The Flanarant: Is garment production coming home?
By Mike Flanagan | 14 May 2012
Suggestions that reshoring, or bringing back jobs lost to China, would benefit the Western apparel industry are dismissed as "flagwash" by Mike Flanagan. But while such a move would make no economic sense, he believes there is still a need for businesses in developed countries to provide a range of sewing services.
Throughout the 1960s, unemployment in the US and UK was around 3%. Today it seems stuck around 8% to 8.5%, whether the economy is growing slowly (US) or declining slowly (UK).
It's not much better in Western economies seen as doing well (6.8% in Germany for example), and it's a great deal worse in Western countries where industries like garment making took longer to disappear (24% in Spain). It's also clear that high unemployment levels are hurting some groups of people (like the poorly educated) a great deal more than others.
It's very tempting to see what happened in the garment and textile industries as the simple explanation of why the West has so many jobless. It's cheaper to sew a shirt together in Eastern Europe, Central America or Asia than in South Carolina or the East Midlands, so practically all clothing worn in Western Europe or America is now made somewhere else.
And many people consequently assume the growth in unemployment is due entirely to jobs being shipped off to lower wage countries abroad.
No-one disagrees that high unemployment throughout the West is a major problem for the billion or so people living in the world's richer countries. Or that, by depressing demand for the things produced by the other six billion people on the planet, the West's unemployment is passing poverty onto the world's really poor.
What no-one can agree, though, is how much of that unemployment is the result of the move of manufacturing to poorer countries.
In our industry, for example, the move to manufacturing in lower-wage countries has reduced clothing prices for most of the past 20 years, meaning more clothes sold, and more demand for designers and retail staff.
Roughly as many new jobs were created in US specialist retailers between 1990 and 2010 than were lost in the country's textile industry, for example. But that doesn't stop many people arguing the jobs lost through offshoring are causing more social misery than the - far fewer - jobs created through other events at the same time.
Unemployment in the West has grown over the past 50 years for at least three different reasons:
- The drive for productivity - which often means automation and more use of IT, but often just means better, tighter management;
- Offshoring production, and many other services. Fifty years ago, Britain's imports arrived in British ships, manned by British crews. Now they arrive in Eastern European trucks or Chinese container ships;
- Easier immigration and the changing role of women have meant that the number of people wanting a job has grown faster than the economy.
Now, all three of these pressures have also created Western jobs at the same time as they've destroyed them. But they've created fewer jobs than, together, they've destroyed - and those without them seem to be getting more and more marginalised from mainstream society.
Just as political worries about apparently irreducible levels of joblessness are growing, more and more commentators are discovering that Asian-made clothes are getting pricier. So we're currently being almost swamped by bright ideas and data about whether the West's unemployment problems might be solved by reshoring, or "bringing back the jobs shipped to China" as its proponents describe it.
In the past month alone, we've had:
1: A new database
The EU and the World Trade Organization (WTO) believe many people exaggerate the damage done to Western economies by offshore production, because most available data obscures the complexity of today's globalised economy.
WTO deputy director-general Alejandro Jara claims "it is wrong to think uni-dimensionally of imports sucking jobs out of the economy and exports creating them." While European Union trade commissioner Karel de Gucht says: "When we look at trade in value as opposed to traditional statistics, our trade deficit with China is reduced by 36%".
The most frequently quoted example is the iPhone, which costs about $180 to make. But, though it looks like an import from China (because that's where it's assembled), just 3.6% of its production costs are incurred in China - and its $180 production cost is massively outweighed by the $320 added before a US customer buys it in shipment, retailer margin and Apple profits.
So hoping the argument will be helped by better data, the EU and WTO have launched the World Input-Output Database.
Pronounce its acronym (WIOD) and you wonder why these government organisations are so determined to shoot themselves in their clodhopping feet (could they really not have chosen a less unfortunate name?).
Because, when you use WIOD to understand the apparel market, it doesn't demonstrate massive value added in Western economies. For the UK, for example, WIOD shows the cost of domestic manufacturing inputs made up just 8% of the 2009 (latest data quoted) apparel market - down from 27% in 1995. Retail gross margin and transport accounted for 52% of the GBP39bn (US$63bn) consumers spent (up from 44% in 1995).
As many manufacturers have long suspected, WIOD seems to imply that offshoring production has just meant more cash for retailers. The real truth is probably a lot more complicated - but WIOD certainly isn't showing a colossal boom in job opportunities for Western apparel designers.
2: Media fascination
In the UK alone, in the past month or so there have been two major channel, prime-time, multi-week reality TV shows about attempts to move textile production back to NW England. In each case, 12-20 British newcomers were recruited to a small sewing operation - where wages, though terrible by local standards, were still about five times higher than in China, while the newcomers' sewing productivity was lower and workers still dropped out.
At the time of writing this Rant, we don't know how one (a cushion factory) panned out, but the other (a slightly gimmicky range of ladies' panties) appears to be producing around 100,000 pairs a year from 11 machine operators.
Neither demonstrates that small-scale garment or home furnishing production in a developed country is unrealistic - especially if promoted with six hours of free TV advertising. But equally, neither puts forward a convincing case that the idea is scalable (dotcom-speak for "sustainably capable of growing into a profitable large-scale operation).
3: The real world intrudes
Between the showing of the two reality TV programmes, Aquascutum - a 200-year old UK apparel brand with a strong following in Asia - called in the receivers, who immediately closed its UK factory down, declaring 115 production workers (nearly three times the number in the two TV shows combined) redundant.
While Aquascutum's Asian franchisee (Hong Kong based YGM Trading) subsequently bought the brand and its merchandising staff, it showed no interest in acquiring the associated UK production. A few weeks earlier, Pringle of Scotland (which continues to outsource much of its production from small producers in southern Scotland) parted company with its creative director after only a year.
Pringle's owners - a group of companies controlled by Hong Kong's Fang Brothers - had just reported their fifth year of losses at Pringle, a further injection of $16.5m and that they "are not expecting to report operating profits in the short term."
YGM and Fang Brothers are well capitalised and have an exemplary record of long-term thinking, propensity to invest, and professionally managing apparel production.
Both have shown real commitment to the Aquascutum and Pringle brands over the past few years. A "Made in England" or "Made in Scotland" label on an Aquascutum or Pringle garment might easily have a consumer value. Yet YGM sees no value in keeping Aquascutum UK manufacturing, and Fang Brothers still can't find a way of designing clothes that justifies the cost of sourcing them in Scotland.
No economic sense
The sad fact is that mass garment production in the West just makes no economic sense as long as wages in the UK or US are five times greater than they are in China. China's government wants to double wages by 2015 - but Chinese garment factory owners will inevitably increase productivity, so the real cost of producing garments isn't going to converge the way Western manufacturers' advocates predict.
Even if China does get pricier, there are hundreds of thousands of factories, and tens of millions of workers, between China and Europe or North America, able to make most garments more efficiently than workers in Frankfurt or LA.
Media stunts, however well-intentioned, that try to whip up patriotic enthusiasm for buying products that a country has no natural advantage in making, inevitably peter out as soon as the TV or press campaign eases off.
British food producers have been trying it for decades, for example. And freshly grown British strawberries and asparagus, in their season, taste better than imports - so Britons will happily pay a premium for them, in a way few will pay a premium for British red wine or for processed food made in a British, rather than Polish, factory. The life-enhancing taste of each year's first Jersey Royal new potato (around GBP3 a kilo at my friendly neighbourhood designer deli) opens consumer wallets in a way flagwash about "Backing Britain" never does.
No sensible retailer will actually snub patriotic campaigns, so these media stunts inevitably get a reasonable amount of support in store for a while. Eventually, though, they'll wither away unless someone finds an area where rich-country production can get a real natural edge. Unless and until there's a complete reversal in the economics of garment making, or a catastrophic fall in Western wages, garment production won't be of any material help.
There is a future for garment production
This doesn't mean there's no future at all for Western garment production.
How many sewing machine operators were employed in the United States in 1997? According to the US Department of Labor (DoL), 501,090. And according to the same DoL database, there were still 142,860 in May 2011. But whereas in 1997, over 80% of operators worked in clothing manufacture, by last May only a third did. The number of operators in garment manufacture fell from 370,000 to 52,000.
But America's economy still needs nearly 150,000 people to operate sewing machines: for fast reaction garment production, for remediation work on imported garments, for home furnishings, in medical work and in dozens of other areas (like aircraft seats) where there are practical reasons production can't be moved abroad.
Businesses providing those sewing services need support (such as ready access to finance) and industry media need to campaign against the destructive myth that they're all doomed to disappear.
Talk to longstanding employees in such businesses on either side of the Atlantic and you find committed people doing a job they love. Talk to most external commentators and you find a widespread perception they're all exploited sweatshop victims in an industry that will be moved to Guangdong next week.
Which discourages banks from lending, prospective employees from applying, and zoning authorities from authorising the construction of job-intensive, environmentally-friendly new premises.
We all need to fight the silly misconceptions about an industry that employs hundreds of thousands in all the major Western nations. But no-one is served by naïve campaigns that seek to pretend hundreds of thousands of assembly jobs will return here. Because they won't.
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The Flanarant: Is garment production coming home?