One common thread throughout generations has been the influence of clothing on cultures and societies globally. Subtly or not, what you wear represents who you are and is one of the first things people notice about you. Mark Twain famously wrote, “Clothes make the man. Naked people have little or no influence on society.”
So isn’t it time we took that influence more seriously?
Status of the U.S. apparel market
In 2010, U.S. households spent an average of $1,700 on clothing, representing 3.5% of the average household expenditures each year. On average, each person purchased 62 garments, totaling 20 billion garments in 2012 – more than $350 billion on new clothes. Not surprisingly, the U.S. apparel market is the largest in the world, making up 28% of the total global apparel market. In fact, our domestic apparel industry is larger than the U.S. video game industry, fast food industry, soft drink industry, alcoholic beverage industry, and even the automobile industry.
But even with the booming apparel industry, the number of manufacturing jobs has declined by more than 80% – from approximately 900,000 in 1990 to 150,000 today. And the percentage of clothes we purchase that are made domestically has plummeted from 95% half a century ago to just over 2% in recent years.
Why is that? Well, most of our current apparel is sourced from China, Mexico, Vietnam, Indonesia, Bangladesh, Columbia, Honduras and other developing countries. Beginning in the mid 1970s, large factories and textile mills opened their doors for business in China and other countries throughout Asia and Latin America. In search of significantly cheaper labor and raw materials, retailers like Gap and J.C. Penny led the transition to overseas production. And the North American Free Trade Agreement, established in the 1990s, helped the process by breaking down trade barriers and allowing for an increasing number of foreign manufacturing and goods to enter the U.S. market.
Shifting to quantity over quality
But here’s the thing: overseas manufacturing both lowered the price of garments and shifted the purchasing habits of consumers. In 1960, American households spent over 10% of their total annual budget on apparel. Currently, as mentioned above, they spend Americans spend only 3.5% of their budget, with the average price per garment in the U.S. sitting at only $19.
Not only did the amount spent on clothing decrease, so did the quality. The cheaper costs also inspired a culture of ‘disposable’ clothing. Our closets are full of unworn clothing. This phenomenon isn’t just occurring domestically; an estimated $46.7 billion worth of unworn clothes lingers in consumers’ closets in the U.K.
So, what can you do?
The apparel and fashion industry constantly re-invents itself. Annually, 232,000 individuals attend New York Fashion week, infusing $20 million into the New York City economy in those few days alone. So how can we leverage this constantly evolving industry to revitalize our U.S. apparel market and its domestic designers and manufacturers?
Bring the focus back to quality
Think of clothing as an investment. Purchase key items that you can use in many situations. Instead of purchasing 60+ garments a year, try to decrease it by 25% and think more about when and where you can use each item. It may go against our current culture, fueled by impromptu purchases of cheap clothing, but it’s possible if you think of your closet as something that presents your identity to the outside world. Why be impulsive with your identity
Be a conscientious shopper
As a consumer, realize how much power you have. You have the ability to make a positive change in what the domestic economy looks like, one step at a time. If you’re going to spend your money, you might as well make it count. Would you rather have your money go towards promoting new designers and manufacturers in U.S. cities or faraway companies in countries such as China and Bangladesh? Seize this opportunity to change the tide and shift society to making conscientious decisions when shopping.
Do your research and promote
Take a minute to look at the tag. Let others know that what they’re paying for isn’t just some fabric stitched together. It’s jobs, it’s small businesses, and it’s individuals who are trying to make a positive difference by supporting and developing our economy. You can be on the vanguard of this trend by showcasing all of the amazing domestic designers we have making beautiful and artistic pieces.
The future of our domestic apparel market isn’t set. The industry is constantly evolving and every purchase we make helps determine which way we want the industry to shift. There is a renaissance happening in cities throughout the U.S. where bland worldwide chains are being replaced with vibrant local restaurants, bars and stores, with every new designer and company giving consumers more choice. Let’s collectively utilize our purchasing power to change the face of the apparel industry in the U.S. and reestablish our country as a great place to design and manufacture clothes, not just buy them.
Sources: PBS, New York Times, American Apparel and Footwear Association, Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, World Trade Organization, New York Fashion Week
Merry Walker is the co-founder of Fabricale, an online retailer with the mission of empowering consumers to discover designers and brands that use fair labor practices and manufacture in the U.S.