Memorial Day: Celebrating American Textiles & the U.S. Military

Every Memorial Day, Americans pause to honor the lives of those who have died serving our country as a member of the U.S. military. It is a day dedicated to their heroic sacrifices based on a belief in American values and the hope for a better future. It’s also a day for celebration. As the official kickoff to the summer season, it is a day for community, barbeques, and setting our minds to the warm summer days ahead.

In the spirit of honoring our military heroes and anticipating the excitement of summer, the National Council of Textile Organizations celebrates Memorial Day with a look at some of the unique aspects of the U.S. textile supply chain and its role in serving our heroes in uniform.

The history of the U.S. textile industry’s service to the U.S. military is as old as the military itself. From the uniforms soldiers rely on for protection from the elements to the flags hoisted high above our causes, American textiles have always held a critical role in military operations and symbolism.

That history of course still thrives today. As the face of modern warfare has evolved, U.S. textile technology has kept pace by consistently developing new, cutting-edge textile technology to ensure the top performance and protection our warfighters demand and deserve. Each year, the U.S. textile industry supplies over 8,000 different types of products, ranging from advanced body amor to aircraft bodies, to our men and women in uniform, making it a key contributor to our national defense and supplies.

Further, the development of textile innovations for military use plays a critical role in U.S. textile competitiveness within the global market, while giving consumers access to sophisticated textile products useful for their everyday lives. For example, everyday products from Kleenex to Kevlar are available today thanks to military-funded research and development. And it’s no surprise that textiles developed for military use are amongst the most innovative in the world. In fact, the United States is the world leader in textile research and development, with the U.S. textile complex developing next generation textile materials such as conductive fabric with anti-static properties, electronic textiles that can monitor heart rate and other vital signs, antimicrobial fibers, and new fabrics that adapt to the climate to make the wearer warmer or cooler. To ensure that the continued research and manufacturing needed to provide high-performance textile materials to the U.S. military comes from a reliable source in times of crisis, those products must be supplied by a vibrant American textile production chain.

Still, the research and development needed to produce such innovations requires significant financial commitments. From 2012 to 2021, the U.S. textile industry invested $20.9 billion in new plants and equipment. During this time, U.S. manufacturers opened new facilities throughout the textile production chain, including recycling facilities to convert textile and other waste to new textile uses and resins.

But industry cannot carry this financial burden alone. With extreme competition from offshore manufacturers with varying ethical and sustainability practices and oversight, U.S. textile manufacturers are often left competing against low-cost suppliers with substandard environmental, workplace safety and labor practices. As we saw at the onset of COVID-19 in 2020, our reliance on such offshore suppliers and their production chains leaves the U.S. vulnerable when confronted with a health pandemic or a serious challenge to our national security.

For that reason, it is beyond necessary to bolster our industry’s efforts to equip our military through federal legislation and procurement practices that prioritize domestic manufacturing. This can be done by preserving and expanding key legislation, such as the Kissell and Berry Amendments, which require the domestic production of textiles procured by the Department of Defense and some agencies within the Department of Homeland Security.. In addition, it is critical that we support international trade arrangements and free trade agreements that spur the use of domestic content, such as CAFTA-DR. These mechanisms, combined with the industry’s history of research-based innovation, are the backbone of the more than 30,000 textile manufacturing facilities both big and small across the United States that employ over 538,000 domestic workers who are responsible for an annual output of over $66 billion. Their combined efforts make the U.S. the third largest exporter of textile-related products globally.

It is also critical that our government agencies expeditiously implement recently adopted legislation governing domestic procurement, such as the Make PPE in America Act. This legislation, which resulted from the harsh lessons learned during the supply chain crises of COVID-19, is designed to reshore and maintain a strategic personal protective equipment (PPE) production chain in the United States by requiring that the Departments of Health and Human Services, Homeland Security, and Veterans Affairs procure only PPE that is wholly made (i.e., 100 percent made in the USA, from the production of the fiber to the yarn, fabric, and finished product) and assembled in the U.S. This important legislation also requires a contract duration for federally procured PPE of no less than two years. Such long-term commitments provide domestic manufacturers with a consistent demand signal that allows them to invest, plan, develop and deliver the medical protective goods our government and nation depend on for safety and security.

It does not take much to see why U.S. textiles are a quintessential story of American spirit and industry. So, as we take this holiday to pause and celebrate our fallen heroes and the freedoms their sacrifices allow us to enjoy, let us also celebrate the rich history of American textiles as a critical part of our national defense. Thanks to manufacturing efforts such as theirs, American warfighters can rely on the highest quality, most sophisticated and dependable military uniforms, protective materials and gear that also drive the innovations for textile products average Americans use every day. By keeping critical supply chains and their research close to home, Americans are guaranteed more sustainable and reliable access to essential products when we need them most.

This Memorial Day, let’s remember the sacrifices of our fellow Americans and enjoy the life they fought to protect. As consumers, let’s prioritize American-made products and, by doing so, support our national defense and invest in our future.