Travels of a Global T-Shirt
In 2005, economist Pietra Rivoli published The Travels of a T-Shirt in the Global Economy. The book, which quickly became a classic, traces process of globalization by following a single t-shirt, from the cotton fields of Texas, to the Chinese factory where the raw cotton was turned into a t-shirt, to the retailer in the United States, and finally to a used clothing market in Africa. Along the way, readers are exposed to a wide variety of topics, including international trade rules and the politics of subsidies and protectionism. It’s an engaging read and a powerful way to get students to reflect on the ways in which they participate in the global economy through their daily activities.
After using Riovoli’s book in my class, I developed an assignment to encourage students to think more deeply about that connection. I ask them to identify the clothing they wear for a week, looking at the labels to identify the country of production. Then they complete a table that includes gross domestic product per capita, Human Development Index rating, child mortality rate, female literacy rate, and other basic information about the countries of production. I ask them to compare these data to the United States.
I also have them trace the global commodity chain on a blank world map.
Finally, I ask them to reflect on how these links connect them to the global economy.
It’s a powerful exercise and a good way to get students thinking about globalization. And by integrating some discussion of global cotton production (as well as agricultural subsidies, which are a major focus of Rivioli’s book), it’s also deeply relevant for a course in food (or more broadly, agricultural) politics.