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The Travels of a T-Shirt in The Global Economy

If the self-important 20-word title or the pompous use of the author’s doctorate did not tip you off to the ideological bent of US academic Pietra Rivoli, her own summary of her intended purpose in the introduction might. She states that what prompted her to embark on a five-year journey tracking the manufacture and use of a cotton T-shirt was a question from an anti-globalization campaigner. ‘Who makes your T-shirt? Was it a child in Vietnam, chained to a sewing machine... or a young girl from India earning 18 cents per hour... all in the name of Nike’s profits?’ Rivoli’s initial patrician response to this perfectly reasonable question is to categorize the anti-globalization movement as ‘a rag-tag bunch of well-intentioned but ill-informed obstructionists (and) economically illiterate noisemakers.’

It doesn’t get any better; the author, without apparent irony, describes slavery in the US as an efficient method whereby slaveholders could avoid fluctuations in labour availability. This amoral approach continues through The Travels of a T-Shirt as Rivoli discusses the massive expansion in Chinese exports of cotton goods as a post-tariff problem for the US economy, rather than as a direct result of US and other global players outsourcing slavery by another name.

Rivoli’s bibliography is stuffed with any number of right-wing academic nonentities but there is no sign that she has even read such cogent critics of globalization such as Naomi Klein or George Monbiot. Nor does she engage in the slightest with the people she purports to be in search of; to her they are economic units, not individual lives to be heeded.

Luckily, the perfect riposte to Rivoli’s lazy neoliberal nostrums is at hand in Ripped and Torn, which, ironically, had its origins within the belly of the beast. As a young, idealistic writer with experience of Latin America, Amaranta Wright was commissioned by the jeans giant Levi’s to travel through the continent, listening to young people in order to help Levi’s target the audience and market their product more effectively.

At first, Wright viewed her journey as a subsidized chance to travel and she did her homework diligently, writing reports for Levi’s that spoke of the ‘segmented youth tribes’ and ‘consumer hierarchy’. However, as she talked to the young people, she came to realize that their aspirations and dreams could not be crammed into the convenient box marked ‘consumer’. Seventeen-year- old Hector told her in Lima: ‘We don’t want to be like the people in Hollywood films: we want to be like we are, but with a bit more money’; and Lucia in Caracas said: ‘Life shouldn’t be about having and getting but being and becoming.’ Having listened to these eager teenagers, Wright has produced a book that combines vivid reportage with a highly readable history of the political and cultural travails of Latin America.

The writing style in Ripped and Torn is rather florid and Amaranta Wright occasionally tips over into hyperbole in her eagerness to describe what she sees and hears. Nevertheless, she succeeds brilliantly in capturing the authentic voices of the youth of a damaged but vibrant continent – in all their variety, hope and clamour for better lives.

New Internationalist issue 381 magazine cover This article is from the August 2005 issue of New Internationalist.
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