Despite terrible decade, U.S. textiles see ‘silver lining’

Published 2:52 pm Monday, December 22, 2008

Of all the U.S. textile plant closings NCTO has counted since 1997, 20 percent occurred in 2001, and another 13 percent in 2003. By comparison, 2008 saw just 4 percent of the total closings.

While certainly driving down business, some of the clouds now hovering over the economy ‐ gas price shocks, recession ‐ may actually carry a silver lining for the U.S. textile industry, Hubbard said in a recent interview from his regional office in Gastonia. N.C. a textile powerhouse

That would certainly be good news for North Carolina, a global, textile powerhouse.

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Just 12 years ago, there were 2,153 textile and apparel plants employing 233,715 people in North Carolina, according to a report by the Duke University&squo;s Fuqua School of Business.

By 2006, there had been a 40 percent decline in the number of N.C. plants, to 1,282 plants, and a 65 percent decrease in employment, to 80,232 workers.

Not surprisingly, according to NCTO&squo;s count, the largest number of textile plant closings in the U.S. since 1997, 36 percent of the total, were North Carolina closings. Eighteen percent were South Carolina closings, and another 20 percent were in Georgia, Virginia and Alabama.

The devastation for textile workers has certainly been felt in Western North Carolina and Upstate South Carolina.

Rutherford County, Polk County&squo;s neighbor to the east, saw five textile and apparel plants close in 2003, following closely on the heels of three closings in 1999. Most recently, the 225-job Cone Denim plant closed in 2005, bringing the total of Rutherford County job losses to around 3,300 in just seven years.

Even in Polk County, where large plants were nonexistent, there have been significant job losses. Stonecutter Textiles closed in 1999. Stonecutter, which closed its Rutherford plant at the same time, employed up to 250 in Mill Spring making greige (pronounced &dquo;gray&dquo;) goods, that is, fabrics that are taken directly from the weaving or knitting machine and are not given any finishing whatsoever.

Just last October, another 30 jobs were lost when Grover Industries Inc. closed its plant in Lynn, a dye house for &dquo;coarse count&dquo; yarns made primarily for furniture fabrics.

Help from $4 gas

The current economy is damaging, as companies struggle against the recession, Hubbard said. But the economic downturn has some redeeming qualities for the U.S. textile and apparel companies which have hung on.

Take higher fuel costs, for one.

&dquo;The perverse truth of high fuel costs is that it helps domestic manufacturing,&dquo; Hubbard said. That&squo;s because higher shipping costs level out the playing field with countries like China.

NCTO&squo;s lobbying efforts these days are often aimed at creating fair trade policies with China, particularly in maintaining and extending trade agreements which set limits on Chinese textile imports.

NCTO also wants American trade negotiators to push China toward fairness. The Chinese undervalue their textile products 40 percent, Hubbard said, by subsidizing the industry and manipulating the Chinese currency.

When gas hit $4 per gallon last summer &dquo;the cost of (renting) a shipping container went from $2,000 to $8,000,&dquo; and that shipping cost cut China&squo;s price advantage, Hubbard said.

The cost of gasoline may have dropped again, but Hubbard said, &dquo;Retailers are starting to look at total cost packaging. You can get the T-shirt, or the jeans for a price, but what about seconds? If a whole container is bad, what are you going to do? Ship it all the way back to China? No, you&squo;re going to eat it.&dquo;

The world is also recognizing China&squo;s many problems, Hubbard said. China is poisoning its own air and water, and too many products made in China have been flawed.

Even the &dquo;low cost&dquo; retailers, led by Wal-Mart and Target, are moving toward sourcing their merchandise from employers that are using best practices toward labor and the environment.

Wal-Mart announced in October that in January, 2009, the company will begin phasing in a new supplier agreement which will require manufacturers to adhere to specific social and environmental criteria. This will include a ban on child labor, forced labor and pay below the local minimum wage.

Chinese manufacturers already face rising wages as more people move to the cities, as well as competition from other low wage countries.

Manufacturers of &dquo;commodity goods,&dquo; products which have the same value no matter where they are made, follow the cheapest labor.

U.S. consulting firm Jassin O&squo;Rourke reported this year that seven Asian countries are now offering lower labor costs than China. Labor in Bangladesh costs 22 cents per hour, a rate five times lower than the $1.08 per hour being paid in China&squo;s richest coastal areas.

While the U.S. textile and apparel industry has shed most low-wage jobs, it continues to lead in products requiring technology. Much of the textile industry is now very high tech and capital intensive, Hubbard points out. Yarn has become a high tech industry, he said.

In fact, much of the job loss in the North Carolina textile industry is due not to offshoring, but instead to rapid advances in technology and productivity, according to Duke University&squo;s report.

CAFTA good for business

The current economic slowdown is also causing retailers to be more nimble in their ordering, seeking shorter turn-arounds for smaller orders. That is good for American textile manufacturers, Hubbard said.

Retailers facing questionable sales don&squo;t want to have to place massive orders, six months in advance. Instead, Hubbard pointed out, they are more often now locally sourcing (in this hemisphere) to keep their inventories low, and to allow for shorter turn around time from order to delivery.

&dquo;Hopefully, when retailers source with U.S. manufacturers, they also see the better quality,&dquo; he said.

The U.S. textile industry benefited from the North America Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), which in 1993 removed trade barriers between Canada, Mexico and the United States, and from the Dominican Republic-Central America Free Trade Agreement (DR-CAFTA), which did the same for the U.S. and Central American countries in 2005, Hubbard said.

&dquo;(NAFTA and CAFTA) give us someone to sell to,&dquo; Hubbard said. &dquo;If (a textile product) is sewn in a NAFTA or CAFTA country, there is a 70 percent chance we (Americans) produce part of that product.&dquo;

Labor intensive jobs, like cutting, trimming and sewing, which &dquo;take human eyes,&dquo; are finding a new home in CAFTA countries. Knitting companies have flocked to Honduras, making that country the U.S. textile industry&squo;s largest export market, Hubbard said. In turn, Central America now makes 20 percent of the apparel sold in the United States.

&dquo;Knitting machines are cheap and mobile,&dquo; Hubbard explained. &dquo;Honduran knitters make three times the (Honduras) average wage. These are &squo;to die for&squo; jobs there.&dquo;

American yarn exports to DR-CAFTA countries are up 1,132 percent since 2000, Hubbard said, up 70 percent just since 2005.

Central America and the Dominican Republic were better trading partners than Asia even before CAFTA. In 2004, the region&squo;s countries together bought $2.61 billion of U.S. fabric and textile exports, ten times what China bought from U.S. manufacturers that year.

Foreign investments

Because the United States is technologically advanced and &dquo;business friendly,&dquo; Hubbard said, foreign textile companies are actually building plants in the United States now.

Grupo Zaga S.A. de CV, a Mexico-based conglomerate, and seven N.C. textile executives are investing $75 million this year and next building two plants to produce cotton sales yarn with 160 workers in Louisiana, close to the Bayou State&squo;s cotton crop.

Santana Textile HQ Brazil has announced plans to open a $170 million denim mill in Edinburg, TX, creating 800 new jobs.

Foreign investment is also coming in for manufacturing &dquo;non-wovens,&dquo; fabrics, such as felt, which are neither woven nor knitted. In recent years, non-wovens have become an alternative to polyurethane foam and require greater technological skills to manufacture.

The relatively inexpensive cost of electricity in the United States encourages manufacturers looking for a place to do business, Hubbard said. Electricity prices in the U.S. are among the lowest in the world, less than 50 percent of most countries in Europe, according to University of Michigan professor Mark J. Perry.

The domestic textile industry is not out of the woods, and the downtown is hurting many right now. Housing carpets are slow, Hubbard said. The apparel industry was busy &dquo;up until last September.&dquo; Some companies are struggling with the lack of credit.

But the industry in 2005 was still contributing $23 billion to the U.S. Gross Domestic Product, about two tenths of a percent of the entire U.S. economy. The U.S. textile industry consumed just over two billion pounds of U.S. grown cotton in 2006.

Textile industry jobs in the United States continue to pay an average of 13 percent more than jobs in service and retail, with better benefits, according to NCTO.

&dquo;There are billions of dollars invested in U.S. textile plant and equipment,&dquo; Hubbard said. &dquo;The industry may get smaller but it is not going to go away. We need the textile industry, in order not to be dependent upon the rest of the world&dquo; for ‐ well, the very clothes on our back.