Monday, August 13, 2012


Why Outsourcing Hurts Beyond the Olympics, or The Selective Memory of Congresspeople Amazes Me

When I was in third grade my class was assigned a piece of homework: go home, check the tags on your clothing, and see how many things you own that were made in America. Then come in tomorrow wearing as much of that in an outfit as you can.

Though the project was rife with opportunities for interpretation (like not wearing pants if we lacked American ones), we were eight and hadn't developed true enough senses of irony for that. Plus, everyone's parents did most of the work. When I went home and asked my mom for help, she got really excited and went straight for a few things, like she already knew.

"You know, I bet you're the only one in your class who's going to have a whole outfit," she said, laying out four different outfit options.

I didn't know why it got her so worked up, or why she was acting like she'd been waiting my whole life for the exact opportunity to lay out all the clothes Made in the USA. I found out later, in high school, when she told me why the third company she'd worked for had just gone under.

The reason was also what made her hiss at me not to even apply to Parsons or FIT for design (Her: “It’s a dying industry nooo!” Me: “Oh. Okay. HI, JOURNALISM SCHOOL!”), and what made me sputter at the news that Ralph Lauren had outsourced the production of this year’s US Olympic team uniforms to China. It wasn’t the outsourcing that I sputtered at so much as the fact that it was Congresspeople huffing and puffing and sound biting about it all of a sudden like they oh-my-gosh just realized this was going on. 

Around 90% of the clothing Americans buy is imported. This change — America was once the largest producer of clothing in the world — caused the loss of nearly a million jobs and shrunk the industry by more than 80% after NAFTA was passed. There have been laws to ostensibly slow the bleed, like provision 807 in the US Customs Trade Regulations, which allows companies to import tariff-free if they use American pieces and construct the finished goods in the Caribbean, but they’ve been superficial and many have lapsed.

Mom’s got some sound bites of her own, though. About the garmentos who used to run racks of just-sewn clothes up and down Broadway to showrooms, and the buyers from Macy’s and Bloomingdale’s who visited less and less frequently and then not at all. She watched Traphagen, the college where she learned to draft, design, sew and cut patterns close down, and saw the clusters in Fashion Marketing and Merchandising students blissfully ignorant of needles and threads tootling around FIT. She saw the district where she used to have to leave 10 minutes early for meetings to allow for time to say hello to all of the people she knew and would bump in to on 35th shrink and mutate into a district of tourist petting zoos along Broadway connecting Macy’s and the Manhattan Mall.

When my mom was pregnant with me, she and my dad decided that he’d stay home with me all day since she was just starting a career she’d worked hard for and wanted. By the time I was in middle school she was an out of work, award winning children’s wear designer and my dad had picked up exterminating jobs to make sure we could keep living where we were living. It wasn’t long before she came to the realization that she would have to learn how to design on a computer, in Illustrator, to ever get a job in the same industry again. My mom and most of her friends — talented seamstresses and designers — were switching careers if they could, and giving up if they couldn’t.

Meanwhile, as New York City design companies disappeared, factories and textile mills down south started shuttering, too. And the smaller businesses that grew up around the garment industry, where someone without a formal education could open a contracting company and have a shot at succeeding and making a decent living or failing on their own terms, were lost too. There were art studios who sold print rights for patterns, button makers, lace makers trim makers, sewing machine manufacturers, scissor sharpeners who would go through buildings collecting dull scissors and sharpening them by noon, nearly all gone now.

My mother went from having her own design room, sample maker, and sewing machine in her office to a PC with Illustrator and AOL and tiny desk that could only hold enough pattern paper for doll clothes. I grew up and started applying for internships at fashion magazines and freelance (emphasis on the "free") reporting jobs at Fashion Week. The first time I went I was amazed how quickly it transformed Lincoln Center in to this gazelle parade fenced in by photographers and tourists. As I watched the shows I knew I was watching a sort of art, and that most those clothes were of course different from the stuff I could afford and wear.

But it is also a parade of where the money is going. These luxury brands ostensibly can’t afford to produce within the U.S. anymore, but the face of the fashion industry is Fashion Week — a multi-million dollar spectacle where brands can afford to pay editors and bloggers a few grand in free stuff to attend a show or two and cover it, if need be. And on the other side of things, the garment industry itself is withering away, and big designers are starting to follow.

Because what the ballsiness of Ralph Lauren’s (who built his brand on Americana, might I add) move says is that it’s going pretty badly for the American side of the industry. It’s moved past the giant discount chains and in to designer fashion, which is supposed to be a last bastion of domestic industry.

There are American designers who still produce and manufacture in America, like the Mulleavys of Rodarte and Nanette Lepore. But the reason luxury brands from Europe and America are having such roaring issues with Chinese knockoffs is that their factories are located in China, smack dab next to where the knockoff factories churn out fakes. I've heard anecdotally that some of the fakes are actually made in the same factories, on the same machines — that they’re just the rejected irregulars or made of stolen scraps. So essentially the production cost of a lot of “designer” and “couture” stuff is the same as what you would buy at H&M, and of the stuff on Canal Street. The people making those clothes are working in places where the standard of living makes H&M a luxury store.

In some industries, there’s been a shift back to American factories due to the expense of shipping things over from Asia and the wage inflation in China, but this is mostly limited to electronics and appliance companies. This is unlikely to happen in the apparel industry because clothing isn’t as expensive to ship as a refrigerator, and the huge players in the industry — stores like Target, K-Mart, Macy’s and (shudder) Wal-Mart who drove American manufacturing overseas to begin with — are still moving in a direction of being completely reliant on foreign-based manufacturing. They’re now forcing what remains of the American design, import and agent companies out of business by hiring in-house designers based in overseas factories. Which, I should mention, are more akin to the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory whether they’re based in Argentina, Vietnam or Bangladesh (hence the cheapness). If it isn’t right and legal to treat human beings in such a way here, and it isn’t, why the hell are we supporting that kind of treatment elsewhere?

For all of the posturing and shrieking of politicians about how the garment industry should be “brought back” (cute, Nan Hayworth, but read up), it rests squarely with them and the enormous corporations that were allowed to ship an industry, piece by piece, overseas. None of them stood up for the laws they signed or admitted the laws they let lapse that allowed it to happen so easily — not John Boehner, not Charles Bass, not Allen West and certainly not Mitt Romney.

But while they kvetch for a few more weeks until they forget about pesky trade policy agreements again, my mom won’t ever be sure that the job she trained for and worked at for decades will be there tomorrow. One day she’ll tell my kids about a dead industry and it will sound like another country all together, and I will remember my mother coming home in tears for a third time in as many years, my mother at her sewing machine making my Halloween costumes, my mother at the dining room table teaching me how to cut and sew a skirt.

And I will look at the tags at every damned thing I buy, if only to see that it was Made in Pakistan, just so I know the score.

Here’s a (partial) list of companies that are still Made in America, if you’re curious.

Honor Vincent is a writer who's bounced from coast to coast, and you can find her herehere, and here.

Photo by Lee Russell. 

110 Comments / Post A Comment


Wonderful! Thank you-- and I really respect your writing, and your mom. I'm trying to figure out which small ways I can afford to change my consumerism (small, because yo I am poor), and it's beginning to look like fashion and food are my most realistic options.


@okaycrochet I love how aware you sound, as these are areas I'm working on too. Responsibly farmed food isn't "expensive" it's the actual price of the item, as opposed to the grown with chemicals outside the US stuff I've been eating. Clothes made in the US is not generally a problem, as I go to resale shops, where things are US or European made. Tshirts, socks, bras of course are new. But I was recently in a shop advertised as being "Everything's $5.99" and they had several things Made in America. How can a zippered cotton skirt, with a matching belt with grommets be made in the US and sell for $5.99? I was happy to buy it, though.


Because they aren't really.
They can be almost entirely made overseas and 'finished' here (buttons, labels, one small seam), and still get to sport that label legally, or made in some semi-colonial 'grey area' that counts for political reasons as american made without adhering to american labor standards.
Too good to be true is too good to be true.




this reminds me of dave eggers's new book, a hologram for the king.


I love this piece and thank you for the list.


@laurel Ditto. This was really interesting (in a sad way), but I am glad I know it now.

Faintly Macabre

@laurel Double ditto! I've been hoping for more of this kind of article on the Hairpin. Clothing production is something I think about a lot, so reading something from a personal/knowledgeable viewpoint is really interesting.


It's a perfect combination of solid info driven by an emotional connection that brings the writer's position home.


Read "Travels of a T-shirt in a Global Economy" by Pietra Rivoli! Super interesting stuff!


The list convinces me I need to buy more denim. And thank you for this thoughtful piece!


This also happened alongside a shift to "disposable" consumerism. As it was simpler and simpler to get cheap stuff, people stopped thinking that a pair of jeans should last them 10 years, or that a skirt was something you kept forever - as long as you kept the hemline up to date.

There's also the other side of the coin, which is that we've managed to create trade policies that not only incentivize sending all of our production jobs overseas, they dramatically distort the economies and labor markets in those overseas places.

Is @stuffisthings around? I feel like this is a conversation we've had before, but with agriculture in place of textiles.


@Ophelia There's a book about this I heard about on NPR awhile back. Overdressed: The Shockingly High Cost of Cheap Fashion


@aproprose Ooh, I've been meaning to get that.

miss buenos aires

@aproprose I just read that. It is really chilling. The answer seems to be, decide that clothes are worth money, and shop from independent designers.

RK Fire

@miss buenos aires: I guess in the interim I will just hold on to my cheap clothes and wash them gently so that they'll last me for at least 3-5 year or until I outgrow them?


@RK Fire Try Etsy, too, to supplement as needed? I thrift most of what I wear, but am still guilty of the Target t-shirt stock-up. "One good shirt, not four crap shirts" is a concept I am still trying to internalize

RK Fire

@Little Sassy Bonebreaker: I like etsy in theory but I really need to be able to try clothes on before I buy them. Sometimes I can get away with not doing that though.

Hmmm, etsy for my sheath dress needs. This could be interesting.


@RK Fire Yeah, I have a similar problem - try measuring clothes that fit you well flat, and ask etsy sellers for the corresponding measurements of their items? It's kept me from any TRULY tragic missteps(although sleeve/armhole placement still gives me fits, and is hard to measure for with any great degree of accuracy)

RK Fire

@Little Sassy Bonebreaker I will definitely give it a go if I need to buy anything new! Honestly my big concern is fit. I really don't want to sound obnoxious, but one of the things that has emerged as I've gotten into weightlifting is that I've developed some back muscles and traps, which means clothes sometimes fit weirdly because most women don't have those things. It's actually a topic of conversation among women at my gym, but I don't think any of us have actually tried getting things made to measurement. It should help, right?


@RK Fire Heh. You're not sounding obnoxious- ask me about skirt shopping with derby thighs. :/ Tailoring is the best thing, basically.

RK Fire

@Little Sassy Bonebreaker Ha! I didn't even get into how squatting all the time has affected my ass and thighs and now 50% of my pants fit weirdly. I'm not sure if my waist has gotten bigger, or if my ass has. o_O I've just given up and started wearing dresses everywhere.


@RK Fire Yeah, dress pants and I are not friends anymore. The moment early in my derby career when I tried to squeeze between two things and couldn't because my ass was suddenly too big and stick-outy(after a lifetime of pancake-flatness) is still fresh in my mind, and I've been retired for a year and a half.


@RK Fire I have an Idea for solving this problem. However, I lack the skillz of a good clothing designer. Woe!

RK Fire

@Xanthophyllippa: What is it? I'm dying of curiosity here!


@Xanthophyllippa Yes, please share!


@RK Fire @Little Sassy Bonebreaker Noooooooooo! I'm just going to be a tease instead. Because if I spill and then a year from now see how someone started a successful business based on it, I'll have to go jump off a bridge. Y'all will just have to wear ill-fitting clothes for a while longer.

RK Fire

@Xanthophyllippa: Fine--I will just wear my dresses and I'll like it!

[In the meantime please do let us know if you end up making an esty shop or something. :D ]


@Ophelia Duly requested from the library. Thanks for the recommendation.


@Ophelia Sorry, didn't see this earlier. Down below!


@RK Fire I have a friend who sews couture gowns for rich Armenian ladies and she says more American women should get themselves a tailor. That most of us have closetfuls of off the rack stuff that doesn't fit us, and for the same money we could get something made for us that would look sensational.


I was riding my bike around the Adirondacks, and stopped in the town of Gloversville for gas. It was strange seeing many large, abandoned factories on the way in. I asked the fellow at the gas station about them, and we chatted for a while.

Turns out, the vast majority of gloves sold in the US were once made here, hence the name. Starting the '80s it all went metaphorically south, and literally east.


@thiscallsforsoap I'm actually from a town near Gloversville. The Fownes glove factory is still located there, and around the holidays you can go to their itty bitty outlet store and get INSANE deals on outerwear from a bunch of different designer brands that are still manufactured there!


@thiscallsforsoap I am actually from Gloversville. It used to be known as Stump City. Fact. But I still love it.


one of the apparel companies on that list that supposedly manufactures in the US paid the small designer label I work for to produce them 1000 pieces in China and slap on a Made in USA label #lowpoint


@Rubyinthedust Can you say who? That pisses me off even worse than the original issue, almost.




@frigwiggin while it makes me angry and makes me dislike my job a bit, I still can't say who because I worked hard to get this design job and can't jeopardize it even in a small corner of the internet.

this happens in other countries as well. one of our chinese factories produces D&G jackets labeled Made in Italy. I tried to look into the legality of these blatantly false claims in labeling but have found conflicting information...


@Rubyinthedust Truly fascinating.


Jaw to the floor right now.


Almost everyone except Dior, Hermes and Chanel is made in China. Even at the highest end.


Oh, this is excellent, I'm definitely going to link to this on my personal style blog later this week when I do a link roundup. (Augh, there's no way to say that and not sound absurd, sorry.) I think about clothing production a lot (because I think about clothing and my clothing choices a lot), and sometimes it's hard to know what to do! I thrift a lot, partially because it's cheap and partially in the hope that at least this way the money isn't going directly to companies with terrible overseas practices. It's true that a lot of made-in-America garments truly are luxury items now, and it has to be a conscious effort on my part to look for something, if I want someone to get paid what the garment's worth.

Recently my boyfriend bought two pairs of Allen Edmonds shoes, and the guy in the store really talked up the made-in-America part--but it was $700 for two pairs of shoes, and I don't know many people who can realistically afford that. (I feel embarrassed even talking about it, like people are going to scoff at money unnecessarily spent, like who do we think we are?--which is a complicated mindset in and of itself.)


@frigwiggin Yeah, that's a really good point. Not all the companies on that list are super-expensive, but I live near a few of them, and they. are. expensive. Like, $60 t-shirt expensive. I'm more willing to spend a lot of money on something like a good pair of shoes that I can repair and re-sole than a t-shirt that will fall apart/get pit stains relatively soon, even if it is good quality.

Which I guess goes back to the whole question of comparative advantage, and why we started outsourcing things in the first place. I think we just went way too far past the happy medium.


@frigwiggin Shit man, shoes are important. The most I've ever spent on anything was on winter boots. And they're still going strong two Chicago winters later.


@frigwiggin Men's shoes are also kind of a different animal. My old boss had like 3 or 4 pairs of Gucci loafer dress shoes ($400ish a pop) which were basically all he wore to the office every day. That's a crazy upfront expense. BUT, they lasted forever - he'd have them resoled frequently, and when they were beyond saving, he'd replace a pair. But he said that on average, they lasted about 8-9 years if he rotated them appropriately. So $700 is a big upfront expense, but over say 8 years, it almost certainly works out to be less than I spend on Nine West pumps that only last a season or two. So in other words, don't be embarrassed!

Faintly Macabre

@frigwiggin I don't think spending that much on good, ethically-made shoes is crazy at all. I was recently looking for men's oxfords for myself, and I was amazed at how many $80-$120 pairs there are that clearly won't last more than a year--thin, glued-on soles, crappy or fake leather, trendy coloring, etc. Whereas a good handmade pair can keep going almost forever if you get them resoled and polished.

Tuna Surprise


These issues have been bothering me lately! I get to go to a black tie charity dinner representing my employer and I need to buy a dress. I found a beautiful made in America deep blue silk chiffon number that comes in around $5000. A mass retailer makes a virtually identical deep blue silk chiffon number (it needs only one small modification) that clocks in around $400. I want to buy the $5000 one, but short of cashing in my 401k, I just can't.

But I've been feeling guilty about buying the cheaper one and asking a tailor to make the small tweak to make it a rip off of the expensive one.


@HeyThatsMyBike I sometimes feel as though this is true of all men's fashion. Clearly suits and cuts change, but they never seem to change as dramatically as women's clothing. My husband has so many awesome choices when it comes to finding durable, made-in-America, lifetime-investment type clothing. I have no doubt that he'll still own the same Allen Edmonds shoes he bought for our wedding in 30 years, and that his Filson jacket or vest will being going equally as strong. I love A Continuous Lean, but it skews male almost all the time. Do women's equivalents exist? I want to know about them!


@meatcute I know! And I may even be lowballing the 8-9 years. And he wears these shoes all day every day. Find me a pair of fashionable work shoes that I can wear 15 hours a day that will last me a decade and I will pay up, but it just doesn't seem to work the same way in women's fashion!


@Tuna Surprise You could probably have a seamstress make you an entire knock-off for less. Then you'll get the dress you want and have it made locally!


@shiv For under $400? Probably not, unfortunately. (And the fabric would almost certainly still be made in China.)

I wonder if designer dress rental services (like Rent The Runway) carry any stuff made in America? Because I know that would be my go-to if I were invited to a black tie event and needed an evening gown. But I don't think renting a gown made in China is any better than buying one, you know?


@snowmentality It's at least keeping demand down, though, and the money doesn't go back to the manufacturer.

@Tuna Surprise For me, that's a matter of magnitude/scale -- I wouldn't feel bad buying the $400 version because I just don't have $5K to shell out on a luxury item I'll only use once or twice. If the difference were between $400 and $500, though, I'd go with the more expensive, better-made item. I can't feel bad about buying something cheaply made elsewhere if the U.S.-made version is so much more expensive that it isn't even feasible - I guess I'd rather feel guilty about the many things I can do but don't.


A lot of seamstresses aren't willing to do this, even if you can afford it. I have a lot of wonderful cloth from travels (when I wanted to but didn't have time to have something made while traveling). A few years ago I found somebody who does confirmation and quinceañera dresses and agreed to make me a nice sheath. But she wasn't very good at it -- probably a combination of me not wanting the style she specializes in, and also the fact that we had to communicate by me drawing things on paper (everyone in the shop seemed to speak only Cape Verdean Portuguese?). All the other tailor and seamstress types I have approached flat-out refused because they say it is too much work.

I was thinking I might design the dress and cut the fabric myself, leaving lots of room for seams, sew it half-heartedly for as much as I can do (I only sew by hand), and then take it to a seamstress for "adjustments" and see if she won't mind basically finishing it.

Unless anyone has other tips? East-Coast-based tips.


@harebell I have NO idea if this is a thing, so maybe people who actually work in fashion can correct me. But are you near a school that has some sort of fashion design major, that you might be able to hire a student or recent grad to do the design and sewing for you? I mean, I have friends from grad school who had photography students do their engagement/wedding portraits at a reduced rate in exchange for being able to use the proofs in their portfolio -- do fashion students need portfolios, that you might be able to find someone trying to get into the field?


@Xanthophyllippa That is a cool idea. I will look into it -- thanks!


@Tuna Surprise Rent the Runway! It's a service where you can just rent a dress (like dudes do!) for an event. They even send you two sizes just to be sure. You can inexpensively get something way more fabulous than you could ever reasonably afford, with the bonus that it won't be hanging out in your closet making you feel guilty afterward.
Pardon me, off to browse party dresses, apropos of nothing.


@Ophelia I have great quality High PR do-follow manually blog comments service increase your rank within few days guarantee All links i will give you all links just in 5$ High Pr Backlinks service


And this is why I overwhelmingly buy second-hand. I may not be supporting made-in-america, but at least I'm not supporting sweatshops either...you gotta do what you can.


@hopelessshade this is what I can do too, so I try as best I can!


Professor Stephen Marglin breaks down comparative advantage theory and who benefits from outsourcing.

He says, in a nutshell:
"American owners can gain while American workers lose. Consumers can gain while workers lose."

"Shareholders prosper from the cost reductions associated...An unfortunate minority lose their jobs altogether -- their "leisure" is involuntary...US consumers who don't lose their jobs benefit from lower prices, again cold comfort for folks whose old jobs are now overseas...The only clear winner would seem to be the Indian worker, who enjoys an increase in income and consumption without any corresponding increase in work time or effort. But even here the standard explanation oversimplifies: The Indians are unambiguously better off only if we don't count the costs of the disruption to their communities and other "externalities".."

So, people who benefit:
- US shareholders (somewhat)
- US consumers (somewhat)
- Indian workers (somewhat)
People who don't benefit:
- US workers


@nyikint But: question. Isn't to say, "US consumers who don't lose their jobs benefit from lower prices, again cold comfort for folks whose old jobs are now overseas..." a bit misleading? Because in fact, people who lose their jobs/get shittier jobs/are generally poorer because of outsourcing are EXACTLY the people who benefit the most from being able to spend their limited funds on cheaper products, to the extent that they come to depend on the savings they can get from places with shitty labor practices like Walmart. Separating out US workers from US consumers doesn't make any sense at all. They're exactly the same people. Which is not to say that outsourcing is good, but only that any attempted outcome that has even slightly higher prices as its immediate result is going to end up punishing the exact people it's meant to protect.

(I don't know if that makes any sense... I'm hungry & I need some lunch.)


@Kristen Yes, that makes sense! Workers and consumers are not mutually exclusive - we're some combination of the two. So yes, as consumers, we benefit from cheaper goods, but for some, those gains are far outweighed by the losses in employment.

It's an immensely fraught issue because what it seems to come down to is a value judgement on who matters more. It seems like we're screwing over one group for concentrated gains in another group + diffuse gains for all...

(That probably doesn't make sense because I'm hungry too)


I worked for a small screenprinting firm for a while, they printed merchandise, tour shirts mostly and I remember not being able to work out how a white T-Shirt can cost only 80 cents (that's Euro cent, so it would be about 40 - 50 Dollar cent. How can that be? The cotton has to be harvested, processed and someone sews it together and in the end you have a perfectly good T-Shirt. I thought about it a lot and brought it up when I had dinner with my father one night and he was like, don't worry, those countries will wipe the floor with us in a few years. I was somewhat soothed and a little scared.

Faintly Macabre

Having just realized that I need a new workbag before my back disintegrates, the list of companies is really useful!

Also, if anyone is looking for a new suitcase (that's also carry-on size), I can't say enough good things about the MEI Voyageur. They're handmade in the USA. I got one before studying abroad a few years ago, and the staff was incredibly helpful at finding and shipping one before I left the country. The bags are plain (which is good when traveling) but of a really comfortable, incredibly practical design, and will probably last forever.

(No, seriously, I'm obsessed--they fit EVERYTHING, have comfy pull-out straps and an aluminum internal frame, and are water-resistant.)


@Faintly Macabre I cannot say enough good things about Tom Bihn bags. They're made in Seattle, and they last FOREVER. My mom bought me one when I was 14, and 8 years later it still looks new. And it's been through high school, college, traveling, and lots of geology field work.


A- We still have a scissor-sharpener come to our floor, he is about 500 years old and he is the AWESOMEST. Last of a dying breed.

B- I work in the textile industry, and I have seen it go from mostly US mills and Italy/Belgium for the fancy stuff to ALL CHINA. In the past 5-6 years I have been in the industry, the American mills simply can't compete with the Chinese prices. As much as we want to help them and support them, at some point it comes down to numbers. It's completely depressing to travel down south to VA (where I am originally from) and NC, and see whole towns that were once thriving communities reliant on the mills turned into ghost towns. Whole ways of life and culture gone.

C-The knock-off issue. The Chinese mills we work with straight up knock our stuff off and sell it behind our backs. All the time. Copyrights mean nothing. It's just an accepted thing that happens. We're not like...reliant on logos or something recognizable as a BRAND like in fashion, but they are patterns we designed and own. Still a dick move!


From that list, this: Steam Cheese Burger Chest. That is all.


This is a really fascinating perspective of an often abstract issue, but it still seems to be founded on the unexamined assumption that making anything and everything in the US is always better. Why?

Broadly speaking, the history of the garment industry is a story of whole cities and ways of life rising and falling on the vagaries of international trade, (and bitter recriminations over how the new guys are slavedrivers who don't operate with the same skill and craft as traditional producers). Governments tried all sorts of crazy protectionist schemes: in the 18th century you could be fined for wearing calico in England. In fact, the entire US textile industry is built on stolen intellectual property, so we don't have much room to talk.

To put it another way: I'm sure residents of Bruges would love to reclaim the global economic dominance they experienced as a center of the wool industry in the 12th century, but I hope that Belgian policymakers are not pinning their hopes on this happening.

miss buenos aires

@stuffisthings My main problem with it is that working conditions are much much worse in these other countries than they are in the United States. If workers had the same protections in, say, Vietnam that we had in the US (and for which we fought tooth and nail, thank a union organizer!), I wouldn't have as much of a problem with it. Then again, the price differential wouldn't be so extreme if that were the case, and the American textile industry would still have a fighting chance.


@miss buenos aires Another interesting fact: the average wage in Vietnam is about $150/month. The minimum wage in Vietnam is about $95 a month (63% of the mean).

The average wage in the United States is $23.52/hour. The federal minimum wage is $7.25/hour (31% of the mean).

How you interpret those facts really depends on your definition of "poverty."


@miss buenos aires Thing is, I don't know if that's always necessarily true! I had a chance to visit a half-dozen or so third world garment factories a couple of years ago. Before actually going inside, I had this sense of dread, expecting to walk into a sweltering, grimy sweatshop full of child laborers, and instead I entered a clean, open-air building that didn't appear very different from images I've seen of, say, American Apparel's factories in LA. And while the wages seem incredibly low by Western standards, there's a big difference in cost of living in a developing country, and also in a lot of cases factory jobs can be one of the best employment options around when the alternative is either selling fruits and vegetables by the side of the road, or no employment at all. I realize that conditions likely vary a lot depending on the country and depending on the factory, and it's true that workers obviously aren't unionized, but after reading all these US news articles about sweatshops over the years, I was kind of shocked by how decent the conditions were in the factories I saw.

(Disclaimer: I am not an expert on the garment industry or manufacturing, so maybe take this with a grain of salt. But good lord were my preconceptions blown out of the water once I actually walked into a factory in a developing country.)


@werewolfbarmitzvah Very true. I find that anyone who has spent any of amount of time with actual poor people in developing countries has a very different perspective on these issues.

ETA: Great documentary idea: someone should take a bunch of laid-off factory workers to visit the people who replaced them in China or wherever. Somebody make this please!

miss buenos aires

@stuffisthings But are these factories really paying minimum wage? I've never been to visit garment factories in developing countries, so there's that. But it just seems intuitive to me that once all the geographical barriers fall away, and everyone is competing on price alone, if workers get more expensive in one place (because they are demanding higher wages or better conditions), there's nothing to stop companies from just sending their orders to an area with cheaper workers and fewer protections.

To your point about Bruges: I think it is true that the sun has basically set on the United States textile industry. All the specialized machines (I think the example in Overdressed was a machine for cutting sweaters) have been sold.

Also, I think one of your posts got lost...


@werewolfbarmitzvah @stuffisthings that's amazing- which countries did you visit?


@hurts On my end, the Philippines - an industrial park an hour or so outside of Manila.


@miss buenos aires It is a complicated thing and I certainly don't want to suggest that what's happening is universally good, nor equally good for everyone (obviously it's not). Like all economic change it has components of good and bad, and benefits some people more than others. I just think it's important to remember that A) some of the biggest beneficiaries have been the world's poorest people, and B) those people also have hopes, dreams, aspirations, and personal agency. I guarantee you that you can even find tailors in Hong Kong or Vietnam who are just as skilled, and put just as pride into their work, as the oldest of their old-school Garment District counterparts. (Actually, this is one reason why it's no so easy to just relocate to the cheapest countries -- I'm familiar with a number of attempts at high-end garment manufacturing in Sub-Saharan Africa that failed, or couldn't scale up, because of poor quality control, difficulty getting materials in place, and the general logistical nighmare of operating a business on that continent...)


@hurts I lived in Birmingham for a while, it was really sad to see all the factories that shut down when the jobs were sent off to the Colonies.


@werewolfbarmitzvah Yeah - I think a lot depends on the size of the factory and for whom they're making goods. I'm thinking about, say, Foxconn (which I don't really want to bring up but...) and the small electrics manufacturer I visited in China. In both places, the workers had campus-like housing and meals and transportation to and from the plants, but in the latter, the working hours were more like something we'd see in the U.S. and the plant was much less crowded.

Interestingly, the factory owner told us that labor is cheaper in China, but there are a lot of costs the general public doesn't know about that make labor not as ridiculously cheap as we think it is: housing and meals, for example. The company may be paying a worker only $90/month, but that worker doesn't have food and housing expenses and can send most of their wage back home. In addition, each worker has some sort of insurance that works similar to workman's comp does here, but it's also in effect on their way to and from work - so companies will run buses to ensure that folks get there safely, because if a worker is, say, hit by a car on their way, the company is liable. These aren't amazing perks and they don't make up for the (at least) vague exploitation going on here, but they do suggest that there are smaller companies that take a more informed view to their labor practices.

@stuffisthings I agree that would be a BRILLIANT documentary. I have no idea how they'd do it, though, since Chinese factories are notoriously suspicious and (generally speaking) would never let anyone in. Workers are (equally generally) often prohibited from talking to foreigners, especially folks with cameras, under penalty of dismissal. Nicholas Kristof discusses factory conditions and trying to talk with workers a bit in one of the chapters he wrote in China Wakes - admittedly things have changed since 1994 (or so, when the book came out) but they haven't necessarily changed in favor of more transparency.


@stuffisthings Also: how much farther does that $150 (I'm assuming it's a U.S. equivalent) go in Vietnam? That's always the first question I ask.


@Megano! That is something I wonder too. I know that in the Philippines, that kind of money could feed and house a family of 4 in lower-middle-class conditions (their idea of lower-middle and the western one is skewed, though. It's totally normal for low-mid income workers to have nannies for their kids/a maid, for example). Not sure that $150 per month would stretch to that Philippino definition, but they could eat 3 meals a day and pay their rent/bills, which is enough in my book.
And if you take that up a notch and have both parents working and bringing in that kind of money per parent, then you're looking at home ownership, as well as the possession of pigs and chickens (no joke, this is a sign of status/wealth).


@werewolfbarmitzvah In college, I worked at a US warehouse, checking product of a major label pants manufacturer. We measured seam lengths and checked the degree of acid wash against samples of the ideal. I got the opportunity to ask a buyer what working conditions at the overseas factory was like and she said "As bad as you think." I also learned that there were model factories used to show people, but that most of the factories were of the dark/crowded/hot variety. Those were off-limits to First World tours.


@Myrtle I don't doubt that that can be true in some cases, but in my case I'm pretty certain of the legitimacy of what I saw. This was not a planned, organized tour, just me and my husband (who is not American himself). My father-in-law lives and does business in the Philippines, and he has friends in the garment trade; he brought us by their factories to say hello, and they showed us around. These places were not massive on the scale of something like Foxconn, which may have been part of the difference, but they were manufacturing garments for major labels that most of us have purchased at some point in our lives. And when I was told where we were going that day, I very rapidly went from "OH NO OH NO OH NO LET'S GET OUT OF HERE" to suddenly feeling like a jackass for having made up my mind before actually seeing anything with my own eyes. I'll tell ya this much: I've seen a lot of disturbing things in the couple of times I've been to the Philippines so far (slums and pristine gated communities pressed right up against each other, skeezy Western men who move to the country for the express purpose of helping themselves to the local women), but the manufacturing industry does not even come close to ranking in the top 10 of the most disturbing things I saw over there.


Great discussion -- exactly why I love the Hairpin!

It's also important to realize that conditions and trends are very different in different countries. Chinese manufacturing is totally unlike manufacturing in the Philippines (for one thing, China's GDP per capita is more than 2x higher), or even Chinese manufacturing of 5 or 10 years ago.

Generally speaking, though: factory jobs are considered very good jobs by poor people in poor countries; factory jobs allow people/families to move up the socioeconomic ladder in ways that other kinds of jobs for poor people in poor countries don't; and very poor countries generally do not have many factories at all (of the 30 poorest countries, Bangladesh is the only one I can think of that has any significant manufacturing exports to the US). I think each kind of manufacturing has a "sweet spot" in terms of labor costs vs. skills, infrastructure, and technology required. For garments, it's pretty low, because it's hard to fully mechanize garment production. For electronics, it varies: certain kinds of fabrication are expensive and require highly skilled workers, assembly does not. For automobiles or airplanes, it's pretty high, which is why these things are still mostly made in developed countries. We should expect the manufacturing mix (and overall share of manufacturing in the economy) to change over time as a country develops, and with changes in technology.

In other words, in 20 years we might see Chinese consumers orchestrating a "buy Chinese" campaign to stave off competition from low-cost clothing producers in Malawi and save the jobs that allowed their parents to send them to college. I would see this as a great sign for people in both China and Malawi but opinions can differ, I guess.


RE: the "buy Chinese" concept - very interesting thought and a highly likely possibility - not something I'd ever have thought of but it makes sense!


@werewolfbarmitzvah The "jackass" may be me, for representing secondhand information as fact. You were there. I've had friends encourage me to visit the Philippines, telling me how beautiful it is, but that Have/Have Not line is so cruel, I don't think I could.


@Myrtle To be honest, that line between Have/Have Not wasn't any more pronounced when I was in China than it is in the U.S. We were in both extremely urban and extremely rural areas, and the disparity isn't any worse than, say, Chicago vs. Appalachia. I don't want to romanticise or suggest that that the villagers I met in China might have been slightly happier - but at the very least, they had a more sustainable approach to some parts of rural life. Things like waste management, for example; straight-piping from toilets to backyard creeks is common in Appalachia, but a lot of rural farmers in China have miniature backyard anaerobic digesters* that they use to collect gas for cooking and heating. The elementary school I saw was literally crumbling and didn't have windows or doors on the classrooms, but Chinese students have been outpacing U.S. students for years. We can see a cruel dividing line every day in the U.S. - in my case, when I walk up the main shopping drag of my small university city and see both privileged white kids wearing Uggs in August whose parents are paying for their degree and homeless men asking for spare change.

It's true that this might be idiosyncratic to the parts of China we were in. I can imagine that in other areas, or in other developing countries, the disparity would be considerably worse (I'm thinking parts of drought-stricken Africa, for example). But if that's your only reason not to visit, then I guess I'd suggest reading up in advance about the current conditions, finding a good tour guide who can take you through some more rural areas compassionately, and go. It was really worth it - to me, at least.

(*Incidentally, while the U.S. carries on as if digesters are some newfangled thing we invented, China's been doing this for centuries. All we did was ramp the things up to deal with the volume of output generated by our ridiculously obscene factory farms, but that's another topic for another day.)


@Xanthophyllippa Yeah, income disparity in the U.S. is among the worst in the world -- I know a number of people from poor countries who had never seen homeless people wandering the streets until they visited D.C. and New York.

And actually, @Myrtle, on the most widely used measure of inequality, Gini coefficient, the United States is a 0.45 and the Philippines is a 0.46, so you should be OK!


@Xanthophyllippa Took this as an opportunity to learn about anaerobic digesters- cool. My future (dream) house will have the ability to use (onsite) recycled water for at least the toilet, and now I'd like to have a digester as well.
@stuffisthings I believe it. No place more shameful to me than the restaurants above the Santa Monica Beach with diners sitting outside, just a few feet from the beggars. Not that there aren't a fair share of career beggars, but it's still ugly.


@Myrtle Yeah, the setup I saw made me wish I had a house so I could have a mini-digester, too - there was actually a tube coming right out of the concrete hatch that was connected to the stove. The woman explaining it to us pointed to the collection tank and said, "Here's where you put the poos," then pointed to the distillation tank and the tube and said, "and the gas from the poos comes out here." We were not entirely clear as to whether she meant "poos" from the water buffalo only or from pretty much every living thing in the household.

Sarah Wagner@twitter

What a wonderful if wrenching first-hand account of the changes in the American garment industry. I plan to share it with our readers. My only caution is about spreading an "all is lost" attitude. As we search for outstanding, stylish, American-made products, we are finding that there are still many, many options, but they are not always easy to find. At http://www.usalovelist.com our primary goal is to make it easier for our readers to buy American. We feature Made in USA fashion every Monday. My other tips for those who are interested are: 1) Buy less stuff; save up for fewer higher-quality pieces, 2) Shop locally; there are some great finds at big box stores, but particularly in fashion, local boutiques will be your best bet, and 3) Read labels; if you relentlessly check for those three magic words, "Made in USA", your shopping will turn into a treasure hunt and you will begin to develop a greater sense of what to look for and where to find American-made. Thanks again... great article... stick with this topic because many, many people care a great deal about it.
Sarah Wagner, founder
USA Love List


The only manufacturing industry in the town I grew up in was textiles. When I was in high school I worked sometimes in the oldest of the factories there. It was set up in the 1940s by a New York-based company that had persuaded my town to build the physical plant for it, funded by "voluntary" deductions from the wages of the (mostly) ladies who worked there. (Is this shit that I am making up? It is not.) When I worked there, we only did assembly of pieces cut in the Dominican Republic; the company finally moved all production there in the 1980s and you know what? Nobody misses that factory, especially not the worn-out people who retired from it. If I managed to round up the survivors and ask how sympathetic they were to the challenges an aspiring clothing designer in the US faces these days, I wonder how they would react. If you then told them they should pay higher prices for their clothes to support domestic industry and discourage importing and outsourcing, for the sake of aspiring clothing designers, I actually think I know what they might say.


@Tulletilsynet This is a great point. I always wonder how many people lamenting the decline of American garment factories would actually want to work in one if they all miraculously returned.


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James Miroy@facebook

I need to buy some more denim pants. Pointer and Diamond Gusset sell them on-line in the $50 range. I'd like to get somebody to tailor fit the next pair since they have a baggy droopy feel to them.


That is something I wonder too. I know that in the Philippines, that kind of money could feed and house a family of 4 in lower-middle-class conditions (their idea of lower-middle and the western one is skewed, though. It's totally normal for low-mid income workers to have nannies for their kids/a maid, for example). Not sure that $150 per month would stretch to that Philippino definition, but they could eat 3 meals a day and pay their rent/bills job search


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