EU Textile and Apparel Industry and Trade Patterns (Updated April 2020)

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The EU region as a whole remains one of the world’s leading producers of textile and apparel (T&A). The value of EU’s T&A production totaled EUR146.2bn in 2018, marginally up 2% from a year ago (Note: Statistical Classification of Economic Activities or NACE, sectors C13, and C14). The value of EU’s T&A output was divided almost equally between textile manufacturing (EUR77.4bn) and apparel manufacturing (EUR70.0bn).

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Regarding textile production, Southern and Western EU, where most developed EU members are located such as Germany, France, and Italy, accounted for nearly 73.7% of EU’s textile manufacturing in 2018. Further, of EU countries’ total textile output, the share of non-woven and other technical textile products (NACE sectors C1395 and C1396) has increased from 19.2% in 2011 to 23.0% in 2017, which reflects the on-going structural change of the sector.

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Apparel manufacturing in the EU includes two primary categories: one is the medium-priced products for consumption in the mass market, which are produced primarily by developing countries in Eastern and Southern Europe, such as Poland, Hungary, and Romania, where cheap labor is relatively abundant. The other category is the high-end luxury apparel produced by developed Western EU countries, such as Italy, UK, France, and Germany.

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It is also interesting to note that in Western EU countries, labor only accounted for 21.7% of the total apparel production cost in 2017, which was substantially lower than 30.1% back in 2006. This change suggests that apparel manufacturing is becoming capital and technology-intensive in some developed Western EU countries—as companies are actively adopting automation technology in garment production.

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Because of their relatively high GDP per capita and size of the population, Germany, Italy, UK, France, and Spain accounted for 61.1% of total apparel retail sales in the EU in 2018. Such a market structure has stayed stable over the past decade.

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Data source: UNcomtrade (2020)

Intra-region trade is an important feature of the EU’s textile and apparel industry. Despite the increasing pressure from cost-competitive Asian suppliers, statistics from the World Trade Organization (WTO) show that of the EU region’s total US$73.7bn textile imports in 2018, as much as 57.1% were in the category of intra-region trade. Similarly, of EU countries’ total US$205.0bn apparel imports in 2018, as much as 48.0% also came from other EU members. In comparison, close to 97% of apparel consumed in the United States are imported in 2018, of which more than 80% came from Asia (Eurostat, 2020; WTO, 2020).

EURATEX-TC-Business-Confidence-Indicator (1)

The EU textile and apparel industry is not immune to COVID-19. According to the European Apparel and Textile Federation (Euratex), the outbreak of COVID-19 may cause a 50% drop in sales and production for the EU textile and apparel sector in 2020. A recent survey of EU-based T&A companies shows that almost 9 out of 10 respondents reported facing serious constraints on their financial situation and 80% of companies had temporarily laid-off workers. Around 25% of surveyed companies were considering closing down their businesses. Further, EU T&A companies were concerned about EU’s tightened border controls, which have “increased sharply, leading to delays in supplies but also cancelling of orders, thus aggravating the economic impact.”

Author: Sheng Lu

Professor @ University of Delaware

20 thoughts on “EU Textile and Apparel Industry and Trade Patterns (Updated April 2020)”

  1. Question: are these figures based on production statistics or on export statistics (which includes products produced elsewhere and distributed via logistics hubs within the EU) ?

    1. Hello Bernd, the industry output/employment is production statistics (Statistical Classification of Economic Activities or NACE, sectors C13, and C14; collected from Eurostat Annual detailed enterprise statistics for industry).
      The trade data is from UNComtrade.

  2. Are EU countries more likely to manufacture their clothing in chapter EU countries or cheaper Asian countries. Does the shorter distance to produce in cheap EU countries intense them more, rather than a far cheaper option in Asia? Since Italy is top country in apparel and textiles in the Eu, and had the biggest hit of corona virus, how long will you think it would take them to recover?

    1. Production within the EU is used for high fashion and quality goods. Fabrics are still produced in Italy, apparel production often takes place in cheaper countries like Bulgaria or Romania (and Turkey) by outward processing. Asian is more famous for sportswear products like outer- and knitwear because of local raw-material availability. I cannot estimate the Corona-input on Italian production but there is an interesting connection between both countries. A lot of (legal and illegal) Chinese People work in the Italian textile Hotspots or even run them themselves.

  3. The EU stays strong to their ties by supporting manufacturers in Europe rather than outsourcing to manufacturers in Asia. I wonder if it is more efficient for companies in the EU to keep their business model of intra-region trade and not importing from cheaper Asian suppliers? After this pandemic will companies in the EU rethink their methods and choose to import from Asia?

    1. According to my experience most of the european Brands are sourcing in both regions. There is no trend to move to Asia but from Asia, especially China (to other asian countries or back or closer to Europe). Reasons are growing prices in China, the need for Speed and new trends towards deglobalisation because of Corona.

    2. I think the EU will not choose to import from China after this pandemic. It definitely would be more efficient for EU companies to keep their entire trade and importing process in the EU region. With the saying of deglobalization because of the virus, regardless of if this saying will come true, it is undeniable that the EU region will keep resources for themselves to avoid the same situation in this pandemic to happen again.

      1. That‘s simply not possible because of missing production capacities. Apparel production is a low-wage industry and even in poorer EU-countries people prefer to work in other industries with higher wages or move to richer countries to work in farming, restaurants, health sector. Corona will not change this situation significantly.

      2. I am interested in exploring whether Covid-19 will strengthen the regional supply chain because of a mix of factors, from the travel restrictions to reduced volume. Meanwhile, we know companies are reducing their exposure to China; however, the collapse of China’s apparel exports to the US in the first quarter of 2020 is still astonishing (https://shenglufashion.com/2020/05/06/covid-19-and-u-s-apparel-imports-updated-may-2020/) Not sure about what is happening in the EU market…

      3. It is hard to find alternatives to China especially in or near Europe. Companies are looking for them already before Corona because of pricing and the US-duties. But production within Europe is difficult (no capacities, pricing). Turkey is politically not easy and Africa is not ready yet, especially when you are not in the cheapest sector.

  4. I wonder if one of the main reasons that the EU region reports such strong numbers is because of their location. I understand we live in a very globalized world, and that exporting and importing between different countries plays a big role in all of that, but is it easier for the EU region because they’re many major producers in close proximity? I’m not sure if there’s any truth to that, but to me it seems very plausible that things like shipping and transportation costs are lower fore say between Italy and the UK , than Italy and the United States. So, I was just wondering if that plays a role at all in the overall finances and production of products in the EU region as opposed to other regions.

    1. This is an interesting point because I read that Inditex who owns Zara they do so well because they have been solving the problem of wanting to have production faster & quicker turnover by “reshoring”/ “nearshoring” production. It is a little more costly to do the “reshoring” but it allows them to have quicker lead times and able to get their products to the retailer faster. So maybe this one of factors that EU region reports strong numbers.

      1. Inditex is located in the north of Spain in an area with relatively low industrialization. I. has always kept production nearby which was/is possible to low competition on the labour market. This allows being fast. They run a mix of local and global sourcing. I do not know whether they are actually „reshoring“ but I think it is very difficult to built up additional capacities in Europe since apparel production is a low-salary sector – and people prefer to work in other, better paid sectors.

  5. I agree with the above point of de-globalization. I think that the U.S. could be looking to the EU as an example of successful intra-trade. I think that the fashion industry was already moving to a place of a localized supply chain to produce product faster and more efficiently. Social media is producing the trends and showing consumers what they want to have now and the fashion industry is trying to keep up with that. COVID-19 has only pushed this idea along.

    1. I do not agree that social media is creating trends. „Social media and influencers are only nodes of transmission rather than sources of inspiration. The result is creative stagnation.“ (L. Leitch, Fashion Editor of 1843/The Economist)

  6. The EU region is very sufficient at intra-region trade for their textile and apparel sector. It is impressive but also could be very concerning factor with the COVID-19 pandemic. If majority of manufacturers for both textiles and apparel have to close down, in the article it said a possible 50% drop in sales and production is possible; how would they recover from this kind of drop in sales and productivity? They are going to have to implement policy and protections for these manufacturers to survive so that they can stay in business during and after the pandemic.

  7. It is interesting to focus on the EU textile and apparel industry alone because when we usually discuss the textile and apparel industry, it is heavily weighted towards China due to their massive size and position in the industry. The Western EU exports enjoy a unique position having both high-quality textiles, automation, and demand for luxury apparel from countries such as Italy, France, the UK and Germany. They also enjoy a production cost advantage from the Eastern and Southern European partners like Poland, Hungary and Romania. The EU textile and apparel industry will no doubt suffer also from the COVID-19 crisis as countries such as Italy were hit hard. I think the workers of the poorer countries of the eastern and southern EU will be hit hardest by the lack of demand and loss of production requests. Overall the EU textile and apparel industry may see a bigger short-term loss due to COVID-19 then the total textile and apparel industry; because the EU does not have the ability to switch textile exports to neighboring countries like switching from China to Vietnam for instance.

  8. After reading this article and thinking about the impacts of COVID-19 on the EU, I can’t help but wonder how the luxury market is going to suffer from these impacts. The luxury and high-end market is a big part of EU’s apparel manufacturing. Now with the impacts of COVID-19, many production has to be halted. Therefore, these luxury products are not even being produced but yet, I don’t see a need for them right now anyway. Since most people in the EU were on lockdown, there is no need to really buy any clothing in general, let alone luxury clothing. Additionally, many of their profits come from foreign tourists who travel to many different countries in EU to purchase these luxury products. Since travel has also come to a halt, I can see the luxury market really suffering in the coming months.

  9. This article is interesting since it highlights the EU textile and apparel industry, in many discussions it feels as though the focus is on asian countries specifically China. The EU is different because it has more associations of high-quality textiles, technology and luxury apparel. Just by having a country like “Made in Italy” on the product tag it draws associations of these things, therefore people are willing to spend more. the partnerships created in their intra-region trade are incredibly intelligent as well since they allow growth for the EU as a whole. They report that “The outbreak of COVID-19 may cause a 50% drop in sales and production for the EU textile and apparel sector in 2020.”. While this is a massive loss for the year I do not think it means permanent failure for the EU. Something discussed in other articles is the need for “near sourcing” at this time. This is something many of the EU based companies already utilize due to their intra-regional trade. For example When we talked about companies like Hugo Boss they produced a lot in the EU already. The biggest issue will be the decline in the demand of the luxury.

  10. This article is great change in learning about other countries and their globalization processes. Since luxury design takes up such a significant portion of European fashion, its hard not to wonder what effects COVID-19 will have on the future success of these European companies. Not only will the EU fashion industry take a major hit because of supply, but demand for these luxury pieces is at an all time low. Because of the large amounts of intra textile and apparel sourcing the EU operates, the industry will be facing major long-term drawbacks. It will be interesting to see how quick Europe can make a recovery from these extreme conditions that are so fiercely effecting their economy.

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