An Apparel-Making Revival? This 'Made in USA' Story Doesn't Hold Up

Trimming fabric from a hat at the Satya Twena Studio manufacturing facility in New York Photograph by Atisha Paulson/Bloomberg

There’s been a lot of talk about apparel makers coming back to the U.S.

Glenn Beck launched a line of made-in-America clothing in 2012. USA Today reported last year that jobs are “trickling back,” citing reshoring by Brooks Brothers, Saks, and dozens of smaller companies as evidence. In another feel-good story last year, the New York Times reported from Minneapolis that local factories couldn’t find enough skilled workers to fill a wave of orders for American-made apparel.

Bob Bland, chief executive officer and founder of Manufacture New York, said this week that she has “a waiting list of 80 clients who want ‘made in America.’” She added: “A lot of kids are trading in their English degrees for a sewing machine.”

The logic for reshoring seems sound enough. All else equal, many American shoppers would prefer to support employment in the U.S. Wages for apparel workers in China are rising fast, reducing the cost edge for overseas manufacturers. And while Bangladesh, Vietnam, and other countries remain considerably cheaper, American customers don’t want clothes made in unsafe conditions.

This is the first anniversary of the Rana Plaza building collapse in Bangladesh that killed 1,129 workers. A New York University study (PDF) found that the two main industry accords aimed at improving working conditions in Bangladesh apply to fewer than 2,000 of the country’s 5,000 to 6,000 apparel factories and facilities. “The worst conditions are largely in the factories and facilities that fall outside the scope of these agreements,” the report noted.

The only problem with this red, white, and blue story about the return of the apparel makers is that it isn’t actually happening. As the above chart shows, employment in the U.S. apparel industry has continued to decline. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, total employment in March stood at 136,000—less than half the total a decade earlier. Last month’s total is also 6 percent lower than a year ago, which spoils the theory that a slow recovery of apparel jobs is underway.

I also checked the figures for New York State, just in case Bob Bland was right that New York is an exception to the trend. Doesn’t look that way: New York’s apparel-making employment in March was 2 percent lower than a year ago, according to BLS data.

All the evidence from Glenn Beck, newspapers, and trade groups is true, as far as it goes. There are upticks here and there. Some people will always pay extra for locally made “slow fashion” such as Flint and Tinder‘s $99.50 “10-year Hoodie,” which comes with free mending. The problem is that those positive glimmers are vastly outnumbered by the less-visible, more-familiar downticks. Apparel manufacturing—as opposed to apparel design—remains a largely low-wage sector. While some of it will always occur in the U.S., it’s hard to envision that employment in the sector as a whole will ever recover.

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.