Of frocks and cocktails

Dr Loretta Feris navigates the international textile scene.

First Published in

So, there I was, attending one of those typical Washington receptions. The type where you tell people how impressive you are and they, in turn, tell you how impressive they are, all the while looking over your shoulder, surveying the crowd for more important folk to "network" with.

The ones where you sip free cocktails and exchange business cards, concluding any conversation with "we must get together sometime". I was having what seemed, in my mind, a very unreal conversation with a US government official - a high-ranking one, no less - discussing the textile industry in South Africa. She made the point that in order for the South African industry to be internationally competitive, it had to update its style, which, according to her, was about 15 years behind. Moreover, they had to bring in some designers from abroad to create designs that would appeal to US consumers. I was in a bit of a quandary, because protocol at these affairs demand that you do not piss off people in high places, but at the same time I knew she was talking bollocks. I have always imagined South Africans as being reasonably stylish and up to date, definitely more so than the average American.

It is rather perplexing that the US gets to dominate and dictate the international trade in textiles. After all, this is the country where jeans, T-shirts and sneakers (read: takkies in South Africa) has become the national costume, where floral is always in and dowdy indicates average American. This is the country where cheap, uninspiring clothes are sold in huge department stores like Sears and Wal-Mart and, come every holiday (whether it's Christmas, Presidents' Day or 4th of July), everything goes on sale and Americans recycle their drab garb for more of the same. So, forgive me if I am not convinced that the apparel we produce is somehow not stylish enough for the American set.

Be that as it may, word is that the South African apparel industry ended up making the necessary changes in order to reap the benefits from the African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA), a piece of US legislation designed to provide preferential access to goods coming from select African countries. This encounter, however, did make me think about the way we in the South change what we do - and often what we do best - to fit the whims of the North, peculiar as those whims may be.

Consider, for example, the history of international trade in textiles. The idea behind establishing an international system to regulate trade was to bring all goods under the international trading system through the General Agreement on Trade and Tariffs (GATT), now administered by the World Trade Organisation (WTO). The goal was to make sure that nobody paid high taxes on imports, that quotas get eliminated and that all goods were treated the same, regardless of the country where they originated. And so all goods became part of an international trading system, except, of course, textiles.

Trade in textiles has been the one area where the South dominated. This is, of course, not extraordinary, since textiles originated in the South. Silk filament, for example, was first made into cloth in Ancient China. Flax, which may have been the first textile spun by people, was made into linen cloth in Ancient Egypt and the history of cotton is about as old as the history of India. Being the inventive people that Southerners are, centuries ago they started using these superb resources and created rich textiles, which they then started trading in. The peoples of the global South were already old hands in international textile trade when the North used their technologies to mechanise spinning and weaving in the 18th century. In fact this is what prompted the industrial revolution in England. The industrial revolution eventually spurred competition in both the manufacturing and trade in textiles between the more developed North and the less developed South.

Thus, in the sixties when corsets and girdles became obsolete and the mini and bell-bottoms were all the rage, developed countries somehow convinced developing countries to curb textile and apparel exports from the South. Developed countries asked for this special dispensation on a temporary basis, so that their industries could have time to adjust to the new situation of declining competitiveness. This Short Term Arrangement (STA) was supposed to last a year, allowing developed countries time to negotiate a fair agreement for everyone. However, the STA became the Long Term Arrangement (LTA), imposing quantitative restrictions on trade, specifying product-by-product and country-by-country import restrictions for another five years. Lo and behold, five years later the agreement was extended again and so it went on.

The South showed innovation again, and since the LTA covered only natural fibres, developing countries turned their attention to synthetic fibres. So, in the seventies, nylon and polyester was de rigueur, the South (mainly Asia) dominated the export market in synthetic fibres. The North responded, and to curtail the influx of synthetic imports from the south, they negotiated a Multi-Fibre Agreement (MFA) on textiles that included synthetics and wool, thereby sealing the holes in the textile dyke. Another "temporary measure" that will, in terms of another agreement (the Agreement on Textiles and Clothing), stay in place until 2005.

Which brings us back to why this issue is so important in a country where the style police would have laboured day and night to bring some fashion order about. Fact is, the textiles, fibre and apparel industry is the largest manufacturing employer in the United States. According to some figures, it employs approximately two million white- and blue-collar workers directly in 48 states, and approximately two million more workers in supporting industries, such as farming, which supplies the sector with cotton and wool. What is also significant is that the textiles industry spans across several hundred congressional districts. In a country where the political agenda is dictated by those who can afford the best lobbyist, legislators and administrators are not indifferent to the political demands of this industry. And the industry's prime goal is to keep competitors out.

So how do we in the South begin to determine, as opposed to change, what we do best to suit the rest?

For starters, the industry needs to become more politically savvy. In a world that is increasingly ruled by bilateral trade agreements, the time is ripe. In May, the Southern Africa Customs Union, SACU, of which South Africa is a member, started negotiating a Free Trade Agreement. The agenda is a broad one and according to the chief negotiator of the US, "everything is on the table" (another titbit I picked up at yet another cocktail party).

However, the textile and apparel industry manufacturers, buyers, designers and so on should lobby the government to push for better trade terms as part of the FTA and not rely on AGOA, a unilateral trade arrangement subject to the whims of the US government and, more importantly, the lobbying power of the American manufacturing industry. The South African industry also needs to figure out the agenda of the US industry: know it, pre-empt, and react proactively to it. Face it, in order to survive, they will need to play the game the American way. Finally, they need to gear up for 2005 when all textiles come under the international trading system, not only doing their part in ensuring that that does in fact happen, but also positioning themselves to maximise the benefits.

About the author

Dr Loretta Feris is a South African lawyer associated with American University as the assistant director of the International Legal Studies Programme. She teaches in the areas of international trade and international environmental law.