The State Of U.S. Textile Manufacturing

September U.S. Textile Manufacturing Outlook

There is optimism that the 11%increase in man-made fiber and textiles (including apparel) shipments made by the U.S textile manufacturing industry since 2009 will continue into 2017. [1]  The last six months have taught experienced industry analysts new lessons as the economic and political climate became more unpredictable. The President and CEO of NCTO, an organization that represents U.S textile companies, suggests that despite a “stable and strong environment for about five or six years, the market has been flat for 18 months due to sluggishness in the global and U.S. economies and the uncertainty in the retail sector.”

The recent ‘sluggishness’ of the market has not greatly affected the textile manufacturing industry in the U.S. Along with China and India, it continues to be one of the big three players in the global textile industry. The United States’ 1.3% share of the $483 billion global apparel market is mainly due to exports to free trade partners, which requires that local yarns are used in production for fabrics.[2]  These partners account for 70% of the $13 billion fabric, fiber, and yarn U.S exports in 2016. Canada and Mexico bought $1.6 billion and $4.4 billion of the total respectively. Honduras, along with the Dominican Republic (members of the Dominican Republic Central America Free Trade Agreement), combined for another $2 billion.[3] According textile industry experts, this alone accounts for over half of U.S textile exports, which account for 40% of the GDP in textiles.[4]

Free Trade Agreements

We are facing a new political and economic global landscape in 2017, where the promise of the Trans-Pacific Partnership is now a thing of the past. There is growing pressure to increase U.S textile exports to its profitable free-trade partners, who will no doubt account for an even greater percentage of textile GDP in 2017.

In order to achieve this, changes need to be made to NAFTA (North American Free Trade Agreement). By eliminating a loophole where trade-preference allows for a specified amount of yarn and fabrics to be produced outside of the region of the free trade agreement, if the clothes were still cut and sewn in the free trade countries, an increase in exports is possible. For example, Mexico is allowed to bring the equivalent of 45 million square meters of yarn and fabrics for apparel from sources outside of the free trade region.

The yarn, mainly from China, accounts for half of the fabric used in Mexican apparel manufacturing, and removing the ways out of trade-preferences should boost the state of U.S textile exports to Mexico in the near future. The impact of proposed changes may still be mitigated by the fact that the trade-preference loophole is less important to Canada, which barely used a quarter of its current 88,000,000 square meter allotment.

There are other threats to the state of U.S. textile exports that may have far-reaching consequences for textile export profitability. The state of relations between the NCTO (National Council of Textile Organizations) and WTO (World Trade Organization) is becoming tense. In a recent statement made on the 31st of July 2017, the NCTO states that the trend towards “the unfair and nonreciprocal”treatment of the WTO towards textile organizations in U.S will not be tolerated. As the WTO continues to ask for more market concessions for its other trading partners, it is placing the U.S at a “direct disadvantage”in trade with WTO partners. [5][6]  This news potentially reveals that if the U.S is to combat the gradual decline of its textile industry, it needs NAFTA trading partners more than ever to combat the recent global trends. At a total of $11.5 billion, Mexico and Canada are the U.S textile industry’s largest markets for exports.[7]

Analysis of the NCTO’s 2016 reportreveals that the true strengths of the U.S textile industry are fibers and fabrics for home furnishings and industry, with clothing only accounting for 12% of total fiber production in 2012.[9][8]  In contrast, production for U.S. yarn, fiber, fabric, and non-apparel textiles grew to $1.7 billion in 2015, representing a staggering 75% rise from 2009.[10] The global strength of the U.S non-apparel textile market has grown, and the planned negotiations with NAFTA may also help alleviate the negative effects of cheap textile and fiber imports from China.

Automation & the Future

Unfortunately, this does not guarantee that jobs are coming back to the textile manufacturing industry. As new advances in automation are adopted they eliminate the need for manual work. For example, Adidas recently began using automated machines known as ‘sewbots’ to produce over 800,000 shirts a day with minimal human labor. Despite the job losses, the increase in productivity is keeping the U.S textile manufacturing industry afloat. Lower labor costs are making moving manufacturing back to the U.S. from overseas more viable.

Another potential growth area for the U.S textile industry is largely in technology and ‘smart fabrics.’ ‘Smart fabrics’ include antimicrobial yarns, water and sun proof thread, industrial level finishes, and fabrics for virtual reality with haptic sensors that allow users to ‘feel’ objects. Bob Merrill, a polymer expert at IHS Markit, says “A lot of great work is going on in the U.S. textile industry. Are these innovations going to change the textile road map, or will they just be specialty advances without a dramatic impact on fiber production?” It looks like time will tell.


[1] [7]
[3] [4]
[5] [6]
[9] [10]