The Impact of Our Fast Fashion – Part 3: The Return of Made in America

The Return of Made in America

If you’ve been following along with our series covering the Impact of Fast Fashion,  you know at this point that our current dependence on fast fashion is problematic at best. A system that allows a pair of jeans to be sold for less than a meal at a mid-range chain restaurant cannot possibly be ethical, sustainable or viable for any foreseeable future.This final installment in Yesler Journal’s series The Impact of Fast Fashion focuses on what’s happening in response to the current state of fashion affairs – particularly the shift toward made in America.

To read more about how disposable clothing became the West’s go-to, check out “A Brief History of $5 Leggings.” If you’re curious about the environmental and social impact of fast fashion, see “Consequences of Disposable Clothing.

The United States was once celebrated and revered for its manufacturing prowess. Our ability to create quality goods, while treating factory workers with respect and humanity was a point of pride for Americans. That pride took a back burner when outsourcing textile and garment manufacturing became a natural progression for business owners who were attempting to compete in the growing global marketplace. In theory, outsourcing garment manufacturing would lead to increased growth in developing economies – growth that would allow those economies to buy more American goods. Some figures even show that for every job American companies outsourced, two new jobs were created in the US, albeit not for the same workers.

According to Steven Pearlstein, a Washington Post economy columnist, counting jobs lost is a complicated business. The numbers vary widely, and much depends on the size of the company that’s doing the offshoring. Pearlstein notes that the American job creation ratio in regards to outsourcing varies between sectors. Importantly, any gains for the manufacturing industry were “offset by the job losses in manufacturing.” The proof of this is eerily easy to spot in places where garment manufacturing once boomed. Places like Gaffney, South Carolina, where garment manufacturing factories once employed hundreds of workers, are home to empty plants and unemployment, as work moved overseas for cheaper labor.

Gaffney boasts an interesting story however, one that might play out around the country. Baynard Winthrop, founder of clothing company American Giant keeps production humming in Gaffney, employs American textile workers, and sources yarn from places like Carolina Cotton Works. According to Stephanie Clifford, of The New York Times, Winthrop does all this to keep meeting his bottom line. American Giant doesn’t need to deal with slow turnaround times as a result of outsourcing and expensive overseas transportation costs. Winthrop can also compete with overseas labor costs because American Giant mechanized much of the work previously done by human hands – he can employ fewer people and pay them better. Another benefit? American Giant doesn’t need to track the safety and working conditions of overseas factories in which their products are made.

Business people like Winthrop are starting to see more benefits to keeping their production state-side. Consumers are beginning to demand American-made products. Clifford’s article points out that “retailers from Walmart to Abercrombie & Fitch are starting to respond to those [made in America] sentiments, creating sections for American-made items and sourcing goods domestically.” The growing demand for American-made products is also fueled by a collective western interest in a maker culture. Artisan goods and handmade products are buzzwords that don’t seem to be going away anytime soon. In a survey conducted by The New York Times, 68 percent of respondents preferred products made in the United States, even if they cost more. Elizabeth Huber, a student in an industrial sewing class in Minnesota says “I like getting back to making things, to touching and manipulating materials rather than just pushing buttons or tweeting all day.”

The consumer interest in American-made goods coupled with the achievable cost of making textiles seems to set up a perfect platform for a return to made in America – so what’s holding us back? According to Clifford, it’s finding skilled workers to take on the growing demand for goods made on American soil. Clifford’s article states that the workforce of skilled textile laborers has decreased 77% in the states since the 1990’s when jobs began moving abroad. Companies are now desperate to grow that workforce back. Sewing isn’t necessarily an exciting career option, and the well founded perceptions about terrible working conditions in factories likely don’t help matters.

The other barrier to finding a workforce is skilled labor – industrial sewing machine skills are not commonly taught in schools, and many of the workers interested in manufacturing jobs are refugees or immigrants. In Minnesota, manufacturers have invested in an education program that teaches both high schoolers and adult learners the skills they need to get a job in this industry. Upon graduating from the program, workers can expect to make between $9-$17 per hour.

Teaching industrial sewing in high schools may sound archaic, but students learning trades and skills is another effort that’s garnered attention lately. Students having the opportunity to learn a skill they can put directly to good use is not a bad thing, as long as they learn those skills in industries that might stick around the states for a while.

The potential snag in all of this good news is that American-made products may never going to cost as little as those that are made elsewhere. American-made will be directly at odds with fast-fashion; our economy won’t start producing clothing that is inexpensive enough to be thrown away after five weeks. Our interest in a ‘democratized’ fashion industry will be the barrier that we will truly need to contend with. The social fabric that depends on outfitting ourselves so cheaply will need to be disrupted before clothing that is ‘made in America’ can compete with giant retailers.