The Journey of a Cotton Shirt in Today's Global Economy


As the saying goes, everyone puts their pants on one leg at a time. I guess that holds true for underwear, too! No blushing allowed. But in today's global economy, how often do we consider the story behind our cotton jeans and underpants? What about that favorite cotton shirt? In today's post, I'm sharing a video series (at the bottom) from NPR that describes the journey of a cotton shirt and the personal stories of the people behind that shirt.

Where did my cotton shirt come from?

As many of you know, I've been away, metaphorically speaking, up to my eyeballs in cotton. I'll provide more details at a later point, but I've completed phase one of my freelance project. This gives me time to hang out with all of you until the next phase begins.

Black and white resized drawing of a cotton plant "Cotton plant," by warszawianka,
Black and white resized drawing of a cotton plant "Cotton plant," by warszawianka,

In the middle of it all, a friend came to visit and suggested I watch this video series produced by NPR: "Planet Money Makes a T-Shirt—the World behind a Simple Shirt in Five Chapters." I know the title suggests something long and drawn-out, but I watched the whole series in under 30 minutes. I've gained a new appreciation for ALL our cotton clothing and textiles. I suspect that you will, too.

Questions about people and our global economy

Of course, at the end, I was left with more questions. I'm all for local economies, but the issues surrounding the goods we purchase and where they're manufactured seem more complex than that. If you watch the series, you'll understand what I mean.

Despite the often deplorable working conditions and pay, people around the world depend upon the jobs our global economy provides. I'm not suggesting that excessive consumption is desirable or that we should simply carry on with the status quo practice of supporting companies that engage in criminal foreign labor practices. I hope you know me well enough to assume that I would never support such uncaring philosophies. Nor do I support the burden our consumerist economy places on natural resources.

Yet, how do we untangle our global economy from foreign labor without creating additional problems for the people who make our stuff? Hunger comes to mind. Is it possible to have an economic system that supports both globalization and local economies without taking advantage of people? I would hope so.

Also, take note of all those thirsty fossil-fuel machines and ships. Eventually, some, or maybe all, could run on renewable energy. But that's not happening now, at least not yet. But I must emphasize that I haven't looked up the statistics on that.

I don't offer any solutions. But I do think it's wise to consider globalization from different perspectives. Speaking from someone who isn't particularly worldly in matters of economics, I found myself wanting to learn more. Books on the circular economy come to mind.

But one thing is certain—after watching the series, you'll be more likely to consider the farmer, scientist, factory worker, and container ship behind that favorite cotton shirt (and underpants too!). Let's watch, now. What's with the underpants bit?