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On PPE Production, NCTO CEO Urges Congress to Learn from Covid Crisis

Winston Churchill wrote, “Those that fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it,” and National Council of Textile Organizations president and CEO Kim Glas urged Congress on Thursday to remember that adage when it comes to domestic PPE production.

“One silver lining associated with the immense challenges posed by the COVID-19 crisis is that it afforded the domestic textile industry an opportunity to demonstrate its enormous resiliency, flexibility and overall value to the U.S. economy,” Glas said in testimony before the Small Business Committee’s Subcommittee on Economic Growth, Tax and Capital Access.

“Despite the fact that there was virtually no [full] U.S. production of textile-based PPE (personal protective equipment) prior to the pandemic, the heroic actions of domestic textile manufacturers resulted in the ability to supply homegrown PPE at the height of the greatest healthcare emergency our country has faced in the past 100 years,” Glas said at the “Supply Chain Resiliency and the Role of Small Manufacturers” hearing.

“There is much to learn from studying and acknowledging the overwhelming challenges the industrial base confronted during the ongoing pandemic,” she said. “As our country faced devastating challenges in responding to COVID-19 beginning last spring, U.S. textile manufacturers stepped forward and answered America’s call during this time of crisis. Our industry received pleas, from the highest levels of government to nurses and doctors on the front lines, asking for immediate assistance. The U.S. textile industry was honored to help during this critical time and feel it is our duty to contribute to the health and safety of our nation.”

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However, Glas said decades of offshoring these industries to China put the country’s healthcare workers “in harm’s way when global supply chains broke down.”

“U.S. textile manufacturers quickly mobilized to find innovative solutions to the crisis, proactively retooling production lines and retraining workers to provide U.S.-made PPE to front-line medical workers,” Glas said. “They put aside competitive differences to construct multi-company PPE supply chains virtually overnight. In doing so, our members were able to manufacture and supply over 1 billion urgently needed items, including face masks, isolation gowns and their textile components at a time when global supply failed to meet the needs this crisis has required.”

“While the U.S. textile industry and its small-business backbone has undertaken heroic efforts to confront the ongoing crisis, the onshoring of a permanent PPE industry will only materialize if proper government policies and other actions are put in place to help domestic manufacturers survive the current economic crisis and incentivize the long-term investment needed to fully bring PPE production back to the United States,” she added.

Glas noted that textile manufacturers are considered an “essential” industry in the United States due to the many consumer, military and industrial products that they manufacture, including PPE and textile and apparel products for the military. The U.S. textile industry supplies more than 8,000 different textile products for the U.S. military alone, she noted.

The pandemic created unprecedented demand destruction for apparel and textiles. Billions of dollars of orders for fiber, yarn and fabric were cancelled last year as retail shopping outlets were closed for many months and then operated at reduced capacity.

“This historic downturn in demand led to many U.S. textile manufacturers operating at barely 10 percent of existing capacity beginning in March 2020,” Glas said. “The collapse in demand has been felt throughout the supply chain, including very acutely among small manufacturers. These grim statistics lead to the conclusion that U.S. textile manufacturers have suffered as much as any single segment of the U.S. economy because of the COVID crisis.”

Noting the country’s long-term ability to make PPE in the United States depends on the overall health of a strong domestic textile industry, Glas said, “We must use all the tools necessary to ensure this small-business-heavy manufacturing sector and other key sectors survive and thrive long after this crisis is over.”

Glas said as the current crisis subsides, “rational federal policies are once again needed to ensure a stable overall environment where small businesses can compete and thrive, and targeted initiatives are required to ensure that domestic supply chains for critical materials, such as PPE, exist in the United States.”

She detailed five key policy recommendations supported by 20 trade associations and labor groups, representing the entire domestic supply chain aimed at strengthening the integrated U.S. textile sector.

Glas urged the government to strengthen Buy American procurement rules, provide funding assistance for companies to reconstitute domestic supply chains important to U.S. national and healthcare security, key contracting reforms, streamline the Small Business Administration loan application process and provide additional funding for workforce training.

“We are pleased that the President’s Build Back Better initiative outlines the importance of having stronger domestic manufacturing supply chains,” Glas said. “In January, President Biden issued an Executive Order to identify ways to strengthen Buy American rules. For our industry, it is essential that we couple these Executive Orders with legislation that ensures our supply chain is resilient and significantly stronger as we confront the next crisis.”

She said without strong federal government policies to incentivize this production chain long term, including domestic procurement requirements and other production investments, “our industry fears that this opportunity to onshore the domestic PPE supply chain will be lost forever.”

“We simply cannot let that happen–this is a serious public health security and national security issue,” she said. “Your continued leadership to find ways to bolster the small business industrial base is essential to improving the resiliency and global competitiveness of the U.S. textile industry and the overall industrial base.”