The traveling T-shirt

Pietra Rivoli, a Georgetown business professor, economist and author of “The Travels of a T-Shirt in the Global Economy,” discussed American perceptions of global trade at an hour-long talk on February 2.

Rivoli spent five years tracing the path of a simple cotton T-shirt from a Texas cotton field to a Chinese factory to a used clothing market in Africa to investigate the politics, economics, ethics, and history of modern business and globalization.

Her journey to trace the origins of a T-shirt, purchased at random from a drugstore in Florida, was sparked when her students realized that they knew nothing about the T-shirts hanging in the university store. When they paid $10 for a T-shirt, wasn’t the actual cost – in child labor, environmental harm and unsafe working conditions – much higher?

“I found this debate very difficult in the abstract,” said Rivoli. “My job is to educate, but it was difficult to have these conversations with my students. We didn’t know the story behind our stuff. But we could know, we could try to know — that was my motivation for my book.”

What she found was a tale of global trade, of tariffs, of politics and of protest. Her conclusions flew in the face of her traditional economic training. “Traditionally, you learn that the losers of global trade are the ones that oppose it, but after beginning research, I learned that the winners opposed it too,” she said.

According to the 2010 Pew Global Attitudes Project, between 2002 and 2010, the percentage of the American public that believed growing international trade to be “very good or somewhat good” for the country dropped from 78 percent to 66 percent.

“Clearly 44 percent of Americans have not lost jobs due to global trade. They are not losers in the traditional sense,” Rivoli said.

Rivoli proposed three reasons that the so-called “winners” of global trade – those that benefit from a higher GNP and cheaper consumer goods without the risk of job loss – would oppose globalization. From safe working conditions to environmental concerns, the issues all boil down to an innate human concern for fairness.

“Some winners in global trade won’t play the game unless it’s fair,” she said.

In preparation for the lecture, more than 70 Wake Forest students read the book and participated in small-group discussions as part of the Campus Life and Office of Sustainability book club —providing for an engaging post-lecture question and answer session.

In response to a student question about effective policies to address fairness concerns in global trade, Rivoli said, “We have to get the special interests out of politics — that’s the only way that free trade is going to start to work for more people. I think it’s a problem of politics, I don’t think it’s a problem of economics.”

The lecture was part of the Social Justice Working Group “Focus on Fair Trade” and was sponsored by Campus Life, the Office of Sustainability, and the Center for Energy, Environment, and Sustainability (CEES).

Categories: Speakers