From Trade Protection to Going global: the Changing Nature of the U.S. Textile Industry

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Last week, Milliken & Company, one of the largest U.S. textile manufacturers founded in 1865, was featured in a Wall Street Journal article on the changing position of the U.S. textile industry on international trade. As you may remember in our case study, it was Roger Milliken, the chairman of the Milliken & Company, that founded the Crafted with Pride in the U.S.A. campaign in the 1980s. The campaign not only encouraged U.S. consumers to purchase more “Made in USA” products, but also intended to raise the public awareness of “import threat”. However, titled “free trade gains a convert”, the WSJ article argues that Milliken & Company today has “dropped protectionist stance as business went global”.

The article is a great reminder of the changing nature of the U.S. textile industry in the 21st century. One of them is going global. According to the Hoover’s Academics (2015). Milliken & Company today operates about 40 manufacturing plants in the US, Belgium, China, France, and the UK, as well as sales and services offices worldwide. In particular, as mentioned in the WSJ article, China nowadays is seen as Milliken & Company’s future. The company opened an industrial-carpet factory near Shanghai in 2007 and also moved its Asia headquarters from Tokyo to Shanghai in 2012. And rather than using Chinese labor to make goods for export back to the United States, most Milliken & Company’s products made in China target the local market. As estimated by GlobalData, urbanization and an increase in house ownership in developing countries like China, India, Vietnam, Thailand and Indonesia have led to an annual 7.9% growth of carpets and rug sales in the region.

It is also important to recognize that Milliken & Company’s business model is no longer based on manufacturing basic yarn or fabrics used for apparel. Instead, the company mostly produces highly tech-driven and capital intensive industrial textiles as well as chemicals and colorants that offer more than 100 applications including infusing washable markers and liquid laundry detergent, killing bacteria, melting ice, and blocking UV rays. In many industry sources, Milliken & Comopany is even counted as a chemical company that directly competes with industry giants such as DuPont, Dow Chemical and Shaw industries. Overall, it is product and business innovation that drive this hundred-old company moving forward.

Additionally, we shall not misread title of the WSJ article—i.e. the U.S. textile industry 100% supports free trade with no condition. As a matter of fact, the rules regulating global textile and apparel trade are still very complicated and restrictive in nature. For example, the U.S. textile industry still insists strict yarn-forward rules of origin to be adopted in the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) and the Trans-Atlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (T-TIP). However, many U.S. apparel companies and fashion brands see the restrictive yarn-forward rule of origin outdated and incompatible with the 21st century global apparel supply chain.

No matter how, it is a noticeable change that the U.S. textile companies like Milliken start to shift their position on international trade, even just in a subtle way. Globalization has demonstrated its impact on shaping the new landscape of the U.S. textile industry and will continue to do so in the years to come.