The Impact and Insights of Trade – the 2020 Shakeup & the 2021 Outlook for the Fashion Industry

The panel discussion is part of the 2020 Virtual Apparel and Textile Sourcing Show. Topics covered by the session include:

  • Impact of COVID-19 on US fashion companies’ businesses and sourcing strategies
  • Impact of the 2020 US presidential election on the fashion industry
  • Key US trade policy issues related to the fashion industry 2020-2021
  • Patterns of US apparel sourcing and trade 2020-2021
  • Sourcing from Asia vs. near sourcing from the Western Hemisphere

Sourcing Strategy Comparison: EU VS. US Fashion Companies—Comments from Students in FASH455

“Hugo Boss’s sourcing strategies are relatively different from fashion brands and retailers in the US. Hugo Boss’s self-owned production facilities are all located in Europe, and they follow the general trend of Eastern Europe being responsible for mass production items and Western Europe being responsible for more of the fine craftsmanship/made-to-measure items. Hugo Boss’s production distribution, which is 53% in Europe, 40% occurs in Asia, 6% in Africa, and 1% in the Americas, is much more diverse than the production distribution of the United States’ T&A industry, which heavily relies on Asian suppliers. It is indicative of a strong regional supply chain in Europe, and because the regional supply chain in the Americas is not as strong due to complicated trade agreements and lack of production capacity, many fashion brands and retailers heavily depend on overseas production from Asian countries. “

“I think that EU’s sourcing strategies are different from the U.S.’s sourcing strategy in the sense that it is kept within Europe. In the U.S., they are currently trying to bring the sourcing supply chain back to the Western Hemisphere, but it is very difficult for fashion brands to concede when sourcing is cheaper in Asia, and there is not enough labor who are trained for the work that they need. Over at the EU, with everything kept within the organization, it is a lot easier to find factories within different countries without reducing GDP since it is kept within the organization.”

“I think that one of the biggest differences between EU and US fashion brand’s sourcing strategies is the fact that there is a much higher luxury or high-end apparel market in the EU. Since they produce mostly luxury apparel products, they naturally place a lot more emphasis on the quality of their products being made rather than the quantity and speed of production. Since the US is more fast-fashion heavy, we do a lot more outsourcing of production so retailer’s are able to produce as many clothes as possible within a short period of time at a very low cost which is simply not achievable in many US clothing factories.”

“Hugo Boss pays close attention to where they are sourcing from and where each of their products should be made within their 4 production facilities. This stuck out to me because I don’t know how many US fashion brands have their own production facilities. I know a lot of brands outsource to countries like China and Bangladesh to factories who are also making clothing for many different brands.”

EU has developed countries as well as developing countries, unlike the US. Western EU countries like Italy, France, UK and Germany are developed and focus more so on textile production. Whereas developing countries in the EU like Poland and Hungary focus more heavily on apparel manufacturing. In addition, unlike the US, the developed countries in EU also produce apparel exports, of high level, luxury goods.”

“It seems that in the EU the main focus is quality and social standards for these fashion brands and production. In the US, promoting local economic growth seems to be more of the focus of the free trade agreements. Sourcing for HUGO BOSS at least has strategically chosen factories where they can ensure quality checks and know how to conditions are. In the US, outside of the region, it seems that there are a lot of brands who do not know their secondary producers…”

“As the EU is more focused on production in high end markets than is the US, they (EU fashion companies) source more high-end quality fabrics. Progress has been made through technological advances, as the HUGO BOSS group developed the “smart factory” to further improve the quality of their fabrics and recognize any potential flaws before production. This stood out to me as a major difference, considering the US focuses on producing more fast-fashion goods and prioritizes high productivity overall quality garments. Also, they are more careful in their selection of suppliers and strive to build more long-term relationships with their suppliers. In comparision, most US fashion companies just try to produce as cheap and fast as possible through a short-term transctional-based importer-vendor relationship.”

“I think the sourcing strategies are similar to the U.S. in the fact that they source from various countries, creating this sense of “Made in the World.” However, there are differences as well. HUGO BOSS uses their own production facilities in addition to sourcing from other countries which is something we do not see often in the US. In fact, most brands and retailers in the US do not have their own production facilities or vertical supply chain, but instead source from overseas. Additionally, HUGO BOSS carefully selects their suppliers and immediately focus on social responsibility. US sourcing strategies seem to emphsis more on finding a factory with the lowest labor costs. EU brands and retailers, on the other hand, test their suppliers with test orders before selecting them as a supplier for the brand, and immediately develop social responsibility practices, such as trainings and building relationships. In the US, brands and retailers tend to focus on social responsibility in response to bad press and typically do so by a top-down approach.”

“The sourcing strategy in the Europe cares more about social impact. Retailers and brands there promote and educate their suppliers to be sustainable and take over their social responsibility. Another one is the European fashion retailers and brands are more likely to locate their product facilities within the Europe. Since the Europe does have a relatively stable and complete supply chain, the retailers and brands are able to saving transportation cost and expand the lead time. Third, the technology becomes an important factors for retailers and brands to consider. They are attempting to utilize technology to enhance the performance and their production process. “

“Hugo Boss strives to be the most desirable fashion and lifestyle brand in the premium sector. This shows in their emphasis on design, comfort, fit, and durability, as well as being mindful of their social and environmental impacts. They maintain long term relationships with a careful selection of suppliers, demand social compliance, and stay up to date with their “smart factory” aka AIs to speed up production and quality. They also source heavily from Asia, but also developed countries such as Italy and Germany. These values and practices are manifested in American brands, however, I believe we aren’t as extensive with sourcing from developed countries (such as Italy). From what I have learned thus far, it seems we source from countries close by and/or developing, but not so much mingling with luxury known countries, such as France or Italy (and if we do, the prices are expensive, and American customers don’t want to pay higher prices). We (US), too, source heavily from Asia, because it is cheap, and still focus internally on our own country when it comes to being more competitive in technological advancements. American and EU consumers alike value transparency in the clothing brands they buy from, and American brands are mindful of this, too. I would say we are more alike than different.”

[Please feel free to critique the comments above and join our online discussion]

Related readings

FASH455 case study: Should the U.S. rejoin the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP)?

Background

  • The Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) was a proposed free trade agreement between the United States and eleven other countries in the Asia-Pacific region, including Malaysia, Peru, Australia, Vietnam, Mexico, Canada, Japan, Singapore, Brunei, Chile, and New Zealand.
  • Once TPP is implemented, tariffs for textiles and apparel traded between TPP members would be reduced to zero from their current rate (around 5%-10% for textiles and 10-30% for apparel). The tariff rate for trade between TPP members and non-TPP members (such as China) will remain unchanged. However, TPP would NOT provide additional import duty saving benefits for textile and apparel products traded between Mexico, Canada, and the United States because tariffs are already reduced to zero under the U.S.-Mexico-Canada Trade Agreement (USMCA or commonly called NAFTA 2.0).
  • TPP adopts the strict “yarn-forward” rules of origin for apparel items. This means that fibers may be produced anywhere, but each component starting with the yarn used to make the apparel garments must be formed within the TPP area so that the finished apparel can be qualified for the preferential duty-treatment provided by TPP.
  • Among the TPP members, Vietnam is already the second-largest apparel exporter to the United States. Despite the high tariff rate, the value of US apparel imports from Vietnam increased by 131% between 2010 and 2019, much higher than 17% of the world average. Vietnam’s shares in the US apparel import market also quickly increased from only 4.0% in 2005 to 16.8% in 2019 (and 20.2% from Jan to August 2020).
  • As a developing country, Vietnam relies on imported yarns and fabrics heavily for its apparel production. Over 97% of Vietnam’s textile imports come from Asian countries, including China, South Korea, Taiwan, and Japan. Less than 1% of Vietnam’s textile imports came from the United States in 2019. 
  • Meanwhile, thanks to foreign investments (mostly from Asia), Vietnam quickly builds its local textile manufacturing capacity. Notably, data from the World Trade Organization (WTO) shows that for the first time in history, Vietnam ranked the world’s seventh-largest textile exporter in 2019, climbing 8.3% from a year earlier to reach $8.8billion. If it can maintain this momentum, Vietnam will likely surpass South Korea and become the world’s sixth-largest textile exporter in just 1-2 years (around 2022-2023).  
  • President Trump announced to withdraw the United States from TPP in January 2017. However, the rest of the 11 members moved on and reached the agreement without the United States. The so-called Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP or TPP without the US) was signed in March 2018 and officially took effect in December 2018. Much of the original TPP provisions remain intact in CPTPP.
  • China, one of the world’s largest apparel exporters and textile exporters, is actively exploring the possibility of joining CPTPP. Meanwhile, China plays an increasingly important role as a textile supplier for apparel-exporting countries in Asia over the past decade. In 2019, China supplied 57% of Vietnam’s textile imports, up from 26% in 2010.
  • China is also a member of the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), a free trade agreement between ten member states of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN)* and five other large economies in the Asia-Pacific region (China, Japan, South Korea, New Zealand, and Australia).[Note: ASEAN members include Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, and Vietnam]. Studies suggest that RCEP will likely further strengthen China’s role as the primary textile suppliers for other RCEP members, including Vietnam.
  • Since CPTPP goes into effect, there have been growing calls for the new Biden administration to consider rejoining TPP (CPTPP). However, debates remain regarding the specific economic benefits and costs of doing so.  

Discussion question: from the perspective of the U.S. textile industry and U.S. fashion brands and retailers, why or why not the United States should rejoin TPP?

COVID-19 and U.S. Apparel Imports: Key Trends (Updated: November 2020)

First, U.S. apparel imports continue to rebound thanks to consumers’ robust demand. The value of U.S. apparel imports in September 2020 went up by 8.8% from August 2020 (seasonally adjusted), a new record high since March 2020 when COVID-19 broke out in the States. As of September 2020, the volume of U.S. apparel imports has recovered to around 84-85% of the pre-coronavirus level.  This result echoes the trend of U.S. apparel retail sales (NAICS 4481), which also indicates a “V-shape” rebound since May 2020. As fashion brands and retailers typically build their inventory for holiday sales (such as back to school, Thanksgiving, and Christmas) from July to October, the upward trend of U.S. apparel imports hopefully will last for another 1-2 months.

Data also shows that compared with the 2008 world financial crisis, Covid-19 has caused a more significant drop in the value of U.S. apparel imports. However, it seems the post-Covid recovery process has been more robust than the 2008 financial crisis. Notably, the Auto Regressive Integrated Moving Average (ARIMA) model forecasts that at the current speed of recovery, the value of U.S. apparel imports (seasonally adjusted) could start to enjoy a positive year over year (YoY) growth by February 2021 (or around 11 months after the outbreak of Covid-19 in March 2020). In comparison, when recovering from the 2008 world financial crisis, it took almost 15 months to turn the YoY growth rate from negative to positive.

Second, still, no evidence suggests that U.S. fashion companies are giving up China as one of their essential apparel-sourcing bases. Notably, since May 2020, China had quickly regained its position as the top apparel supplier to the U.S. market. From June to September 2020, China’s market shares have stably stayed at around 27-28% in value and 40-42% in quantity.

According to the media, some sourcing orders are returning to China as China’s competitors in Asia are struggling with more limited production capacity, shortage of raw material and supply chain disruption caused by Covid-19.

CR5 (exclude China) includes Vietnam, Bangladesh, Indonesia, India and Cambodia

That being said, trade data suggests that U.S. fashion companies continue to reduce their “China exposure” overall. For example, both the HHI index and the market concentration ratios (CR3–total market shares of top 3 suppliers and CR5–total market shares of top 5 suppliers) indicate that apparel sourcing orders are gradually moving from China to other Asian countries–it is interesting to see HHI, CR3 and CR5 all suggest a more diversified apparel sourcing base in 2020 (Jan-Sep) than in 2018 and 2019; however, the value of CR5 (exclude China) reached a new record high in 2020 (Jan-Sep).

Third, related to the point above, despite Covid-19, Asia as a whole remains the single largest source of apparel for the U.S. market. Other than China, Vietnam (20.0% YTD in 2020 vs. 16.2% in 2019), ASEAN (33.1% YTD in 2020 and vs. 27.4% in 2019), Bangladesh (8.4% YTD in 2020 vs.7.1% in 2019), and Cambodia (4.4% YTD in 2020 vs. 3.2% in 2019) all gain additional market shares in 2020 from a year ago.

Fourth, 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 nine months of 2020, only 9.1% of U.S. apparel imports came from CAFTA-DR members (down from 10.3% in 2019) and 4.4% from USMCA members (down from 4.5% in 2019). Confirming the trend, in the first nine months of 2020, the value of U.S. yarns and fabrics exports to USMCA and CAFTA-DR members also suffered a 26% decline from a year ago. The heavy reliance on textile supply from the U.S. (implying more vulnerability to the Covid-19 supply chain disruptions) and the price disadvantage could be among the major contributing factors.

Just an anecdote–according to some industry insiders, the booming of E-commerce during the pandemic may also possibly explain why “near sourcing” is not reflected in trade data despite its reported growing popularity. Specifically, US fashion retailers would:1) import products from Asia and stock them in the bonded warehouses in Mexico (note: bonded warehouse means dutiable goods may be stored, manipulated, or undergo manufacturing operations without payment of duty). 2) When US consumers place orders, the retailer will ship products directly from these bonded warehouses in Mexico to the final destination. Most importantly, retailers could take advantage of the US de minimis rule (i.e., goods valued at $800 or less could enter the U.S. duty-free one person one day) and avoid paying tariffs– even though these products are counted as imports from Asian countries that do not have a free trade agreement with the United States. In other words, these products are not officially treated as imports from Mexico even though they are shipped from bonded warehouse in Mexico.

by Sheng Lu