In her novel The Travels of a T-Shirt in the Global Economy, author and Georgetown University professor of international economics Pietra Rivoli researches and follows the lifespan of a simple commodity - a t-shirt - across the world, while examining the insights it provides into the markets, power, and politics of an increasingly interconnected global economy. Beginning with a street peddler selling shirts intended for tourists in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, Rivoli investigates the roots and destinations of her t-shirt in an epic that spans the U.S. cotton industry's historical versatility and dominance of international markets, textile production facilities in China, market demands for affordable commodities in the United States and Europe, and ending its journey in used clothing markets in sub-Saharan Africa.
Sparked by anti-globalization protests at Georgetown University in 1999, in which protestors claimed that capitalist ambitions were the direct cause of horrific working conditions in developing markets, Rivoli decided to embark on an investigation into the nuances of the global textile industry that would eventually amount to The Travels of a T-Shirt. Initially, Rivoli researches the historical narrative of the primary component of her t-shirt, being cotton, to discover that the United States' dominance of the cotton-exporting industry stems back to historical elements like the invention of the cotton gin, institutionalized slavery in the southern states, development of herbicides and pesticides, and finally lobbyists and protections government policies that have succeeded in keeping U.S. producers decades ahead of their competitors.
Secondly, Rivoli traced the cotton that originated in Texas across the Pacific Ocean before arriving in Shanghai, China. While in China, the cotton was spun into yarn, knitted into cloth, and eventually sewn into the "Made in China" branded t-shirt destined to return to American shores. While this section of her novel highlights the concerns of international labor activists regarding the low wages and long hours of Chinese workers in sweatshops, Rivoli also notes that the increasing profile of NGOs as an influential voice in the international political economy has encouraged progressive legislation aimed at protecting the rights and dignity of Chinese laborers.
Lastly, although the t-shirt was initially sold in the United States, its final destination market is a used-good street market in Tanzania, where it has arrived through various exchanges following donations by American or European philanthropic organizations. Having recently returned from a philanthropic trip in Zambia, I have also personally seen how these makeshift markets filled with second-hand goods have both provided a living for some of the country's poorest demographics, due to the entrepreneurial opportunities of selling a large influx of donated commodities, while also inhibiting substantial growth of the retail stores owned by a limited middle class. This section of her story also highlights the daunting influence that power imbalances and poorly functioning political and economic systems hold over developing regions.
In summary, Rivoli's novel paints a broad canvas of the international political economy, in which a variety of factors, such as historical achievements, political agendas, trade legislation, domestic labor laws, corruption, and philanthropy, have characterized the complex and interconnected phenomena known as "globalization" in the 21st century. The book is an enjoyable and fascinating read, but moreover it provides a critical and comprehensive narrative into the evolving factors directly influencing the future of global business opportunities and trade relationships. As markets continue to globalize and become more complex in the 21st century, experiences and perspectives like Rivoli's will certainly become more critical in discerning the effects of globalization and what they mean for the future of international business.