Made in America? Why More of Your Clothes Soon Might Be

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For decades, the United States has been losing apparel manufacturing jobs to cheaper overseas production. With an emphasis on costs rather than quality, companies send work to China, India, Sri Lanka and other countries. In the last decade, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reports the number of U.S. apparel manufacturing businesses was halved –- losing 7,000 businesses.

The American Apparel & Footwear Association, the Los Angeles Times reported, found that only 2.5 percent of American clothing purchases came from domestic production in 2013. That's up .05 percent from 2012. That half of a percent could be a sign that American apparel production is on the uptick -- "the first time that domestic manufacturers have won back market share," the Times wrote. (A lot's been lost -- domestic clothing made up 56 percent of the market in 1991, the Times said.)

Dirt to Shirt

Several factors could help bring back more American "dirt to shirt" productions.
  • Some big names in the apparel industry are shifting back to quality over quantity. Overworked, underpaid, sometimes malnourished employees in sweatshop-like conditions churn out cheap clothes that lack durability.
  • More American consumers want to know who is behind the product they are wearing. They don't want to endorse a company with egregious labor violations or safety issues in foreign factories. As pressure mounts, some companies are taking a more proactive lead in workplace safety or moving production to the States, where labor laws are more firm.
  • American consumers "want unique, artisanal goods made sustainably at home," the Times said, citing a Boston Consulting Group study that said "more than eight in 10 are even willing to pay a premium for it."
  • The outsourced production industry is a game of near-constant movement in search of the cheapest workforce, with unexpected countries like Ethiopia promoting themselves. But that game is showing signs of change. Overseas factories are raising prices, and transporting goods across the ocean isn't getting cheaper.
  • As noted by The Huffington Post last year, American technological advances are evening the playing field. Machines are replacing humans for demanding tasks like button and zipper additions. To be sure, losing jobs to robots is a different problem.
  • With domestic production, companies can give their consumers full disclosure about who makes their clothes. That's been a selling point since 1997 for American Apparel (APP) even as the company and founder Dov Charney fight over its future. And Nike (NKE) has became more open about its production process.
"It has been a difficult path" to keep production of "environmentally sustainable and ethically produced" T-shirts in North Carolina, TS Designs CEO Eric Henry told The Huffington Post last year. But his firm is fully committed to promoting its made-in-America status by encouraging customers to enter a code from their T-shirt. From there, they can track every location and person that made their shirt during its 600-mile production trip. Ultimately, they get a more personal experience.
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