Fact Check: Environmental, USITC Deception in the U.S. Outdoor Act
The U.S. Outdoor Act is clear in its practical effect: by lowering import tariffs on “recreational performance outerwear” (high-tech pants and jackets made for outdoorsy activities), the bill would lower the cost of making those products in factories overseas. But in trying to justify those lowered import tariffs, the bill (S. 1439 in the Senate, H.R. 3168 in the House) and its authors (Ron Wyden and Earl Blumenauer) have engaged in deception on two fronts.
Claim: The U.S. Outdoor Act will benefit the environment.
House sponsor Earl Blumenauer claims a variety of environmental benefits stemming from the U.S. Outdoor Act:
This bill removes unnecessary tariffs on apparel not currently made in the U.S. In addition, the companies that benefit from these reduced tariffs will be required to contribute a portion of their savings toward research programs that are developing ways to keep America’s apparel industry globally competitive and more environmentally sustainable. This is a win for consumers and a win for strong American companies like Columbia, REI, North Face and others looking to reduce costs, improve the quality of their goods and implement sustainable processes….
The STAR Fund grants, made available through a competitive process administered by the Department of Commerce, will help the global textile and apparel industry minimize energy and water use, reduce waste and global warming emissions, and incorporate sustainable practices into a product’s entire life cycle.
These claims are mirrored in press releases by the Outdoor Industry Association, a business organization with leadership drawn from importers of outdoor apparel made in low-wage Asian factories.
But there are only three words in the 9,971-word bill that would implement anything resembling the considerable claims of Rep. Blumenauer and the Outdoor Industry Association. Three words out of nearly ten thousand. Those three words are “eco-friendly apparel.” “Eco-friendly apparel” is not defined in the legislation; whatever it is, it is not mandated to receive funds in the bill. Research into “eco-friendly apparel” is only one of three possible targets for funding; research into “other textile and apparel articles,” or “sewn-product design and manufacturing” would also qualify. The broadness of these categories makes just about any outdoor apparel R&D project, “eco-friendly” or not, eligible for for funding.
Minimized energy and water use? Reduced waste? Slashing carbon emissions? It’s just not in the bill. Nothing specifically environmental is in the bill.
Most imported outdoor apparel is made in Asia. What does it take to haul outdoor apparel from Asia to the United States? I’ll give you a hint: it’s not “eco-friendly.”
Claim: There is “no commercially viable production of performance outerwear in the U.S..”
A reasonable question one might ask in the face of this bill is, “why encourage textile and apparel jobs to head overseas?” At a time when Americans are jobless in staggering numbers, why make it harder for American-made outdoor apparel to compete with apparel made in faraway factories that eke out their profit with lax standards and low wages? In his introductory remarks for the bill, Senator Ron Wyden has his justification at the ready:
In 2007, the U.S. International Trade Commission found that there was no commercially viable production of performance outerwear in the U.S.. This legislation reflects those findings…
The bill itself uses the same justification in its “Findings” section:
(4) The duties currently imposed by the United States on recreational performance apparel were set in an era during which high rates of duty were intended to protect the production of other apparel in the United States….
(5) In July 2007, the International Trade Commission… concluded that there is no commercially viable production of recreational performance apparel in the United States.
So you see, if there is “no commercially viable production of performance outerwear in the United States,” then there are no American jobs to protect, no domestic industry to defend against cutthroat competitors producing under conditions that would be illegal in the United States. That’s the justification. And how do we know it to be so? Why, “the U.S. International Trade Commission found that” it was so!
Except that it didn’t. The U.S. Outdoor Act references USITC Publication 3937 for the claim that the U.S. International Trade Commission “concluded that there is no commercially viable production of performance outerwear in the United States.” But nowhere in USITC Publication 3937 does the USITC make any such conclusion. Not once. In Publication 3937, this is what the USITC says:
In written statements to the Commission, associations representing the outdoor industry and outerwear apparel manufacturers contend that there is no commercially viable domestic production of performance outerwear jackets or pants (see chapter 3).
In Chapter 3, the opinion of the Outdoor Industry Association is reported:
The OIA submitted comments to the Commission on behalf of its members, which include companies that manufacture, import, retail, and/or supply fabric inputs for performance outerwear. The OIA claims that as its members possess high levels of experience in performance outerwear design, manufacturing, and marketing, they have a high level of interest in this study. The OIA states it has consulted its membership extensively, and it reports that there is no commercially viable domestic production of performance outerwear jackets or pants.
Lest we forget, the OIA is an interested party, with leadership drawn from overseas producers, a party that has been pushing for the passage of such a bill for years.
Nowhere does the USITC itself “conclude that there is no commercially viable production of performance outerwear in the United States.” It only reports the highly interested contention of the Outdoor Industry Association, and it makes sure to report it as the OIA’s contention, not as its own contention.
The proponents of the U.S. Outdoor Act seek to justify its tariff cuts with claims of “eco-friendly” provisions and a claim that the USITC had concluded no commercially viable domestic production exists in the performance outdoor apparel industry. Neither claims bears up under scrutiny. Members of Congress and the public should keep this in mind as they evaluate the bill. The unreliability of these claims by the bill’s proponents suggests the need for independent sources of information regarding the bill and its potential impact.