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Upswing in U.S. Apparel and Textile Jobs as Firms Reshore, Business and Industry Trends Analysis

The impact of globalization on the apparel and textiles industry in the U.S. has been devastating.  Especially hard hit are the southern states of North and South Carolina, Georgia, Virginia and Alabama, where apparel and textiles were historically a major economic mainstay.  According to the Department of Labor, the total number of workers in U.S. textile mills fell from 332,900 in 2001 to 95,600 in 2020.  That figure rose in 2021 to 97,700 and was up again in 2022 to 98,300.  (A significant number of these displaced workers became employed at automobile manufacturing plants recently constructed in the Southeastern U.S. by foreign firms such as Toyota and BMW.)  The American Apparel and Footwear Association reported that in 1991, American-made apparel accounted for 56.2% of all clothing purchased in the U.S.  Today it is estimated at less than 3%.
However, shifts in global trade are slowly bringing textile jobs back to the U.S. from other countries such as China and India.  A small number of foreign textile manufacturers, frustrated by tariffs and rising wages, have moved production to the U.S. South.  For example, Keer Group Co., a yarn manufacturer based in China’s Zhejiang province, invested $218 million in a new factory in Lancaster County, North Carolina.  The plant created 500 new jobs.  Indian yarn maker ShriVallabh Pittie Group spent $70 million to build a mill in Sylvania, Georgia creating 250 jobs.  Such mills are very large users of energy.  Not only are these companies taking advantage of comparatively cheap energy costs (thanks to natural gas from shale and steeply reduced oil prices in 2015-20), finished yarn can easily be shipped from the U.S. to Central America, where it will be made into finished clothes which can be sold duty-free in the U.S.  Trade and tariff conflicts between the U.S. and its trading partners are being watched closely by the apparel industry for long-term implications.
U.S. textile plants may be experiencing a rebirth, but they are very different than the plants of the 1980s and 1990s.  Today’s mills are largely automated, employing far fewer workers and costing far less to operate.  At the same time, the nature of the jobs has evolved.  Workers in these modern plants need excellent computer skills.  While the employee count is dramatically lower, those employees are able to earn better wages than they were in the past.
U.S. textile and apparel exports to other nations are substantial.  In 2022, these exports were $24.8 billion, up from $22.7 billion in 2021 and $19.3 billion in 2020, according to the U.S. International Trade Administration.  American manufacturing affords U.S. companies far cheaper transportation costs than outsourcing overseas, management is easier and turnaround time is faster.  This is all part of a trend known as reshoring.
A small number of apparel firms are once again choosing to have their manufacturing done in the U.S., rather than send it abroad.  One such company is Boathouse Sports, an athletic apparel company based in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.  U.S. cut and sew plants offer the ability to deliver goods quickly to American customers.  Contract Sew & Repair of Kent, Washington, provides sewing services to lululemon athletica, Nordstrom and Tommy Bahama.
This is not to say that there will be a rush of new employment in the U.S. apparel industry.  Instead, a growing and select group of apparel retailers and designers see the advantages of making goods at home.  For example, Brooks Brothers, a leading retailer in fine men’s and women’s clothing across the U.S., purchased a plant in Haverhill, Massachusetts where it manufactures suits.  Employment at the plant totals about 500 people.  The Coronavirus pandemic encouraged textile and apparel manufacturing to return to the U.S. to some degree, typically in cases where factory automation allows it to be done at reasonable cost.
In early 2022, the state of California enacted the Garment Worker Protection Act, which addresses garment industry worker payment.  Rather than a piece rate, workers are now paid an hourly wage.  The act also makes fashion brands liable for violations of the California Labor Code across supply chains, including contractors, manufacturers and brand guarantors (even if those entities are not in California).  A national bill, the Fabric Act, is under consideration in the U.S. Congress.  A number of fashion industry groups, including the American Apparel and Footwear Association and the Council of Fashion Designers of America have made statements against certain provisions of these acts with regard to sweeping liability.

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