State of U.S. Textile and Apparel Manufacturing: Output, Employment, and Trade (Updated March 2021)

Textile and apparel manufacturing in the U.S. has significantly shrunk in size over the past decades due to multiple factors ranging from automation, import competition to the shifting U.S. comparative advantages for related products. However, U.S. textile manufacturing is gradually coming back. The output of U.S. textile manufacturing (measured by value added) totaled $18.79 billion in 2019, up 23.8% from 2009. In comparison, U.S. apparel manufacturing dropped to $9.5 billion in 2019, 4.4% lower than ten years ago (Bureau of Economic Analysis, 2021).

Meanwhile, like many other sectors, U.S. textile and apparel production was hit hard by COVID-19 in the first half of 2020 but started to recover since the 3rd quarter. Notably, as of September 2020, U.S. textile production had resumed about 90% of its production capacity at the pre-COVID level. The value of U.S. apparel production in 2020Q3 was even 2.2% higher than in 2019Q3.

On the other hand, as the U.S. economy is turning more mature and sophisticated, the share of U.S. textile and apparel manufacturing in the U.S. Gross Domestic Product (GDP) dropped to only 0.12% in 2020 (Q1-Q3) from 0.57% in 1998 (Bureau of Economic Analysis, 2021).

The U.S. textile and apparel manufacturing is changing in nature. For example, textile products had accounted for over 66% of the total output of the U.S. textile and apparel industry as of 2019, up from only 58% in 1998 (Bureau of Economic Analysis, 2020). Textiles and apparel “Made in the USA” are growing particularly fast in some product categories that are high-tech driven, such as medical textiles, protective clothing, specialty and industrial fabrics, and non-woven. These products are also becoming the new growth engine of U.S. textile exports. Notably, “special fabrics and yarns” had accounted for more than 34% of U.S. textile exports in 2019, up from only 20% in 2010 (Data source: UNComtrade, 2021).

Compatible with the production patterns, employment in the U.S. textile industry (NAICS 313 and 314) and apparel industry (NAICS 315) fell to the bottom in April-May 2020 due to COVID-19 but started to recover steadily since June 2020. From January 2020 to January 2021, the total employment in the two sectors decreased by 8.6% and 13.2%, respectively. However, to be noted, as production turns more automated and thanks to improved productivity (i.e., the value of output per worker), U.S. textile and apparel factories have been hiring fewer workers even before the pandemic. The downward trend in employment is not changing for the U.S. textile and apparel manufacturing sector.  Related, how to attract the new generation of workforce to the factory floor remains a crucial challenge facing the future of textile and apparel “Made in the USA.”

International trade supports textiles and apparel “Made in the USA.” Notably, nearly 40% of textiles “Made in the USA” (NAICS 313 and 314) were sold overseas in 2019, up from only 15% in 2000. A recent study further shows that product category and the size of the firm were both statistically significant factors that affected the U.S. textile and apparel manufacturer’s likelihood of engaged in exports.

from Nordstrom Rack

It is not rare to find clothing labeled “made in the USA with imported fabric” or “made in the USA with imported material” in the stores. Statistical analysis shows a strong correlation between the value of U.S. apparel output and U.S. yarn and fabric imports from 1998 to 2019.

Like many other developed economies whose textile and apparel industries had reached the stage of post-maturity, the United States today is a net textile exporter and net apparel importer. COVID-19 has affected U.S. textile and apparel trade in several important ways:

  • Trade volume cut: Both affected by the shrinkage of import demand and supply chain disruptions, the value of U.S. textile and apparel imports dropped by as much as 19.3% in 2020 from a year ago, particularly apparel items (down 23.5%). Likewise, the value of U.S. textile and apparel exports in 2020 decreased by 15.6%, including an unprecedented 26% decrease in yarn exports.
  • Trade balance shifted: Before the pandemic, U.S. was a net exporter of fabrics. However, as the import demand for non-woven fabrics (for making PPE purposes) surged during the pandemic, U.S. ran a trade deficit of $502 million for fabrics in 2020. Meanwhile, as retail sales slowed and imports dropped during the pandemic, the U.S. trade deficit in apparel shrank by 19% in 2020 compared with 2019.However, the shrinkage of the trade deficit did not boost clothing “Made in the USA” in 2020, reminding us that the trade balance often is not an adequate indicator to measure the economic impact of trade.
  • No change in export market: Close to 70% of U.S. textile and apparel export went to the Western Hemisphere in 2020, a pattern that has stayed stable over the past decades (OTEXA, 2021). More can be done to strengthen the Western Hemisphere supply chain and textile and apparel production in the region by leveraging regional trade agreements like CAFTA-DR and USMCA.

By Sheng Lu

How Has COVID-19 Affected Apparel Exports from China, Vietnam, and Bangladesh?

Key findings:

compiled by Victoria Langro and Sheng Lu (2021)

During the pandemic, three factors are most relevant to a country’s apparel export performance: government lockdown measures, textile raw material access, and comprehensive export competitiveness. Against these three factors, apparel producers and exporters in China, Vietnam, and Bangladesh face common but differentiated business challenges and opportunities during the pandemic (see the table above).

China, Vietnam, and Bangladesh all suffered an unprecedented (nearly 30% year over year) drop in their apparel exports to the world in 2020 (Q1-Q3) due to COVID-19. This result mirrored the reduced import demand in the world’s major apparel consumer markets, where the local economies were also hit hard by the pandemic, including the US (down 2.3%), the EU (down 4.3%), and Japan (down 4.8%).

However, the three countries’ export performance is most different in the US market—China’s apparel exports dropped by 31.6%, much steeper than Vietnam (down 6.9%) and Bangladesh (down 12.6%). It seems that even though COVID-19 may favor China as an apparel sourcing base from an economic perspective, US fashion companies have given more weight to non-economic factors, such as the outlook of the trade war, in their sourcing decisions involving China.

COVID-19 had disrupted apparel exporters’ regular production and export schedule in 2020. The lockdown measures in these three countries seem to affect their export seasonal pattern most significantly. For example, as the first country hit by COVID-19, China’s apparel exports were at the bottom from February to April 2020; however, China’s apparel exports recovered quickly since May 2020 when factories resumed production. In comparison, apparel exports from Vietnam and Bangladesh were at their lowest level from April to May and May to June 2020, respectively, when their factories had to close.

Additionally, Bangladesh’s apparel export seasonality had experienced a more dramatic change in 2020 than in China and Vietnam. A possible reason behind the phenomenon is the export product structure. Notably, China and Vietnam export a more diverse range of products, whereas apparel exports from Bangladesh concentrate on basic fashion items.

Industry sources also indicate that between February 2020 and February 2021, US apparel imports from China and Vietnam see a significant structural change—they include more COVID-popular items such as sweaters, smock dresses, and sweatpants, and fewer dresses, shirts, and suits. However, over the same period, the product structure of US apparel imports from Bangladesh barely changed, and they also included few COVID-popular categories mentioned above. In other words, despite order cancellations, garment factories in China and Vietnam seem more likely to receive new sourcing orders than their counterparts in Bangladesh because of advantages in production flexibility and agility.

Further, China, Vietnam, and Bangladesh all turned less diversified in their apparel export market during the pandemic. Notably, the US, EU, and Japan have become more critical export markets ever. Compared with fashion companies’ efforts in sourcing diversification, it could be more challenging for garment-producing countries to diversify their export market during the pandemic.

Further reading: Victoria Langro and Sheng Lu (2021). Sourcing’s new order – Covid’s impact on world’s top three apparel exporters. Just-Style.

FASH455 Interview Series—QVC Global Sourcing Internship (Guest: Lora Merryman)

About Lora Merryman

Lora Merryman is a Master of Science student in Fashion and Apparel Studies at the University of Delaware (class of 2021). She also graduated from the UD with a Bachelor’s Science in Fashion Merchandising in 2020. She currently works for QVC as a global sourcing intern.  

Lora was selected as a 2020 University of Delaware summer scholar. She also served as a graduate teaching assistant for FASH455 in Fall 2020 and Winter 2021. Lora is the author of a recent research publication on data science education for fashion majors, featured by Just-Style and several other industry news outlets.  

Apparel Industry and Trade as an Economic Development Tool: Discussion Questions from Students in FASH455

The apparel sector remains a key economic growth engine for many developing countries in the world today. Data source: World Bank (2021)

#1: In history, the garment industry helps many developing countries start the industrialization process. Given the situation described in the case study, why or why not do you think the Eastern African countries are following the same development path? Should they?

#2: Notably, very few used clothing exported from the United States to EAC countries were actually “Made in USA”—they were originally imported from Asian countries such as China, Vietnam, and Bangladesh. Also, most U.S. used clothing exports to EAC were “free giveaways” by U.S. consumers. Is it ethical for SMART to oppose the used clothing import ban so that its own can make a profit? What is your evaluation? If you were the president of SMART, how would you respond to the ethical concerns?

#3: As we are talking about the opportunities associated with the circular economy, why or why not do you think accepting used clothing imports will lead to a sustainable economic development path for EAC countries?

#4: To which extent do you think automation in garment manufacturing will challenge the conclusions of the textile and apparel stages of development theory we discussed in the class?

#5: If automation can only create “factories without workers” in the US and resulting in more garment workers in the developing countries lose their jobs, should we still support the efforts and make it happen? What is your assessment?

(Welcome to our online discussion. For students in FASH455, please address at least two questions and mention the question number (#) in your reply)

US-China Tariff War During COVID-19—Discussion Questions from Students in FASH455

Steve Lamar, President & CEO, American Apparel and Footwear Association

#1 Studies show that the Section 301 punitive tariff on imports from China hurts both US fashion retailers and ordinary consumers. But why doesn’t President Biden announce to remove the tariffs and stop the trade war?

#2 It doesn’t seem the tariff war with China has brought more apparel manufacturing back to the US. Is this result expected or surprising? How does the outcome of the trade war support or challenge the trade theories we learned in the class (e.g., mercantilism, absolute advantage, comparative advantage, and factor proportion theories)?

#3 The U.S.-China tariff war continues during the pandemic, resulting in higher sourcing costs for US fashion brands and retailers, which have been struggling hard financially. In such a case, if you were the CEO of a leading US fashion brand, why or why not would you pass the tariff burden to consumers, i.e., ask consumers to pay a higher price?

#4 Why or why not do you think the tariff war with China has fundamentally shifted US fashion companies’ sourcing strategy?

#5 What’s your take on “tariff engineering” adopted by fashion companies? A smart idea? Loophole? Controversial? Need to be encouraged/discouraged? And Why?

#6 Any reflections on the video discussion (above) regarding the US apparel industry’s view on the impact of the tariff war during the pandemic?

(Welcome to our online discussion. For students in FASH455, please address at least two questions and mention the question number (#) in your reply)