NEW YORK — In April 1999, Georgetown University economics professor Pietra Rivoli watched a noisy campus protest about sweatshop abuses in overseas apparel factories and was inspired to take a look at how globalization has played out in the apparel industry.
Almost six years have passed since she began writing a book on the topic and over that time much of the noise about sweatshops has died down, to be replaced by concerns about the rise of China and outsourcing’s effect on U.S. jobs.
What surprises Rivoli is not that the concerns surrounding the apparel industry have changed, but rather that it seems to always be at the center of a political firestorm.
“There always seems to be flaming rhetoric surrounding this industry,” she said.
Rivoli’s book “The Travels of a T-Shirt in a Global Economy: An Economist Examines the Markets, Power and Politics of World Trade,” to be published in April by John Wiley & Sons, looks at the global trade through the device of a T-shirt.
She tracks the T-shirt trade from Lubbock, Tex. — a major cotton-farming town — to textile and garment factories in Shanghai, through the arcane U.S. Customs entry processes and to the final stop for many American castoffs — Africa’s mitumba used-clothing markets.
Rivoli looks closely at the government influences on varied aspects, from what U.S. cotton farmers are paid for their crops to the way Chinese workers’ wages are restricted by that nation’s hukou system of internal work visas that limit the employment opportunities for migrant workers from rural areas.
She said she was particularly surprised by how active the U.S. textile industry and apparel importers are in guarding their turf.
“I’m used to economists who kind of believe in free trade,” Rivoli said. “But that really wasn’t what this was about. This was people shifting allegiances, not in response to beliefs or principles, but doing what they had to do.”
Apparel manufacturing has historically been a highly mobile industry, migrating from Britain to New England, to the Southeast, to Mexico and Asia, with makers in a constant search for less-expensive workers, often called the “race to the bottom.” But Rivoli notes that search also has the effect of bringing new people into the global workforce, creating jobs where there were none and giving workers a chance to rise out of poverty.
“One of the things I wanted to get across in this book is not just the industry as a step for economic development, but as a step for individual autonomy, gender equity and skills development,” she said. “I’m not going to say it’s a day at the beach, but it’s part of a path
toward some kind of progress.”
Rivoli said as an economist she believes strongly in the benefits of free trade, but acknowledged that the ending of the three-decades-old quota system will likely take a heavy toll on small countries in the developing world in the years to come.
“Unfortunately, there’s a sad story in the future for the smaller countries that do not have integrated industries and the First World infrastructure that China does,” she said.
The 10-year phaseout by members of the World Trade Organization left most of the apparel trade regulated by quotas until Dec. 31, something Rivoli called “A tremendously destabilizing policy design.” Still, she noted that the apparel industry is one of the few remaining sectors of international trade — with the exception of agriculture — on which countries retained quotas in the 21st century.
Rivoli’s book chronicles how the footloose industry has moved constantly for the past two centuries, but also raises the question of how the integration of China — a nation of 1.3 billion people — into the world economy will change that pattern.
“Until today, each stop in the race to the bottom has been more fleeting than the last,” she wrote. “Yet China’s sheer size, but especially the remnants of the hukou system, ensure that the supply of docile young women from the farm will grow for years to come, giving China, for the foreseeable future, the lead in the race to the bottom.”