USITC Releases New Study on the State of the U.S. Textile and Apparel Manufacturing Sector


A recent study released by the U.S. International Trade Commission (USITC) provides a comprehensive review and valuable insights into the state of textile and apparel manufacturing in the United States. According to the study:

First,  data suggests a mixed picture of the recovery of textile manufacturing in the U.S.

  • Total capital expenditures in plants and equipment for the textile sector increased by 36 percent in the 2013–16 period. Interesting enough, much of the new investment is by foreign firms, including new investments by Chinese and Indian firms, as well as by firms from Mexico, Canada, Turkey, and Saudi Arabia.
  • U.S. textile shipments increased in 2017 to $39.6 billion, but remained 3 percent below the 2013 level. The result suggests that rather than simply increasing capacity, some of the new investment is likely replacing existing equipment, as firms upgrade and modernize their manufacturing processes and/or focus their operations on different products. [Note: shipments measure the dollar value of products sold by manufacturing establishments and are based on net selling values, f.o.b. (free on board) plant, after discounts and allowances are excluded]
  • At $10.6 billion, U.S. textile exports in 2017 were also below the five-year high of $12.1 billion in 2014.
  • Employment in the textiles sector declined by 4 percent from 131,000 in 2013 to an estimated 126,000 in 2017. Meanwhile, official data on labor productivity index for yarns and fabrics show steady declines during 2013–16.

Second, some evidence suggests that reshoring has taken place in recent years in the apparel sector, although on a modest scale.

  • For the 2013–16 period, capital expenditures were up 5 percent to $301 million, suggesting capital investment in the apparel sector may be increasing, as the industry begins to adopt more labor-saving technologies.
  • Domestic shipments of apparel showed modest increases in the past two years, reaching $12.0 billion in 2016 and $12.5 billion in 2017, after a record low of $11.5 billion in 2014 and 2015.
  • Employment in the apparel sector steadily declined during 2013–17, down 21 percent from 145,000 workers in 2013 to 120,000 workers in 2017. Official data on labor productivity also showed steady declines during 2013–16.
  • U.S. fashion companies continue to source apparel from the United States, although in a relatively small amount.

Third, the advantages of making textiles and apparel in the United States include:

  • Advantages of producing textiles in the United States include local and state incentives for investment, and the benefits afforded by free trade agreement (FTA) preferences (i.e., the “yarn-forward” rules of origin) that encourage the use of U.S.-produced inputs in downstream production in FTA partner countries, energy cost and the availability and reliability of high-quality cotton. Meanwhile, product innovation and automation are important aspects of the U.S. textile sector’s competitiveness strategy.
  • Advantages of producing apparel in the United States include improved lead times, better quality control, and more flexible production. Many domestically made products also use “Made in USA” branding to capitalize on the buy-American trend and the appeal of “Made in USA.” The adoption of various automation and digital technologies to accelerate the process of product development, improve the fit of the final product and reduce the needs for skilled sewing operators may also help improve the competitiveness.  

Author: Sheng Lu

Professor @ University of Delaware

3 thoughts on “USITC Releases New Study on the State of the U.S. Textile and Apparel Manufacturing Sector”

  1. Its interesting that the cause of increase in US textile shipments could be because of replacing existing equipment- rather than increasing capacity like I thought, as firms upgrade and modernize their manufacturing processes. It also questions me as to why US textile exports in 2017 have not surpassed numbers from 2014?

    1. great question! The authors of the report and I were just talking about the trade issues this morning. My view is–it is true that “U.S. textile exports in 2017 were below the five-year high of $12.1 billion in 2014.” However, both the value of world trade in merchandise and the value of world trade in textiles suffered a notable decline during that period too. For example, according to WTO, the value of world textile exports in 2016 was only 94% of the level in 2013; this ratio was 92% for the U.S.. So I don’t think the US is losing competitiveness in textile exports. On the other hand, it can be helpful to check the trade flows at the disaggregated product level.

  2. I think it is interesting that the US textile and apparel industry is showing mixed picture, but the US is still strong and present in producing textiles. Textile shipments increased in 2017, but are still 3% lower than shipments in 2015; this is due to the upgrading the machinery and modernizing processes. A steady decline in employment doesn’t always goes hand in hand with a decline in productivity, which is being shown in the US. More efficient production means more clothing being produced in the same amount of time as the older processes. If there are more efficient machinery and less employees, why are companies not shipping enough to reach the 2014 numbers?

    Also, producing textiles in the US is still competitive and a strong industry. Brands want to have the “Made in USA” on their labels for a competitive advantage because of the appeal of having clothing from the US. Is the better time, quality, and organization of producing clothing is keeping the clothing made in USA alive? Or is it all due to brands capitalizing on the “Made in USA” trend that appeals to a lot of citizens?

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