For years, many American companies have been chasing lower costs and wages overseas. The net effect has been a manufacturing supply chain with little diversification beyond China. Now, in an emerging manufacturing landscape trigged by the coronavirus and the shortage of medical goods, the U.S. apparel and textile industries are revealing how their intact supplier networks—though thinned over the years—can respond nimbly to a crisis, and produce goods fast.
At a macro level, global manufacturing is a giant car pileup, with many businesses waiting on China-sourced components. Some half of U.S. businesses report they can’t even get logistics information from China suppliers—let alone delivered goods, according to an Institute for Supply Management (ISM) survey released last month.
Amid this chaos, at least one remaining pocket of American manufacturing—“Made in USA” textile and apparel companies—is showing that supply infrastructures, though slightly worn over the decades, can pivot hard and respond in a crisis, even during a global pandemic.
As the deadly virus touched down on America and began spreading, an interconnected hub of U.S. cotton farmers, yarn producers, fabric makers, shop floor managers, and seamstresses sprung into action last month. They dropped whatever they were making—pants, sweatshirts, and underwear—and began reimagining their infrastructures for non-medical masks, as well as medical face masks and PPE (personal protective equipment) for healthcare workers and others on the front lines.
U.S.-based businesses emphasize having access to local mills, plants, and suppliers, allowing producers to turn around sampling and production quickly, which makes speed-to-market possible. “We just pick and choose a fabric, make a pattern and we go,” said Joe Willis, co-founder of City Threads which makes kids apparel (up to 16 years). Based in downtown Los Angeles, they’ve suspended normal work to exclusively produce masks for essential, non-medical workers including grocery store clerks. The CDC has recommended the voluntary use of cloth face coverings.
“This highly complex, multinational supply chain is fragile and vulnerable to fundamental disruption,” according to Bayard Winthrop, founder and chief executive of American Giant. He made the comments in a LinkedIn post last month. Based in San Francisco, American Giant had a domestic supplier network in place prior to the pandemic. They’ve transitioned from making popular sweatshirts and other apparel to medical masks certified by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). “COVID-19 is a wake-up call,” according to Winthrop of American Giant.
Photo info / A seamstress at Eagle Sportswear, a knitwear plant in Middlesex, N.C. that's owned by U.S. apparel maker American Giant, makes medical face masks. (Image credit: American Giant)