Globalization of the Textile Industry


The modern society is defined by the term “globalization”. We eat Italian food, drink French champagne, drive German cars, use Japanese technology and wear multi-national clothes. Countries and borders do not exist when it is about trade and commerce of any kind - cultures have become closer, people have come together. Movement of goods, people and capital becomes more and more easy making it easy for the global trade to thrive.

In a certain sense, the Western economy has been "global" since the sixteenth century with the African slave trade, colonialism, and the intercontinental trade in sugar and coffee making capitalism possible. But since the early 1980s, transnational corporations, cyber technology, and electronic mass media have spawned a web of tightly linked networks that cover the globe. Taken together, these forces have profoundly restructured the world economy, global culture, and individual daily lives. Nowhere are these changes more dramatic than in the ways dress and fashion are produced, marketed, sold, bought, worn, and thrown away.

For consumers in dominant Western countries, globalization means an abundance of fashions sold by giant retailers who can update inventory, make transnational trade deals, and coordinate worldwide distribution of goods at the click of a computer. It means that what people are consuming is less the clothing itself than the corporate brand or logo. Consumers are purchasing the fantasy images of sexual power, athleticism, cool attitude, or carefree joy these brands disseminate in lavish, ubiquitous, hyper-visible marketing on high-tech electronic media. But much less visible is the effect of globalization on the production of fashion.

As fashion images in magazines, music videos, films, the Internet and television speed their way around the world, they create a "global style" (Kaiser 1999) across borders and cultures. Blue jeans, T-shirts, athletic shoes and baseball caps adorn bodies everywhere from London and Milan to villages in Africa, styles and textile elements are borrowed from each other, global bazaars cater to consumers of every age, gender, ethnicity, profession, and subculture.

What are the elements that best describe the phenomenon “globalization” within the textile industry?

1. Outsourcing or subcontracting

No longer manufactured by the company whose label it bears, clothing from large retailers is manufactured through a network of contractors and subcontractors. The outsourcing or subcontracting system was quickly taken up by giant retail chains and today it represents the face of the textile industry worldwide.

By definition outsourcing involves companies from different countries (generally developed countries) who move out their manufacturing, marketing, and other back end tasks to other countries (generally developing countries). The process usually costs to the ordering company less than what they would pay at home for the same service – vastly a result of currency difference between the two countries as well as salary requirements for the same staff. Many times, this will get the work completed in just half the price of what they would pay in their country. 

There is a vast contrast, but a tight relation, between production in sweatshops in countries such as Mexico, China, Thailand, Romania, and Vietnam, where poverty is high and wages can be as low as 23 cents per hour and consumption in retail chains filled with glamorous images.

This inevitably caught the attention in the world of textile and leading textile manufacturers officially created fair working conditions. Statistics show that the Western countries are losing millions in manufacturing jobs, with employment in the industry falling up to 10% in the last 10 years.

The negative side of outsourcing is huge and well known and still this practice proved to have quiet a positive influence on the local markets: provided work for areas commonly known to have no such opportunities, provided infrastructure from buildings, through roads, bridges and ports, bringing a working mentality as well as greed. Understanding the benefits of outsourcing, many emerging economies have started targeting offshore clients. India and China suddenly faced competition from many other developing nations like Philippines, Vietnam, Bangladesh, Myanmar, Brazil, and even African countries. Countries with lower currency value are bagging outsourcing work for lesser prices than India and China. Due to competition for outsourcing projects among emerging nations, corporate offices can get their work done for very low prices.

The global community is becoming increasingly aware of the many issues of outsourcing and subcontracting and today various organizations and institutions staged protests against such firms at various points of time. The World Fair Trade Organization (WFTO) is one such organization working against sweatshops and unethical sourcing. Students, Non Governmental Organizations (NGOs), and many others have held protests time and again against corporate giants indulging in unethical sourcing.

2. Labour Immigration

Living in a world with free market of goods, people and resources brought the other effect of the globalization: labour immigration. Immigrants from third-world counties look for better life and professional realisation there, where jobs are available and will improve personal lifestyle. One of the reasons to this phenomenon is the established legal system in the developed society where minimal wages are guaranteed and payment by employers is secure. Often reason to leave one country becomes the poor legal system that does not protect employees rights – workers might get no payment at all or less payment than the agreed one, insurance and taxes then might not be paid either that is a loss for the country itself but with high corruption the public interest is not of a concern.

3. The Informal Global Networks

While the global assembly line and mass consumption form the dominant circuits of globalized fashion, other, less visible circuits span the globe. These shadow networks concern fashion production and consumption in third-world countries. The global economy of high-tech, large-scale networks also works by exclusion. In third-world countries, globalization has resulted in the destabilizing and dismantling of official economies, massive unemployment, and the rise of informal or underground economies. As part of the restructuring and deregulation of global capital, the World Bank and International Monetary Fund have imposed on debtor nations in the third world Structural Adjustment Programs. These programs dismantled state economic controls on basic necessities and social programs for health, education, housing, and sanitation, in favour of free-market strategies, austerity programs, and privatization of basic utilities like electricity and water. These measures have resulted in a disintegration of formal institutions of the government and economy. Out of desperation, people have devised means of surviving in informal economic networks. In Africa and Latin America, this has had two effects on fashion.

One is that the numbers of artisanal producers, especially tailors, dyers, weavers, and jewellery makers, have increased dramatically. In an alternative global network, suitcase vendors sell to tourists, or they travel to diasporic communities in Europe and the United States, where they sell their fashions in people's homes, at ethnic festivals, or on the street. They also sell in the boutiques and on the Web sites of non-profit organizations dedicated to helping third-world artisans.

A second effect concerns global networks of used clothing dealers and consumers. Large wholesalers buy masses of used clothing from charity thrift shops in the United States, Canada, and Europe. In giant warehouses, dealers sort the clothes, bail them, and send them by container to smaller wholesalers in countries of Asia, Africa, and Latin America. Small retailers then sell the clothes for affordable prices at open-air stalls in cities and tiny rural towns. Jeans, T-shirts, and athletic shoes thus become the most visible symbol of globalization in virtually every corner of the world.

Where from here?

Today’s politics are changing the world’s map rapidly – the rise of “Brexit” in the UK, nationalist and conservative parties around all Europe, the 2016 election of new president of the USA, these events are shouting loudly that the wealthy western societies are becoming more and more concerned with opened borders, attack on national identity, steal of domestic jobs, all of the above meaning less economical stability within their own countries.

The global markets are still very strong and no one expects immediate change but things are not the same and it comes a time to re-think the opportunities not outside the box but exactly within it.


Kaiser, Susan. "Identity, Postmodernity, and the Global Apparel Marketplace." In Meanings of Dress, edited by M. L. Damhorst, K. Miller, and S. Michelman. New York: Fairchild, 1999.