In December 2021, Just-Style consulted a panel of industry leaders and scholars in its Outlook 2022–what’s next for apparel sourcing briefing. Below is my contribution to the report. All comments and suggestions are more than welcome!
What next for apparel sourcing?
As “COVID sets the agenda” and the trajectory of several critical market and non-market forces hard to predict (for example, global inflation, and geopolitics), fashion companies may still have to deal with a highly volatile and uncertain market environment in 2022. That being said, it is still hopeful that fashion companies’ toughest sourcing challenges in 2021 will start to gradually ease at some point in the new year, including the hiking shipping costs, COVID-related lockdowns, and supply chain disruptions.
In response to the “new normal,” fashion companies may find several sourcing strategies essential:
One is to maintain a relatively diverse apparel sourcing base. The latest trade data suggests that US, EU, and Japan-based fashion companies have been steadily sourcing from a more diverse group of countries since 2018, and such a trend continues during the pandemic. Echoing the pattern, in the latest annual benchmarking study I conducted in collaboration with the United States Fashion Industry Association (USFIA), we find that “China plus Vietnam plus many” remains the most popular sourcing model among respondents. This strategy means China and Vietnam combined now typically account for 20-40 percent of a fashion company’s total sourcing value or volume, a notable down from 40-60 percent in the past few years. Fashion companies diversify their sourcing away from “China plus Vietnam” to avoid placing “all eggs in one basket” and mitigate various sourcing risks. In addition, more than 85 percent of surveyed fashion companies say they will actively explore new sourcing opportunities through 2023, particularly those that could serve as alternatives to sourcing from China.
The second strategy is to strengthen the relationship with key vendors further. As apparel is a buyer-driven industry, fashion brands and retailers fully understand the importance of catering to consumers’ needs. However, the supply chain disruptions caused by COVID-19 remind fashion companies that building a close and partner-based relationship with capable suppliers also matters. For example, working with vendors that have a presence in multiple countries (or known as “super-vendors”) offers fashion companies a critical competitive edge to achieve more flexibility and agility in sourcing. Sourcing from vendors with a vertical manufacturing capability also allows fashion companies to be more resilient toward supply chain disruptions like the shortage of textile raw materials, a significant problem during the pandemic.
Further, we could see fashion companies pay even closer attention to textile raw material sourcing in the year ahead. On the one hand, given the growing concerns about various social and environmental compliance issues like forced labor, fashion brands and retailers are making more significant efforts to better understand their entire supply chain. For example, in addition to tracking who made the clothing or the fabrics (i.e., tier 1 & 2 suppliers), more companies have begun to release information about the sources of their fibers, yarns, threads, and trimmings (i.e., tier 3 & tier 4 suppliers). On the other hand, many fashion brands and retailers intend to diversify their textile material sourcing from Asia, particularly China, against the current business environment. Compared with cutting and sewing garments, much fewer countries can make textiles locally, and it takes time to build textile production capacity. Thus, fashion companies interested in taking more control of their textile raw material sourcing need to take concrete actions such as shifting their sourcing model and making long-term investments intentionally.
Apparel industry challenges and opportunities
One key issue we need to watch closely is the US-China relations. China currently remains the single largest source of apparel globally, with no near alternative. China also plays an increasingly significant role as a textile supplier for many leading apparel exporting countries in Asia. However, as the US-China relations become more concerning and confrontational, we could anticipate new trade restrictions targeting Chinese products and products from any sources that contain components made in China. Notably, with strong bipartisan support, President Biden signed into law the Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act on December 23, 2021. The new law is a game-changer! Depending on the detailed implementation guideline to be developed by the Customs and Border Protection (CBP), US fashion companies may find it not operationally viable to source many textiles and apparel products from China. In response, China may retaliate against well-known western fashion brands, disrupting their sales expansion in the growing Chinese consumer market. Further, as China faces many daunting domestic economic and political challenges, a legitimate question for fashion companies to think about is what an unstable China means for their sourcing from the Asia-Pacific region and what the contingency plan will be.
Another critical issue to watch is the regional textile and apparel supply chains and related free trade agreements. While apparel is a global sector, apparel trade remains largely regional-based, i.e., countries import and export products with partners in the same region. Data shows that from 2019 to 2020, around 80% of Asian countries’ textile and apparel imports came from within Asia and about 50% for EU countries. Over the same period, over 87% of Western Hemisphere (WH) countries’ textile and apparel exports went to other WH countries and about 75% for EU countries.
Notably, the reaching and implementation of new free trade agreements will continue to alter and shape new regional textile and apparel supply chains in 2022 and beyond. For example, the world’s largest free trade agreement, the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), officially entered into force on January 1, 2022. The tariff reduction and the very liberal rules of origin in the agreement could strengthen Japan, South Korea, and China as the primary textile suppliers for the Asia-based regional supply chain and enlarge the role of ASEAN as the leading apparel producer. RCEP could also accelerate other trade agreements in the Asia-Pacific region, such as the China-South Korea-Japan Free Trade Agreement currently under negotiation.
As one of RCEP’s ripple effects, we can highly anticipate the Biden administration to announce its new Indo-pacific economic framework soon to counterbalance China’s influences in the region. The Biden administration also intends to leverage trade programs such as the Dominican Republic-Central America Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA-DR) to boost textile and apparel production, trade, and investment in the Western Hemisphere and address the root causes of migration. These trade initiatives will be highly relevant to fashion companies that could use the opportunity to expand near sourcing, take advantage of import duty-saving benefits and explore new supply chains.
Additionally, fashion companies need to be more vigilant toward political instability in their major sourcing destinations. We have already seen quite a turmoil recently, from Myanmar’s military coup, Ethiopia’s loss of the African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA) benefits, concerns about Haiti and Nicaragua’s human rights, and the alleged forced labor in China’s Xinjiang region. Whereas fashion brands and retailers have limited or no impact on changing a country’s broader human rights situation, the reputational risks could be very high. Having a dedicated trade compliance team monitoring the geopolitical situation routinely and ensuring full compliance with various government regulations will become mainstream among fashion companies.
And indeed, sustainability, due diligence, recycling, digitalization, and data analytics will remain buzzwords for the apparel industry in the year ahead.
by Sheng Lu