It is early days when it comes to measuring reshoring in the clothing and textile sector, the return of production to mature markets from the Asian outsourcers who have dominated supply for the past decade. But industry experts and players in both the UK and US are sure that it is happening.

In Britain, John Miln, the CEO of the UK Fashion and Textile Association (UKFT), said: "I think that you could say across the piece that there is a degree of activity that clearly historically wasn’t there."

UKFT data shows that there are 58,000 businesses in the fashion and textile supply sector in the UK, contributing around GBP12bn (US$18.1bn) in gross value added to the UK economy per year, with annual exports of more than GBP8.6bn (US$13bn) at wholesale.

According to the British Fashion Council, the value, including retail sales, of the UK fashion industry to the UK economy grew from GBP21bn (US$31.7bn) in 2009 to GBP26bn (US$39.3bn) in 2014, with the fashion sector as a whole estimated to support 797,000 jobs in the UK.

Miln said: "I think as retailers’ buying programmes alter they are certainly buying closer to market, they are buying less frequently, and they’re probably buying closer to home so that they get speed to market, which avoids markdowns."

He pointed to Margaret Howell as an example of a UK brand that he said "works extremely hard to produce in the UK," as well as several major mass market retailers that he observed have been making significant efforts to source more from the UK, including Marks & Spencer, John Lewis, Jaeger, Arcadia Group and River Island.

He added that the UKFT’s ‘Let’s Make It Here’ website, a free online database where any company who manufactures textiles or apparel in the UK can be listed in order to be found by designers, brands or retailers, now features more than 400 companies, and is receiving up to 5,000 hits per day. He said that more than 60% of the hits come from overseas, and around 40% from the UK.

Miln said that as well as speed to market, other benefits of reshoring include greater accessibility, with visiting factories far easier, fewer mistakes in production, and a better gross margin. "If you have a good commitment with a factory you can buy less but more frequently," he explained. "You can repeat winners, and anything that’s not working you can cut out, so you’re not left with a long tail of inventory that you have to mark down."

However, Miln observed that the ability of UK brands and retailers to source from the UK is constrained by manufacturing capacity, explaining that there are few factories in the country able to meet sizeable apparel orders.

Looking ahead, though, he said: "I see no reason for the reshoring trend not to continue. I do believe that the major retailers and the bigger brands are trying to make some degree of inroads in producing in the UK."

US reshoring
Reshoring is also becoming increasingly evident in the US, spurred on by a combination of patriotism, concern for quality control and a lessening of wage differentials, particularly between the United States and China.

According to the US Reshoring Initiative, while some 30,000 to 50,000 jobs were offshored from America across all sectors in 2014, this represented a 70% decline from the 150,000 that left the USA in 2003. At the same time, an estimated 60,000 jobs were re-shored last year, a 400% increase from 2003.

Textiles and apparel are featured within this trend, although the vast majority of production continues to occur outside the US. While there has been some reshoring, the industry is lagging far behind other sectors. According to the Reshoring Initiative’s president Harry Moser, the sector currently produces about 2.4% domestically, up from 1.75% in 2003.

"Percentage-wise, we're seeing faster progress than any other industry, but from a smaller base," he said.

"There is a lot of enthusiasm for 'Made in USA' and a lot of reshoring in other sectors, but in the textile [and apparel] sector, it's more in terms of additional business not leaving and not reshoring," noted Julia Hughes, president of the United States Fashion Industry Association (USFIA).

The most promising areas have been the east and west coasts, where there has been a growth of domestic jobs…particularly in New York and Los Angeles, she said.

Clothing industry jobs
A prominent example of additional clothing industry jobs being created in the US is New York-listed American Apparel, which currently operates one of the largest sewing factories in North America, in downtown Los Angeles. The company has always focused its marketing on its opposition to offshoring and employs 6,000 at its Los Angeles headquarters and an additional 5,000 in outlets worldwide (about half in the US).

The company, which enjoys the distinction of being one of the few domestic apparel producers to export overseas, has labels on T-shirts and other garments with messages such as ‘Made in LA by a woman with healthcare for herself and her three children’.

On the other hand, Karen Kane, a designer who founded her namesake American company in 1979, has seen her company return American jobs from overseas, particularly over the past four years.

"We still import about 10%, but at one time it was about 50%," said her husband, Lonnie, who co-founded the privately held LA-based company, which employs 200. He noted that the company's reshoring initiatives have ramped up "pretty aggressively over the past four years."

"China was going through a number of changes, taking away government support from a lot of smaller companies," he said, explaining Karen Kane's reshoring initiatives, which he credits with bringing 40 jobs back home to work for the company itself.

He added this number is larger when taking into account additional business for domestic manufacturers, primarily in southern California. "The writing was on the wall that things were changing," he told just-style.

With additional reporting by Ed Zwirn.

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