KINGSTON, R.I. – June 24, 2014 – A year ago, 1,130 garment workers were buried alive when a factory built on swampy ground collapsed outside Dhaka, Bangladesh. The tragedy was one of the worst industrial accidents in history.
But did you know that most of the victims were women living in poor rural areas? Did you also know that foreign companies looking for cheap labor have flooded Bangladesh in recent years, making it one of the largest clothing exporters in the world?
Those topics and more are covered in cutting-edge classes taught by University of Rhode Island assistant professor Sheng Lu, who recently won a prestigious international award for his scholarly work and teaching about the global textile and clothing industry and international trade relations.
Lu, who teaches in the Department of Textiles, Fashion Merchandising and Design, or TMD, will receive the 2014 Rising Star Award from the International Textile and Apparel Association at its annual conference in Charlotte, N.C., in November. The award recognizes junior faculty members for research and teaching excellence.
“Sheng Lu has been successful at teaching, publishing and proposal writing, and he is becoming a nationally recognized spokesperson for the textile and apparel industry,” says TMD co-chair Linda Welters, who nominated him for the award. “He has had a phenomenal first three years at URI.”
“I am deeply humbled and honored to receive this award,” says Lu. “I could not have achieved it without the great help and support from my colleagues at URI. The TMD department is one of the top of its kind in the United States.”
Lu is hosting a conference Sept. 22 on URI’s Kingston campus about the importance of the textile and clothing industry. To register for the “URI Cotton Summit: The 21st Century Global Apparel Value Chain and Implication for U.S. Cotton in the World Marketplace” visit URI Cotton Summit. The one-day conference is free and open to the public. For more information, contact Lu at email@example.com.
Born in Shanghai, Lu joined URI in 2011 after receiving his doctorate in textile and apparel management from the University of Missouri. He is an expert in the global textile industry and international trade, with a special interest in how the industry drives economic growth, creates jobs and reduces poverty.
One of his most popular classes at URI is TMD 433, which examines the swiftly changing textile and clothing industry. Lu even has a lively and current blog for the class: TMD 433. More than 21,000 have visited the site since it was launched in 2012.
The clothing industry goes far beyond fiber, yarn, fabric and clothing, Lu says. The industry triggered the first Industrial Revolution and still plays a critical role in today’s global economy. In the United States, clothing and shoe sales contributed $350 billion to the economy in 2012, more than new cars ($175 billion) and fast food ($75 billion).
“Every American spends an average of $900 a year on clothes,” Lu says. “The United States also imports clothes from more than 160 different countries, from China to Haiti. Even so, textile and clothing in the 21st century is a globalized industry. A T-shirt might have a ‘Made in China’ label, but that doesn’t mean the entire production was in China.”
The cotton for the T-shirt was probably grown in the United States and shipped to Japan, which turned it into yarn, he says. Then, the yarn was shipped to South Korea to make into fabric. That fabric was shipped to China to cut and sew the shirt. The final product – a T-shirt – is shipped back to the United States to retail stores.
Lu says that more than 120 million people worldwide work in the textile industry, many of whom are women from developing countries, like those in Bangladesh. For most of these countries, the clothing and textile industry accounts for half to two-thirds of jobs and 60 to 90 percent of exports, most of which end up in European and North American retail shops.
With increased globalization, the textile industry is becoming more involved in public policy debates, Lu says. The Bangladesh building collapse in April 2013 – and a factory fire a few months earlier in the country that killed 100 workers – sparked a global outcry for improved safety standards in garment factories in poor countries. The tragedy also focused international attention on the working conditions in poor countries.
“Clothing labels only tell us where the product is made, but don’t reveal the conditions under which it was made,” Lu says. “As consumers, we don’t want to buy clothing made by people who are risking their lives.”
The author of 40 scholarly articles, Lu is sought after by academics, business leaders and policy makers. He recently conducted a study with the U.S. Fashion Industry Association that detected trends in the industry. Executives from nearly 30 of the biggest American-based fashion companies were surveyed.
The study found that 89 percent were optimistic about the five-year outlook for the American fashion industry. Among the other findings were that 55 percent of the executives planned to increase their production somewhat in the United States in the next two years. Also, China will remain the dominant supplier, with Vietnam and Asia, including Cambodia and Myanmar, showing growth potential.
Despite the tragedies in Bangladesh, companies are not leaving the country and are making a commitment to improve their compliance, the survey found. “This issue cannot be solved by simply leaving Bangladesh,” Lu says. “That wouldn’t solve the problem. Corporate social responsibility issues started from the first Industrial Revolution more than 200 years ago. Because of consumers’ growing awareness, companies are now more willing to improve factory safety and build a long-term relationship.”
Photo above: Sheng Lu, an assistant professor in the Department of Textiles, Fashion Merchandising and Design at the University of Rhode Island, with Julia Hughes, president of the U.S. Fashion Industry Association in Washington D.C. Hughes is one of the keynote speakers for the URI Cotton Summit Sept. 22 on URI’s Kingston campus. Photo courtesy of Sheng Lu.