Newry Textile Mill - Seneca, South Carolina; photo by Hank Myers

Newry Textile Mill – Seneca, South Carolina; photo by Hank Myers

Last week our focus was on the casualties of fast-fashion—the people and the environment in poor countries—on the industry’s quest to make the cheapest possible clothing. This week, we look at the other significant and less often discussed casualty: the U.S. apparel companies and the communities sustained by their work.

If you believe in coincidences, it is an odd one that I ended up in what was the heart of the textile and apparel industry—North Carolina—right in the middle of the South Eastern States that dominated the industry. It was not apparel that brought me here. It was a public health degree.


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But when I left public health and started an apparel company I found myself looking around and wondering about the old industries that had perished, the communities left in their wake. Here and there were the companies that were so tough that they made it through trade liberalization, the lifting of apparel and textile quotas and a Great Recession. But they were the exceptions. What about all the industries that couldn’t make it after so many giant obstacles? What happened to those people, to those communities?


Demolition of Chatham Manufacturing textile factory in Elkin, North Carolina; photo by Ben Erlandson

Demolition of Chatham Manufacturing textile factory in Elkin, North Carolina; photo by Ben Erlandson

The U.S. lost more than 900,000 textile and apparel jobs from 1994 to 2005 and then another 315,000 jobs between 2005 and 2016 (BLS). The big events to note: the 1995 WTO agreement to phase out quotas on apparel and textile imports to the U.S., the 1994 North American Free Trade Agreement accelerating apparel and textile job losses, and the 2001 and 2008 economic recessions.

Rural areas in the Southeast have been most disproportionately affected by apparel and textile job losses.

For many of the places that lost these jobs, apparel and textile provided a substantial share of the local jobs and were the engines of the local economy. For residents, loosing major employers meant leaving the towns to find work elsewhere, contributing to the gradual decline of these rural areas.

I came across some great sites with photo documentation of how textile and apparel manufacturing closures took whole towns down with it.
 
Ben Erlandson on Elkin, North Carolina

Encyclopedia of Forlorn Places
 

People didn’t just leave these towns because they got bored and wanted to go to the big cities. Their companies shut down because of policies our government made happen. There were winners, and they were the losers. When we talk about manufacturing, I think about this. These people lost their jobs, these communities lost their bread and butter because of policy decisions.


 Fieldcrest-Cannon textile mill in Kannapolis, NC photo by F Kim Hodgson in 2005 before 2006 demolition

 Fieldcrest-Cannon textile mill in Kannapolis, NC photo by F Kim Hodgson in 2005 before 2006 demolition

I have no doubt that we cannot return to the past. We should not try. We can only look forward and make things better—after all, I’m sure a job in the textile industry was far from perfect. But a few things are important to note here:

#1 – We cannot leave people behind. We cannot tell rural communities that there is nothing we can do about job losses in manufacturing. No, it may not look the same, and the jobs may be distributed differently, but if we could take action to export jobs abroad, we can be intentional about bringing jobs back to our communities.

#2 – Can we include human beings in the innovation equation? Can we for a moment imagine that human beings are our greatest assets for problem solving? We don’t have to stop innovating with technology but can we get very serious about the importance of bringing people along as we imagine and create for the future.

Next week we begin talking about solutions, what I am proposing to use technology to create opportunities for people, solve a problem, and move womenswear towards a better future.

We are 1 month out from our USA Made to Measure Womenswear Campaign Launch. Spread the word! Help us make this awesome!

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