COVID-19 and U.S. Apparel Imports: Key Trends (Updated: February 2021)

First, affected by the surge of COVID cases and consumers’ slowed spending, the value of U.S. apparel imports decreased by 15.7% in December 2020, the worst performance since September 2020. Specifically, the value of U.S. apparel imports in December 2020 shrank by 6.4% from November 2020 (seasonally adjusted), compared with an 8.8% growth from Aug to September, a 4.6% growth from September to October (seasonally adjusted), and a slight 0.3% decline from October to November (seasonally adjusted).

The substantial drop of U.S. apparel imports in December 2020 also altered the recovery trajectory. Overall, the outlook of US apparel imports in 2021 is hopeful but remains far from uncertain.

Second, supporting the findings of some recent studies, data suggests that U.S. fashion brands and retailers continue to reduce their “China exposure” in 2020. For example, both the HHI index and market concentration ratios (CR3 and CR5) suggest that apparel sourcing orders are gradually moving from China to other Asian countries. Measured by value, only 23.7% of U.S. apparel imports came from China in 2020, a new record low in the past ten years (was 29.7% in 2019 and 33% in 2018).

However, China’s apparel exports to the US lost more market shares from 2018-2019 than 2019-2020–it seems the impact of the trade war is more significant than the COVID.

The latest data confirms the concerns that some non-economic factors negatively affect China’s prospect as an apparel sourcing destination. For example, the reported forced labor issue related to Xinjiang, China, and a series of actions taken by the U.S. government (such as the CBP withhold release orders) have significantly affected U.S. cotton apparel imports from China. Measured by value, only 15.4% of U.S. cotton apparel came from China in 2020, compared with 22.2% in 2019 and 28% back in 2017. While China’s total textile and apparel exports to the US dropped by 30.7% in 2020, China’s cotton textiles and cotton apparel exports to the US went down more sharply by nearly 40%.

Third, despite Covid-19, Asia as a whole remains the single largest source of apparel for the U.S. market. Other than China, Vietnam (19.6% in 2020 vs. 16.2% in 2019), ASEAN (32.3% in 2020 and vs. 27.4% in 2019), Bangladesh (8.2% in 2020 vs.7.1% in 2019), and Cambodia (4.4% in 2020 vs. 3.2% in 2019) all gain additional market shares in 2020 from a year ago.

Fourth, due to seasonal factors, around 21% of U.S. apparel imports came from the Western Hemisphere in December 2020. Notably, to fulfill consumers’ last-minute holiday orders, which require faster speed to market, U.S. fashion companies typically do relatively more near-sourcing from September to December. In comparison, U.S. fashion companies place more sourcing orders with Asian suppliers from June to late September/early October.

However, 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 U.S.-China tariff war. In 2020, 9.6% of U.S. apparel imports came from CAFTA-DR members (down from 10.3% in 2019) and 4.1% from USMCA members (down from 4.5% in 2019).

by Sheng Lu

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?