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T-shirt travels: Using multimedia to teach globalization

photo of T shirtIt never failed. Students in my classes always became animated when they looked at the Made in labels on each others' shirts. The T-shirt tag check always generated stimulating class discussions that served as a natural introduction to a unit on international trade and globalization. When I read Pietra Rivoli's work, The Travels of a T-Shirt in the Global Economy: An Economist Examines the Markets, Power, and Politics of World Trade, I kept having flashbacks of those conversations.

Rivoli's story can be used as a real-world application of market forces and the free-trade-versus-protectionism debate. Using this book as a springboard, challenge your students to look at the T-shirts that are staples in all of their wardrobes with new eyes, as they trace their journey from the cotton seeds planted in Lubbock, Texas, to the mitumba markets in Dar Es Salaam, Tanzania. As they read, students will explore factors contributing to the two-century dominance of the U.S. cotton industry, the transformation of the textile and apparel industries, the politics of cotton, and the markets for secondhand clothing in Tanzania as well as the concepts of comparative advantage, subsidies, quotas and many other terms associated with units on international trade and globalization. These discussion questions can guide students while they read and discuss in the classroom Rivoli's work.

NPR Planet Money made a series of podcasts based on the book that will support a comprehensive exploration of this topic:

Also, filmmaker Shantha Bloemen created the documentary film T-Shirt Travels for PBS's Independent Lens that explores the secondhand clothing market in Zambia. This film provides an excellent counterpoint to the competitive secondhand clothing markets in Dar Es Salaam that Rivoli features in her book. (PBS will send out copies of the film for educational use upon request.) Follow up the film showing by having your students track a cast-off T-shirt with this pop-up from the PBS site.

Finally, the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas offers two online primers on globalization and international trade that you can also use to accompany the book.

By Amy Hennessy, economic and financial education specialist, Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta

November 2, 2011