This summer I reached a personal milestone: my first triathlon. I swam in the Merrimack river, and rode and ran through the streets of Lowell, Massachusetts. The Mill City triathlon is named after the massive brick buildings that line the banks of the river. In the 1850s, those mills made Lowell the largest industrial center in the United States, producing 50,000 miles of cloth each year. Today the mills are converted into comfortable lofts, offices and a museum. The powerful river that drove the machines of the American industrial complex is now clean enough for a swim. It’s hard to imagine this transformation while swimming in the warm water of the Merrimack.
How did Lowell change from a global industrial capital to a sleepy river town? In the 1890’s, the water-driven mills of Lowell were abandoned for the steam-driven mills of the South, and in 1970’s the mills began leaving the South for the global manufacturing hubs of Southeast Asia. Today’s garment industry is headquartered not along the Merrimack river but amid the congested streets Dhaka, Bangladesh. Like the Merrimack of 19th-Century Lowell, the Buriganga river in Dhaka often runs the color of the textiles being dyed upstream.
Lowell’s mills were long ago shuttered by the apparel industry’s race to the bottom. In pursuit of lower costs, manufacturers often favor countries with cheap and plentiful labor, low taxes, and ready infrastructure. Many of today’s industrial economies have gone through this so-called “T-shirt phase,” during which they specialize in low-cost, low-profit goods. Lowell represented one of the first T-shirt phases of North America. Since then, many countries in the Americas, Europe, and Asia have had a one of their own. It’s usually seen as the step before a country can develop higher value-added manufacturing. In Lowell, mill owners found a plentiful workforce in women, who came to comprise nearly three-quarters of the workforce. They became known as the Mill Girls of Lowell. Confronted with squalid working conditions and a loss of control over their economic fate, the Mill Girls organized some of the first workers’ strikes in the US. These strikes paved the way for the labor movement and the women’s rights movement. Lowell has suffered economically since the 1950’s, but the wealth and standards it pioneered benefit all Americans today.
Today the mills of Lowell stand idle, but they still stand. In Dhaka, the Rana Plaza apparel factory collapsed in April, killing 1,130 of the people working inside. This was only the latest in a series of industrial accidents that have claimed the lives of thousands of Bangladeshis since the apparel industry moved there in the 1980’s. This stands in stark contrast with Lowell, whose mills introduced a new prosperity to agrarian America. Low-cost manufacturing helps grow economies as long as industry leaves something behind: infrastructure, skills, civic institutions. There are few places on earth cheaper than Bangladesh to make apparel today. We’ve reached the finish line in the race to the bottom. Is there enough left behind to build a prosperous economy?
Swimming in the Merrimack made me face a reality: I’m not just a citizen of this country, where I live and work; I’m a citizen of the supply chain that makes the things I rely on every day. I need to do everything possible to make sure the people at the other end of the supply chain – where things come from – can enjoy the same benefits as I do. We are all citizens of global supply chains. It’s time we all worked to bring the benefits enjoyed in some parts of the world to the rest. It’s time for a radical re-invention of the way we make things. It’s time every Mill City had a triathlon.