Economy is so refreshing. Detailing the life cycle of a t-shirt, Rivoli approaches the politics of world trade on a personal—not an ideological—level. Along the way she introduces us to the cotton farmer in Texas, the factory worker in China, and the West African who markets secondhand clothing to his countrymen. With this story-like approach to the global economy, much can be learned about the reality of and myths about our shrinking economic world.

As she tells the story of Nelson and Ruth Reinsch, cotton farmers in Symer, Texas, Rivoli explains how for the last 200 years, the United States has managed to be the world leader in cotton production—no small feat. This accomplishment is the result of a strange marriage: entrepreneurial farmers with superior technology, and subsidies. While critics of the American cotton industry often decry U.S. success in the cotton industry as purely the result of subsidies, the fact remains that a large part of this success can be attributed to the creativity of the U.S. farmer—more efficient harvest methods, better quality crop production, etc. Nonetheless, the industry has benefited from the combination of slave labor (early on) and heavy government subsidies (more recently) that have protected U.S. cotton producers from dealing with an uncertain labor market.

This odd weave in the cotton industry between entrepreneurialism and protectionist policies dispels some of the notions about exactly how free some markets are. But Rivoli also dispels common misconceptions about factories in developing countries. Leaving the cotton fields of Texas for the factories of China, Rivoli does not find the Dickensonian sweatshop nightmare often portrayed by enemies of globalization. Cotton Mill Shanghai Number 36 certainly does not offer the nicest of working conditions, but it does offer opportunity, something most workers in these places did not have previously. Here, many of the factory workers are young rural women with no ability to escape the poverty of subsistence farming. They are hardworking—twelve-hour shifts—and “docile”—content to stay in factory dormitories. These qualities make them attractive to the labor market, but these workers accept their hardships now in order to have the power to make more of their own choices later. For example, with the wages that Tao Yong Fang has made, she has been able to refuse an arranged marriage and, out of her own wages, return the dowry paid for her. In many ways, the sweatshop is offering these women a means of seizing dignity through increased economic freedom.


Photo: Getty Images

Rivoli's book clarifies many clumsy generalizations. She explains that some free economies are not as free as we think—that is, they preach freedom but enact a measure of protectionism—and that some “oppressed” economies are not as oppressed as we think—that is, low wages by American standards are high wages by Chinese standards. But Rivoli does not conclude from her travels that a lack of purity in the current free market somehow discredits the idea of free markets. Rivoli ends her journey in the “freest” free market to which her t-shirt has yet been exposed: the West African open-air markets of mitumba , or American second hand clothing. Trans-Americas Trading Company, one of a handful of U.S. businesses that maximize the profit and utility of textiles, purchases unwanted clothing donated to charities like the Salvation Army. Enormous bales of secondhand clothing are then shipped to ports in Tanzania where the bales are unloaded and moved unopened to warehouses. Here, groups of street vendors and business owners gather to dicker over the prices of the clothing, their bidding guided by their own economic know-how and knowledge of their consumer. Later, in the open-air market, prices are agreed upon in a direct exchange between entrepreneur and consumer. Some Westerners may label this practice—marketing American second-hand goods in Third World countries—demeaning to the dignity of impoverished Africans. However, as Rivoli points out, the consumer on the street would say they find the real indignity not in wearing America's castoffs, but in wearing nothing at all.