American Manufacturing: Past, Present, & Future

There’s been a lot of talks lately about the rise of American manufacturing in the Fashion Industry, especially with Trump as President.  But what is really happening right now with American manufacturing and what’s to come for the future?  Let’s take a closer look starting with what caused American manufacturing to decline in the first place.

Past: What happened to American Manufacturing?

Over the past two decades, American manufacturing has had a steep decline.  In 1990 there were almost 940,000 manufacturing jobs in the US, and by 2013 only 144,000 remained.  Today 36% of all US Apparel imports come from China, 11% from Vietnam, and 6% from each Bangladesh and Indonesia (statistics are taken from report).

Two major things were happening during that time.  One was the rise of fast fashion companies like Zara, who opened its first store in the US in 1989, and H&M who later came to the US in 2000.  This caused consumers to now want the latest trends at a reduced price and more frequently than ever before.  On top of that was the rise of e-commerce especially with big brands like Amazon & eBay who both started back in 1994 and 1995 respectively.  This again was a huge disruption to the way the American consumer had purchased.  With the internet, it was now becoming possible to price compare as well as shop practically around the globe and have it delivered right to your front door.  American manufacturing just wasn’t set up for the fast turnarounds and certainly couldn’t compete with the extremely low wages of other nations.  And so the shift began.  I remember working at a well-known company located on 7th Ave back in 2006 where I supervised over 50 pattern makers and 50 sample makers and watching as over 70% of them were laid off as the company transitioned to making everything overseas.  It was at that moment that I realized American manufacturing was dying.

But over the last 3 years, there have been talks over more and more companies bringing their manufacturing back to the US, mainly due to the rise of labor prices in China.  But is it really possible?  Can companies bring manufacturing back?  And what’s currently happening that’s affecting American manufacturing?

Present: What social trends have affected local American Manufacturing?

There are 3 main social trends recently that have affected local manufacturing in America:

Social Responsibility Trend

With the increase of globalization of the fashion industry, social responsibility has started to matter more than ever before. This includes everything in the supply chain such as standards for safety, labor, sustainability, ethics, product quality, etc.

With the fashion industry being the 2nd largest polluting industry in the world, companies have started looking at ways to combat this issue in order to save our future planet.  With fast fashion on the rise, the polar opposite trend of recycling, up-cycling, and sustainable fashion has started to increase more and more which in turn is forcing manufacturers to now re-think how they do things in order to comply with sustainability requirements, etc. 

Social responsibility also increased after the garment industry experienced the deadliest disaster in its history, the 2013 factory collapse at Rana Plaza in Bangladesh which killed over 1,100 people.  Since then, consumers have started to care more and more about where their clothes are being made and under what conditions.  This has forced brands to make more responsible sourcing decisions and think twice about where they are manufacturing.

The Rise of Social Media

As social media continues to increase, along with the addition of new social platforms, the rate at which information can leak and spread to the public is speeding up dramatically and in turn affecting buying decisions.  For example, one person can post a message on Twitter about a company producing in a sweatshop in China that goes viral and all of a sudden everyone is now boycotting that brand.  Which then impacts the company who naturally wants to avoid any negative PR and so forcing them to now look for a different manufacturer.  Social media really has put the buying power and future life of retailers in the hands of the consumer.

Technology Advancements

Related Reading:  Amish Clothing Manufacturers in America’s Rural Heartland

A lot of new technology has already begun to hit the market.  North Face is currently working with a tool called the Fluid Expert Personal Shopper which enables users to have a more intuitive search experience online.  Other companies like H&M are using Image recognition to help customers find similar items from a photo on their phone.  Rebecca Minkoff is utilizing smart mirrors in dressing rooms, Kate Spade has smartphone-charging handbags, messenger bots are now being used as personal shoppers, and 3D Virtual fitting rooms make the need to try on clothes obsolete.

As all of this technology continues to increase, more and more companies are going to need to integrate this technology with their manufacturing in order to meet the demand.  Some manufacturers have already started to use 3D sample making software so designers don’t even need to make samples until they are ready for production.

On top of all of the social trends happening, there is a lot happening on the political side as well.

Present: What political trends have affected local American Manufacturing?

Our current political administration is all about American manufacturing and bringing back Made in America.  But are people willing to pay more for Made in America?  And what impact could this have on American manufacturing?

For one, there has already been a backlash of the Made in America campaign as people are associating American manufacturing with the President himself and so if you’re not anti-Trump, you’re now anti- Made in America.  This is exactly what happened with the American made company New Balance who got into a lot of trouble after posting one tweet on Twitter that they were excited about American manufacturing coming back under the new president.  This led to a slew of people boycotting the brand and even going so far as to burn their sneakers all because of their dislike of Trump.

At the same time, the Trump Administration is also heavily trying to crack down on immigration laws.  Garment manufacturing in the U.S. relies heavily on immigrant workers.  “From seamstresses and photographers to pattern makers and tailors, we owe much of our success to the tireless work of those who came from other countries and brought with them creative ideas and an entrepreneurial spirit,”-Steven Kolb, CFDA’s president and CEO.  The Pew Research Center has found that the textile, apparel, and leather manufacturing industry employs a huge share of immigrants (36% in total), with 22% being authorized and 14% unauthorized immigrants.  An increase in deportations would drastically thin the garment industry workforce as there is no one who wants to do these labor-intensive jobs anymore, and an even bigger problem, no one who is even skilled enough to do them.  So how can manufacturing come back to America if Americans are not even skilled in doing the work?

Future: Where is American manufacturing headed in the next 5 years?

Despite everything going on, I do believe that American manufacturing is going to continue to increase slowly and over the next 5 years, major changes are going to take place.

The future of the garment industry is really going to be Technology and Automation.  Labor is the single most expensive aspect of American manufacturing and since we may lose immigrants and millennials aren’t exactly flocking to manufacturing jobs these days, this will be the only solution.  Luckily, the cost to use robots is becoming a lot lower than the cost to use human labor.  This has led to the invention of the Sewbo, a Robot that can sew a t-shirt from start to finish.  This is really the most exciting aspect of American manufacturing right now.

And leading the way is Adidas who is already in the process of being the first to use a fully automated factory in Arkansas.  This factory of robots will be capable of making 800,000 t-shirts daily.  From fabric cutting to the finished product, a t-shirt can be made in only 4 mins, dropping the cost down to $0.33/shirt which is cheaper than anywhere in the world!  And for those that fear robots will replace human jobs, this factory will actually create 400 new jobs and will have humans working alongside these robots.

Looking back on how America lost manufacturing, to begin with, it really all comes down to disruption.  Companies like Zara and Amazon came in and disrupted the fashion industry as we knew it, just as Uber disrupted the taxi industry, and Airbnb the hotel industry.  So I think it’s only a natural assumption that in order to bring manufacturing back to the USA, another major disruption will need to take place.  What will that disruption be?  Will it be robots, or something else?  What are your thoughts?

In the meantime, at Fashion Angel Warrior LLC, we believe in doing our part in helping to bring back American manufacturing.  We do this by hosting NYC Fashion District Manufacturing Tours.  If you are starting a line and looking for local manufacturers you don’t want to miss this 6 hour behind the scenes tour where we walk you through all the tools needed to manufacture a line from start to finish.  Check out what others are saying about our tours;  “In a short time I learned what would take me weeks,”-Aaron, “I feel grateful that I found Christine Daal and I feel so empowered to be able to move forward”-Edvin.  Learn more about our always sold out Manufacturing tours here and be sure to register for the next one!  Don’t see a tour on the calendar?  Sign up now to be notified when the next one pops up or simply follow us on Instagram!

Have a Product Idea? We’ll Help You Get Started!

On Maker’s Row, you can learn the process, organize, and manage your product development and find a manufacturer. Learn more!

Related Reading:  10 American Small Batch Manufacturers