I’ve been thinking about something I need some help with and I’ve hit a dead end, maybe you have some ideas. This concerns the future, what our industry will look like in ten years or twenty years. It concerns the price of energy and sustainability. Let me back track a little.
When eco-fashion and sustainability became a trend, I was cynical. The reason is because I’ve been on the sustainability and social responsibility bandwagon since I was nine years old when I started organizing bake sales to raise money to buy nesting area for the bald eagle. I’ve spent 35 years of my life being the weirdo hippie in the crowd. Everybody laughed at me or labeled me an ecological extremist and a doom-sayer. Whatever. Now it’s hip to be eco-aware, hence my cynicism – I am finally “cool”. Mindbending when you’re used to being on the outside looking in and everybody made fun of you for over-reacting. I’ve been thinking about eco-apparel, wondering if the eco-fashion thing would just be a fad, weaned out next year in favor of argyle socks. I do think it is a fad for some people, few of whom are willing to make substantive lifestyle changes required for dramatic and genuine change (thank me for skipping the why you should become a vegetarian lecture). In sum, the situation is such -with respect to energy prices and global warming- that focus on the environment is not a trend but a growing crisis we will be forced to confront in this industry. As such, how will this affect apparel production?
Gas prices will not go down, we’ve passed peak oil production and are now on the downward slope. Sure, we may see demand drop if we develop alternative energy sources but some argue we hit peak oil around the time I was manning the bake sale stand. If gas prices doubled over the next ten years, what would be the effect on our industry? What if prices tripled or quadrupled over twenty to twenty five years? This is very conservative; gas prices have quintupled in the past twenty five years, the increases absorbed and mitigated by worker productivity increases of the computer age. Considering the increasing tears in our social fabric and limitations on the horizon to increasing worker productivity, I cannot envision that disposable incomes will keep pace in the future as it did in the past. The incomes of generation me-ers as compared to housing costs are proof enough of that. Our poor will become poorer as will the middle class. As though this were news to anyone.
Loosely, my thought is that regional apparel production by DEs will be favored, a competitive advantage, the only sticking point being fabric supply considering the number of domestic mills that have shut down (not as though they sold to us anyway). Still, there is a trend toward the gestation of smaller domestic mills, Bamboosa is one (although they must absorb higher energy costs of importing their thread). I’m sure there are others but I can’t get a fix on them. Also, it is possible that Mexico will be picking up the slack (based on an article from last week’s Apparel News). There’s a lot of untapped thread production potential in Central America too.
I also think that as the cost of apparel (everything of course) will increase and it’s doubtful disposable incomes will keep pace with the costs of energy, that people will be less profligate with regard to clothing purchases. I imagine the tendency to be one of buying goods of better quality and longevity, more classics and fewer faddish fashion purchases. Again, this will favor DE production, disfavoring off shore apparel commodities.
In sum, due to the costs of shipping, I think apparel production will revert to some semblance of the idyllic 1950’s. We will see a return of regional production and clothing sales (we already are, many large companies are trying to get production slots in the states). Regarding even mass producers, I think production will get closer to the point of sale with Mexico and Central America favored over India and China. Previously, most producers sold within the region of the country in which they produced, empires weren’t so far flung. Most manufacturers produced for customers around them, people they could see. If you think about it, the complaints of sizing and the fitting of apparel has only become an issue since producers started selling to customers outside of their regional production environments. Generally, I view regional production as a positive. We used to have a lot of factories stuck in rural areas outside of larger cities. Many of those people, mostly women, never regained full time employment. It’s quite tragic really but maybe they’ll be the winners the next go round.
What would the effect on our industry be if gas prices doubled over the next ten years? What if they tripled or quadrupled over twenty to twenty five years? Any prognosticators in the crowd?