Our present-day world is no stranger to news of the dangers of the garment industry1, both domestically2 and abroad3, but what perhaps we are less familiar with or aware of is: how’d we get here? How did we go from a world of small scale, made-to-measure clothing to a culture in which the average mass market garment is worn but 7 times4 before it is discarded5?
The widely-acknowledged human6 and environmental7 impacts of mass market production are far from8 new9 but it all began with the invention of the cotton gin10. The cotton gin effectively doubled the yield of raw cotton produced in the United States every decade while simultaneously concretizing the profitability11 of enslavement as an institution from which white enslavers and their progeny benefit.
The power loom12, the design for which was arguably ‘stolen’ from England, enabled the aforementioned raw cotton to be turned into cloth in a single facility, which lowered the price of production. By 183213, the majority of businesses in the United States were in the textile industry. In 185014, the New York Tribune predicted the future impact of mechanization on clothing sales: “The more work [that] can be done, [and] the cheaper it can be done by means of machines — the greater will be the demand.” It is a prediction that has unquestionably been met today. As Laura noted last year, the number of existing apparel manufacturing establishments in the U.S. is far from the days when it was a dominant industry.
The garment industry is, historically15, a low16paying one17. As the industry flourished in the late 19th century and into the 20th, factory owners prioritized the hiring of young, single women18 whom they could pay less than men. An increase in production demanded more workers — a need that was filled by Jewish, Italian, German19, Russian20, and Irish immigrants who, without a dominant command of English, were less likely to demand wage increases or object to unsanitary and unsafe conditions. The absence of child labor laws21, which weren’t enacted until 193822, meant that children and teenagers could work side-by-side23 with their mothers, keeping families together and increasing their household’s wages. As these early immigrant groups expanded their communities and networks, they often sought different opportunities for their children. Their withdrawal from the sector gave way24 to the employment25 of Puerto26 Rican migrants in the 1930s27-1950s28, Chinese immigrants29 in the 1960s30, and Asian31 and Latin American32 immigrants during the 1970s33 and 1980s34, on the West Coast in particular.
However, the expansion of trade agreements35 (like NAFTA36) in the 1990s; increasing domestic labor costs37 coupled with38 increasing industrialization39 in developing40 economies41; and the advent of fast42 fashion43 contributed to a decline of the manufacturing and garment industry in the U.S. In 196044, an estimated 10.4% of household budgets were spent on apparel. 90% of that apparel was made in the U.S. Today, an estimated 3.5% of household budgets are spent on apparel and 2% of it is made in the U.S. In 2018, the top five countries from which textiles and clothing were imported globally45 were China, Bangladesh, Vietnam, India, and Italy. The United States ranked 8th46, with only 2.73% of the market share. Conversely, in 2018, the U.S. ranked 1st47 among countries to which textiles and clothing were exported.
As we experience the effects of present-day globalization crises, including the reach of the COVID-19 pandemic and the lodging of the Ever Given in the Suez Canal, the value of localized supply chains is at the forefront of conversations. Being able to supply domestic demands for textiles (or at least a portion of our apparel needs) is something that could help the U.S. improve its sustainability. The question is: how do we get there?
Natalie Yasmin Soto is a NYC-based curriculum designer, consultant, and educator. She earned her most recent master’s degree in International Affairs with a focus on Trade and Global Economic Governance. Natalie Yasmin was born in Brooklyn, New York, the unceded ancestral homelands of the Canarsee, where she continues to reside.