The apparel industry is like a constant global auction as production managers are held to finding the lowest possible cost on materials, labor and production costs. And even though most people look at garments and imagine that machines, elves or magic was responsible for instantly cutting, sewing and finishing – it’s all about human time and skill. No matter how mechanized or refined a production line is, there’s an awful lot of human time required for making things. In apparel labor has been one of the largest costs in producing a garment. China – the hero of low cost production has been largely responsible for changing that and creating massive volumes of cheap stuff.
Well, sort of.
A few decades ago “made in China” meant something else. The apparel industry, always searching for the lowest bidder became the connection for China’s new economy based on massive factory production and stent into hyper drive with preferred economic partner status in the 1990’s. China, unlike many other countries has no minimum wage. The skilled labor in creating a garment in NYC’s fashion district might be $85 per item, yet you could easily find a Chinese factory that will do it for $4.50. Volumes are higher, taxes and shipping becomes complicated and takes much longer, but for a long time it’s been too hard to resist those kinds of price variations. After all, it’s a lot easier to sell 300 $40. dresses than it is to sell 50 $900 dresses and we won’t even go into the wholesale and distribution margin problems. Fashion math is funny, but only if you’re not in the middle of it.
Now, some new developments are changing things again. Apparel it turns out isn’t really that lucrative, even at huge volumes, for Chinese factories. Other industries, like electronics, create a lot more profit thus labor and factories are losing interest in it. Fashion production on an industrial level it seems is kind of like an internship: you get experience and build out industrial capabilities, but you’re really just doing the foundation work for a mature industry that can start to demand regulation and things like fair treatment and even the possibility of a national minimum wage. Unsurprisingly the quality of manufacture and the prices of manufacture have gone up in China. It’s no longer the de facto lowest bidder and there’s already a big shift to places like south east asia and south america.
China is looking to develop luxury status, national brands and a better standard of living. In the meantime the majority of fashion producers jump to the next lowest cost producer, where ever that is. It’s no surprise that in more than 20 years of manufacturing being moved abroad the US manufacturing capabilities have been in rapid decline. As a small brand it’s frequently difficult to find facilities that can handle production beyond the most basic of items, such as T-Shirts. Several high level facilities produce beautiful things, only to be constantly on the verge of downsizing into being able to produce only one type of product or go out of business entirely. Some skills no longer exist in the US in a factory environment. Or they haven’t been learned or are not accessible in what looks like a comedy of errors. When people want to move production back to the US, it becomes a very interesting problem -even beyond the huge jump in cost.
It’s an interesting evolution, but as more designers and consumers want to make apparel domestically, there are enough problems that it’s helpful to remember what’s so great about it. It goes beyond current unemployment problems, but allows business to be more responsive, volumes and techniques to be better attuned to what consumers are really buying and more environmentally responsible. For anything so complex, it’s helpful to create basic guidelines that state a desire to “do good.” Some brands do this through blending domestic manufacture, organic or environmental certification in the materials used or choosing purchases based on fair trade principals. China is also beginning to participate more frequently in self regulation and it maybe that suppliers can choose factories in any location based on what certifications are important to consumers.
At that point we can imagine selecting manufacturing based on ethical, environmental and quality standards and challenge the idea of what the cost of something should be. But no matter what – it looks like the bad old days of cheap ‘made in China’ fast fashion is coming to a close. We have such an amazing opportunity as an industry and as people to choose what fashion is going to be like in the coming decades. Will it be a positive force for good with a emphasis on environmentally responsible materials and good jobs? I hope so.