Thursday, May 16, 2013

The Apparel Industry: From Cotton Plantations to Bangladesh

Cotton was first spun by machinery in England in 1730. English inventors in the 18th century began to automate textile cottage industry processes including carding, spinning and weaving. James Hargreaves developed the "Spinning Jenny", a device which replaced eight hand spinners in one operation. Richard Arkwright assembled these processes and started the first factory on the Derwent River in Cromford, England in 1771.

The industrial revolution in England and the invention of the cotton gin in 1793 paved the way for massive growth in the production of cotton in the United States, concentrated mostly in the South because of its climate.

The cotton gin could do the work 10 times faster than by hand, which made it possible to supply large quantities of cotton fiber to the fast-growing textile industry. Within 10 years, the value of the U.S. cotton crop rose from $150,000 to more than $8 million.

Cotton production exploded, and as a result, the South became even more dependent on plantations and slavery, with plantation agriculture becoming the largest sector of the Southern economy.

At the outset of the Civil War, most uniforms were custom-made in workers' homes under government contract. As the war continued, however, manufacturers started to build factories that could quickly and efficiently meet the growing demands of the military. Mass production of uniforms necessitated the development of standard sizes.

After the Emancipation Proclamation and the Southern Homestead Act, cotton prices went from a high of fifty-two cents a pound in 1866 to a low of 6 cents a pound in 1899. Afterwards, conditions began to improve for the next two decades, and cotton farmers realized a prosperity unmatched in American agriculture. Much of the farmers’ improved situation was due to World War I. Wartime demands for food and fiber led to a “golden age” in agriculture when cotton prices approached their Civil War levels.

But by the early 1920s, falling prices and rising surpluses created a crisis in rural America as thousands of farmers lost their land to foreclosure and were forced back into tenant farming and sharecropping.

Many moved from their farmsteads, some moved out of state; others gave up farming and relocated to the larger towns. Still others migrated and hired out as day laborers on the larger cotton plantations. The standard wage for “first picking” was six cents a pound. A hard worker could make six to eighteen dollars a day. Immigrants were also brought in to work on the cotton plantations.

Like the freed slaves, many of the displaced farmers also migrated to the Northern states and went to work in the textile factories. While cotton production had once dominated the economy of southern states, for half a century the textile industry had been one of the dominate industries in the northern states.

World War I and the naval blockage imposed by England on German shipping, and the use of U-boats by Germany to harass English vessels brought the realization that the United States must be independent of England and Germany for machinery and dyestuffs. New companies emerged to satisfy the war effort and remained strong for several decades following the war. World War II once again emphasized the need for self-sufficiency. Following World War II however, that all changed.

A new world order began to replace the "Made in the USA" ideas. After the Vietnam War ended, outsourcing to Asia escalated. Buying from the lowest cost producer drove many textile manufacturers out of the production side and into imports. Manufacturing companies changed into "marketing" companies. A man named Bennett Model helped pioneer the exporting of garments from China in 1975, and ever since then, his New York fashion company has searched for other countries, from Guatemala to Vietnam to Indonesia, capable of supplying the top apparel retailers.

The Garment District in Manhattan has been known since the early 20th century as the center for fashion manufacturing and fashion design in the United States, and even the world. While historically known as the center of textile manufacturing, global trends have changed the way the fashion industry in the Garment District functions.

Over the last 50 years, New York’s garment manufacturing sector has experienced a steady decline. This has occurred as a result of domestic manufacturers becoming less competitive in "the global marketplace" because foreign labor pools have taken a dominant role in manufacturing due to their significantly lower costs.

As an example: Today Bangladeshi wages are some of the lowest in the world, starting at roughly $37 a month. Factory conditions are often unsafe. Yet apparel brands have often sought to deflect any direct responsibility for the problems, while the Bangladesh government had often been tepid in protecting worker rights.

As for the cotton used in the manufacturing of apparel, many farmers in developing countries receive a low price for their cotton produce, or find it difficult to compete with developed countries such as the US, who receive government subsidies ($32.3 billion from 1995-2011). The generous American subsidies violated the commitments that the US made when it joined the World Trade Organization (US cotton lobbyists spend $600,000 last year).

But the cotton industries of some countries are also criticized for employing child labor and damaging workers' health by exposure to pesticides used in production.

Today, the world uses more cotton than any other fiber, and cotton is a leading cash crop in the US. The largest producers of cotton are China and India; but the largest exporters of raw cotton is the United States and Africa, but neither country has a significant domestic textile industry, since textile manufacturing moved to countries such as India and China.

Ever since the factory fire and building collapse in Bangladesh that left 1,127 people dead, a few American and European garment companies have signed the "Bangladesh Fire and Building Safety Agreement" --- but Gap Inc and Wal-Mart are two of the largest who have not. Wal-Mart announced that it would put in place its own safety measures at the factories it's using in Bangladesh, and said its "factory monitors" would conduct in-depth safety inspections at the 279 factories it uses in Bangladesh.

Recently Bangladesh’s cabinet approved changes in their labor laws, so the relentless search by multinationals for new locations has taken on more urgency --- from Cambodia to Vietnam to Indonesia (and many other countries you may have never heard about). Indonesian garment executives say they have seen a steady procession of arrivals in recent weeks and months, always asking the same questions about political stability, labor laws, safety compliance and wages.

Some newly opened factories have started competing for scarce seamstresses by offering free meals and free health insurance. Construction companies are struggling to find enough workers to build all the garment factories that are now being carved out of the forests of coconut palms, banana trees and conifers that carpet central Java.

One man recounts his own experience: "I was in an industrial park in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, as a textiles executive pitched me on becoming a rich T-shirt manufacturer. It was easy, he said, to teach basic sewing to even the most poorly educated farmers. If I could spend $500,000 on used sewing machines, rent a concrete building with no air-conditioning and hire a few dozen peasants for around $3 per day, I could recoup my investment within two years. And if it didn’t work out, he noted, I could sell the equipment to an entrepreneur in another poor nation."

Nearly every rich country has gone through a “T-shirt phase” — an economic period in which there are a significant number of poor farmers who, rather than toil on unproductive land, will accept harsh working conditions and low wages in textile and apparel factories.

And then if higher wages are ever demanded by the exploited workers, or if new government regulations are ever enacted, the multinational corporations outsource from that country to another --- just like a group of nomadic gypsies --- picking up their tent and moving on to another town to fleece other naive citizens, always in search of the lowest wages and least regulations for the maximum profits --- deploying "free enterprise" on a global scale.

Their companies are raking in record-breaking profits, as their corporate executives are raking in record-breaking salaries. As wages continue to decline in the US, as more jobs are being sent overseas, we'll wait for another industrial disaster to happen in some other far-flung country that we might not yet even know exists today.

1 comment:

  1. If we didn't already know, recent events have shown us the real price of outsourced goods.