Published 08/29/12

Business lessons from a traveling T-shirt

For the Class of 2016, the life cycle of a T-shirt provides a jumping-off point for exploration of ethics, politics, the history of modern business, and issues of globalization in a course offered as part of the University’s new First-Year Gateway.

 The Travels of a T-Shirt in the Global Economy is assigned reading for “Global Foundations of Organizations and Business,” one of four Gateway courses required of all first-year students.

“We want [our students] to have the courage to not do what the competition is doing sometimes.” 

Maura Dowling

The book brings to life the concept of the global supply chain as the author, Georgetown University economist Pietra Rivoli, follows a T-shirt from the cotton fields of Texas, to a manufacturing plant in China, to a retailer in Florida, and to a used clothing marketing in Africa.

 “It is a business book, but it resonates far beyond that,” said Maura Dowling, a lecturer in finance who is team-teaching the course with Michael Gravier, assistant professor of marketing.  “Ultimately, people learn by stories. … This just helps bring the business factoids to life in a wonderful multidimensional, international context.”

 In this podcast (7:56), Dowling and Gravier discuss some of the themes they will raise with their students as they discuss the book.

 Competition is one of them. “We want [our students] to have the courage to not do what the competition is doing sometimes,” said Dowling. “We want our students to be able to stand someplace in their life and not necessary match everyone else.”

 Another theme: consequences. “A lot of companies are discovering that their actions often provoke a counterreaction,” perhaps generating protests among environmental protection groups or labor rights groups, Gravier said. Business leaders can choose to ignore them, fend them off, or embrace these groups knowing that these people matter to their bottom line. Whether selfish or altruistic, "business leaders are obligated to think about what happens next,” he said.

 Beginning students often think of business as “a way to make money or get rich quick,” Gravier said. But first and foremost, he said,  “businesses are social institutions,” a point the book helps illustrate. “Businesses really focus on how to get people to work together and do it in a way that everyone gets a share in the reward afterward. That’s really the core.”