WASHINGTON — The U.S. textile industry is on a mission to keep its resurgence going as it enters a new phase of cutting-edge textile and fiber innovation.
The industry, which has been leading the development of technology and fabrics for some years, could see a major expansion this year as the federal government and private sector team up to invest more resources in to revitalizing the industry.
Textile executives discussed their plans at a roundtable during the National Council of Textile Organization‘s annual meeting here this week. NCTO has also made a significant investment in a nearly yearlong re-branding public relations campaign to write a new narrative for the textile industry.
It all comes at a time when the industry is experiencing a resurgence borne out by increase in exports, production and capital investment.
“Between 1995 and 2009, our industry suffered through a historic and heartbreaking contraction that impacted countless workers and communities,” said Jeff Price, president of the specialty fabrics division at Milliken & Co. and outgoing chairman of NCTO, in his state of the industry presentation. “The last six years have been different. Emerging from the depths of a severe national recession, the U.S. textile sector has rebounded. Now, our challenge is both to sustain this impressive recovery and to find viable ways to generate a new era of growth.”
In 2015, the value of U.S. man-made fiber and filament, textile and apparel shipments totaled an estimated $76 billion, up 14 percent from 2009, according to NCTO. U.S. exports of fibers, textiles and apparel are up 38 percent over the same period, reaching $27.75 billion last year.
Capital expenditures for textile and apparel production totaled $2 billion in 2014, the last year for which data are available. U.S. employment in the textile supply chain, from fiber to fabric, was 579,000 in 2015.
After fanning out over Capitol Hill to meet with members of Congress, NCTO’s top board members held a briefing to outline their top trade priorities this year, their challenges and the potential for growth.
One big new opportunity for textile executives is a new public-private project. The Obama administration launched a $317 project dubbed the Revolutionary Fibers and Textiles Manufacturing Innovation Institute last month aimed at boosting the textile industry and keeping the U.S. at the forefront of fiber and textile innovation in the military, health care and commercial fields. It is comprised of 89 manufacturers, including Inman Mills and Milliken & Co., as well as universities and nonprofits and organized by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the Department of Defense under the banner of the Advanced Functional Fabrics of America.
Robert Chapman, chairman, chief executive officer and treasurer of Inman Mills, who was elected chairman of NCTO at the group’s annual meeting here, said of the new initiative, “It’s a different area and different product that we make today that we are trying to get into….Everybody is wanting to get a piece of the pie. When you throw $315 million out there, it is exciting to think about what could potentially happen.”
Price said of the investment and institute are an “affirmation of the industry itself and the innovation that we can bring to bear and the importance that we have not only to the military, but the U.S. economy as a whole.
“It’s way too early at this point to tell how the total impact is going to be and how commercially broad it will be,” he said. “I think the industry is up to it and I am looking forward to putting all of our effort toward it.”
Augustine Tantillo, president and ceo of NCTO, said, “DOD realizes, as do we, that these innovation don’t have just have a singular application, that in fact oftentimes in a multiple of three, five, 10 times greater there is an application on the commercials side, which is what’s enticing to us as an industry.”
Price said, “We are not the textile industry that everybody thinks we were 25 to 30 years ago. This is going to be one way for us to put that out there front and center and show what we are capable of doing.”
On the trade front, NCTO sees some challenges as the Obama administration accelerates negotiations with the European Union as part of the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, or T-TIP, trade agreement.
“We want our allies on Capitol Hill contacting the administration saying there are some bottom line issues for the U.S. textile industry in regards to T-TIP, so that we are all singing off of the same song sheet,” Tantillo said.
The two biggest issues for the industry are that the EU favors a more liberal rule of origin, a fabric-forward rule, as opposed to the stricter yarn forward rule that the U.S. supports. In addition, the EU is pressing for access to U.S. military contracts through the government procurement process, which currently only allows the DOD to purchase 100 percent American-made products from the fiber forward under the Berry Amendment.
“Our company participates very heavily in providing uniforms for soldiers in the field,” Chapman said. “We make yarn and we make fabric, and we sell it to someone else who prints it and finishes it, so it is extremely important to us that it continues to be made in the U.S. We insist on the Berry Amendment and no deviation from it.”
A NCTO spokesman said DOD’s Defense Logistics agency’s purchases for the military were about $1.4 billion to $1.5 billion in 2015, down from $2.2 billion to $2.3 billion in the mid-Aughts.
Re-branding is also a key drive this year for NCTO, which hired public relations firm Wray Ward last year to develop and launch its new initiative.
“Our image was tarnished so much 15 years ago when we downsized,” Chapman said. “We lost so many workers and [younger workers] would not come into the industry. Their parents who lost jobs would tell them don’t go there. We are re-branding to say, ‘Look at us today.’ Because we’re a different industry.”
As part of the re-branding campaign, Wray Ward has created a video and magazine titled “Textures” that were unveiled at the annual meeting. The one-minute video begins with the words “We make more than textiles…” and goes on to highlight some of the applications that new ways innovative textiles are being, from athletes in performance-wear apparel to firefighter to soldiers in uniforms.
The logo for the new campaign is: “American Textiles: We Make Amazing.”
The “Textures” magazine portrays the new direction the industry is headed, ranging from green textiles to new science innovation in denim, activewear that “breathes on its own” to fabric innovations protecting soldiers.
Tantillo added, “There is a reason we’re still here and we want to tell that story as to what this industry as survivors has been able to do.”