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Rivoli’s Travels of a T-Shirt

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Editor’s note: In our “What We’re Reading” series, team members profile books, blogs, and other media that have contributed to our planning for the upcoming exhibition.

Pietra Rivoli, The Travels of a T-Shirt in the Global Economy: An Economist Examines the Markets, Power and Politics of World Trade (Hoboken: John Wiley & Sons, 2005).

How can anyone explain a process as complicated as globalization? Even today, in the age of PowerPoint presentations and YouTube videos, a good teacher knows that few techniques work better than a story. And fortunately for readers, Pietra Rivoli is a good teacher. In her book, Travels of a T-Shirt, Rivoli manages to make globalization comprehensible, even exciting, by explaining it through the stories of ordinary people: the men and women who guide a simple T-shirt from its birth in the cotton fields of west Texas to its afterlife in the second-hand clothing markets of Africa. As readers follow Rivoli along this continent-spanning journey, they learn about how ever-changing technology, markets, and laws shape what goes into their closets and sock-drawers.

While there’s much to praise about Rivoli’s book, I was impressed by her thoughtful analysis of the moral questions surrounding globalization and the apparel industry. Rivoli avoids giving readers any easy answers or clear villains; instead, she highlights moments of moral ambiguity. Take, for instance, Rivoli’s discussion of China’s migrant workers, who often end up working in the textile industry with little or no government oversight or protection. Rivoli documents all of the hardships these workers face, but she also reminds readers that many of these workers, especially women, see grueling sweatshop work as a welcome alternative to life in China’s rural countryside. Rather than trying to stop the market-driven race to the bottom, Rivoli cautions, human rights activists and other reformers might be better served “changing the nature of the bottom itself,” ensuring that workers receive their full legal rights and are protected from exploitation.

Throughout the book, Rivoli shows readers that globalization is not a new phenomenon, and that many of the questions surrounding the textile and apparel industries were just as pertinent two hundred years ago. Rivoli places letters from modern Chinese textile workers side by side with letters from their British and American mill girls and seamstress from the 19th century, letting readers discover the similarities between these aspiring women workers. With American Enterprise, we hope to give visitors opportunities to make similar comparisons, seeing how a number of themes have shaped the American economy since the colonial era.

Dr. Pietra Rivoli, author

This past month, Pietra Rivoli was kind enough to visit our offices at the National Museum of American History and talk further about the questions raised in her book. One of the major takeaways from our conversation was that, even at a basic neurological level, human beings subscribe to the notion of “fair play.” Most of us accept that every game, system, or enterprise should have set rules and parameters, and we are frustrated when people break them. Perhaps most interestingly, this belief in “fair play” differs from the idea of total equality; many people will accept some level of inequality if they feel it occurs in an otherwise predictable and stable system. In the months ahead, we hope to get a better sense of how fair play and appeals to the common good have shaped the behavior of consumers and producers throughout American history. Dr. Rivoli has graciously offered to stay involved with the exhibition, creating opportunities for more discussion and collaborative work with her students.

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