• Jennifer Marks

Bush's textile cure: Freedom in exports

Frankfurt, Germany — The U.S. Department of Commerce sent its assistant secretary for trade development to the recent Heimtextil international trade fair to deliver a message: The Bush Administration has a vision for the future of the U.S. textiles industry — exporting.

That may seem a peculiar remedy to a U.S. supplier base that feels assailed by low-cost imports, particularly as the specter of a quota-free 2005 looms ever closer. But Linda Mysliwy Conlin — whose responsibilities include textiles — told Home Textiles Today that American firms should leverage their strengths in technical development and innovation to reach world markets.

"This administration and, certainly, the Secretary of Commerce have made a commitment to the textiles industry. We are being aggressive on the trade policy front and on the promotion front," Conlin said in an exclusive interview. "As we try to open markets and the world, it is critical for this industry to seize the opportunity. We create the environment for businesses to succeed, but it's up to the businesses to step up and take advantage of it."

While acknowledging that 2005 is going to be tough, deputy assistant secretary Jim Leonard pointed out that the U.S. home furnishings industry has enjoyed far fewer quota protections than other industries. "These guys have already been successful for years in developing their businesses in a more competitive environment than others have faced," he said. "They're not going to wake up on Jan. 1, [2005], and fall off the cliff."

Since China was accepted into the World Trade Organization, the Commerce Department has sent a high-level official there on a monthly basis to work on making good China's fair trade agreements, Conlin said. This also extends to intellectual property rights, a particular area of concern for textiles design companies.

Conlin said she sees the potential for homeland security initiatives to spawn revolutionary fabric developments, initially through goods developed for fire departments, police departments and industrial safety purposes. These are the types of products U.S. companies can market to the world, she said.

"In the past, U.S. companies didn't have to think about selling to other parts of the world. They felt that they had the U.S. market sewn up," Leonard said.

Commerce trade officials are currently loosening trade restrictions with Central America, Morocco and Australia for textiles, he said. It's also putting together plans for South Africa and Russia.

The challenge for U.S. suppliers, of course, is that most of those markets are considerably smaller than the U.S. market. Conlin sees the greatest opportunities abroad for small and medium-sized U.S. textiles firms.

She also believes U.S. textiles firms chasing export business can sell "the whole lifestyle culture of the United States," she said, adding, "Whatever differences the people in some countries may have with the United States, most greatly appreciate the U.S. lifestyle."

After a day spent walking the international trade fair in Frankfurt and meeting with U.S. companies, Conlin concluded, "This is a very competitive market, but you have very competitive product. I hope [my visit] sends a strong message that this administration seeks to work very closely with the industry in helping strengthen global competitiveness and build the business globally."

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HTT Cover October 2017

See the October 2017 issue of Home & Textiles Today. In this issue, we look at the Top 25 Online Retailers.  H&TT's exclusive annual ranking of the biggest online sellers of home textiles finds that while pure play etailers continue to fly, bricks & clicks are digging into omnichannel. See details!