Outlook 2019: Apparel Industry Issues in the Year Ahead

In January 2019, Just-Style consulted a panel of industry leaders and scholars in its Outlook 2019–Apparel Industry Issues in the Year Ahead management briefing. Below is my contribution to the report. Any comments and suggestions are more than welcome!

1: What do you see as the biggest challenges – and opportunities – facing the apparel industry in 2019, and why?

In my view, uncertainty will remain the single biggest challenge facing the apparel industry in 2019, ranging from a more volatile global economy, the unpredictable outlook of the U.S.-China trade talks to the various possible scenarios of Brexit. While uncertainty creates exciting new research opportunities for scholars like me, it could be a big headache for companies seeking a foreseeable market environment to guide their future business plan and investments. 

Meanwhile, the increasing digitalization of the apparel supply chain based on big-data tools and artificial intelligence (AI) technologies means a huge opportunity for fashion companies. Indeed, the apparel industry is quickly changing in nature—becoming ever more globalized, supply-chain based, technology-intensive and data-driven. Take talent recruitment as an example. In the 2018 US Fashion Industry Benchmarking Study, which I conducted in collaboration with the US Fashion Industry Association (USFIA), as much as 68 percent of surveyed leading U.S. fashion brands and apparel retailers say they plan to increase hiring of data scientists in the next five years. Googling “apparel industry” together with terms such as “big data” and “data science” also returns much more results than in the past. It is hopeful that the advancement of digital technologies and the smarter use of data will enable apparel companies to overcome market uncertainties better and improve many aspects of their businesses such as speed to market, operational efficiency and even sustainability.

2: What’s happening with sourcing? How is the sourcing landscape likely to shift in 2019, and what can apparel firms and their suppliers do to stay ahead?

Based on my research, I have three observations regarding apparel companies’ sourcing trends and the overall sourcing landscape in 2019:

First, apparel companies overall will continue to maintain a diverse sourcing base. For example, in a recent study, we examined the detailed sourcing portfolios of the 50 largest U.S.-based apparel companies ranked by the Apparel Magazine. Notably, on average these companies sourced from over 20 different countries or regions using more than 200 vendors in 2017. Similarly, in the 2018 US Fashion Industry Benchmarking Study, which I conducted in collaboration with the US Fashion Industry Association (USFIA), we also found companies with more than 1,000 employees typically source from more than ten different countries and regions. Since no sourcing destination is perfect, maintaining a relatively diverse sourcing base allows apparel companies to strike a balance among various sourcing factors ranging from cost, speed, flexibility, to risk management.

Second, while apparel companies are actively seeking new sourcing bases, many of them are reducing either the number of countries they source from or the number of vendors they work with. According to our study, some apparel companies have been strategically reducing the number of sourcing facilities with the purpose of ensuring closer collaborations with their suppliers on social and environmental compliance issues. Some other companies are consolidating their sourcing base within certain regions to improve efficiency and maximize productivity in the supply chain. Related to this trend, it is interesting to note that approximately half of the 50 largest U.S. apparel companies report allocating more sourcing orders to their largest vendor in 2017 than three years ago.

Third, nearshoring or onshoring will become more visible. Take “Made in the USA” apparel for example. According to the 2018 U.S. Fashion Industry Benchmarking Study, around 46 percent of surveyed U.S. fashion brands and apparel retailers report currently sourcing “Made in the USA” products, even though local sourcing typically only account for less than 10 percent of these companies’ total sourcing value or volume. In a recent study, we find that 94 out of the total 348 retailers (or 27 percent) sold “Made in the USA” apparel in the U.S. market between December 2017 and November 2018. These “Made in the USA” apparel items, in general, focus on fashion-oriented women’s wear, particularly in the categories of bottoms (such as skirts, jeans, and trousers), dresses, all-in-ones (such as playsuits and dungarees), swimwear and suits-sets. The advantage of proximity to the market, which makes speedy replenishment for in-season items possible, also allows retailers to price “Made in the USA” apparel substantially higher than imported ones and avoid offering deep discounts. Looking ahead, thanks to automation technology and consumers’ increasing demand for speed to market, I think nearshoring or onshoring, including ”Made in the USA” apparel, will continue to have its unique role to play in fashion brands and retailers’ merchandising and sourcing strategies.

3: What should apparel firms and their suppliers be doing now if they want to remain competitive further into the future? What will separate the winners from the losers?

2019 will be a year to test apparel companies’ resources, particularly in the sourcing area. For example, winners will be those companies that have built a sophisticated but nimble global sourcing network that can handle market uncertainties effectively. Likewise, companies that understand and leverage the evolving “rules of the game”, such as the apparel-specific rules of origin and tariff phase-out schedules of existing or newly-reached free trade agreements, will be able to control sourcing cost better and achieve higher profit margins. Given the heavy involvement of trade policy in apparel sourcing this year, companies with solid government relations should also enjoy unique competitive advantages. 

On the other hand, as apparel business is changing in nature, to stay competitive, apparel companies need to start investing the future. This includes but not limited to exploring new sourcing destinations, studying the changing consumer demographics, recruiting new talents with expertise in emerging areas, and adopting new technologies fitting for the digital age. 

4: What keeps you awake at night? Is there anything else you think the apparel industry should be keeping a close eye on in the year ahead? Do you expect 2019 to be better than 2018, and why?

Two things are at the top of my watchlist:

First, what is the future of China as an apparel sourcing base? While external factors such as the U.S.-China tariff war have attracted most of the public attention, the genuine evolution of China’s textile and apparel industry is something even more critical to watch in the long run. From my observation, China is playing an increasingly important role as a textile supplier for apparel-exporting countries in Asia. For example, measured by value, 47 percent of Bangladesh’s textile imports came from China in 2017, up from 39 percent in 2005. Similar trends are seen in Cambodia (up from 30 percent to 65 percent), Vietnam (up from 23 percent to 50 percent), Pakistan (up from 32 percent to 71 percent), Malaysia (up from 25 percent to 54 percent), Indonesia (up from 28 percent to 46 percent), Philippines (up from 19 percent to 41 percent) and Sri Lanka (up from 15 percent to 39 percent) over the same time frame. A key question in my mind is how quickly China’s textile and apparel industry will continue to evolve and upgrade by following the paths of most other advanced economies in history.

Second, how will the implementation of several newly-reached free trade agreements (FTAs) affect the big landscape of apparel sourcing and the existing regional apparel supply chains? For example:

  • The newly-reached U.S.-Mexico-Canada Free Trade Agreement (USMCA or commonly called NAFTA2.0) includes several interesting changes to the textile and apparel specific rules of origin provisions, such as the adjustment of the tariff-preference level (TPL) mechanism. Whether these changes will boost textile and apparel production in the Western-Hemisphere and attract more sourcing from the region will be something interesting to watch.
  • The implementation of the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP) and the EU-Vietnam Free Trade Agreement (EVFTA) will allow Vietnam to get access to nearly 40% of the world apparel import market (i.e., EU + Japan) duty-free. However, restrained by the country’s relatively small population, the apparel industry is increasingly facing the challenge of competing for labor with other export-oriented sectors in Vietnam. Realistically, what is the growth potential of apparel “Made in Vietnam” after the implementation of CPTPP and EVFTA?
  • In 2017, close to 80% of Asian countries’ textile imports came from other Asian countries, up from around 70% in the 2000s. Similarly, in 2017, 85.6% of Asian countries’ apparel imports also came from within the region. The negotiation of the Regional Comprehensive and Economic Partnership (RCEP) is likely to conclude in 2019, whose membership includes member states of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and other six economies in the Asia-Pacific region (Australia, China, India, Japan, South Korea and New Zealand). Will RCEP result in an ever more integrated Asia-based textile and apparel supply chain and make the Asia region even more competitive as an apparel sourcing destination?  

Author: Sheng Lu

Professor @ University of Delaware

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