These are important questions the textiles and apparel industries are pondering. US consumers assign higher value to clothing assembled in America, according to recent research published in the Clothing and Textiles Research Journal from the University of Missouri. Participants in the MU study assigned a retail price of $40 to a shirt made in China and $57 to a shirt made in the US.
However, once participants were told that the cotton in the shirt was grown in the US, but the garment was assembled in China, the retail value changed to $47. The research indicates that educating consumers that apparel is made from fibers grown in the US will increase value for consumers, even if the item was assembled in China. The item will still be valued less than those assembled domestically, however.
As a result, the apparel and textile industries are considering a change to labeling requirements for garments. Currently, US clothing must have fiber content, country of origin, manufacturer, and care instructions in the label. But perhaps including fiber origin would make a product more appealing to US consumers.
The US is one of the largest cotton producers in the world and is the largest exporter, according to the National Cotton Council. Much of US cotton may be used in garments sewn around the world already. Based on this research, just adding “grown in the USA” to the label may help retailers command a higher price.
As my colleague Tracey Panek recently explained in her Bizmology post Looking for Clothes “Made in the USA,” few companies make all of their clothing in the US. Perhaps if Americans started buying more USA-made clothing, manufacturers would respond to that demand and move operations back to the US. However, the author of the MU study, assistant professor Jung Ha-Brookshire, says the higher value placed on domestically made clothing is actually a problem. According to Ha-Brookshire,
“[Americans] perceive those products to be too expensive and are less likely to buy them, opting instead to buy similar Chinese-made products perceived to be more in their price range. To help U.S. apparel businesses create and maintain domestic jobs, American consumers need to have a realistic understanding of the value of apparel made in the U.S.”
Panek pointed to Eileen Fisher and Karen Kane as brands made in the US (at least partly). But these are higher-end clothing brands. American Apparel, the well-known American-made clothing brand, is affordable but suffers from perceptions of higher prices, proving both Panek and Ha-Brookshire’s points: Affordable US-made clothing is not that easy to come by.
A “grown in the USA” or some similar label could help US clothing companies. The perceived value of clothing grown domestically but sewn abroad is higher than clothing completely made abroad, but not perceived to be as cost-prohibitive as clothing made entirely in the US.
How would more transparency in the clothing supply chain affect your purchases? Is US-made clothing important to you? Or is fair trade clothing more important than its origin?