Where Underpants Come From: From Cotton Fields to Checkout Counters—Travels Through the New China and Into the New Global Economy by Joe Bennett, The Overlook Press, 250 Pages, $25. 95, Hardcover, July 2009, ISBN 9781590202289 Travels of a T-Shirt in the Global Economy, written by academic Pietra Rivoli, was deservedly nominated for some major awards when it was published four years ago. Rivoli reported on her adventures as she followed the creation, manufacturing and distribution of her t-shirt.
The premise of Bennett's book is as straightforward as Rivoli's. Having purchased an economy pack of underwear, Bennett is intrigued by who could possible make a profit on such merchandise and begins his quest. As he follows the underwear from his native New Zealand to Shanghai to Thailand, Bennett, a travel writer, offers us a more palpable feel of the countries he visits than many of the other globalization books that have been written in the past five years—perhaps because he allows himself to be part of the story. Even Bennett's stories about his meals are hilarious, such as when he recounts his attempt at getting the hang of chopsticks.
But Bennett's book isn't simply a travelogue that lacks substance, however. He is a master at mixing the entertaining with the informative. When relating the history of how the west used opium to open China, Bennett writes:
It's a complex story that took a century to work itself out, but the eventual and inevitable conclusion was that by shameful means predicated on superior weaponry, Great Britain and other Western powers gained footholds on Chinese territory, including Hong Kong and the port of Shanghai. To the Chinese it was nothing less than a slow invasion by barbarians. They have a point.One of my favorite business insights came when Bennett describes how, when New Zealand customs workers unpack a Chinese shipping container to check its contents, they can never, without exception, fit all the stuff back in because the Chinese are master packers of the products. Bennett uses this example to show how the Chinese are conscientious of every small thing in the name of economy.
What the majority of us understand about doing business and traveling internationally is limited to watching the cable news networks and the Olympics. Where Underpants Come From offers a view of how business is done globally from an observer's perspective, and Bennett makes it seem like, for a short time, we are there observing it all with him.