Summer 1987 // Volume 25 // Number 2 // Feature Articles // 2FEA2

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A Unique Marriage


Extension helping a troubled industry.

Lenda Jo Anderson
Extension Clothing Specialist

Carol L. Warfield
Associate Professor and Coordinator of Industry Relations
Department of Consumer Affairs

Mary E. Barry
Associate Professor and Coordinator of Fashion Merchandising
Department of Consumer Affairs

Auburn University
Auburn, Alabama


Many communities today face unemployment problems because of the decline in labor-intensive manufacturing jobs, which often are located in rural areas. To counter this trend, development agencies try to lure high-tech industries in as replacements. However, this approach involves the significant expense of retraining the labor pool for new jobs.

How can a land-grant institution use its resources to aid in the unemployment crisis? With its statewide network of resources, Extension can assist states with these problems. This article describes the role Extension played in an innovative, actionoriented approach to help one state's stressed textile and apparel industries.

Alabama Situation

Alabama has been particularly hard hit by textile and apparel plant closings. With an employment base of 1,794,000 workers in 1984, 94,300 were employed in textile or apparel industries.1 Since 1979, 20 Alabama plants have closed, resulting in the loss of 10,000 textile and apparel jobs.2 The effects of the ailing industry are felt all over the state, not only because of the effect on tax revenue, but also because at least one textile or apparel plant exists in each of Alabama's 67 counties.

The Solution

The solution to the textile and apparel employment problem isn't a simple one. "The clothing which a family wears . . . particularly if it's imported . . . has become a major issue in international trade. "3 Domestic industry cries that imports are killing employment, while retailers argue that imports make consumer prices more competitive.

With the changing nature of today's market, many retailers work directly with a manufacturer or contractor to produce private label merchandise made to their specifications. However, it's difficult and time-consuming for retailers to identify and evaluate all U.S. contractors able to produce a specific type, quality, and volume of product. In Alabama alone, 306 manufacturers/contractors of apparel products are listed in the Directory of Mining and Industries.4

Faculty from Auburn University's Consumer Affairs Department and the Cooperative Extension Service were convinced that a coordinated, cooperative approach was needed to bring the textile, apparel, and retailing sectors together to work for the common good. They used the resources of the land-grant university to plan and implement an Apparel Sourcing Fair. This fair was designed to provide a link between retail buying offices, apparel manufacturers, apparel contractors, and textile manufacturers.

Mast Industries, the buying arm of The Limited Inc., was the first company to express an interest in the fair as a means of meeting with a number of Alabama producers to see and evaluate the types of merchandise they produce. At a press conference, an executive vice-president indicated that Mast would like to buy an additional $200-300 million of apparel in the U.S. in the next year or two. This could mean the equivalent of 60 apparel plants, with jobs retained or regained for several thousand workers.

Auburn Model

The Auburn University Apparel Sourcing Fair was set for February 24-25, 1986. It was immediately apparent that, to be successful, the fair would need the cooperation of a statewide network. The Auburn Model, developed to provide this network, included the Auburn University campus, from central administration through faculty, staff, and students of three colleges; the Alabama Cooperative Extension Service both at the state and county levels; the governor's office; state development offices; elected officials of the city of Auburn; the Auburn Chamber of Commerce; state industrial development committees; and local banks.

Because the fair was the first of its kind in the nation, a careful marketing approach was needed. Extension Information Services worked with University Relations to map a strategy to recruit participation of Alabama contractors and manufacturers. The governor and the president of Auburn University jointly announced the fair at a press conference. Media coverage of the event helped alert the state to the upcoming fair.

Fair packets, which included letters of invitation from the governor, the president of the university, and the conference coordinators, were personally delivered from state development offices. County Extension agents, state clothing specialists, and consumer affairs faculty also called or visited many of these plants encouraging owners/managers to attend.

Apparel Sourcing Fair

The Apparel Sourcing Fair was held on the Auburn University campus over two days. The first day participants registered and listened to the retail representatives explain what was necessary to do business with them. This was followed by a dinner sponsored by the governor's office, the city, and local banks. The second day, retailers viewed exhibits of manufacturers/contractors and had opportunities to evaluate, discuss, and negotiate.

The fair attracted 250 people. Retailers and representatives of buying companies with stores around the world and annual retail sales of over $100 billion participated. Some of the state's largest manufacturers, such as the VF Corporation with Vanity Fair Mills, Lee Apparel Company, the Russell Corporation, and West Point Pepperell, were among the exhibitors. Contractors, large and small, were also represented, as were suppliers to the industry.


One-half of the contractors and manufacturers attending the fair indicated they were essentially operating at full capacity. Although these companies couldn't accept any additional orders at the time of the fair, valuable contacts were made for possible future business. The other half of the contractors and manufacturers weren't currently working at full capacity and wanted to find additional work. Firms that needed work ranged from new companies just getting started to those that had no business and had closed the plant.

Communication was facilitated between retailers, manufacturers, contractors, suppliers, university faculty and students, Extension personnel, state development officials, and city officials. Each of these groups learned more about each other's needs and abilities. This type of communication provided a basis for future cooperation.

Some of the buying companies later sent representatives to visit manufacturers and contractors to continue the negotiations begun at the fair. In some cases, production was sold for the short-run, but negotiations provided for delivery of merchandise at some future date. Some contractors and manufacturers were invited to New York to show their merchandise to buying office personnel. Some participants found other Alabama manufacturers or contractors with whom they could cooperate to do business more effectively.

Through word-of-mouth from people who did attend the fair, one small contractor received orders from as far away as Michigan. Press coverage of the fair also resulted in feature articles about some firms in major trade publications. The benefits of such publicity were invaluable.

Discussion of mutual problems with other manufacturers, contractors, retail representatives, or equipment suppliers provided suggestions as to better (more efficient or cost-effective) ways of doing things. This dialogue also gave university and Extension representatives and state agency personnel a better idea of the scope and nature of the problems faced by textile and apparel companies and retailers. This understanding is essential if these statesupported professionals are to effectively use their resources to intervene on behalf of the state's textile and apparel industries.


The Auburn University Apparel Sourcing Fair has demonstrated the ability of a land-grant university to bring its resources-research, teaching, and extension-to bear on meeting one of its state's pressing economic needs. The focus of this event was on textiles and apparel. However, the model developed for this fair could be adapted and adopted to serve as a prototype for other state, regional, or national fairs. Other product categories could also use this model.

As Santora pointed out in a Bobbin article,

The fair may not be the panacea, but it certainly seems to be the impetus to new alliances that could prove mutually beneficial for all links in the apparel chain. As this fair is a precedent in affecting linkage, it may also be considered a presage of change in the way manufacturers, contractors and retailers work together.5

One might add that it's the beginning of an exciting mutual working relationship between the land-grant university and the textile and apparel industry of the state of Alabama.


1. "General Business Indicators for Alabama, " Alabama Business, LV (November 1985), 3.

2. "Manufacturers, Buyers Praise Sourcing Fair, " Alabama Development News, XVI (April 1986).

3. K. G. Dickerson and M. Barry, "Family Clothing: The Economics of International Trade, " Journal of Home Economics, LXXII (Winter 1980), 35-39.

4. Directory of Mining and Manufacturing 1985-86 (Montgomery, Alabama: State of Alabama, Alabama Development Office, 1985).

5. Joyce Santora, "Retailers Reassess Domestic Sourcing, " Bobbin, XXVII (April 1986), 62-64.