US-UK Free Trade Agreement: What Does it Mean for the Apparel Industry?

By Victoria Langro (2020 UD Summer Scholar) and Dr. Sheng Lu (advisor)

Key findings:

US-UK bilateral apparel trade

Over the past decade, the US and UK bilateral trade in apparel enjoyed steady growth, reflecting ever closer business ties of fashion companies in the two countries. While US apparel exports still predominantly go to geographically nearby countries such as Mexico and Canada, the UK has emerged to become the single largest export market for “Made in the USA” apparel outside the Western Hemisphere. Similarly, the United States has always been the UK’s single largest export market outside the EU region.

On the other hand, the apparel products that the US and the UK export to each other target different segments of the market. Industry sources indicate that the clothing exported from the US to the UK primarily focuses on the premium market. Garments “Made in the USA” in the UK are mostly carried by premium brands and retailers such as Free People, J. Crew, and Moda Operandi. However, due to a lack of brand power, clothing “Made in the USA” is typically priced 30%-50% lower than similar products locally made in the UK or elsewhere in Western EU, such as France and Italy.

In comparison, approximately 70% of apparel exported from the UK to the US are luxury goods. With a relatively clear-cut market position, luxury and high-end designer UK brands, such as Burberry, Roland Mouret, and Victoria Beckham, can effectively reach out to their target markets.

How Might the US-UK FTA Affect the Bilateral Apparel Trade

According to the released negotiation objectives, both the US and the UK seem to be willing to consider a substantial cut or even a full elimination of the apparel tariff rate as part of the trade deal. Should this happen, fashion companies across the Atlantic could benefit from a proportional reduction of their sourcing cost, resulting in a considerable expansion of the US-UK bilateral apparel trade flows.

On the other hand, to enjoy the preferential duty benefit under a free trade agreement, rules of origin will always be a requirement. Notably, most US trade agreements currently adopt the so-called “yarn-forward” rules of origin. In contrast, most EU-based trade deals adopt a more liberal “fabric-forward” rule.

While it is hard to predict which specific rules of origin the proposed US-UK trade agreement will adopt, it seems the result will have a more significant impact on the US apparel exports to the UK than the other way around. Restrained by the limited domestic supply and high cost, a substantial proportion of US apparel exports contain imported textile raw materials. This means US apparel producers may have to either switch to use more expensive domestic textile inputs or forgo the FTA duty-saving benefits should restrictive rules of origin are adopted. Meanwhile, the UK apparel exports to the US will be less sensitive to the rules of origin in the proposed FTA, as most of these luxury items are already 100% “Made in the UK” to meet customers’ expectations.

Uncertainties associated with the US-UK FTA

The US-UK trade negotiations have to deal with an evolving Brexit. Given the EU’s economic cloud, understandably, some argue that the UK may have to reach a comprehensive trade agreement with the EU before it can consider a trade deal with the US. Additionally, several US domestic politics and policy factors may further slow down the progress of the US-UK trade negotiation, from the US presidential election to the upcoming expiration of the trade promotion authority (TPA).

Further reading: Langro, V., & Lu, S. (2020). US-UK Free Trade Agreement: What Does it Mean for the Apparel Industry? Just-Style.

2020 USFIA Fashion Industry Benchmarking Study Released

The full report is available HERE

Key findings of this year’s report:

Impact of COVID19 on Fashion Companies’ Businesses

The overwhelming majority of respondents report “economic and business impacts of the coronavirus (COVID-19)” as their top business challenge in 2020. The business difficulties caused by COVID-19 will not go away anytime soon, and U.S. fashion companies have to prepare for a medium to the long-term impact of the pandemic.

COVID-19 has caused severe supply chain disruptions to U.S. fashion companies. The disruptions come from multiple aspects, ranging from a labor shortage, shortages of textile raw materials, and a substantial cost increase in shipping and logistics.

COVID-19 has resulted in a widespread sales decline and order cancellation among U.S. fashion companies. Almost all respondents (96 percent) expect their companies’ sales revenue to decrease in 2020.

As sales drop and business operations are significantly disrupted, not surprisingly, all respondents (100 percent) say they more or less have postponed or canceled sourcing orders. Nearly half of self-identified retailers say the sourcing orders they canceled or postponed go beyond the 2nd quarter of 2020. Another 40 percent expect order cancellation and postponement could extend further to the fourth quarter of 2020 or even beyond. The order cancellation or postponement has affected vendors in China, Bangladesh, and India the most.

Impact of COVID-19 and US-China Trade War on Fashion Companies’ Sourcing

As high as 90 percent of respondents explicitly say, the U.S. Section 301 action against China has increased their company’s sourcing cost in 2020, up from 63 percent last year.

COVID-19 and the trade war are pushing U.S. fashion companies to reduce their “China exposure” further. While “China plus Vietnam plus Many” remains the most popular sourcing model among respondents, around 29 percent of respondents indicate that they source MORE from Vietnam than from China in 2020, up further from 25 percent in 2019.

As U.S. fashion companies are sourcing relatively less from China, they are moving orders mostly to China’s competitors in Asia. All respondents (100 percent) say they have “moved some sourcing orders from China to other Asian suppliers” this year, up from 77 percent in 2019.

However, no clear evidence suggests that U.S. fashion companies are sourcing more from the Western Hemisphere because of COVID-19 and the U.S.-China trade war.

Emerging Sourcing Trends

Sourcing diversification is slowing down, and more U.S. fashion companies are switching to consolidate their existing sourcing base. Close to half of the respondents say they plan to “source from the same number of countries, but work with fewer vendors,” up from 40 percent in last year’s survey.

China most likely will remain a critical sourcing base for U.S. fashion companies. However, non-economic factors could complicate companies’ sourcing decisions. Benefiting from U.S. fashion companies’ reduced sourcing from China, Vietnam and Bangladesh are expected to play a more significant role as primary apparel suppliers for the U.S. market.

Given the supply chain disruptions experienced during the pandemic, U.S. fashion companies are more actively exploring “Made in the USA” sourcing opportunities to improve agility and flexibility and reduce sourcing risks. Around 25 percent of respondents expect to somewhat increase sourcing locally from the U.S. in the next two years, which is the highest level since 2016.

US-Mexico-Canada Trade Agreement (USMCA)

For companies that were already using NAFTA for sourcing, the vast majority (77.8 percent) say they are “ready to achieve any USMCA benefits immediately,” up more than 31 percent from 2019. Even for respondents who were not using NAFTA or sourcing from the region, about half of them this year say they may “consider North American sourcing in the future” and explore the USMCA benefits. Some respondents expressed concerns about the rules of origin changes. These worries seem to concentrate on denim products in particular.

African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA)

Close to 37 percent of respondents say they have been sourcing MORE textile and apparel from sub-Saharan Africa (SSA) since the latest AGOA renewal in 2015, a substantial increase from 27 percent in the 2019 survey. More than 40 percent of respondents say AGOA and its “third-country fabric provision” are critical for their sourcing from the SSA region. More than 40 percent of respondents say AGOA and its “third-country fabric provision” are critical for their sourcing from the SSA region.

However, respondents still demonstrate a low level of interest in investing in the SSA region directly. Around 27 percent of respondents say the temporary nature of AGOA and the uncertainty associated with the future of the agreement have discouraged them.

With AGOA’s expiration date quickly approaching, the discussions on the future of the agreement and the prospect of sourcing from SSA begin to intensify. Among the various policy options to consider, “Renew AGOA for another ten years with no major change of its current provisions” and “Replace AGOA with a permanent free trade agreement that requires reciprocal tariff cut and continues to allow the third-country fabric provision” are the most preferred by respondents.

COVID-19 and U.S. Apparel Imports (Updated: August 2020)

The latest statistics from the Office of Textiles and Apparel (OTEXA) show that while the negative impacts of COVID-19 on U.S. apparel imports continued in June 2020, there appeared to be early signs of economic recovery. Specifically:

While the value of U.S. apparel imports decreased by 42.8% in June 2020 from a year ago, the speed of the decline has slowed (was down 60% year over year in May 2020). Nevertheless, between January and June 2020, the value of U.S. apparel imports decreased by 30.4% year over year, which has been much worse than the performance during the 2008-2009 global financial crisis (down 11.8%).

The latest trade statistics support the view that U.S. fashion companies continue to treat China as an essential apparel-sourcing base, despite COVID-19, the trade war, and companies’ sourcing diversification strategy. As the first country hit by COVID-19, China’s apparel exports to the U.S. dropped by as much as 49.0% from January to June 2020 year over year. In February 2020, China’s market shares slipped to only 11%, and both in March and April 2020, U.S. fashion companies imported more apparel from Vietnam than from China. However, China’s apparel exports to the U.S. are experiencing a “V-shape” recovery: as of June 2020, China had quickly regained its position as the top apparel supplier to the U.S., with a 29.1% market share in value and 43.4% share in quantity.

Moreover, U.S. apparel imports from China are also becoming more price-competitive—the unit price slipped from $2.25/Square meters equivalent (SME) in 2019 to $1.88/SME in 2020 (January to June), or down more than 16% (compared with a 4.6% price drop of the world average). As of June 2020, the unit price of U.S. apparel import from China was only 65% of the world average, and around 25—35 percent lower than those imported from other Asian countries. On the other hand, the official Chinese statistics report a 19.4% drop in China’s apparel exports to the world in the first half of 2020.

Despite Covid-19, Asia as a whole remains the single largest source of apparel for the U.S. market. Other than China, Vietnam (20.3% YTD in 2020 vs. 16.2% in 2019), ASEAN (34.4% YTD in 2020 and vs. 27.4% in 2019), Bangladesh (8.9% YTD in 2020 vs.7.1% in 2019), and Cambodia (4.5% YTD in 2020 vs. 3.2% in 2019) all gain additional market shares in 2020 from a year ago.

However, still, no clear evidence suggests that U.S. fashion brands and retailers have been giving more apparel sourcing orders to suppliers from the Western Hemisphere because of COVID-19 and the trade war. In the first six months of 2020, only 8.8% of U.S. apparel imports came from CAFTA-DR members (down from 10.3% in 2019) and 4.2% from NAFTA members (down from 4.5% in 2019).

Notably, U.S. fashion companies source products from Asia (including China) and the Western Hemisphere for different purposes. In general, US companies tend to source either price-sensitive or more sophisticated items from Asia, where factories overall have higher productivity and more advanced production techniques. Meanwhile, the Western Hemisphere is typically used to source products that require faster speed-to-market or more frequent replenishments during the selling season. Some studies further show that there is more divergence in the products imported into the United States from Asian countries and the Western Hemisphere from 2015 to 2019. In contrast, over the same period, China, ASEAN, and Bangladesh appear to be exporting increasingly similar products to the United States.

That being said, as USMCA enters into force on July 1, 2020, a more stable trading environment could encourage more U.S. apparel sourcing from Mexico down the road (assuming garment factories there can gradually resume production and no further COVID-19 related shutdown).

As a reflection of weak demand, the unit price of U.S. apparel imports dropped in the first six months of 2020 (price index =100, meaning the same nominal price as in 2010). The price index was 104.7 in 2019. The imports from Mexico (price index =87.1 YTD in 2020 vs. 112.1 in 2019) and China (price index = 69.9 YTD in 2020 vs. 83.5 in 2019) have seen the most notable price decrease so far.

by Sheng Lu

WTO Reports World Textiles and Apparel Trade in 2019

According to the World Trade Statistical Review 2020 newly released by the World Trade Organization (WTO):

First, the volume of world textiles and apparel trade reduced in 2019 due to weakened demand and the negative impacts of trade tensions. According to the WTO, the value of the world textiles (SITC 65) and apparel (SITC 84) exports totaled $305bn and $492bn in 2019, respectively, decreased by 2.4% and 0.4% from a year ago. The world merchandise trade also fell by nearly 3% measured by value and 0.1% measured by volume 2018-2019, in contrast with a positive 2.8% growth 2017-2018. Put these numbers in context, the year 2019 was the first time that world merchandise trade fell since the 2008 global financial crisis, and the decline happened even before the pandemic. As noted by the WTO, the economic slowdown and the escalating trade tensions, particularly the tariff war between the United States and China, were among the major contributing factors for the contraction of trade flows. 

Second, the pattern of world textile exports overall stays stable in 2019; Meanwhile, China and Vietnam continue to gain momentum. China, European Union (EU28), and India remained the world’s top three exporters of textiles in 2019. Altogether, these top three accounted for 66.9% of the value of world textile exports in 2019, almost no change from two years ago. Notably, despite the headwinds, China and Vietnam stilled enjoy the positive growth of their textile exports in 2019, up 0.9%, and 8.3%, respectively. In particular, Vietnam exceeded Taiwan and ranked the world’s seventh-largest textile exporter in 2019 ($8.8bn of exports, up 8.3% from a year earlier), the first time in history. The change also reflects Vietnam’s efforts to continuously upgrade its textile and apparel industry and strengthen the local textile production capacity are paying off.

Third, the pattern of world apparel exports reflects fashion companies’ shifting strategies to reduce sourcing from China. China, the European Union (EU28), Bangladesh, and Vietnam unshakably remained the world’s top four exporters of apparel in 2019. Altogether, these top four accounted for as much as 71.4% of world market shares in 2019, which, however, was lower than 74% from 2016 to 2018—primarily due to China’s reduced market shares.

China is exporting less apparel and more textiles to the world. Notably, China’s market shares in world apparel exports fell from its peak of 38.8% in 2014 to a record low of 30.8% in 2019 (was 31.3% in 2018). Meanwhile, China accounted for 39.2% of world textile exports in 2019, which was a new record high. It is important to recognize that China is playing an increasingly critical role as a textile supplier for many apparel-exporting countries in Asia.

On the other hand, even though apparel exports from Vietnam (up 7.7%) and Bangladesh (up 2.1%) enjoyed fast growth in absolute terms in 2019, their gains in market shares were quite limited (i.e., no change for Vietnam and marginally up 0.3 percentage point from 6.8% to 6.5% for Bangladesh). This result indicates that due to capacity limits, no single country has yet emerged to become the “Next China.” Instead, China’s lost market shares in apparel exports were fulfilled by a group of Asian countries altogether.

Fourth, associated with the shifting pattern of world apparel production, the world textile import is increasingly driven by apparel-exporting countries in the developing world. Notably, 2019 marks the first time that Vietnam emerged to become one of the world’s top three largest importers of textiles, primarily due to its expanded apparel production and heavy dependence on imported textile raw materials. In comparison, although the US and the EU remain the world’s top two largest textile importers, their total market shares had declined from nearly 40% in 2010 to only 31.2% in 2019, the lowest in the past ten years. Furthermore, both the US and the EU have been importing more finished textile products (such as home furnishings and carpets) as well as highly specialized technical textiles, rather than conventional yarns and fabrics for apparel production purposes. The weakening import demand for intermediary textile raw materials also suggests that reshoring (i.e., making apparel locally rather than sourcing from overseas) has NOT become a mainstream industry practice in the developed economies like the US and the EU.

Fifth, the world apparel import market is becoming ever more diversified as import demand is increasingly coming from emerging economies with a booming middle class. Affected by consumers’ purchasing power (often measured by GDP per capita) and size of the population, the European Union (EU28), US, and Japan remained the world’s top three importers of apparel in 2019. This pattern has lasted for decades. Altogether, these top three absorbed 58.1% of world apparel in 2019, which, however, was a new historic low (was 84% back in 2005). Behind the numbers, it is not the case that consumers in the EU, US, and Japan are necessarily purchasing less clothing. Instead, several emerging economies are becoming fast-growing apparel consumption markets and starting to import more. For example, China’s apparel imports totaled $8.9bn in 2019, up 8.1% from a year earlier. From 2010 to 2019, China’s apparel imports enjoyed a nearly 15% annual growth, compared with only 1.9% of the traditional top three.

by Sheng Lu

Additional reading: Lu, S. (2020). Five ways world textile and apparel trade is changing. Just-Style.

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