Can the country become the next major player in the global apparel industry without sacrificing its environment? Near Ho Chi Minh City, one factory owner is assembling a greener model…out of blue jeans.
take a stroll in the vicinity of the Rex Hotel in Ho Chi Minh City is to walk through the startling meshwork of incongruities that now define the city once known as Saigon. When I did so recently, on a hot and humid evening in early November, I passed a huge socialist realist poster of a soldier saluting International Workers Day; half a block farther on, an equally large billboard showed a sultry model advertising an upscale brand of perfume. Down the street, an old woman, grossly disfigured by Agent Orange, was begging for pennies on the sidewalk outside a new shopping mall called Times Square Saigon. Back inside the hotel, I decided to make my way up to its rooftop bar, where reporters used to congregate during the Vietnam War to pour scorn on each day’s military briefing, which they dubbed “the Five O’Clock Follies.” First, however, I had to navigate a gleaming marble labyrinth of designer boutiques: Rolex and Chanel, Burberry and Cartier, Givenchy and Balenciaga—all of which are leasing prime retail space from the 80-year-old, five-star hotel’s owner: the Communist Party of Vietnam. The beer set me back $14.
This strange new hybrid nation wasn’t built overnight, of course. Changes to Vietnam’s centrally planned economy began creeping in during the late 1980s, more than a decade after the end of the war. The policy of Doi Moi, or “Renovation,” was implemented at that time to create what the government described as a socialist-oriented market economy. Then, in 1995, diplomatic relations with the United States were normalized, and in 2007 Vietnam became the 150th member of the World Trade Organization. These days, whatever the Vietnamese economy may be called officially, unofficially—and internationally—it can be summed up in a single word: “booming.” And much of the boom has been driven by the stunning growth of a single industry sector: apparel.
In 2013, exports of Vietnamese-made apparel topped $20 billion for the first time. More than 40 percent of those exports, $8 billion worth, went to the United States; by 2020, the figure is projected to rise to more than $20 billion. Vietnam also overtook Bangladesh as America’s second-largest supplier in 2013, putting it behind only China. Now, with Vietnam hoping to join the Trans-Pacific Partnership—a proposed consortium of 12 countries that could represent the largest free-trade agreement in history—the nation has arrived at an intoxicating but dangerous threshold.
Why dangerous? Because this is the moment when economic logic dictates the vertical integration of Vietnam’s flourishing apparel industry. It no longer makes sense for the country to import 98 percent of the raw cotton that gets cut and sewn in its roughly 6,000 garment factories; what does make sense is to begin building the textile mills and dyeing and finishing facilities that will allow Vietnam to compete at nearly every stage of clothing production, not merely the cutting-and-sewing stage. This is also the moment when the environmental and social risks that attach to the manufacture of apparel grow exponentially.