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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.

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