Can Garment Production Survive in A Developed Economy in the 21st Century? A Study of “Made in Ireland”


This study explored the survival strategies of apparel manufacturing in a high-wage developed economy using “Made in Ireland” as a case study. Based on a statistical analysis of 4,000 apparel items for sale in the retail market from January 2018 to December 2021, the study found that:

First, unlike the conventional views like the factor proportion trade theory and the global value chain theory, the study’s results showed that garment manufacturing did NOT disappear in Ireland as a high-wage developed country.  Notably, garments “Made in Ireland” demonstrated many unique attributes, such as:

  • statistically more likely to target luxury and high-end markets than foreign-made apparel imported into Ireland;
  • statistically more likely to highlight their Irish cultural heritage and mention keywords such as “traditional,” “centuries-old,” “craftsmanship,” and “historical” in the product description;
  • statistically more likely to focus on manufacturing specific product categories with a world reputation, including jumpers and kilts;
  • statistically less likely to be seen in categories with an abundant supply from lower-cost imports, such as bottoms;

In other words, economic theories need to incorporate non-price competition factors and better explain the development patterns of a country’s garment sector, particularly in developed economies.      

Second, the findings called for a rethink of the strategies supporting the garment-manufacturing sector in a high-wage developed country. Current industry practices and government policies aiming to promote garment manufacturing in a developed country primarily focus on implementing protectionist trade measures (i.e., restricting imports) or investing in modern technologies like automation. However, the study’s findings suggested new approaches. For example, using disaggregated product data at the Stock Keeping Unit (SKU) level, the study indicated that a substantial portion of garments “Made in Ireland” was sold overseas. Thus, promoting exports instead of curbing imports could be a more effective way of expanding garment production in a high-wage developed country.

On the other hand, the popularity of “Made in Ireland” jumpers and kilts in the world marketplace suggested that garment manufacturers in a high-wage developed country could survive their business by leveraging cultural heritage, history, and traditional craftsmanship instead of fancy new technologies. Likewise, to a certain extent, the value of maintaining garment manufacturing in a high-wage developed country in the 21st Century may not necessarily be about replacing imports, improving “speed to market,” or creating jobs but preserving a country’s unique cultural heritage and history.

Third,  the study’s findings revealed the challenges facing garment manufacturers in a high-wage developed country like Ireland. For example, garments “Made in Ireland” were more likely to be sold with a discount, implying their price competition with foreign-made imports might not be entirely avoidable despite all the efforts from targeting the niche markets to differentiating product assortments.

On the other hand, garments “Made in Ireland” often targeted the high-end market, requiring the workforce to obtain demanding skills such as advanced sewing, craftsmanship, and a deep understanding of the Irish culture. However, the aging workforce and the shortage of skilled labor, a common problem facing developed countries, could also prevent the expansion of apparel manufacturing in Ireland in the long run. Thus, prompting the traditional Irish culture and apparel production craftsmanship, especially to attract the young generation to garment factories and be willing to pursue a career there, would be critical for sustaining the garment manufacturing sector in Ireland and other high-wage developed countries.


Ireland has a long history of making garments, and specific categories of apparel “Made in Ireland” are famous worldwide, such as jumpers and kilts. As of 2020 (i.e., the latest data available), about 340 garment factories still operate in Ireland, a notable increase from 293 in 2010 (Eurostat, 2022). Meanwhile, the output of Ireland’s apparel manufacturing sector totaled $68 million in 2020 (measured in value-added), a substantial drop from $142 million ten years ago (Eurostat, 2022).

Meanwhile, export was critical in supporting apparel “Made in Ireland” today. Statistics show that Ireland’s apparel exports totaled $270 million in 2019 before the pandemic, down about 19% from 2005 (UNComtrade). However, over that period, Ireland’s apparel exports to most developed countries enjoyed positive growth, such as Spain (up 151%), the Netherlands (up 4.5%), Germany (up 14.5%), France (up 61.6%), and Japan (up 20.2%). Further, Ireland’s top four largest apparel export markets were all developed Western EU countries (UNComtrade, 2022). Geographic proximity and the specific product structure of Ireland’s apparel exports could be important factors behind these distinct export patterns.

by Miriam Keegan (FASH MS student, Fulbright-EPA scholar) and Sheng Lu

Full paper: Keegan, M. & Lu, S. (2023). Can garment production survive in a developed economy in the 21st century? A study of “Made in Ireland”. Research Journal of Textile and Apparel. (ahead of print)

Author: Sheng Lu

Professor @ University of Delaware

16 thoughts on “Can Garment Production Survive in A Developed Economy in the 21st Century? A Study of “Made in Ireland””

  1. I really enjoyed reading this paper and was interested to learn about the Irish apparel industry, something I knew little about previously. In my opinion, more clothes should be made like this. Yes, many lower-income communities cannot afford to buy expensive clothes of this variety; however, I think a lot can be learned from creating clothes with the care of workers and longevity in mind. Currently, the trendy fast fashion industry is sourcing apparel from countries with lackluster regulations and policies for environmental or human rights, and the clothes produced are meant to only be worn a few times before they are discarded. The “Made in Ireland” model preserves cultural history as well as enforces more sustainable practices, but unfortunately, it struggles to meet the competitive standards of today’s fast-paced industry. I do not suggest that the fashion industry completely adopt the Irish way of manufacturing, but rather implement their mindset of craftsmanship and thoughtfulness throughout all aspects of production. As a citizen of a developed country in a privileged position, it is worth spending a few more dollars on fewer total items to ensure the safety of workers and care of the planet. Not to mention, when buying a more expensive, but better quality product, cost-per-wear should be considered as one can wear the well made garment many more times compared to a cheaply made, trendy garment. All of this said, these principles are sadly not conducive to a profit-maximizing business model.

    1. Thank you for the great comment! Just to add that “Made in Ireland” are sold globally—the same could apply to “Made in the USA.” Somehow I feel we often assume that only Americans would purchase “made in the USA” and limiting imports is the best way to promote domestic production. It doesn’t have to be the case. “Made in the USA” can also be sold in the global marketplace.
      Also, encouraging the young generation to be interested in pursuing a factory career could be another big challenge. I am intrigued by our survey result:

  2. I found the “Made in Ireland” study interesting. The idea of a trade theory, not based on comparative advantage and capital- and labor-intensive countries but on a developed country manufacturing high quality luxury labor-intensive goods is worth studying. It seems that western Europe with its high wage-developed countries has a niche-market for specific high-end, ‘traditional’ garments like the “Made in Ireland” sweaters, “Made in Italy” dress shirts or suits, and “Made in France” wool and hemp denim. With customers starting to focus more on mindfully-made goods that last longer, I think there is a market for this type of high-quality high-end goods not only in the country where it is produced but in other high-wage developed countries, such as the US. Although the increase in garment factories in Ireland shows the interest in producing such garments remains, the significant decrease in output of Ireland’s apparel manufacturing sector would indicate capturing a larger export market is necessary. The idea of ‘export-driven’ rather than ‘import-driven’ trading would help. Although initially attracting buyers to these goods may present a challenge, I think this type of apparel would have repeat buyers who would ‘advertise’ to their friends. Special promotions by retailers, such as “Made in Ireland” around St. Patrick’s Day, would be one way to introduce traditional goods in the US.

    1. Along with you I found the “Made in Ireland” study interesting. Whenever I come across a label that says “Made in ___”, I immediately begin to wonder what other regions took part in the making after learning that “made in” doesn’t necessarily mean it was just made there. in fact, there is an entire importing and exporting process. I really enjoyed how this read dove deeper into the trade theory and enlightened readers more of both capital and labor intensive countries and how they play a certain role. I particularly loved learning from this article how firms actively emphasize their Irish cultural history and use keywords in their product descriptions to aid in their success. It is cool to see how brands will use the place being made, like ireland, to an advantage. I believe there is a demand for this kind of elevated quality of higher end products across the world as people now such for a garment that can endure time and wear. We learn that Ireland has that notion of built to last and be of quality, which is why the label made in ireland can be such a selling point.

  3. This was a very enjoyable read. It was interesting to see that Ireland, although is a high wage developed country, is still doing very well in garment manufacturing. It seems like the people in this country are big on their heritage and culture, since many “Made in Ireland” products are doing well. Brands specifically highlight their Irish cultural heritage and mention keywords such as “traditional” and “historical” in the product description which helps with their success. They are also doing well globally so they do a good job of promoting this. The overall popularity of the jumpers and kilts and the “Made in Ireland” in the world marketplace definitely helps them survive their business by working with their cultural heritage and their traditional craftsmanship. They focus on this instead of fancy new technologies, however I worry if they will get set behind because of this. It is mentioned in the article that the value of maintaining garment manufacturing now may not be about replacing imports or improving speed to market but about preserving a country’s unique cultural heritage. I like this thought and although part of this is true and has helped Ireland stay relevant, I think other factors need to be noted with the growing technologically advanced world. They might in the future start to be put behind with the world advancing within this industry, however I enjoy this mindset of specific craftsmanship and history that Ireland uses when manufacturing.

  4. Growing up, by the beach I used to go to as a kid, there was an Irish store that sold products exclusively made in Ireland, but they were not your typical clothing, but rather high end sweaters, kilts, Claddagh rings, etc. The store never really changed as I got older and probably still sells similar products to this day, so to see that apparel manufacturing in Ireland is successful due to its cultural heritage reinforces the idea of that store at the beach. I think that what is great about a product being made in Ireland is the craftsmanship as well as the sustainability aspects. However, it appears that the market for Made in Ireland niche, which gives me a little bit of concern about the potential growth in the United States. The store I went to as a kid was in a town that had a very high Irish American population, which could have contributed to the store’s success, instead of the craftsmanship of the product. This is due to the fact that the store did not advertise the sustainable practices going into the production of the products, instead advertising the fact a garment was Irish. To increase the growth of made in Ireland products, we should start with educating the everyday consumer that can afford to spend a little more. Such as talking about the production process in Ireland, the craftsmanship that goes into the product. They should advertise how sustainable made in Ireland products are as the consumer is becoming more socially conscious when it comes to their shopping habits. Overall, I am intrigued to see how made in Ireland products do in the future and how consumers will think of their apparel production.

  5. This was a very thought provoking read and it really goes to show the difference between a well-developed country in Europe, in this case Ireland and the United States in terms of their manufacturing and production strategies. In this 21st century economy, the United States wants the biggest and best technologies, and they want products fast, but that doesn’t mean everyone has to do that. I think the authenticity and cultural heritage behind “Made in Ireland” products is something special and even diversifies themselves from their competitors. As more consumers focus on sustainability and the “behind the scenes” of their clothing, “Made in Ireland” companies should use this to their advantage.

  6. Although the traditional way of thinking about the industry tells us to follow theories such as the factor proportion theory or the stages of development in the T&A industry, it does not surprise me that apparel manufacturing has not disappeared in countries like Ireland. After all, just because apparel manufacturing is associated with less developed countries does not always mean it has to be made by them. In fact, other highly developed countries such as Italy and France also have a thriving garment industry, and this is all due to the luxurious nature of the garments they produce. It is interesting to note, however, that many of these luxury garments are coming out of Europe. It makes me wonder; could the United States expand its apparel producing industry and support its own unique apparel manufacturing industry? If so, could this be a potential solution to unemployment in the country?

  7. Honestly, I had never pondered the distinctive qualities of Irish-made apparel. It was interesting to learn that a sizable chunk of clothing labeled “Made in Ireland” was shipped outside given that Ireland is a high-wage developed nation. Therefore, increasing exports rather than limiting imports might be a more efficient method to increase the manufacturing of clothing in a developed nation with high wages. The importance of maintaining garment manufacturing in a high-wage developed country in the 21st century may not necessarily be about displacing imports, improving “speed to market,” or creating jobs, but rather about preserving a country’s distinct cultural heritage and history. This is especially true of Ireland, which focuses on highlighting its Irish cultural heritage and specializing in jumpers and kilts. I believe that “Made in Ireland” products stand out from their competitors because of their genuineness and cultural history and that they should preserve that at all costs. 

  8. The fast fashion industry is problematic due to its sourcing from countries with poor environmental and human rights regulations, resulting in clothes made for only a few wears before being discarded. In contrast, the “Made in Ireland” model emphasizes sustainability and preserving cultural history, although it may struggle to compete in today’s fast-paced industry. I think that adopting the Irish mindset of craftsmanship and thoughtfulness throughout production could benefit the fashion industry as a whole. As a privileged citizen of a developed country, I believe it is worth spending a little more for better quality items that prioritize the safety of workers and the environment. On the other hand, this model is not intriguing to business owners because it does not usually result with the best profit. It us up to each and every brand to decide what is more important; maximizing profits, or being a sustainable business through out their whole supply chain. Being sustainable is always a good look for a brand, but it does not always show success, so now I ask the question: How can the fashion industry evolve into a more sustainable practice while still being able to produce financial numbers like they are now?

  9. With a high emphasis on sustainability in 2023 in the retail industry, consumers are looking deeper into their clothing labels more heavily than ever. Understanding the heritage and culture of clothing is something that has been of interest to many retailers, specifically looking for quality over quantity. I can attest to this as a consumer and fashion lover, and have found myself with a stronger desire for clothing that I know will last me a long time if not a lifetime. Having a “Made in Ireland” label on a piece of clothing shares a piece of cultural craftsmanship of the Irish heritage, and educates buyers with its unique garment workers with the detailing of every product made. I look at this article as slowing down the fast fashion demand, and taking a step back to genuinely appreciate these high-wage countries retail systems in hopes of benefiting consumer satisfaction for a long-term versus short-term life of the garment. This article was thought-provoking, with its intent on sharing the true appreciation for cultural meaning behind “Made in Ireland” labels, and reach consumers globally in hopes of the realization of why product sourcing still has a future in highly developed countries.

  10. First off, I found it interesting the language used right off the bat at the beginning of the article was to explore the “survival strategies” of the apparel industry in Ireland. I realized that before taking this course, I would’ve been surprised at this tone, but after learning about how developed vs developing countries specialize in different things, I understand why this is a challenge.

    After reading through the article and thinking about our in-class discussion about “Made in America” clothing, I wonder if America would be able to replicate what Ireland has done with bringing in new energy into their apparel industry. Currently, I’m not sure if America would be able to capitalize on their heritage like Ireland has done with their kilts and jumpers, since America doesn’t really have a cultural connection to any certain type of clothing. The only clothing that is very American would be the blue jean, but now this product is globalized and even Levi’s doesn’t produce in the United States anymore. I feel as if Ireland has a stronger historical background and sense of identity, which would be needed if the primary market would be outside the US. Also, it seems as if Ireland has been able to maintain their factories throughout the years, while America’s apparel industry was outsourced many years ago. This would be an additional obstacle for opening apparel factories in the US.

  11. As Ireland is a high-wage and developed country, it is interesting to see how their manufacturing and production strategies have remained stable. Unlike the factor proportion trade theory and the global value chain theory, the study’s results showed that garment manufacturing can be effective in countries like Ireland. As the apparel industry is highly consumer-driven, the rising value of ethical, sustainable, and quality products has become a key driver for consumer buying-decisions. Furthermore, Ireland focuses on non-traditional strategies that stay true to their heritage. Likewise, Ireland has been able to maintain their market by prioritizing high-end sectors, quality, craftsmanship, and quantity control. Moreover, well-developed countries can further increase their opportunities through upholding integrity and adopting similar trade and production strategies.

  12. This was an exciting post to read as I am now working with Miriam on a sourcing project with Macy’s. While reading this blog I tried to imagine how and if apparel manufacturing could similarly be valued in the United States. It is well known that the United States no longer focuses on apparel manufacturing but instead textile manufacturing. As we have learned in fash 455 countries often advance from apparel manufacturing and move towards textile production as the country’s economy advances. I think it could be interesting to analyze how apparel manufacturing of denim products would do in the US. I believe that a lot of people used to and still do value jeans and other denim goods that are made in the United States. Similar to how Ireland is able to leverage the heritage and craftsmanship of their jumpers and kilts, the USA could leverage Denim. I can certainly see how there would be opportunities in apparel manufacturing of denim products within the United States.

  13. This study was very interesting and I found it enlightening to read about manufacturing from a different perspective. As consumers and those familiar with the fashion industry we tend to have a pre-curated image of apparel manufacturing. We think of large factories, with thousands of workers, and poor conditions in underdeveloped areas. With recent advancements this is not necessarily the reality. Brands are becoming more transparent and consumers are becoming more interested and aware of where their products are coming from. Sustainability has also played a key role in this transition. Fast fashion is still running the industry and with this outsourcing to undeveloped countries is still a priority. This, however, does not mean that manufacturing in a developed country can also be successful. As proven with this study, Manufacturing in Ireland did just fine. for trendy, everyday pieces consumers are always going to prioritize a bargain. They are less likely to care about the source of the product. For specialty goods and high quality goods that consumers are more willing to splurge on there is a difference. With manufacturing in a developed country comes a sense of reliability and luxury. Manufacturing in a developed country also gives brands a differentiating characteristic and may allow them to charge more for the final product. It may be harder to manufacture in a developed country given working standards and cost, however, depending on the brand and product it may be worth it.

    1. Enjoy reading your comments. One major concern we have after the study is the workforce. How to attract the young generation to be interested in factory jobs and be willing to pursue a career. Automation cannot be the answer to all questions.

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