Saturday I got cozy with my computer, looking forward to an afternoon of researching the history of textile manufacturing in North Carolina, something I have wanted to do for a long time. I knew it wouldn’t all be rosy –since I was certain that the industry must have built itself in part around cotton and the exploitation of black people. The optimist in me filled in the rest of what I didn’t know with stories of hard working people building something great, providing livelihoods and creating great products they could be proud of. And this is all true. But there is a lot of other darkness and hardship there as well.
Like much of American industry, the story of textiles is a story of pressure to use cheap labor and expansion during wartime. E.i. – Minimize the costs (price of labor and resources) going into goods and then produce (and sell) as many of them as possible.
A basic timeline of the NC Textile Industry:
1820: Textiles began in North Carolina due to the abundance of cotton, lumber, water sources to power the mills and “cheap labor” (we know that more than 40% of the NC population at the time were slaves.
1861-65: The Civil War causes NC textile mills to expand beyond local markets and begin larger scale yarn manufacturing for the wider U.S market. Limited production of finished cotton textiles also begins.
1898: The first labor union comes to the NC textile industry.
1914-18: WWI causes an increase in demand for American-made textiles and NC textile mills proliferate
1939-45: WWII causes a high demand for synthetic fabrics growing and expanding NC synthetic fiber production
1970s: Environmental regulations and labor improvements take hold, textile manufacturing begins to move abroad and by mid-1980s imported clothing accounts for 43% of clothing bought in America.
1994: North America Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) signed by U.S., Mexico, and Canada
1997-2002: 100,000 NC jobs are lost in textiles and an additional 70,000 more are lost in apparel.
The challenging relationship between jobs, industry and the environment is not very different today than it has been for the past century and a half. 1) Companies move to places with lower wages (in the 1900s it was companies moving from the North down to the South of the U.S.), workers are taken advantage of working long hours for low pay, workers fight a steady fight for better pay and quality of life and then companies move to places where labor is cheaper and environmental regulations are less cumbersome.
I want to make clear that I am not demonizing the industry decision maker’s here. The reality is that when you have a system built around minimizing costs and maximizing output this is what we will naturally see happen in the absence of an intervention. (There are some great exceptions of companies that have stayed in the U.S. but when they are the exception, we know there is a problem with the rule.)
But the world has changed. We now know that our resources are not unlimited. Energy and materials have a real environmental cost. The last frontier for cheap labor was abroad and now we have a serious social problem from the vacuum that was left in the wake of the great job migration (1980-current). How does the current state of affairs change the equation? It is actually quite interesting to think about. Instead of operating under the assumption that we want to produce as much as possible for as little as possible (labor and material costs) we need a revised system. Producing in excess is no longer a sustainable model.
Rather, the current times warrant a rethinking of the value being created. What I would suggest is turning toward a system where we invest in getting the most out of each resource. Rewarding companies that efficiently produce exactly what we need, no more and no less. Where achievement is competing to produce the best quality and most innovative product for consumers using resources in the most efficient and least environmentally costly way. As I research how to do this in apparel via made to measure garments, I was elated to learn that investing in a skilled and team-focused workforce yields this sort of product: high quality control, individual and team rewards for excellent work that provides the individual consumer exactly what they want and minimizes waste. So in other words, the same actions that will decrease our environmental footprint can also help solve the job crisis.
How do we do this? The product cycle starts with consumer demand. Companies put ideas into production to meet consumer demand. When we demand large amounts of cheap stuff that is what they make. When we demand quality, sustainably made goods, where the workers who build them are respected and taken care of, that’s what begins to happen. It is a long, slow process, but changes are already being made. Take a look around at all the green products, and the emergence of employee owned companies.
Tara Brach did a beautiful talk this week on the inner and outer turmoil created by the election. She asked us to share our prayers about what we want to see come out of this time of great uncertainty. I would like to share mine here: that we take our anger, pain and frustration at a government and economy that is not working for our average American and use it to fuel a transformation in the way we live, work and relate to each other. At the heart of this transformation: An acknowledgement of our connection to each other and the planet so that the action we take aims to elevate the whole.