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The news media have been filled lately with encouraging stories like this one from the Financial Times – reporting that “US factories that usually mass produce hoodies and T-shirts are being retooled to make face masks as chief executives in the clothing industry try to alleviate shortages of equipment to combat coronavirus. A group of nine American apparel companies began producing the masks on Monday….”

Moreover, according to their main industry organization, companies like these and their domestic manufacturing plants “make a broad range of inputs and finished products used in an array of personal protective equipment (PPE) and medical nonwoven/textile supplies, including surgical gowns, face masks, antibacterial wipes, lab coats, blood pressure cuffs, cotton swabs and hazmat suits. These items are vital to the government’s effort to ramp up emergency production of these critical supplies.”

These actions are not only commendable and critically important nowadays. They’re also a major reminder that it’s fortunate in the extreme that there are still domestic textile and apparel industries with production in the United States – and that this sector has survived despite every effort made by pre-Trump Presidents and Congresses either to put them out of business and send them offshore.

Washington’s motivation? Nothing personal or political – just blind adherence to the bedrock economic principle of comparative advantage, which simply put holds that if other countries make certain products more efficiently than the United States (with or without subsidies, by the way), U.S. policy should simply permit the those stateside industries to wither and die, in full confidence that Americans will always be able to import whatever they need whenever they need it.

Geopolitics was at work, too.  Garment-making in particular is the kind of “starter” sector needed by developing countries to start down the road toward industrialization and therefore the broader economic progress they understandably covet. As a result, foreign policy makers viewed chunks of the U.S. industry as an ideal offering for winning and keeping allies in the Cold War competition with the Soviet Union.    

A labor-intensive sector like apparel was consigned to this fate decades ago. But a sector like textiles was treated similarly – even though it’s the kind of capital- and technology-intensive industry in which high-income, advanced economies like America’s are supposed to excel. Moreover, as countless textile executives with whom I’ve spoken over the years have emphasized, even though they (who make the fabrics and similar materials) differ significantly from the clothing makers (who essentially cut and sew the stuff together), their fates have been closely connected. For the apparel companies are prime customers for the textile producers (though far from the only ones, as you’ll realize if you’ve ever owned, e.g., a carpet), and foreign governments could be counted on to give their own textile sectors a leg up in sales by throwing up all manner of obstacles to U.S.-owned firms supplying overseas garment makers.

In fact, pre-Trump administrations continued to dismiss the textile industry long after its potential became clear for creating all sorts of high tech fabrics with breakthrough qualities like temperature and odor control and bio-monitoring capabilities.

It’s true that the companies could always follow what you might call the “Apple model” – after the electronics giant’s strategy of researching, engineering, and designing its products domestically, and sending the manufacturing overseas. But as I documented nearly two decades ago in my globalization book, The Race to the Bottom, once industries offshore production, many of these so-called white collar activities tend to follow – since there’s nothing like physical proximity to generate the kind of intensive, interactive collaboration between labs and shop floors often needed to spark innovation.

Moreover, as Americans are learning today, you can be the world’s innovation leader by leaps and bounds, but if you lack the domestic production facilities when emergencies arise, you may be standing at the end of the line for supplies of vital products.  In fact, as of late last week, no fewer than 38 countries had limited exports of healthcare-related goods.

So it’s pretty appalling to see how successful pre-Trump U.S. leaders were in stripping the nation of these capabilities. Federal Reserve statistics tell us that inflation-adjusted production of textiles in the United States has sunk by just over half since January, 1994 – when the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) went into effect and officially ushered in a long offshoring-happy phase of U.S. trade policy. And if you think that’s terrible (which it is), it’s a performance that positively shines when compared to apparel (and leather goods) production. That’s down more than 86 percent during this period.

Interestingly, just two years before NAFTA’s advent, a pair of vocalists, Fontella Bass and Bobby McLure, released a song titled “You’ll Miss Me (When I’m Gone).” What a near-tragedy that shortsighted American trade policymakers didn’t realize how thoroughly this message can apply to major industries. What a blessing that the nation’s remaining textile and apparel makers chose to hang on. And thank goodness that the nation has a President today who clearly recognizes the imperative of Making it in America not only in textiles and apparel, but across the manufacturing spectrum. 

P.S. Full disclosure: For nearly two decades, funders of my work at the U.S. Business and Industry Council included a major domestic textile company. At the same time, the firm suddenly and unceremoniously dumped the organization in 2009 (and not for lack of resources). So my warm and fuzzy feelings toward the sector are limited.