Outsoucing and “Made in USA” An Ongoing Debate

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The following questions are proposed by students enrolled in FASH455 Spring 2016. Please feel free to leave your comment and engage in our online discussion.

L.L Bean: A Business Model for “Made in USA”?

L.L. Bean has been a strong business for hundreds of years, yet recently their sales of Bean Boots have skyrocketed because they are now seen as trendy. Even though L.L. Bean’s orders and demand has gone up, they still somehow manage to have their products being handmade, sourced locally, and all in the US.

#1: Can L.L. Bean become a model for other businesses looking to manufacture in the US? How has L.L. Bean managed to keep this business model up for so many years and why have they not changed or decided to outsource? 

#2: Why doesn’t L.L Bean look into other American cities for manufacturing options so they do not lose productivity by being exclusively made in Maine?

#3: Do you think it would be beneficial for L.L. Bean to outsource to foreign companies for their manufacturing? Would there still be as high of a demand if these boots were manufactured abroad?

Outsourcing v.s. “Made in USA”

#4: It is said that one reason why American brands choose to offshore their manufacturing is because there isn’t as many cutting edge machines readily available in the States as in other countries. Is it realistic for the American manufacturing market to invest in these machines for domestic manufacturing? If so, how can America make sure to stay relevant with these technologies and not fall behind as we have currently?

#5: One aspect commonly mentioned throughout these readings was the lack of skilled labor in the US in the fashion industry. Is the decrease in skilled areas, such as shoemaking and needle trade, due to the increase in skilled labor overseas? Are these professions considered outdated for young Americans to be learning? How can we jumpstart a desire for young people to take up these skills once again?

#6: One major problem the US has been facing regarding keeping production domestic has been the lack of skilled workers to work in factories. Is the cost of providing training to interested workers too high? Should it be required that all fashion majors should take a sewing class? Where does the decision to train apparel workers begin?

#7: Many American manufacturers refrain from manufacturing in the United States because it is too expensive because more people are formally educated and are not willing to work for a low wage, but only 15% of respondents actually are working towards that. Is it realistic to reach out to homeless communities looking to get back onto their feet to see if they would work in factories? Would this help promote American manufacturing and decrease importing?

#8: In today’s fast paced fashion world, trends come and go rather quickly. The striking disadvantage of manufacturing overseas is the slow turnaround time which could be up to 3-5 months. By manufacturing domestically, turnaround can be as quick as 2 weeks. Why do the majority of fashion companies still choose to manufacture overseas when there is a possibility the trend could be over by time they reach store shelves (Thus, a lack in profit)? When will trend pressures become too much for overseas production?

#9: Is it even worth it to bring manufacturing back to America if it is not benefitting the workers and creating jobs? If manufacturing in the US is simply machine based, what is the point of doing so when it could be cheaper elsewhere and benefit countries that need the jobs?

[Discussion is closed for this post].

The Future of “Made in China”: Robots are taking over China’s Factory Floors


The video echoes one recent Wall Street Journal article about Levi Strauss using automation technologies to revamp their apparel production in China:

“In an apparel factory in Zhongshan, a gritty city of three million stuffed with industrial parks across the Pearl River from Hong Kong, lasers are replacing dozens of workers who scrub Levi’s blue jeans with sandpaper to give them the worn look that American consumers find stylish. Automated sewing machines have cut the number of seamstresses needed to stitch arc designs into back pockets. Digital printers make intricate patterns on jeans that workers used to do with a mesh screen.”

One important factor that gives a push to adopting robots in China’s factory floor is the end of very cheap labor in China. China’s wage level has been rising in double-digit percentages for the past decades. And as a consequence of its “one-child policy”, by 2050, the working-age population in China could decline by 212 million according to estimation from the United Nations.

But Levi executives say they have largely abandoned a strategy of relocating production to one impoverished country after another, known as “chasing the needle,” in favor of other forms of cost-cutting.” “Labor is getting more expensive and technology is getting cheaper,” says Andrew Lo, chief executive of Crystal Group, one of Levi’s major suppliers in China.

“Levi is adapting its laser technology so it can etch different patterns to make one type of denim look like another, reducing costs by buying less fabric. For a new line of women’s wear, Levi said it needed only 12 fabrics, rather than 18. In the past three years, Levi said, it cut the number of its suppliers by 40% and the number of fabrics by 50%.”

“The changes also give Levi greater flexibility, said Ms. O’Neill, the 44-year-old executive who helps oversee the company’s supply chain. If a pair of jeans using a particular fabric is selling well, she says, Levi can use lasers to produce more of the desired look, and pare back designs that are losers. “The idea is to delay decision-making for as long as possible,” said Ms. O’Neill.”

And this is only the beginning! Some technologists think that inventions such as 3-D printing—essentially printers that replicate solid objects like copiers reproduce printed pages—will have a big impact by 2050. In such a world, printers could spew out clothing, food, electronics and other goods ordered online from a nearly limitless selection, with far fewer workers involved in production.

“In 2050, you could potentially have a 3-D printer at home that could produce all the fabrics you want,” said Roger Lee, the chief executive of Hong Kong’s TAL Group, which makes 1 of every 6 dress shirts sold in the U.S. for brands from Banana Republic to Brooks Brothers. “That would make us obsolete.”

Ironically but not surprisingly, automation also keeps wages down. Levi said it expects China production to rise only “modestly” next year; new orders are up for grabs. Apparel InternationaI’s president, Oscar Gonzalez, says the company now boasts an advantage over China—a large pool of apparel workers who were laid off in past downsizings. Excess labor has helped him keep wage increases to 2% or 3% a year he says. “Every Monday when we recruit,” he adds, “there are long lines of applicants.”

Welcome for any comments and discussion questions.

What Might Apparel Sourcing in the 3D-Printing Era Look Like?

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(photo credit: WGSN)

Wearing 3D-printed apparel is no longer a dream (see the pictures above)! But what is the implication of 3D-printing technology on apparel sourcing? Here is my personal vision:

First, 3D printing may create brand new T&A supply chains and business models. 1) Because 3D printing is highly technology and capital intensive with little input from low-skilled labor, it implies that developed countries rather than developing countries may enjoy the comparative advantage in manufacturing 3D-printed apparel. 2) Because apparel will be directly printed by machines, cross-the-border transportation can be largely reduced in the 3D printing era, generating potential cost-saving opportunities both for manufacturers and consumers. 3) 3D printing will empower consumers to more directly involve in the product development process. Yet given consumers’ limited technical knowledge and equipment, many new types of customer services ranging from design assistance to on-site apparel printing may emerge in the 3D printing era.

Second, 3D printing may result in a more sustainable T&A supply chain. 1) Because 3D printing is digital-based, it may help reduce waste during the product development process. 2) Because 3D printing is highly customized and can produce on-demand, it may result in less overproduction in the textile and apparel (T&A) industry. 3) 3D printing has the potential to be made by recycled material. 3D printed apparel itself may be recycled as well, resulting in almost zero carbon emission in the whole product life-cycle.

However, 3D printing my create new challenges for apparel sourcing. 1) When 3D printed apparel substitute traditionally-made apparel among ordinary consumers, demand for apparel sewing workers will be substantially reduced. Millions of unskilled or low-skilled workers currently employed in the T&A sector may have to find new jobs. 2) Workforce in the T&A industry may have to substantially update their knowledge structure in the 3D printing era. The T&A industry may even be short of talents for certain positions such as 3D printing designers and engineers. 3) The application of 3D printing will require an update of the current legal system to better address issues such as intellectual property right protection, consumer privacy protection and data security in a digital-based context.

What is your vision for the future of apparel sourcing in the 3D-printing era?

Sheng Lu

2015 Top Markets Report for Technical Textiles and Apparel Released

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The U.S. Department of Commerce recently released its first-ever market report for technical textile and apparel, covering product categories including: non-wovens, specialty and industrial fabrics, medical textiles and protective apparel. According to the report:

  • The U.S. exports of technical textiles totaled $8.5 billion or 46% of U.S. textile mill product exports in 2014.
  • By size, the top 10 export markets for U.S. technical textiles from 2015 to 2016 include: Mexico, Canada, China, Germany, Japan, Hong Kong, United Kingdom, Belgium, Brazil and Honduras.
  • North America is the largest regional consumer of technical textiles due to the presence of the majority of end-use industries. Europe and Asia Pacific follow North America in terms of current consumption; however, development in emerging markets including India, China, Japan, Korea and Taiwan is expected to increase overall technical textile demand. Among the best prospect in the emerging markets for U.S. companies are Vietnam, India, Taiwan and Brazil.
  • Major challenges facing U.S. technical textile exports include: 1) trade protection such as high tariffs and non-tariff barriers, such as import license requirements; 2) foreign competition and continual investment in research and development in many developing countries; and 3) lack of transparency by foreign customs agencies which could slow the flow of trade and lead to processing delays.

Eight country studies are provided by the report, including: Brazil, Canada, China, India, Korea, Mexico, Taiwan and Vietnam.

The full report can be downloaded from HERE.

Exclusive Interview with William L. “Bill” Jasper, Chairman & Chief Executive Officer, Unifi Inc.

Bill Jasper

William L. “Bill” Jasper has been Unifi’s Chairman of the Board since February 2011 and has served as Unifi’s Chief Executive Officer (CEO) and member of Unifi’s Board of Directors and the Company’s Executive Committee since September 2007. Prior to his role as Chairman of the Board, he served as President and CEO, Vice President of Sales and General Manager of Unifi’s polyester division. He joined the company with the purchase of Kinston polyester POY assets from INVISTA in September 2004. Prior to joining Unifi, Mr. Jasper was the Director of INVISTA’s DACRON® polyester filament business. Before working at INVISTA, he held various management positions in operations, technology, sales and business for DuPont since 1980.

Bill Jasper is also a University of Rhode Island alumni! He graduated in 1977 with a Master of Science in Mechanical Engineering.

Founded in 1971 and Headquartered in Greensboro, NC, Unifi, Inc. is a leading producer and processor of multi-filament polyester and nylon textured yarns. Unifi provides innovative, global textile solutions and unique branded yarns for customers at every level of the supply chain. Unifi’s core business consists of the manufacturing of POY (partially-oriented yarn), the texturing, air-jet texturing, twisting, and beaming of polyester and the texturing and covering of nylon filament yarns. Branded products of Unifi include aio® — all-in-one performance yarns, SORBTEK® A.M.Y.®, MYNX® UV, REPREVE®, REFLEXX®, INHIBIT® and SATURA®, which can be found in many products manufactured by the world’s leading brands and retailers.

Interview Part

Sheng Lu: How would you describe the current status of the U.S. textile industry? What’s your outlook for the industry in the next 5 years? What are the top challenges the U.S. textile industry is facing?

Bill Jasper: The industry has undergone a revival after years of decline, so the current status is strong and I believe we’ll see that environment continue for several more years in this region. The industry is expanding in practically every key economic indicator, including output, employment, exports and investment.

  • U.S. textile shipments topped $56 billion in 2013, up more than 5% from 2012
  • U.S. textile exports were $17.9 billion in 2013, up nearly 5%
    • The U.S. has also enjoyed an investment surge in new plants and equipment. Over the past year, 8 foreign companies have made public announcements regarding their intention to invest more than $700 million in new U.S. textile facilities and equipment. These investments are projected to provide approximately 1,900 new jobs in North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia and Louisiana.
    • This $700 million does not include the ongoing re-investment activities that domestic textile companies have made.

The U.S. industry is also benefitting from several domestic advantages, including reliable and relatively inexpensive energy supplies, infrastructure, access to raw materials, and proximity to markets. We are gaining competitive advantages due to conditions outside the U.S., including rising costs in Asia, high shipping costs, and port capacity restraints. In addition, you’ve probably seen Wal-Mart’s advertising and P.R. blitz that it is committing to buy hundreds of billions of additional dollars in American-made products over the next decade to help support and spur U.S. manufacturing and innovation. With Wal-Mart leading the way, there is definitely a movement afoot to “reshore” some U.S. manufacturing, including textiles and apparel.

Finally, I believe a major driver of recent investments and one of the biggest contributors to the renaissance described above is also one of the biggest challenges the industry is facing. Virtually all of our free trade agreements to date have been based on a yarn forward rule of origin. This means that all processes, including the yarn extrusion, spinning, texturing, fabric formation, and the dyeing, finishing and assembly of the finished garment must take place in a free trade agreement member country to receive duty-free benefits. This rule has benefited the U.S. industry especially in NAFTA and DR-CAFTA, as U.S. yarn and fabric producers have dramatically increased our exports to the region under this regime.

As the U.S. negotiates the Transpacific Partnership Agreement (TPP), if this same rule of origin is undermined by single transformation rules or other loopholes, it could erode the entire supply chain in this hemisphere. In addition, careful attention must be paid to market access for potential TPP members like Vietnam, who is already the second largest exporter of textiles and apparel to the U.S. The domestic industry has requested reasonable duty phase-out periods in market access for our most sensitive products under the TPP so that our partnerships in this region have an adequate adjustment period. The TPP is considered to be the model for all future trade agreements with the U.S., thus it is critically important that our negotiators consider the profound consequences it can have on U.S. jobs and the U.S. textile industry.

Sheng Lu:  “Made in USA” is a very hot topic these days, yet we also live in a globalized world today. From the textile business perspective, what is the relationship between “Made in USA” and “going global” in the 21st century? Do US textile companies today still have to make a choice between the two?

Bill Jasper: Most apparel brands and retailers utilize a balanced sourcing strategy that incorporates production in this hemisphere, as well as Asia, Africa, or other global manufacturing and/or assembly. I do not feel that U.S. textile producers today must necessarily make a choice between the two, but must have a business plan that addresses the realities of the global market. In fact, nearly 98 percent of the clothing purchased in the U.S. is imported from abroad. Only two percent of clothing bought in this country is manufactured here in the U.S., and I doubt there is a business plan in any U.S. textile company that doesn’t reflect that reality.

Unifi, for example, works with downstream customers who want research and development, innovation, speed to market, sustainability, etc., from yarn and fabric production in this hemisphere. It is important that we provide flexibility and these same innovative products anywhere in the world our customers choose to do business. Thus, we export yarn to more than 30 countries from our domestic plants (not counting the exports of fabric from domestic weavers and knitters that use our inputs). Unifi also operates a wholly-owned subsidiary in Suzhou, China, where we focus on the development, sales and service of Unifi’s premium value-added yarns for the Asian market. Our expanding network of manufacturing facilities, sales and sourcing initiatives enables us to drive and capture growth in every major textile and apparel region in the world.

Sheng Lu: We know many products of Unifi are textile intermediaries like fibers and yarns. So how is Unifi’s brand promoted? How much can consumers recognize your product as “made in USA”?

Bill Jasper: As an upstream producer, making that connection with the ultimate consumer can be a challenge. Unifi has succeeded on several fronts. We have differentiated our product offering with premium value-added products, like REPREVE®, which we supply to our global customers wherever they are producing. Our downstream sales and marketing teams work extensively with brands and retailers to help them promote the unique properties of Unifi fibers and yarns. Some ways we do this includes, on product-labeling, hangtags, point of sale, cobranding, advertising and various consumer promotions. The “Made in the USA” message is and can be part of this effort, and I think we’ll see more demand for that as the brands and retailers move more of their sourcing from Asia back to this hemisphere over the next few years.

We recently began marketing directly to the consumer through the launch of our REPREVE #TurnItGreen campaign, which focuses on raising awareness around the importance of recycling and the products that can be created from plastic bottles when they are recycled. The initial launch took place at ESPN’s X Games Aspen in January 2014, where we literally and figuratively helped turn the event green using REPREVE-based product and color. At X Games Aspen, we recycled more than 100,000 plastic bottles to make X Games signage, lanyards and other merchandise. As we grow the REPREVE brand at retail and in the consumer space, we will continue these efforts with various partners, including current partners who have joined the REPREVE #TurnItGreen initiative, including NFL team, the Detriot Lions, where we will recycle more than 200,000 plastic bottles to help turn their stadium green on December 7th, 2014. We’re also driving recycling education by helping turn the live action event, Marvel Universe Live!, green through apparel for the cast and crew, merchandise items and banners, all made with REPREVE recycled fiber.

Sheng Lu: Unifi has opened factories in Brazil and Colombia. Why did Unifi decide to invest in South America? What is the connection between Unifi’s US-based operation and your operations in South America?

Bill Jasper: Both of these manufacturing plants were established in the mid to late 90s as wholly owned subsidiaries of Unifi, Inc. We purchased the small Colombia plant to give us more spandex covering capacity for our yarns that come back to the U.S. for use in pantyhose and socks. The Brazil operation was set up when we saw an opportunity to capture a share of the growing synthetic apparel market in that country. The majority of the textured polyester we make in Brazil stays in Brazil. Over the past several years we have introduced our premium value-added yarns in that market and hope to see strong growth in those product lines as the economy picks up down there.

Unifi also opened a 120,000 square foot polyester yarn texturing facility in El Salvador in 2010 to take advantage of the duty benefits in the DR-CAFTA trade pact and to better serve our growing customer base in the region.

Sheng Lu: What is the market potential of Asia and particularly China for Unifi and the US textile industry in general?

Bill Jasper: The expected growth in China and other Asian markets is enormous, and Unifi’s strategic plan reflects that. By 2020, China’s consumer market is expected to reach 22 percent of total global consumption, second only to the U.S. at 35 percent. Our wholly owned subsidiary (UTSC) is located at the center of one of China’s most important textile regions, Suzhou. UTSC customers will have quick access to new product introductions with the quality and technical service they have come to expect with Unifi. UTSC was established to provide the domestic Chinese market with a full complement of our specialty branded products, not only for their growing appetite for branded apparel, but for growth in their automotive and home furnishing markets.

The U.S. textile industry in general has invested heavily to take advantage of the growth in Asia by adding to their manufacturing facilities here or putting plants in Asia or China. Countries like Vietnam also offer strong manufacturing platforms due to lower wages than China and the prospect of duty-free exports to the European Union, the U.S. and Japan when announced trade agreements like TPP are completed. The growth of the Asian textile market certainly ups the ante in regard to whether there will be a yarn forward rule under TPP. Failure to include a strong yarn forward rule in this key agreement will likely cede key Asian markets to textile suppliers that are not a party to the TPP. To the contrary, inclusion of a yarn forward provision in that agreement will drive investment to partner countries and provides opportunities for U.S. fabrics and yarns to supply production meeting those guidelines.

Sheng Lu: How do you see “sustainability” as a game changer for the textile industry?  What has Unifi done in response to the growing awareness of sustainability among consumers?

Bill Jasper: Reducing our environmental footprint through the entire supply chain has been an important focus of the industry for several years, driven by industry leaders like Unifi and our suppliers and customers.

Unifi has an on-site environmental team constantly reviewing everything we do to see how we can reduce, reuse, recycle and conserve. All of our U.S.-based plants are currently landfill-free; we recycle our shipping pallets, we have installed energy-efficient lighting and increased efficiency around our compressed air usage, for example.

In 2010, Unifi opened our state-of-the-art REPREVE Recycling Center, where we use our own industrial yarn waste, recycled water bottles and even fabric waste to make REPREVE® recycled polyester fibers and yarns which go back into high end consumer apparel, like fleeces made by Patagonia, shoes and apparel by Nike, The North Face jackets, and eco-friendly Haggar pants. You can also find REPREVE® in Ford vehicles, including the 2015 Ford F150. In 2013, REPREVE® turned more than 740 million recycled bottles into fiber, and since 2009, we have recycled more than two billion plastic bottles to make REPREVE. Unifi’s recycled process offsets the need to use newly refined crude oil, uses less energy and water, and produces fewer greenhouse gas emissions compared to making virgin synthetic fibers.

Moreover, for Unifi at least, this is much more than a marketing concept. Our focus on environmental sustainability is now an engrained part of our culture. We believe that sustainability must be an unwavering core value of responsible manufacturing in the 21st century.

Sheng Lu: Given the changing nature of the US textile industry, what kind of talents will be most in needs by the US textile industry in the years ahead? Do you have any advice for textile and apparel majors in terms of improving their employability in the job market?

Bill Jasper: The U.S. textile industry is a diverse, technology driven, capital intensive, innovator of high quality products that is able and ready to compete effectively in the 21st century global marketplace, and a prepared workforce is critical in meeting the needs of this competitive industry. Not only do we look for skills in textile technology, we look for workers with high math and science aptitudes, technical and chemical engineering skills, process improvement, and industrial engineering capabilities. The ability to think strategically and globally is a big advantage in driving sales and creating marketing programs that meet the needs of our customers world-wide.

–The End–

EU Commission: Skills for Jobs in the EU Textile and Clothing Industry to Evolve

In a recent analysis report, the EU Commission foresees that skills needed by jobs in the EU textile and clothing industry will continue to evolve from 2013 to 2025. Specifically, the report argues that:

First, employment in the EU textile and clothing sector is forecast to decline by 13.4% from 2.5 million in 2013 to 2.1million in 2025. Even with shrinking employment levels, because of the need to replace nearly 1 million workers forecast to retire or leave the sector, about 611,000 job openings are anticipated from 2013 to 2025.

Second, employment in the EU textile and clothing sector is no just declined, but also evolved. From 2013 to 2025, demand for “crafted and related occupations” as well as “plant and machine operators and assemblers” will decline 34% and 13% respectively, whereas job openings for “technician and associated professional occupations” are estimated to grow at a modest rate. Among the estimated 611,000 job openings, 93% will require high or medium level qualifications.

Third, in terms of specific skills needed by the EU textile and clothing sector based on where the sector might progress towards 2020:

1) Technical production competencies will remain central to recruitment with increased focus on the demand for versatile staffs that can operate across different workstations.

2) Supply chain management, business, sales and marketing skills (including the skills in international trade) are growing in importance. For many EU textile and clothing companies, “trade has taken place of production”.

3) The EU textile and clothing industry is further expecting skills on technology, innovation and sustainability. Leading technology-led areas include mass customization, 3D body measurement, advanced CAD and eCommerce technologies, internet infrastructures for custom-tailored clothing and business-to-consumer eCommerce among retailers.

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