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An addendum to Travels of a T-Shirt

24/12/2013

I don’t have a new book to write about in this post but instead write an addendum to the first review I did back in May. I suppose this post marks the beginning of closer readings’ inevitable evolution. Rest assured there will be more books reviewed in 2014.

Travels of a T-Shirt in the global economy by Pietra Rivoli was the first book I posted about on this blog. I was enthusiastic about the story it told of the many hands involved in delivering one good to market and the many positive impacts trade can make to the lives of ordinary people. Along with The Black Swan, Travels was the equal best book I read this year. I loved the author’s ability to weave a story together around the intricacy of global trade.

Last week, I happened upon the completed result of a very interesting kickstarter campaign. The campaign was run by US National Public Radio’s Planet Money blog to explain the production of a T-Shirt from start to finish by making their own T Shirts (men’s and women’s). Reporters travelled from Missouri to Bangladesh and Columbia then back again as we followed the story behind the T-Shirt. The end result in five video chapters is here.

Bangladesh was the site of the tragic factory collapse earlier this year where a number of people died. There is disagreement about the ongoing manner of production in that country but the reporter noted that business people and labour activists do agree that it is important the textiles industry remain in Bangladesh because it provides one of the very few avenues out of real poverty.

Another element which I hadn’t realised is the revolution that took place in trade with the arrival of the shipping container. Visually unappealing and cumbersome, these humble boxes have dramatically improved the speed with which goods can get to market and helped to reduce input costs to the end product. The story of the box also tells us something about markets, incentives and how the combination of the two can deliver wonderful outcomes for society. The man behind the box, Malcolm McLean, did not have a background in shipping. Rather he had a background in trucking and saw an opportunity to remove the containers from his trucks and load them onto ships for export. In trying to make a buck, Malcolm McLean took his knowledge about the usefulness of boxes and brought it to another use. In doing so he improved the efficiency of the system and brought buyer and seller closer together.

I would recommend watching all of the Planet Money videos and reading the articles offered which tells a story about the people involved, the changes to the infrastructure (such as shipping containers), and the means of production.

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