John Miller is a professor of economics at Wheaton College (Norton, Mass.) and a member of the editorial collective at Dollars & Sense magazine. This article is forthcoming in the September/October 2017 Special Labor Issue of Dollars & Sense.
Reports that the President’s and his daughter’s clothing lines are not made in the United States put the lie to the White House’s “Made in America Week” this past July.
It was the height of hypocrisy. With the exception of his “Make American Great Again” hats and a few suits that are “stitched” in the United States, everything in Donald Trump’s clothing line, even the ties, is made in China and other developing countries, not the United States. And not one of the 838 products—garments, accessories, and shoes—advertised on Ivanka Trump’s website is made exclusively in the United States.
The Garment Supply Chain and the Trump Brand
That Trump brand garments are made outside the United States is hardly unusual. In 2015, according to the American Apparel and Footwear Association (AAFA), 97% of clothing consumed in the United States was imported. China, the top country of origin, supplied over one-third (35.9% by value) of U.S. apparel imports, followed by Vietnam, Bangladesh, Indonesia, and then nearly 150 other countries.
Garments are designed, produced, marketed, and sold through a multilayer, multinational supply chain. Typically, brand-name retailers, headquartered in either western Europe or the United States, develop designs for an ever-changing line of fashionable clothing. The retailers’ buyers then place orders across the developing world, negotiating with competing manufacturers—the contractors—over the materials used, the delivery date, and the price. Larger contractors often subcontract production to smaller factories, typically with fewer quality controls, worse working conditions, and lower costs, which they keep to a minimum by hiring and firing workers to match demand and forcing them to work overtime.
This global supply chain relentlessly drives down costs. For example, in 2013 a pair of George jeans made in Bangladesh sold for £14, or $22, at Asda, a British subsidiary of Walmart. Bloomberg BusinessWeek reports that Walmart paid out just $1.16 per pair of jeans to the Sepal Group, a large Bangladeshi manufacturer to make the jeans. Sepal pocketed 26 cents per pair of jeans and the remaining 90 cents went to cover factory costs (excluding materials). If garment workers in Sepal Group factories were paid the Bangladesh minimum wage of $68 per month and worked 50 hours a week, about 45 cents per pair of jeans would have gone to wages.
The supply chain for Trump garments is similarly international, penny-pinching, and exploitative. Let’s take a closer look at the Ivanka Trump line, which is far larger and more profitable than the now nearly defunct Donald Trump clothing line.
In 2012, the Ivanka Trump Brand, which employs just twelve employees, signed a licensing agreement with G-III, an apparel group whose clients include large brands such as Guess, Calvin Klein, and Donna Karan, and other celebrity brands such as Jessica Simpson. G-III, located in the New York City garment district, designs the brand’s line of clothes and accessories. The company’s buyers then place orders for the manufacture of those designs with contractors in China, Indonesia, Bangladesh, and other developing countries. G-III also imports the finished garments and accessories and distributes them to retailers throughout North America. The $157 blush-colored sheath dress Ivanka Trump wore to address the Republican Convention last year and other Ivanka-branded dresses, blouses, coats, denim jeans, and handbags are sold in department stores, such as Macy’s and Dillard’s, in discount outlets such as T.J. Maxx and DSW, and online by Amazon. Later this year, the Ivanka Trump Brand will open its own store in Trump Tower.
The workers who stitch and sew garments for the Ivanka Trump brand and other international brands are not only poorly paid. Garment workers, who are overwhelmingly women with few other employment opportunities, work long hours often without days off, and have been subjected to physical abuse, pregnancy tests, and other indignities. They work under dangerous conditions that have cost them their health, their limbs, and even their lives.
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