A CHANGE of seasons can send even a reluctant shopper hurrying to the nearest mall. The chill in the morning air serves as a reminder that it's time to buy a new sweater or coat. And fashion magazines confirm that hemlines are heading down, threatening to give last year's wardrobe a dated look.
Styles are not the only detail catching the eye of some customers as they browse through racks of clothes this fall. After weeks of public debate about lowering trade barriers with the proposed North American Free Trade Agreement, who can fail to be more aware of the "Imported from" labels sewn into necklines?
Never have so many clothes traveled so many thousands of miles to reach customers. All the long-familiar foreign labels are still there: Hong Kong, China, Taiwan. At the same time, the list of other overseas manufacturing sites grows longer and more exotic every season: Made in Macao. Made in India. Made in Brazil, Guatemala, Malaysia, Mauritius, Sri Lanka, Pakistan, Mexico. The global village dominates the mall. Only here and there do red-white-and-blue tags reading "Crafted with pride in the U.S.A." re mind a shopper of manufacturers closer to home.
However intriguing these foreign labels might be, they cause a shopper to wonder: What kind of working conditions prevail in overseas garment factories? How many employees, including children, work long hours for only a few dollars a day? And how many workers have they displaced in the United States?
Jay Mazur, president of the International Ladies Garment Workers Union in New York, estimates that the American apparel industry has lost between 360,000 and 400,000 jobs during the past 20 years - 200,000 in the last 10 years. More than half of all garments sold in the US, he adds, are now imported.
Nor does the job migration end there. This winter, some of the best-dressed beds in the country will be covered with quilts made by Chinese workers using classic designs from that most American of institutions, the Smithsonian. The International Quilting Market estimates that the museum's three-year contract overseas represents a $46 million loss to American quilters.
Other jobs are heading north. Just before Labor Day, General Motors closed its plant in Van Nuys, Calif., shifting operations to Montreal. The closing puts 2,700 people out of work. It represents a loss to the community of $136 million in annual salaries. And as a measure of the domino effect in unemployment, for every GM worker, from one to three other workers will be displaced in industries that subcontracted to GM.
This has been a year of seemingly mixed messages about foreign trade. Last spring politicians and labor leaders chided Americans for choosing foreign cars over those made in Detroit. The consumer's patriotic motto became: "Buy American." Then last month, the message began sounding more like "Buy Mexican" as politicians trumpeted the benefits of the North American Free Trade Agreement. Yes, they conceded, the pact would send some jobs to Mexico. But it would also create jobs here and generate economic gro wth.
Perhaps it will. Yet whatever the outcome, the proliferation of foreign manufacturers raises questions: What happens to the gross national product if all the production gets farmed out to the rest of the world? If the only task of American business is to put a name on the product and write the advertising copy, is the nation's output in danger of turning into an abstraction?
Employment experts have long predicted that the American workplace would turn into a service economy. The information revolution, they promised, was upon us, complete with productless factories and paperless offices.
Still, not all empty factories can be turned into exposed-brick malls filled with trendy boutiques and upscale restaurants. Not all blue-collar workers can be retrained as data processors. When the manufacturing sector shrinks, forcing workers into lower-paying jobs in the service sector, families lose purchasing power.
Americans cannot be isolationists in foreign trade any more than they can in foreign aid. But the unsettling question confronting autumn shoppers as they read labels that say, in effect, "Definitely not made in the USA" is this: How small a role can the United States play in producing goods and still maintain the world-class economy that leaders are always boasting about?