U.S. Textile Plants Return, With Floors Largely Empty of People

This is a strongly recommended New York Times article which focuses on the current status of the U.S. textile industry.The article reflects many things we’ve discussed in the class.

First, we still live in a world of “specialization”, in which each country produces something but not everything based on their respective comparative advantage. It is important to realize that the reason why textile manufacturing is coming back to the United States is because the manufacturing process has become more “capital and technology intensive” in nature.  Therefore, it makes senses for the United States as a capital and technology abundant country to focus on producing “capital and technology” intensive products. At the same time, with the fast rising labor cost in recent years, some developing countries are gradually losing “comparative advantage” in making labor intensive apparel products. This factor further affects T&A companies’ decision making on where to produce.

Second, textile and apparel industry is NOT disappearing in the U.S., but it evolves constantly in response to globalization and technology advancement.  “Made in America” is starting to mean something again, but not the same as what it used to mean. As the business function of the textile and apparel industry in the US becomes more capital, knowledge and technology intensive, it provides even more promising career options and opportunities for our TMD/TM graduates than in the past.  That’s also why in the classroom, we emphasize creativity, critical thinking, analysis skills, playing with technology, leadership skills and having a big landscape of the industry in mind.

Third, as we discussed in the class, the “made in ___” label can no longer reflect the whole supply chain of finished textile/apparel products in the 21st century.   Instead, we live in a “made in the world” era in which different countries share responsibilities in T&A product development, manufacturing and distribution. Neither is it the case that the U.S. textile and apparel industry is all about “manufacturing” today. Those non-manufacturing functions such as retailing, merchandising, branding and marketing actually contribute much higher added values and result in a U-shape global apparel value chain called “smiling curve”.

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Author: Sheng Lu

Professor @ University of Delaware

9 thoughts on “U.S. Textile Plants Return, With Floors Largely Empty of People”

  1. I agree that textile and apparel industry is not disappearing in the U.S. because T&A needs our technological advancement. The manual labor aspect of T&A may be diminished in the U.S. due to our cost of wages, but other countries need us for our knowledge in technology. We live in a world where each country produces goods based on comparative advantage. Our country focuses on capital and technology intensive products where other countries focus on producing textiles.

    1. good comment. One challenge faced by US-based T&A educational programs is how to make sure the design of the curriculum and the content of the courses are “relevant” to the 21st century T&A industry, so that you guys are well prepared to enter the industry as young professionals with needed skills (here I mean more than just “technical skills”, but also includes many soft-skills).

  2. I find it interesting that before taking this class I only heard of these issues through political campaigns and that many of the details are left out. I feel this topic is used for social and political reasons but the economic facts are often left out. The political side is often voiced in that we are eliminating American jobs and choosing to give them to other countries through outsourcing when the fact of the matter is the US no longer has the capacity for these jobs and things are being replaced by machines not necessarily people in other countries. I agree that we contribute through technological advancement and knowledge and we are all tied together through globalization. It is important to work together to develop these policies so that everyone can benefit.

  3. One of the main things I learned in the course TMD 433 is that our textile and apparel industry here in the US is not depleting, but changing in nature. As I work in retail in a designer boutique, I have had customers come in and check tags and refuse to buy once they discover the high priced item was “made in china”. What these people do not understand is that since the production of clothing is labor intensive, we have shifted gears and directed our efforts to an area of the fashion industry in which we can specialize; that being, the capital and technology intensive side. They also do not realize that the tag may say “made in china”, but the cotton and possibly the textiles are from America.

  4. I’m sure I’m not the only TMD student who’s gotten the response “good luck finding a job in that field, it’s a dying industry” when telling someone about graduating with a degree in fashion. Many people think that the textile and apparel industry in the US is diminishing- they do not know that it is simply just evolving. From taking 433, I understand that countries produce what they can benefit more from in the end by comparative advantage. The US has resources such as capital and technology, while China, for example, has labor as a main resource. Therefore, it makes more sense for the US to produce capital and technology intensive products, such as planes and computers, while China produces more labor intensive products such as clothing.

    As far as the above video, one can see how the textile and apparel industry is changing in the US due to technology. Less people are needed because machines and computers have taken the place of manual labor. The fact that there have been many job losses because of these machines is just something that people are going to have to get used to- we will never get back to a time where that many people were needed to produce textiles and apparel, and we will continue to keep moving forward due to advances in technology. This doesn’t mean that the jobs will keep disappearing, because I believe that with new technology comes the creation of new job opportunities.

    1. totally agree. Three points: 1) it is a misconception that promoting “made in USA” means everything should be produced in the US; it is what I called “dinosaur thinking”; 2) we have to examine the T&A industry under the framework of the US economy and the global economy, so that we can understand what works and what doesn’t work.3) as I mentioned in some other posts, don’t narrow our vision to the “manufacturing” sector only. “we no longer make apparel, but we make apparel happen”; “value in USA” rather than “made in USA” is the real thing that can generate “jobs in the USA”.

  5. I personally think it is great that the nature of the T&A industry is changing and that there are still jobs available to American workers. The fact that technology is advancing and there is room for employment opportunities should encourage Americans to go to school or educate themselves on how they can hold a spot in the T&A industry. The reason why there are not as many factory jobs as there were before is because we ARE moving toward a more technology driven world. Jobs aren’t leaving they are just changing. Unfortunately many people who did work in factories did not have many skills other than their job on the line. However, if they were able to be educated on how this new machinery works and operates, they could still be working in the T&A industry.

    1. it also relates to our third case study, where we suggested that instead of trying to recover factory jobs, we could support Americans in going back to school to learn about the technology, business, or design aspect of the industry. Instead of a job working on a factory line, they could be overseeing and operating machinery.

      1. for our TMD/TM students, personally I think a critical mindset change is to see “textile and apparel/fashion” as a service-oriented sector rather than a “manufacturing”-based industry. for example: who can say “brand” is not another kind of assets? which company can ignore market analysis nowadays? does sourcing activity create jobs?

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