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Behind Shanghai's Boom Is a Simple T-Shirt

A seamstress at a Shanghai plant sews Spider-Man costumes to be sold at Wal-Mart and other U.S. stores. The costumes are custom-made, yielding higher profit margins than the T-shirts the factory makes, and allowing the owner to pay workers more.
A seamstress at a Shanghai plant sews Spider-Man costumes to be sold at Wal-Mart and other U.S. stores. The costumes are custom-made, yielding higher profit margins than the T-shirts the factory makes, and allowing the owner to pay workers more.

With the expiration of apparel quotas, China is expected to dominate the world T-shirt market. Many of those T-shirts are sewn in factories in and around Shanghai, China's busiest and fastest-growing city.

Every year, millions of bales of U.S. cotton arrive at the port of Shanghai. The cotton is trucked to plants that knit it into cloth and sew the cloth into T-shirts. For much of the 20th century, T-shirts and other apparel were a central part of Shanghai's economy — the city's main export.

But over the last 15 years, Shanghai has become the financial center of mainland China. Advertising, banking and other high-end services are quickly replacing textiles. Instead of cotton mills, the banks of the Huang Pu, a tributary of the Yangtze River that's been a cotton and textile water highway for almost 100 years, are crowded now with post-modern skyscrapers.

Georgetown University economist Pietra Rivoli, author of The Travels of a T-Shirt in the Global Economy, says none of that new wealth would be here if the textile mills hadn't come first.

"Once you have one kind of factory, you can diversify into other kinds of factories, and you get this infrastructure that allows ships to come in and out and allows trade to flourish," Rivoli says.

Rents in Shanghai are too expensive for most textile mills now. Many apparel plants have moved to the suburbs, where they make goods for well-known global firms such as Nike and Eddie Bauer. As a result of increased consumer scrutiny, many of these global brands now insist on corporate codes of conduct for plants designed to ensure proper working conditions — such as bans on child labor, clear fire exits and extra pay for overtime.

With better conditions and better salaries, workers in T-shirt factories have a better chance of benefiting from Shanghai's tremendous growth. As factories continue to move into more and more advanced production, workers will learn new skills and perhaps make more money.

Les Cook edited this series.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.