U.S. specialty fabrics take their place in the global marketplace, contributing to one-year anniversary of Obama’s export pledge

(Feb. 25, 2011, Roseville, MN)—The typical image if you mention U.S. textile manufacturing is that of an industry in decline. It’s the story of jobs that have been lost by the hundreds of thousands in the last decade and  factories shuttered as production shifted overseas. Hidden in this decline, however, there is a better story of a segment of the domestic textile manufacturing base that has not only survived decades of bad trade policies and relentless import pressures but now actually thrives —specialty fabrics.
 
Specialty fabrics are used to keep our first responders safe in fire-resistant protection suits and anti-ballistic vests. They’re the high-tech flexible materials used to protect our environment, containing toxic waste, ensuring quality drinking water and preventing shoreline erosion. They’re multi-layered composite products used in new pavement technology to rebuild our nation’s infrastructure. They’re the lightweight, ultra-strong fabrics in the airbags which have saved thousands of lives. They’re the shade provided in playground structures that keep our children away from the harmful rays of the sun.
 
These U.S.-made fabrics have played a vital role in supporting our armed forces and, most recently, in protecting the environment through oil boom containment systems used in the Gulf oil spill disaster. Fabrics are key components in the automotive and construction industries, and they are an absolutely critical component as America takes the lead in developing innovative green and sustainable initiatives.
 
The domestic specialty fabrics industry has quietly emerged to offer globally competitive products through constant innovation. New applications of these diverse materials are being discovered every day. Both material suppliers and those that manufacture products made from specialty fabrics are located in every state. It’s time to recognize the specialty fabrics industry as a distinct industry segment.
 
So, what’s the fuss? To remain on top of the game, we need government commitment to support product development and keep the domestic marketplace a fair place to do business. Let’s not “trade” away this industry. We are concerned about several provisions in the United States-Korea Free Trade Agreement (KORUS) that is now being considered in Congress. The agreement, as proposed, could have a devastating impact on this emerging industry, costing America jobs and the loss of key emerging domestic and export opportunities.
 
We are particularly concerned about illegal transshipments from other low-cost Asia Pacific countries through Korea, an enforcement issue that is not properly addressed in KORUS. The textile enforcement division at U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) has seen such a devastating reduction of resources that it is now woefully understaffed and underfunded to ensure adequate compliance that protects the domestic industry from these illegal transshipments.
 
And today, just as important as keeping the playing field level in the U.S., we need greater government support to continue to promote domestic-made products in overseas markets. It’s ironic and telling that the government specialists dedicated to promoting domestic overseas textile exports are actually organized within the “import” section of Commerce. It’s a mindset that needs to be changed. Our attitude should be that we are not just an industry seeking to protect the domestic industry. We are an industry energetic and ready to do battle out in the global marketplace.   
 
We have formidable competition in the overseas markets. Both the Chinese and German governments provide billions of dollars for companies that are investing in their domestic specialty fabrics industry. The Korean government allocated $16 billion for specialty fabric manufacturing projects and another $5.6 billion on core technology for the local production of composite fibers and nano-textiles.
 
The battle ground – the region that especially attracts our overseas interests – is Asia Pacific. Emerging countries like Indonesia and Malaysia are becoming major consumers of specialty fabrics. There is a growing middle-class population in India that equals the entire population of the U.S. and they are hungry for the products that use specialty fabrics made in the U.S. High-valued end markets including military, automotive, safety and functional apparel; medical, environmental protection and wide-format printing are demanding more sophisticated specialty fabrics. The building and construction outlook there is robust. “Green” applications such as renewable energy and water conservation are necessary as the population demands quality of life improvements.
 
In his 2010 State of the Union address, President Obama called for the United States to double its exports over the next five years. It is truly an ambitious plan called the National Export Initiative. We applaud this effort. It is exactly the type of vision we need to restore American manufacturing. Exports mean jobs.
 
Right now only one in 100 small- and medium-sized U.S. manufacturers engages in exporting. Among those that do, 58 percent sell only to one foreign nation– usually Mexico or Canada. Imagine how rapidly U.S. exports would grow if merely five percent – rather than one percent – of typical U.S. manufacturers found customers beyond our borders.
 
The key challenge for smaller companies is to find foreign customers and tap into distribution channels that will ensure a reliable supply chain. That’s where manufacturing trade associations such as the Industrial Fabrics Association International, with assistance from the public sector through programs like the National Export Initiative, can kindle export expansion.
 
The Department of Commerce recently awarded the Industrial Fabrics Association International a Market Development Cooperator Program (MDCP) grant. With the help of the MDCP funds, IFAI is creating the first all-inclusive specialty fabrics trade show in the Asia Pacific region. IFAI Expo Asia 2011 is being held in March in Singapore and includes a determined band of U.S. manufacturers who are seeking out new connections. Singapore is an appropriate location being recently ranked number one in the world in innovation from a study done by the National Association of Manufacturers and the Boston Consulting Group.
 
The Department of Commerce support of our industry is much appreciated. There’s still much, though, that can be done. We have proven to be a worthy global competitor. We see opportunity and we act upon it. It’s already working. Exports of specialty fabrics in the last 12 months to ASEAN countries have increased 65% and overall 28% in the global market.  
 
Ultimately, it’s up to private enterprise to fill order books that lead to brisk exports and strong demand in our own country. We’re not asking for handouts or protection. We’re asking for vision and investment. The specialty fabrics industry is an American manufacturing success story. Let’s keep it going.

Industrial Fabrics Association International