Fluorescent lights illuminate neon crop tops and fake cut-off shorts while loud, thumping music acts as a backdrop for consumers to shop against. Forever 21 is a sea of disorganized chaos: acid wash shorts next to olive green sundresses and flower crowns next to platform sandals. Fast fashion outlets like Forever 21 and H&M have been thriving off of consumerism and selling trendy clothing for cheap.
Two young women perusing colored denim sandals commented on their shopping habits. “We usually shop places like Forever21 and Kohls,” 20 year old Karen said.
“I shop for things based on what I see on social media, like Instagram models,” Alexis, 22, added. Consumers are unknowingly spending money on clothing that has been mass produced in foreign countries with cheap labor and harmful environmental methods.
The United States’ recent political climate is putting a lot of strain and making a lot of promises about restoring this country into the front-runner in apparel production and manufacturing that it once was.
According to FashionUnited, a recognized website for information about the industry, the United States imports over 100 billion dollars of textiles and exports only 22 billion dollars. This deficit begs the question, how can the United States survive a global industry with a nationalistic attitude?
“It’s foolish to think it’s not going to be global,” Dr. Julie Becker, a current professor at Eastern Michigan University and former professional in production at La-Z Boy Inc. said.
In an era of fast fashion and prices being more important than quality, American made products suffer. American Apparel recently went bankrupt because of their attempt to produce and manufacture solely in the United States.
“It really comes down to the consumer,” Dr. Becker said. “We need garments made with more aesthetic design. They need to be custom-made and better fitted. Involve the customer in being a part of the design process.”
Making sure that companies have the means to answer the heavy demands of mass customization is another concern for businesses wishing to reshore. “Customers will overwhelmingly be involved in customization if it’s available,” Dr. Becker said. “The government needs to offer breaks to companies producing goods in the United States.”
Dave Gardner, the managing director of the Sewn Products and Equipment Suppliers of the Americas (SPESA), warned that reshoring does not guarantee jobs.
“Saying that jobs are going to come back is a stretch. Apparel industry production is coming back. There’s a big difference between production and jobs,” Gardner said.
With two companies just opening plants near her school, Dr. Becker was slightly more optimistic about the return of jobs. “Things are happening here. The marine and automotive business are coming here for training.”
This point is something that Gardner agrees with. “German machine companies say that the United States is their number one growth market to sell automated machines. China was number one for the past 20 years.”
Other than production and manufacturing, the issue comes to whether or not the consumer will purchase goods made in the United States with the increase in price.
“I probably wouldn’t buy something that was environmentally safe, as bad as that sounds,” Karen said. “I don’t read labels, I don’t pay attention.”
“I shop mostly based on aesthetics and price. I don’t think about stuff like that,” Alexis added, referring to clothing that was made consciously. According to the everyday consumer, they don’t think about what goes into their clothing or where it comes from.
Even people in the industry who are aware of the dangers of fast fashion aren’t immune to their cheap trend prices. New York City resident and styling assistant Kayla McGovern explained, “I’m familiar with fast fashion and it’s a machine I have mixed feelings about. I am extremely against the harmful effects it has on the workers involved in producing the clothing as well as on the environment. I do, however, shop at fast fashion stores, like Urban Outfitters and Zara, because at this point in my life I cannot afford to always buy designer.”
If production and manufacturing can manage to return to the United States, it would take a lot of advertising and consumer awareness to be successful. As a business, the apparel industry is both responsible for and dependent on their consumers. In a time when so many factors are up in the air, the apparel industry must adapt to survive, and this time that adaptation is to educate consumers.