Why Textile and Apparel Majors Need to Know about Trade Policy

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This past week, our class moved to the topic of trade policy, which as usual turned out to be one of the most challenging and “least exciting” chapters for our students. A common question in students’ mind is (and probably for some professors in the textile and apparel field as well): as a fashion major, why do I need to care about trade policy?

The answer is straightforward: textile market is shaped by rules—trade policy. Trade policy affects the availability of T&A products in the market in terms of quantity, price and speed. Trade policy also affects T&A companies’ access to the market, both domestic and foreign. Simply look at the clothing and shoes we wear daily: if they are imported, very likely the price we pay includes 10-30% additional tax (tariff). Even the clothing is “made in USA”, we should realize that the survival of US domestic apparel manufacturing could be the result of protection by the exact same trade policy which makes imported competing products 10—30% more expensive than otherwise in the US market.

Yet, trade policy does not happen naturally. Trade policies are deliberately made by policymakers and strongly influenced by industry players. Two things I hope our students can realize: first, the T&A industry cannot afford ignoring trade policy. Think about this case: if the US yarn manufacturers did not actively advocate “yarn-forward” rules of origin to be adopted in NAFTA and CAFTA, what will happen to their fate right now? Vice versa, how will the commercial interests of apparel retailers/importers be affected if they stop voicing themselves and simply leave the trade protectionism forces to influence trade policymakers? As the saying goes: if you are not at the table, you are on the menu. To certain extent, there is no good or bad trade policy, but winners and losers.

Second, understanding trade policy making is about understanding the real world. Trade policymaking is a painful balancing process like trying to “breathe and suck at the same time”.Not only different interests groups may have conflicting views on a specific trade policy, but also different policymakers may have their respective philosophies and priorities. As we mentioned in the class, agencies in the executive branch such as the US Trade Representative Office and the Commerce Department put national interests and international obligations of the United States at its heart whereas the Congress often times gives preferences to regional, sectoral and party interests.  A full understanding of T&A trade policy thus requires familiarity with what’s going on in this unique industry sector, knowledge about its key players as well as having a big picture vision in mind. For example, without recognizing the value of becoming a WTO member for China, it will be difficult to appreciate why it was willing to allow US to restrict its apparel exports from 2003 to 2008 on a discriminatory basis (T-shirt book, part III).

Our FASH students shall be encouraged to jump out of the narrowly-defined fashion world, because no industry operates as an island. Instead, the T&A industry is part of the world economy and shaped by the “rest” of the world economy.

 Sheng Lu