It’s a book! It’s a t-shirt!

Remember when I warned you on Friday that it was about to get super-nerdy in here? Sigh. It’s only going to get worse, because I’m about to talk about a t-shirt I bought, based on a book, all because I heard about it on an NPR economics podcast.


I like listening to podcasts while I run or while I cook, and I’m particularly attached to NPR’s Planet Money podcast. They describe themselves this way:

Imagine you could call up a friend and say, “Meet me at the bar and tell me what’s going on with the economy.” Now imagine that’s actually a fun evening. That’s what we’re going for at Planet Money.


When I first started listening, they had read this book, Travels of a T-Shirt in the Global Economy by Pietra Rivoli, and had come up with the idea to make a Planet Money t-shirt to follow through the global process. And they talked about this idea, sporadically, every few months, without ever really reporting on any progress.

Of course, when I saw the book at a library book sale in Kansas, I had to buy it (I love bargains, if I have not already made that abundantly clear). And, I really liked this book because it made dense material readable by focusing on one particularly commodity, but more than that, because it challenged my thinking. You see, most of my social/political/economic insight comes from studying sociology, while Pietra Rivoli is a business professor. She started the book at an anti-globalization rally protesting the World Trade Organization in 1999, and begins with questioning the accuracy of a student’s speech about clothing made in sweatshops. In the first few pages, she says of the student, “my first thought was that the young women, however well-intentioned and impassioned, just didn’t ‘get’ it. She needed a book – maybe this book – to explain things. But after following my T-shirt around the world, my biases aren’t quite so biased anymore.”

Of course she discovers, as the reader will too, that the global textile industry is neither an entirely soulless void where small children labor mercilessly making designer duds for Americans, nor is it a perfectly self-regulated market based on classical economic supply and demand. It’s complicated. Along the way, she visits cotton growers, importers, exporters, laborers, and also a place where a whole lot of donated t-shirts end up, telling individual stories and putting a human face on global trade. It’s funny and sad and interesting and thought provoking.

My shirt...appropriately wrinkled like the book cover

My shirt…appropriately wrinkled like the book cover

But, you don’t have to believe me, and you don’t even have to read the book to get the stories – or, similar stories, at least. The Planet Money people finally announced this spring that they were going ahead with the t-shirt project. I was sold – along with 20,000 others, and I was really excited when I got my shirt a couple weeks ago. They’ve put together a site with all the stories about the t-shirt’s creation here, so you can listen to the whole chain of production, very similar to Pietra Rivoli’s book (she was hired as a consultant on the Planet Money t-shirt project).

I have not actually made it through all the t-shirt podcasts yet (they are on itunes, as well as on the t-shirt website), but this one about two sisters working together in Bangladesh is among my favorites. I will say there is also plenty of criticism of the story and the project, for presenting manufacturing jobs as opportunities for better lives in places like Bangladesh, without acknowledging that conditions for workers are far below what would be considered “fair” or even “passing” in the US. To that end, I would say the point of the t-shirt project, and the t-shirt book, was not to present a particular position on how the global textile industry should or shouldn’t work, but to tell the stories of the people who work in the industry. From there, of course, everyone might have a takeaway on what could be better, or different, or more efficient, or more fair. For now, I know a heck of a lot more about who made my t-shirt than I do about who made the rest of my outfit.

/End dorkiness for the day, unless anyone wants to further discuss textiles!

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