How Has COVID-19 Affected Apparel Exports from China, Vietnam, and Bangladesh?

Key findings:

compiled by Victoria Langro and Sheng Lu (2021)

During the pandemic, three factors are most relevant to a country’s apparel export performance: government lockdown measures, textile raw material access, and comprehensive export competitiveness. Against these three factors, apparel producers and exporters in China, Vietnam, and Bangladesh face common but differentiated business challenges and opportunities during the pandemic (see the table above).

China, Vietnam, and Bangladesh all suffered an unprecedented (nearly 30% year over year) drop in their apparel exports to the world in 2020 (Q1-Q3) due to COVID-19. This result mirrored the reduced import demand in the world’s major apparel consumer markets, where the local economies were also hit hard by the pandemic, including the US (down 2.3%), the EU (down 4.3%), and Japan (down 4.8%).

However, the three countries’ export performance is most different in the US market—China’s apparel exports dropped by 31.6%, much steeper than Vietnam (down 6.9%) and Bangladesh (down 12.6%). It seems that even though COVID-19 may favor China as an apparel sourcing base from an economic perspective, US fashion companies have given more weight to non-economic factors, such as the outlook of the trade war, in their sourcing decisions involving China.

COVID-19 had disrupted apparel exporters’ regular production and export schedule in 2020. The lockdown measures in these three countries seem to affect their export seasonal pattern most significantly. For example, as the first country hit by COVID-19, China’s apparel exports were at the bottom from February to April 2020; however, China’s apparel exports recovered quickly since May 2020 when factories resumed production. In comparison, apparel exports from Vietnam and Bangladesh were at their lowest level from April to May and May to June 2020, respectively, when their factories had to close.

Additionally, Bangladesh’s apparel export seasonality had experienced a more dramatic change in 2020 than in China and Vietnam. A possible reason behind the phenomenon is the export product structure. Notably, China and Vietnam export a more diverse range of products, whereas apparel exports from Bangladesh concentrate on basic fashion items.

Industry sources also indicate that between February 2020 and February 2021, US apparel imports from China and Vietnam see a significant structural change—they include more COVID-popular items such as sweaters, smock dresses, and sweatpants, and fewer dresses, shirts, and suits. However, over the same period, the product structure of US apparel imports from Bangladesh barely changed, and they also included few COVID-popular categories mentioned above. In other words, despite order cancellations, garment factories in China and Vietnam seem more likely to receive new sourcing orders than their counterparts in Bangladesh because of advantages in production flexibility and agility.

Further, China, Vietnam, and Bangladesh all turned less diversified in their apparel export market during the pandemic. Notably, the US, EU, and Japan have become more critical export markets ever. Compared with fashion companies’ efforts in sourcing diversification, it could be more challenging for garment-producing countries to diversify their export market during the pandemic.

Further reading: Victoria Langro and Sheng Lu (2021). Sourcing’s new order – Covid’s impact on world’s top three apparel exporters. Just-Style.