State of U.S. Textile and Apparel Manufacturing: Output, Employment, and Trade (Updated October 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 June 2021, U.S. textile production had resumed about 98.8% of its production capacity at the pre-COVID level.

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 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 2021 to August 2021, the total employment in the two sectors increased by 1.5% and 1.4%, respectively. However, the employment level remains much lower than the pre-COVID level (benchmark: August 2019).

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 42% 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

2021 WTO Public Forum Session 105: Develop a more sustainable and transparent apparel supply chain in the Post-COVID world

Panelists:

  • Julia Hughes, President, United States Fashion Industry Association
  • Matthias Knappe, Senior Officer and Program Manager for Cotton, Fibers and Textiles, International Trade Centre
  • Avedis Seferian, President & CEO, Worldwide Responsible Accredited Production (WRAP).
  • Anna Walker, Vice President of Public Policy, Levi’s Strauss Co.
  • Dr. Sheng Lu, Associate Professor, Department of Fashion & Apparel Studies, University of Delaware

Event summary:

Apparel is a $2.5 trillion global business, involving over 120 million workers worldwide and playing a uniquely critical role in the post-COVID economic recovery. The session intends to facilitate constructive dialogue regarding the progress, challenges, and opportunities of building a more sustainable and transparent apparel supply chain in the Post-COVID world, which matters significantly to ALL stakeholders, from fashion brands, garment workers, policymakers to ordinary consumers.

The panel shared their valuable insights about the impacts of COVID on the world apparel trade patterns and how to make the apparel supply chain more sustainable and transparent in the post-COVID world. Specifically:

First, panelists agree that COVID-19 has resulted in unpresented challenges for apparel sourcing and trade, from supply chain disruptions, cost increases to market uncertainties.

Second, despite the mounting challenges and financial pressures caused by COVID-19, the apparel industry as a whole is NOT ignoring sustainability and social responsibility. Some leading fashion brands and retailers allocate more resources to strengthen their relationships with key vendors during the pandemic. The shifting business environment and the adoption of digital technologies also allow apparel companies to explore new business models and achieve more sustainable and socially responsible apparel production and trade.

Third, the apparel industry is attaching greater importance to supply chain transparency. Today, fashion brands and retailers typically track their tier 1 and tier 2 suppliers. A growing number of companies also start to understand who is making the textile raw materials (i.e., fibers and yarns). To improve supply chain transparency further, panelists suggest more traceability technologies, building trust between importers and suppliers and creating a clearer regulatory framework. Trade policy can also have a crucial role to play in the process.

Other 2021 WTO Public Forum sessions: https://www.wto.org/english/forums_e/public_forum21_e/pf21_programme_e.htm