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

I took a few minutes this afternoon in the Freetown airport to pen some thoughts on this audiobook that I recently listened to.  (Note: you need either a short title or a short sub-title; you can’t have a long title AND a long sub-title.  No good.)  My thoughts:

a brief history of EVERYTHING about your t-shirt, from birth in a Texan cotton field to re-birth in a Tanzanian second-hand clothing market

Allow me to provide a more descriptive title for this volume: What I did last summer + a history of cotton growing in America + a history of cotton mills around the world + a brief history of Shanghai + a brief history of child labor + a brief history of labor activism + a brief history of workplace safety regulations + a not-at-all-brief history of US textile protectionism + a characterization of the international market for used clothes. Interesting? Often.

In the course of all these histories – occasionally interspersed with a reminder that we are following Rivoli’s t-shirt around the world – we jump from England to Japan to Texas to West Africa; we leap back and forth (and back and forth) from century to century. By the middle of the book, I had gotten dizzy and wished it had been a long magazine article.

But in fact, the second half is the most interesting. Rivoli gives a detailed history of textile protectionism in the United States, giving a peek into the dizzying, constantly morphing tariff and quota systems as well as the huge bureaucracy the system supports. And finally, she gives an illuminating description of what happens to the t-shirts after they get donated to the Salvation Army and how they make it to market stalls in East Africa.

Rivoli is an economist and so recognizes that her inherent leaning is toward free trade, but she argues for the value of both sides of the textile battle, both the free traders and the student demonstrators.

The first half of the book feels too long (even though it isn’t that long), and Rivoli’s strength is in illuminating description rather than careful analysis. But if you get bored, just skip ahead to the next chapter: There’s plenty to choose from!

[I listened to the unabridged audiobook narrated by Eliza Foss, published by Recorded Books. The reading is fine, but Foss’s voice is too syrupy sweet and storybookish for 8 CDs (think the voice-over narration from Desperate Housewives).]

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