Ethical Style: What Happened to Made In the USA?

The state of the U.S. manufacturing industry is dire. How did this happen?

Every Thursday, your Ethical Style questions, answered.

The state of the U.S. manufacturing industry is dire. How did this happen?

U.S. apparel manufacturing reached its height shortly after World War II and has steadily declined ever since. As late as 1980, clothing production still made up one in 10 American manufacturing jobs. But by 2007, 95 percent of apparel bought in the U.S. was imported from elsewhere. There isn’t one overwhelming explanation for why and how the American apparel industry migrated abroad. It’s a confluence of many factors—political, economical, and social—and was designed to lower both prices and standards for the clothes that line our closets.

Prior to World War II, apparel production took place in small shops, following two slow, seasonal production cycles. Clothes were tailored and sewn for the individual. The shift began in the early post-war period. Retailers found a healthy demand for clothing from an increasingly affluent American population, and started meeting that demand with the same mass production processes used to make uniforms for the war.

Meanwhile, Japan—where textiles made up 40 percent of industrial exports only a few years before—rebounded. A growing number of Asian countries had the competitive advantage of cheap labor, and Japan became a notable exporter of garments to the U.S. In turn, the United States facilitated the exchange by reducing import tariffs. Where an American-made blouse in the 1950s cost $3, the Japanese version sold for just $1.

Since then, apparel technology has barely advanced. The production of clothes today is still largely identical to the 1850s process: a sewer sews on a sewing machine. “Mass production” meant a shift from tailored to standardized, and the introduction of division of labor (one person sews collars all day long). But the work of making clothes remains highly labor-intensive. In the '50s and '60s, this meant mass retailers began relying on cheaper Asian labor practices to produce their own, U.S.-designed clothes. By the mid-1980s, the bulk of American apparel manufacturing had moved overseas.

Back home, the American consumer was changing, too. Tailored garments gave way to standard sizing. Mass production made “fashion” trends more easily and readily available. And new, synthetic fabrics sourced abroad gave Americans increased options for new stuff. This was the age of the nylon stocking—and eventually full pantyhose—which had previously been made of silk. The demand for man-made fibers in the U.S., a cotton country, fueled textile production in Japan, which inspired garment production in Taiwan and Hong Kong and exportation back to the American market.

By the '70s, the economic downturn caused clothing purchases to drop. At the same time, the American consumer took a more casual approach to her clothes, turning to cheaper-to-produce fashion basics. High-end clothing production shifted to the low-end. Formerly haute couture designers willingly stamped their name onto affordable alternatives, like Liz Claiborne’s “career wear.”

The rise of the branded private label was the nail in the coffin for U.S. apparel manufacturing. Designers started taking over their own manufacturing (contracted overseas) and opening their own retail outlets rather than relying on department stores. Companies consolidated their U.S. operations to design and planning, leaving sourcing and manufacturing to foreign contractors in foreign countries. U.S.-based middlemen were cut out in pursuit of cheaper, faster clothes. Eventually, small, independent local labels were pushed out by the multinational retailers we know today.

More importantly, though, these new private labels started investing heavily in advertising. Nike, Levi’s, Calvin Klein—with the movement of production overseas, the race at home was to capture the imagination, and dollars, of the American consumer. Companies were no longer selling clothing—they were selling a lifestyle. The supposed glamour of fashion had gone public, and the race for trends had begun. The demand for more clothes, faster, has increased ever since. The consumer has become further and further alienated from the processes that make her clothes.

The U.S. government hasn't just stood idly by. Various trade liberalization initiatives and import restrictions on textiles and apparel have defined U.S. foreign policy in the industry over the past several decades. In 1974 and four times after that, some 45 signatories—including eight developed countries and dozens of developing ones—signed a pact called the Multi Fiber Arrangement, which established restrictions and quotas for the import of textiles and goods from developing countries into developed ones. This 30-year buffer expired in 2004. In 2005, apparel imports from China increased by almost 100 percent.

The disappearance of Made in USA clothes seems almost inevitable. But recent years have brought a small resurgence in demand for clothing made here. We want fairly made clothing, better-quality materials, and support for local businesses and workers. Still, given the labor intensity of sewing and quick turnaround times of fashion, it's doubtful we'll ever come close to a reprise of large-scale local garment production. Instead, we should focus on supporting the niche markets here: high quality custom-made clothing and independent labels with skilled manufacturing capabilities that emphasize ethics over trends. We are in the middle of a sea change of clothing consumption. Perhaps someday, the values underpinning our reliance on mass production will falter, and we'll dress to a new paradigm: Quality over quantity.

Send your ethical style queries to

via Honor Africans / Twitter

The problem with American Sign Language (ASL) is that over 500,000 people in the U.S. use it, but the country has over 330 million people.

So for those with hearing loss, the chances of coming into contact with someone who uses the language are rare. Especially outside of the deaf community.

Keep Reading Show less

Looking back, the year 1995 seems like such an innocent time. America was in the midst of its longest streak of peace and prosperity. September 11, 2001 was six years away, and the internet didn't seem like much more than a passing fad.

Twenty-four years ago, 18 million U.S. homes had modem-equipped computers, 7 million more than the year before. Most logged in through America Online where they got their email or communicated with random strangers in chat rooms.

According to a Pew Research study that year, only 32% of those who go online say they would miss it "a lot" if no longer available.

Imagine what those poll numbers would look like if the question was asked today.

RELATED: Bill and Melinda Gates had a surprising answer when asked about a 70 percent tax on the wealthiest Americans

"Few see online activities as essential to them, and no single online feature, with the exception of E-Mail, is used with any regularity," the Pew article said. "Consumers have yet to begin purchasing goods and services online, and there is little indication that online news features are changing traditional news consumption patterns."

"Late Night" host David Letterman had Microsoft founder and, at that time the richest man in the world, on his show for an interview in '95 to discuss the "the big new thing."

During the interview Letterman chided Gates about the usefulness of the new technology, comparing it to radio and tape recorders.

Gates seems excited by the internet because it will soon allow people to listen to a baseball game on their computer. To which Letterman smugly replies, "Does radio ring a bell?" to laughter from the crowd.

But Gates presses Letterman saying that the new technology allows you to listen to the game "whenever you want," to which Letterman responds, "Do tape recorders ring a bell?"

Gates then tells Letterman he can keep up with the latest in his favorite hobbies such as cigar smoking or race cars through the internet. Letterman shuts him down saying that he reads about his interests in magazines.

RELATED: Bill Gates has five books he thinks you should read this summer.

The discussion ends with the two laughing over meeting like-minded people in "troubled loner chat room on the internet."

The clip brings to mind a 1994 segment on "The Today Show" where host Bryant Gumbel and Katie Couric have a similar discussion.

"What is internet anyway?" an exasperated Gumball asks. "What do you write to it like mail?"

"It's a computer billboard but it's nationwide and it's several universities all joined together and it's getting bigger and bigger all the time," a producer explains from off-stage.

Photo by Li-An Lim on Unsplash

The future generations will have to live on this Earth for years to come, and, not surprisingly, they're very concerned about the fate of our planet. We've seen a rise in youth activists, such as Greta Thunberg, who are raising awareness for climate change. A recent survey indicates that those efforts are working, as more and more Americans (especially young Americans) feel concerned about climate change.

A new CBS News poll found that 70% of Americans between 18 and 29 feel climate change is a crisis or a serious problem, while 58% of Americans over the age of 65 share those beliefs. Additionally, younger generations are more likely to feel like it's their personal responsibility to address climate change, as well as think that transitioning to 100% renewable energy is viable. Overall, 25% of Americans feel that climate change is a "crisis," and 35% feel it is a "serious problem." 10% of Americans said they think climate change is a minor problem, and 16% of Americans feel it is not a problem that worries them.

The poll found that concern for the environment isn't a partisan issue – or at least when it comes to younger generations. Two-thirds of Republicans under the age of 45 feel that addressing climate change is their duty, sentiments shared by only 38% of Republicans over the age of 45.

Keep Reading Show less
The Planet