Trump’s apparel manufacturing strategy open to debate

By Bart Taylor | Mar 05, 2016

Enter manufacturing into the GOP presidential debates.

Is it reasonable for Marco Rubio to criticize Donald Trump for manufacturing his clothing line in China and Mexico and not the United States? Yes and no.

As we've chronicled the past two years, it's simply not feasible for most high-volume apparel brands to locate primary manufacturing in the United States. The recent push to reestablish viable cut-and-sew infrastructure domestically notwithstanding, the U.S. effectively gave up on making apparel and sewn products like athletic shoes three decades ago.

Supply Chain Digest published Federal Reserve data recently that demonstrates the point.

The Federal Reserve began tracking manufacturing output by 'Key Sectors' in 1985. The apparel industry "saw its peak output level all the way back in January 1986," SCDigest concludes, "and since then, U.S. apparel production decline 82.3 percent, the most of any industrial sector."

As a practical matter this means that most any apparel or sewn-product brands wanting to manufacture in volume must go elsewhere to find reasonably priced labor, or access to raw materials and other supply-chain resources. The Trump Collection's no different.

Is Rubio correct in questioning Trump's commitment to move manufacturing back to the U.S.? "The answer is he is not going to do it," he proclaimed. "And you know why? The reason he makes it in China or Mexico is because he can make more money on it."

More accurately, Trump won't, likely because he can't make any money doing it. He'd be out of business.

On the flip side, it's possible to commit to a U.S.-made strategy, difficulties be damned. Two weeks ago, I was in downtown Los Angeles at American Apparel, meeting with Brad Gebhard, AA's new president. Gebhard and a new management team are lifting North America's largest apparel manufacturer out of bankruptcy with a new plan and renewed commitment to domestic-made clothing. AA employs thousands of sewers, assemblers, and finishers. It's a miasma of immigrant labor, mostly, an eye-opening, teeming urban ecosystem. It's a sight to behold.

A more nuanced critique of Trump's manufacturing strategy would point out American Apparel's commitment to an immigrant workforce, that U.S. apparel can make a comeback on a large scale given smart, reasonable immigration reform. The contrast with Trump's remarks -- and his business strategy -- would be easy to make and reality-based.

Indeed, Trump could have made the gutsy and pro-manufacturing decision to invest in developing a more robust domestic manufacturing operation to support his apparel ambitions. We see it happening all over the U.S. in other industry sectors with companies from Tesla Motors to local upstarts like Modular Robotics.

The scale would be smaller but the potential upside greater -- a brand informed by quality, by an authentic commitment to American workers.

Unfortunately, Trump's apparel strategy betrays this new American-made ethos. His actions also keep American jobs offshore, when he has opportunity to invest in U.S. manufacturing and doesn't, and where advocacy of immigrant labor would advance the economic discussion and not stifle it.

Rubio didn't make that point -- in part because he's also yet to articulate a plan to reform immigration in a way that would boost U.S. manufacturing.

More next week on the Fed data outlined above: It speaks pointedly to Colorado's manufacturing opportunity and our own shortcomings in pursuing a supercharged industrial comeback.

Bart Taylor is publisher of CompanyWeek. Contact him at