U.S. textile woes starting to be felt at farm level

Some of you might remember that back during his first run at the U.S. presidency, Ross Perot made a comment about a “giant sucking sound,” a sound he said would be U.S. jobs going south of the border to Mexico, as a result of the NAFTA trade agreement. At the time, some folks scoffed at the diminutive Texan's prediction, but no more.

That “giant sucking sound” is being heard loud and clear here in the Southeast, especially as it relates to textile jobs. And, while NAFTA and other trade agreements are not the sole causes of the demise of the U.S. textile industry, they certainly are huge contributors.

Names that are familiar to most of us in the Southeast — WestPoint Stevens, Russell Corporation, Thomaston Mills, Pillowtex, Dan River and Avondale — all have been in the news lately. Each of these cotton mills and/or manufacturers has reported low earnings, job layoffs or plant closings. With each passing day, there seems to be more negative news concerning the U.S. textile industry.

And, for many communities, the demise of the textile industry isn't simply a matter of lost jobs and shuttered factories. Like farming, textile mills have meant more than just a job — they've represented a way of life.

In many small Southern communities, the textile companies originally provided housing for their employees in “mill villages.” Some companies also helped to finance the infrastructure of small towns, and they made significant contributions to schools and recreation.

But those days are a part of history. U.S. textile mills now are struggling just to stay in business. Since 1997, U.S. textile mill business declined from 11.4 million bales to a projected 8.5 million bales in 2001 — a decline of more than 20 percent.

A recent analysis from the National Cotton Council of America (NCC) shows that the entire U.S. cotton infrastructure is being undermined because of the textile industry's economic crisis. A surge in imported cotton products to the United States has decimated U.S. textile mills, according to Mark Lange, a NCC economist who authored the report.

“The U.S. textile industry is vanishing from our economic landscape,” says Lange. “This decline not only is harming textile workers and ancillary industries, but is damaging our natural fiber producers and the rural economy.”

It's imperative, says Lange, that U.S. agricultural trade policy recognize the fundamental economic relationship between the U.S. textile and cotton production sectors and “discover policies that can address the imbalances wrought by external economic forces or distortions in foreign industrial policies that damage U.S. manufacturing and agricultural interests.”

Imports of foreign-manufacture textile and apparel products made from foreign cottons are growing at a staggering rate, according to the NCC report.

Lange says the decline in U.S. mill demand for raw cotton directly affects the economic health of other U.S. cotton industry sectors, as the industry's infrastructure is dependent on the volume of business conducted between these sectors. U.S. cotton prices, he adds, have fallen amidst this decline in usage.

In early June of this year, the futures price of cotton was 41 cents, just one-half of the value at the time the 1995 farm bill was passed. “Combined with the difficulties stemming from highly variable raw cotton export opportunities, U.S futures markets have fallen steeply, and U.S. cotton growers are facing pricing well below USDA's estimated cost of production,” notes Lange.

The NCC report goes on to say that U.S. textiles are in this calamitous state despite being the world's most efficient textile industry. Even though numerous U.S. textile jobs have been lost in the past 20 years, mills have increased the pounds of cotton used from 200 per spinning position in 1980 to an estimated 1,400 pounds per position by 2000.

As in agriculture, increased efficiency hasn't translated into increased prosperity for all segments of the textile industry.

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