Automation Comes to Fashion

Video Discussion Questions:

#1 Why do you agree or disagree with the video that automation will post a significant challenge to garment workers in developing countries such as Bangladesh? How should policymakers react to the challenges?

#2 Can automation be a permanent solution to the social responsibility problem in the garment industry?

#3 In your view, how will automation affect the big landscape of apparel sourcing and the patterns of world textile and apparel trade?

#4 Why or why not do you anticipate a sizable return of apparel manufacturing to the United States if apparel production can be largely automated?

Additional reading: The robots are coming for garment workers. (WSJ, 2018)

Please feel free to share your views and join our online discussion!

New USCBC Study Suggests Overall Positive Impacts of China on the US economy

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Although the trade relationship with China is often blamed for causing job losses in the United States, a new study prepared for the U.S.-China Business Council (USCBC) by Oxford Economics suggests overall positive impacts of China on the US economy. According to the study:

  • China has grown to become the third-largest destination for American goods and services, only after Mexico and Canada. China purchased $165 billion in goods and services from the United States in 2015, representing 7.3 percent of all US exports and about 1 percent of total US economic output. By 2030, US exports to China are projected to rise to more than $520 billion annually.
  • The US-China trade relationship supports roughly 2.6 million jobs in the United States. Specifically, US exports to China directly and indirectly supported 8 million new jobs in 2015.
  • The reported gross US trade deficit with China is overstated and somehow misleading. As China has become an integral part of the global manufacturing supply chain, much of its exports are comprised of foreign-produced components delivered for final assembly in China. If the value of these imported components is subtracted from China’s exports, the US trade deficit with China is reduced by half, to about 1 percent of GDP—about the same as the US trade deficit with the European Union.
  • Additionally, “Made in China” lowered prices in the United States for consumer goods. As estimated, US consumer prices are 1 percent – 1.5 percent lower because of Chinese imports–trade with China saved each American household up to $850 in 2015. Given the fact that hourly labor costs in the textile industry were $2.65 in China in 2014 compared with $17.71 in the United States, the report argues that replacing Chinese imports of textiles and clothing with US manufactured products would significantly raise US consumer prices.

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In terms of the textile and apparel (T&A) sector, the report suggests that:

  • The rising U.S. import from China mostly represents China’s displacement of imports from other countries and regions: China has been squeezing out traditional apparel manufacturers such as Mexico, Hong Kong, and Taiwan.
  • Meanwhile, textile and apparel manufacturing is one of the very few sectors that observe a paralleled pattern of rising imports from China and declining gross value added in the United States since 2000. In comparison, over the same period other sectors that experienced the most rapid growth in Chinese imports are also the sectors where US businesses have seen the strongest growth.

The report can be downloaded from HERE.

USITC Studies the Impact of Trade on Manufacturing Jobs in the U.S. Textile and Apparel Industry

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employment in the US T&A industry

In its newly released Economic Impact of Trade Agreement Implemented under Trade Authorities Procedures, 2016 Report, the U.S. International Trade Commission (USITC) provides a quantitative assessment on the impact of trade on manufacturing jobs in the U.S. textile and apparel industry. According to the report:

  • Manufacturing jobs in the U.S. textile and apparel industry have been declining steadily over the past two decades. Between 1998 and 2014, employment in the NAICS 313 (textile mills), NAICS314 (textile product mills) and NAICS 315 (apparel manufacturing) sectors on average decreased annually by 7.6 percent, 4.3 percent and 11.2 percent, respectively.
  • Rising import is found NOT a major factor leading to the decline in employment in the U.S. textile industry (NAICS 313)–as estimated, imports only contributed 0.4 percent of the total 7.6 percent annual employment decline in the U.S. textile industry. Instead, more job losses in the sector are found caused by improved productivity as a result of capitalization & automation (around 4.6 percent annually) and the shrinkage of domestic demand for U.S. made textiles (around 3.5 percent annually) between 1998 and 2014.
  • Rising imports is the top factor contributing to job losses in apparel manufacturing (NAICS 315), however. As estimated by USITC, of the total 11.2 percent annual employment decline in apparel manufacturing, almost all of them is affected by imports (10.8 percent). On the other hand, increased domestic demand for apparel (such as from U.S. consumers) is found positively adding manufacturing jobs by 2 percent annually in the United States from 1998 to 2014.
  • To be noted, USITC did not estimate the impact of trade on employment changes in the retail aspect of the industry. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, approximately 80 percent of jobs in the U.S. textile and apparel industry came from retailers in 2015. These retail-related jobs are typically “non-manufacturing” in nature, such as: fashion designers, merchandisers, buyers, sourcing specialists, supply chain management specialists and marketing analysts.

The Future of “Made in China”: Robots are taking over China’s Factory Floors


The video echoes one recent Wall Street Journal article about Levi Strauss using automation technologies to revamp their apparel production in China:

“In an apparel factory in Zhongshan, a gritty city of three million stuffed with industrial parks across the Pearl River from Hong Kong, lasers are replacing dozens of workers who scrub Levi’s blue jeans with sandpaper to give them the worn look that American consumers find stylish. Automated sewing machines have cut the number of seamstresses needed to stitch arc designs into back pockets. Digital printers make intricate patterns on jeans that workers used to do with a mesh screen.”

One important factor that gives a push to adopting robots in China’s factory floor is the end of very cheap labor in China. China’s wage level has been rising in double-digit percentages for the past decades. And as a consequence of its “one-child policy”, by 2050, the working-age population in China could decline by 212 million according to estimation from the United Nations.

But Levi executives say they have largely abandoned a strategy of relocating production to one impoverished country after another, known as “chasing the needle,” in favor of other forms of cost-cutting.” “Labor is getting more expensive and technology is getting cheaper,” says Andrew Lo, chief executive of Crystal Group, one of Levi’s major suppliers in China.

“Levi is adapting its laser technology so it can etch different patterns to make one type of denim look like another, reducing costs by buying less fabric. For a new line of women’s wear, Levi said it needed only 12 fabrics, rather than 18. In the past three years, Levi said, it cut the number of its suppliers by 40% and the number of fabrics by 50%.”

“The changes also give Levi greater flexibility, said Ms. O’Neill, the 44-year-old executive who helps oversee the company’s supply chain. If a pair of jeans using a particular fabric is selling well, she says, Levi can use lasers to produce more of the desired look, and pare back designs that are losers. “The idea is to delay decision-making for as long as possible,” said Ms. O’Neill.”

And this is only the beginning! Some technologists think that inventions such as 3-D printing—essentially printers that replicate solid objects like copiers reproduce printed pages—will have a big impact by 2050. In such a world, printers could spew out clothing, food, electronics and other goods ordered online from a nearly limitless selection, with far fewer workers involved in production.

“In 2050, you could potentially have a 3-D printer at home that could produce all the fabrics you want,” said Roger Lee, the chief executive of Hong Kong’s TAL Group, which makes 1 of every 6 dress shirts sold in the U.S. for brands from Banana Republic to Brooks Brothers. “That would make us obsolete.”

Ironically but not surprisingly, automation also keeps wages down. Levi said it expects China production to rise only “modestly” next year; new orders are up for grabs. Apparel InternationaI’s president, Oscar Gonzalez, says the company now boasts an advantage over China—a large pool of apparel workers who were laid off in past downsizings. Excess labor has helped him keep wage increases to 2% or 3% a year he says. “Every Monday when we recruit,” he adds, “there are long lines of applicants.”

Welcome for any comments and discussion questions.

Employment in the US Textile and Apparel Industry (Update: August 2014)

[Please read the updated version: U.S. Continues to Lose Apparel Manufacturing Jobs in 2016]

Employment in the textile sector has remained stable since 2011. From the end of 2013 to July 2014, employment in textile mills (NAICS 313) even slightly increased 0.1 percent, mostly contributed by fiber & yarn mills (NAICS 3131) and fabric mills (NAICS 3132). The data supports the argument that textile manufacturing is gradually returning back to the United States.

2

Employment in the apparel manufacturing sector (NAICS 315) continued to shrink. By July 2014, total employment in apparel manufacturing had declined by 15.6 percent since 2010 and went down 7.3 percent just from the end of 2013 to July 2014. Still it is getting harder and harder for US consumers to find “made in USA” apparel in the retail stores.

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Retailers remains the leading job providers in the U.S. textile and apparel industry. By July 2014, within the total 1.76 million employment in the US textile and apparel industry (NAICS 313, 314, 315 and 448), almost 80 percent came from the retail sector (NAICS 448).

3

From 2010 to July 2014, employment in the US manufacturing sector as a whole enjoyed a 5.5 percent growth, much higher than the case in the textile and apparel sectors. This trend reminds us that the principal of “comparative advantage” is still working in the 21st century.

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Last but not least, geographically, manufacturing jobs in the US textile and apparel industry were gradually moving from the North to the South from 2007 to 2011.

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by Sheng Lu

Exclusive Interview with Nate Herman, Vice President of the American Apparel and Footwear Association

NateHerman (Photo: Courtesy of the AAFA)

Nate Herman is the Vice President of the American Apparel and Footwear Association (AAFA). Mr. Herman manages AAFA’s regulatory and legislative affairs activities, advocating on behalf of, and providing information to, the industry on international trade and corporate social responsibility issues. Mr. Herman also handles product safety, customs, transportation and other technical (slip resistance, safety toe, etc.) issues as well as labeling matters for AAFA’s footwear members as co-leader of AAFA’s Footwear Team.  In addition, Mr. Herman develops all apparel and footwear industry data and statistics as AAFA’s resident economist.  Prior to joining AAFA, Mr. Herman worked for six years at the U.S. Department of Commerce’s International Trade Administration (ITA) assisting U.S. firms in entering the global market. Mr. Herman spent the last two years as the Department’s industry analyst for the footwear and travel goods industries.

Interview Part

Sheng Lu: First of all, would you please make a brief introduction of AAFA to our students, including your history, your current members, your key missions and main functions?

Nate Herman: Representing more than 1,000 world famous name brands, the American Apparel & Footwear Association (AAFA) is the trusted public policy and political voice of the apparel and footwear industry, its management and shareholders, its four million U.S. workers, and its contribution of $350 billion in annual U.S. retail sales.  AAFA was formed in 2001 following a merger of the American Apparel Manufacturers Association and Footwear Industries of America.

AAFA stands at the forefront as a leader of positive change for the apparel and footwear industry.  With integrity and purpose, AAFA delivers a unified voice on key legislative and regulatory issues.  AAFA enables a collaborative forum to promote best practices and innovation.  AAFA’s comprehensive work ensures the continued success and growth of the apparel and footwear industry, its suppliers, and its customers.

We achieve these goals through aggressive advocacy on Capitol Hill and before the Administration on the issues most important to the U.S. apparel and footwear industry. AAFA also hosts more than 50 conferences, seminars, workshops, and webinars both in the United States and around the world to ensure the industry is able to comply with growing state, federal, and international regulations.

Sheng Lu: AAFA recently released a video clip “What do we wear”, which is very encouraging and eye-opening to our students. What makes AAFA create this video and what specific information you would like to deliver to the audiences?

Nate Herman: A few years ago, we were asked a question during a meeting with a top-ranking senator.  “What is the economic impact of your industry?”  We didn’t have an answer, which didn’t help policy makers see the important jobs within our industry and our significant contribution to the U.S. economy.  That led to the launch of our “We Wear” brand.

You see, when we get dressed each day, we wear more than clothes and shoes.  We wear four million U.S. jobs.  We wear intellectual property.  We wear social responsibility.  Our new video is a visual reminder of our important mission and economic impact.  We use it to educate policy makers, administration officials, the industry, and consumers about our industry and how vital we are to the overall health of the U.S. economy.

Sheng Lu: One phrase often used by AAFA is your member companies “produce globally and sell globally”. How should our students understand the global nature of today’s apparel industry?

Nate Herman: The apparel and footwear industry is on the frontlines of globalization.  In fact, our industry’s supply chain is the most global supply chain in the history of commerce.

Simply put: We are a nation of 330 million importers. In 2012, 97.5 percent of the apparel and 98 percent of the footwear sold in the United States was produced internationally. This model allows families to spend less of their family budgets on clothing and shoes while still getting more bang for their buck.

Sourcing is made possible through strong and positive trade relationships with a variety of countries, including China, Mexico, Vietnam, Indonesia, Bangladesh, Colombia, Honduras, the Dominican Republic, Nicaragua, and more.  Companies even source product from the United States.  Sourcing decisions are often made through serious processes that evaluate a country’s trade programs, environmental record, social responsibility standards, intellectual property protections, material and labor costs, shipping time, and reliability of sourcing partners.

At the same time, don’t ignore the rest of the world.  The United States only represents just five percent of the world’s population.  So when a company sources from China or Vietnam, they are sending products all over the world through a complex supply chain.  One of our goals at AAFA is to help ensure the entire world has access to world famous U.S. name brands.

Sheng Lu: The Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) and the Trans-Atlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) are two buzzwords nowadays. From the perspective of AAFA, why should the US apparel industry care about these two agreements? 

Nate Herman: Trade agreements like the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) and the Trans-Atlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) offer U.S. name brands direct market access to new sourcing and retail markets.  For example, the United States and the European Union, under TTIP, accounts for more than 40 percent of global clothes and shoes retail sales.

Trade agreements also provide opportunities to harmonize regulations to make it easier to do business in the global market.  For instance, the United States maintains strict product safety standards.  Through trade agreements, we can make regulations consistent to ensure if a shirt is safe in one country it’s safe in another.  This prevents redundant testing costs, which ultimately makes clothes and shoes cheaper for consumers.

Sheng Lu: Last year, several tragedies happened in the Bangladesh garment factories raised the public awareness of the corporate social responsibility issues in the apparel sector. How has the tragedy changed the business practices in the apparel sector from your observation?

Nate Herman: Over the past year, the U.S. apparel and footwear industry has rallied together to address significant social responsibility challenges, including worker safety.  In fact, we’ve never seen the industry come together so fully in a spirit of collaboration.  Safety inspections, training, and fire safety prevention have been or are now part of many companies’ compliance programs.  AAFA supported the creation of the Alliance for Bangladesh Worker Safety, an industry-led effort to prevent future tragedies in Bangladesh.  While all these positive steps encourage us, we know our social responsibility and environmental work will never be finished.  We can always do better.

Sheng Lu:  Look ahead in 2014, what top issues in the apparel industry you would suggest our students to watch?

Nate Herman: 2014 is already shaping up to be a busy year for the U.S. apparel and footwear industry.  One major trend we are watching is the continued growth of e-commerce and Omni-channel retail.  You see, the point of sale is just the starting point of a long – and global – supply chain.  We will see sourcing patterns and business models change as retail shifts away from brick-and-mortar shopping to online e-commerce.  We are now beginning to focus on new ideas like online privacy and data security, terms the industry didn’t have to focus on 10 years ago.

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