On the Record with Bill Jackson
I first met Bill Jackson as a reporter with Women’s Wear Daily (WWD) in Washington, covering the impact of trade policy on textile and apparel manufacturers and retailers for a trade publication known as the “Bible of Fashion.”
Flashing those credentials did not automatically open the doors on Capitol Hill or within the various federal agencies spanning three administrations, though they were the golden ticket to the glittery runways and showrooms on Seventh Avenue and the hallowed fashion ateliers of Paris and Milan.
But as I became acquainted with administration officials in the agencies crafting policies impacting the industry as a whole, the doors began to open a little wider.
Bill became Assistant U.S. Trade Representative for Textiles (AUSTR) in April 2016, according to his official USTR bio, and I met him for the first time at an industry event that I was covering for WWD.
I was on deadline for the story, and it would have been a coup for a trade reporter to get a quote from an important trade official and insider like Bill. But Bill declined the interview request at the time, with a grin and an “I know better than to speak to a reporter” glint in his eye.
Obtaining a quote from Bill became my mission over the years and though I probably did ultimately score a quote on the record from him, it was a rare occurrence.
And it remained that way until the close of NCTO’s 19th Annual Meeting on March 30, when Bill, who was a day shy of retirement, agreed to answer a few questions from me (now VP of Communications for NCTO) about his tenure as AUSTR of Textiles and his outlook for the U.S. textile industry.
NCTO: What have you learned about the textile industry during your tenure at USTR?
BJ: I think the key thing about the textile industry that people don’t know about is that it’s really a cutting-edge industry. There are so many things going on that are cutting-edge technologies ranging from a variety of health applications to fire retardants, to uniforms for the military and first responders. And people have this dated sense that it’s just yarns, or just some old-fashioned materials but it’s really cutting edge. I’ve seen that firsthand in facilities throughout the United States, including NCTO members.
I think it’s an industry that has a bright future. It has a lot of challenges, but those challenges are being tackled with the industry and in partnership with the government, and hopefully Congress will get behind some of these new initiatives. I’m hopeful for this industry to be the model for Made in USA manufacturing.
NCTO: What has been your biggest surprise about the industry—a preconceived idea you had about it that changed after your onsite factory tours and seeing firsthand what this industry is capable of innovating?
B.J.: I think it’s probably been the way in which the industry has a lot of flexibility and the way it has adapted. Many of these companies date from the 19th Century and yet they have innovated and changed their production techniques; they’ve changed their product lines and they are thriving today.
And we saw the ability of the flexibility during the PPE pandemic when they all got together– including some companies that compete against each other– to find a way to create Made in USA PPE during that national emergency. I think again these companies may be old, but they are experienced, they are innovative, and they are positioned for the future.
NCTO: While promoting policies that bolster Made in America and domestic production is critical, there is also a co-production chain with Central America and the region that is vitally important to our member companies. Can you speak to that as well as the importance of the yarn forward rule in CAFTA?
B.J.: I remember NCTO did a press release a few years ago just before Christmas, saying that when you are looking to buy gifts, don’t just look for Made in USA. Please look for Made in USA but when you see something made in Central America and it says Honduras, Guatemala, El Salvador, those products probably have a substantial amount from U.S. manufacturing—the fibers, yarns and fabrics.
And that is one of the reasons why we think the partnership in that co-production from U.S. domestic manufacturers and apparel manufacturing in Central America is so important. It is a potential way of our meeting some challenges we have right now with some of the supply chains to bring production closer to our shores.
There is no question that that Biden-Harris administration fully supports the yarn forward approach to rules of origin in our free trade agreements. We heard Ambassador [Katherine] Tai, say that in her remarks this morning. CAFTA-DR really is the cement that holds together the supply chain and yarn forward is the core of that.
Bill was referring to an exclusive pre-recorded message from U.S. Trade Representative Katherine Tai, which included the following remarks:
“Manufacturing is rebounding faster than it has in almost 40 years. And a record 10.5 million small businesses were created in the last two years.
Trade plays an integral part in this new story.
We’re incentivizing U.S.- and regionally-based production and reducing our reliance on products and inputs from distant shores, a vulnerability that the pandemic so clearly brought to light.
We’re factoring in the impact of trade on rural and disadvantaged communities, including those in which many of you operate.
And through Vice President Harris’ Call to Action initiative, we’re challenging companies to invest in the textile sectors in El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras.
We’ve already seen over a $1 billion in new commitments to invest or source from the region, which will help to bolster the North American supply chain and address increased migration pressures from Central America.
A lack of economic opportunity is clearly one of the pressures behind migration, and we know that the textile and apparel sectors present significant opportunities for expanded employment, especially for women. And as part of our commitment to ending the race to the bottom, we want those jobs to be in safe facilities, where basic worker rights are upheld.
Not only will these investments and sourcing commitments help increase economic opportunities in those countries, they will also promote greater near-shoring and support American jobs that provide the yarns and fabrics that go into Central American apparel production.
Make no mistake—we know how important the yarn-forward rules of origin are for the success of our trade partnership with the region. Those rules provide the certainty that companies need to invest in and expand operations, which also creates good-paying jobs both in the United States and in Central America.” –Ambassador Katherine Tai
The administration’s support of a worker-centric trade agenda that supports domestic and regional manufacturing and workers and strives to create a level playing field to enable the industry to meet global challenges head on, is critical.
The U.S. textile industry faces a multitude of challenges, ranging from efforts by certain importers to weaken the CAFTA-DR rule of origin (which would adversely impact the U.S. and Central American co-production chain) to competing with imports in a global apparel supply chain tainted by forced labor apparel from Xinjiang, China.
But this industry has remained resilient for more than 100 years and will continue to contribute strongly to the U.S. economy by coordinating closely with USTR and other key agencies and its allies on Capitol Hill.
Perhaps fittingly, the final word should go to one of the lieutenants at USTR who worked behind the scenes to tirelessly address textile-related issues throughout his tenure.
From Bill Jackson’s post on LinkedIn:
“Nearly 39 years after taking my oath of office at the State Department, and 21 years after starting work at the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative, today is my last day of service with the federal government. I’ve traveled the world, helped set up UN peacekeeping operations in three countries, and negotiated trade agreements. Now I’m looking forward to new adventures, including volunteering in the community, learning new things, and spending more time with my family (whether they like it or not). Thanks to all who have supported and mentored me over the years.”