Blog Articles

Debate on Brexit and Globalization: Questions from FASH455

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#1 Why should or should not globalization be responsible for Brexit? Does Brexit suggest that globalization is in retreat? What is your view?

#2 From the case of Brexit, how do you understand that “textile and apparel is a global sector”?

#3 Is the UK fashion industry a winner or loser of Brexit? What is your evaluation?

#4 How will Brexit shape the future of the fashion industry both in the UK and globally? What can be expected and what are the uncertainties?

#5 Seeing all of the complications that resulted from Brexit in regards to trade and the fashion industry as a whole, why or why not will similar disruptions occur if the US pulls out of its free trade agreements?

Welcome to join our online discussions. In your comment, please mention the question #.

US Continues to Lose Textile and Apparel Manufacturing Jobs in 2017

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It may disappoint those who are hoping a return of textile and apparel manufacturing jobs in the United States. But according to latest statistics from the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the U.S. textile industry (NAICS 313 and 314) and apparel industry (NAICS 315) respectively lost another 4,100 and 10,100 jobs in 2017.  Between January 2005 and December 2017, 44.2% and 56.3% of jobs in the U.S. textile and apparel sectors were gone.  

From the academic perspective, a sizable return of textile and apparel manufacturing job in the United States seems to be extremely unlikely given the nature of the U.S. and the global economy in the 21st century.

Notably, the rising import is found NOT a significant factor leading to the decline in employment in the U.S. textile industry (NAICS 313). As estimated by a US International Trade Commission study in 2016, imports were found only contributed 0.4 percent of the total 7.6 percent annual employment decline in the U.S. textile industry between 1998 and 2014. Instead, more job losses in the sector were caused by: 1) the improved productivity as a result of capitalization and automation (around 4.6 percent annually); and (2) the shrinkage of domestic demand for the U.S. made textiles (around 3.5 percent annually).

And consistent with the prediction of classic trade theories, as capital and technology abundant developed country, the United States, not surprisingly, continues to lose its comparative advantage in making labor-intensive apparel. Hypothetically, apparel “Made in the USA” may come back if apparel manufacturing can be substantially automated like textile manufacturing. However, net job creation in the sector as a result of automation is hard to tell. Additionally, most U.S. apparel companies heavily rely on global sourcing and non-manufacturing activities such as branding, marketing, and design today. Few companies still regard “manufacturing” a key competitive advantage or an area of strategic importance to invest in the future.

Related reading: Creating High-Quality Jobs in the U.S. Textile and Apparel Industry (UD Biden Institute)

Pattern of U.S. Textile and Apparel Imports (Updated: February 2018)

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The value of U.S. textile imports reached $25,706 million in 2017, up 7.2 percent from 2016 and 77.8 percent from 2000. The value of U.S. apparel imports reached $80,287 million in 2017, slightly down 0.5 percent from a year earlier and up 40.3 percent from 2000.  It is estimated that the value of U.S. textile and apparel imports could change between -2.2% and 7.6% and between -1.2% and 5.3% respectively in 2018.

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Because the United States is no longer a major apparel manufacturer but one of the largest apparel consumption markets in the world, apparel products accounted for 75.7 percent of total U.S. textile and apparel imports in 2017, followed by made-up textiles (17.4 percent), fabrics (5.7 percent) and yarns (1.2percent). This structure has remained stable over the past decade.

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The U.S. imported apparel from as many as 150 countries in 2017. Meanwhile, the Herfindahl index declined from 0.17 in 2010 to 0.15 in 2017, suggesting that overall the U.S. apparel import market is becoming less concentrated. This result is consistent with some recent studies, which show that U.S. fashion brands and retailers continue to diversify their sourcing bases gradually. Specifically, all top apparel suppliers to the United States in 2017 (by value) were developing countries and most of them are located in Asia, including China (33.7 percent), Vietnam (14.4 percent), Bangladesh (6.3 percent), Indonesia (5.7 percent), India (4.6 percent) and Mexico (4.5 percent).

On the other hand, despite the uncertain prospect of the renegotiation of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), the U.S. apparel imports from Mexico and Canada enjoyed a robust growth of 5.3 percent and 7.7 percent respectively in 2017 from a year earlier. The result confirms the increasing importance of “speed to market” in U.S. fashion apparel companies’ sourcing decisions and the growing popularity of “near-sourcing.”

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U.S. textile and apparel imports are also becoming even cheaper. For example, U.S. apparel imports in 2017 on average was only 81.1 percent of the price in 1990 and the price of imported fabrics cut nearly by half over the same period.

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Additionally, U.S. apparel imports overall mirror the pattern of apparel retail sales in the U.S. market. This pattern reflects the fact that the performance of the U.S. economy is the leading factor shaping the size of demand for imported apparel. Notably, between 2010 and 2017, the value of U.S. apparel imports grew relatively faster than the value of U.S. apparel retail sales (3.2 percent vs 3.1 percent annually on average). The result suggests that a growing share of apparel products consumed in the United States now come from overseas.

Data source: Office of Textiles and Apparel (OTEXA), U.S. Department of Commerce

By Sheng Lu

Global Value Chain for Apparel Sold at Target

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A global view in mind means more career opportunities: except material production and cut and sew, other well-paid jobs in the apparel value chain stay in the United States.

Source: Moongate Association (2017). Analyzing the Value Chain for Apparel Designed in the United States and Manufactured Overseas

Is It Necessary to Cut Trade Deficit and Achieve Trade Balance?

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While the Trump Administration is seeking to reduce the U.S. trade deficit and achieve a more “balanced trade” with its trading partners, a newly-released World Economic Forum (WEC) paper questions the necessity and economic rationale of doing so. As argued by the paper:

First, a country’s trade balance is NOT a measurement of its international commercial success. Neither is the case that “imports are bad and exports are good. “Instead, the paper says that “it is more accurate to think of imports as the benefits of trade, and exports as the cost that needs to be paid to obtain these benefits.”

Second, it is a misconception that “trade deficits cause a reduction in employment and production and trade surplus increase them.” Rather, imports could  increase because of an increase in domestic income thereby increasing the aggregate demand. Empirical studies also overwhelmingly find that rapid economic growth and larger trade deficit are associated with faster employment growth in the United States in history (see the graphs above).

Third, as the supply chain goes global, a tax on imported inputs can reduce rather than promote a country’s exports, particularly manufacturing goods (for example high tariffs on imported fabrics will reduce the price competitiveness of clothing exports). Likewise, trade barriers could disrupt production and reduce domestic employment in both the “protected” industries and those downstream sectors that use their outputs.  

Fourth, primarily trade balance is a function of a country’s national saving and investments, not of trade policies. In other words, trade policies, such as higher tariffs and quantitative restrictions, will have no impact on a country’s trade balance. Interesting enough, countries like Singapore which maintain fairly low trade barriers, run a trade surplus equal to as high as 20% of its GDP. In comparison, India was one of the most highly protected economies in the early 1990s when it experienced unsustainable large trade deficits. Further, there is a dynamic balance between a country’s trade balance and exchange rate: in an open economy, reducing a country’s imports could lead to an appreciation of its currency and eventually hurt its exports as well.     

What is your view on the trade deficit and trade balance? Why do you agree or disagree with the arguments of the WEC paper? Do you find any evidence that challenges the findings of the paper? Please feel free to leave your comments.

Outlook 2018: Apparel Industry Issues in the Year Ahead

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In January 2018, Just-Style consulted a panel of industry leaders and scholars in its Outlook 2018–Apparel Industry Issues in the Year Ahead management briefing. Below is my contribution to the report. All suggestions and comments are most welcome!

1. What do you see as the biggest challenges – and opportunities – facing the apparel industry in 2018, and why?

One of the biggest opportunities facing the apparel industry in 2018 could be the faster growth of the world economy. According to the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the global growth forecast for 2018 is expected to reach 3.7 percent, about 0.1 percent points higher than 2017 and 0.6 percent points higher than 2016. Notably, the upward economic growth will be broad-based, including the United States, the Euro area, Japan, China, emerging Europe and Russia. Hopefully, the improved growth of the world economy will translate into increased consumer demand for clothing in 2018.

Nevertheless, from the macroeconomic perspective, oversupply will remain a significant challenge facing the apparel industry in 2018. Data from the World Bank and the World Trade Organization (WTO) shows that, while the world population increased by 21.6 percent between 2000 and 2016, the value of clothing exports (inflation-adjusted) surged by 123.5 percent over the same period. Similarly, between 2000 and 2016, the total U.S. population increased by 14.5 percent and the GDP per capita increased by 22.2 percent, but the supply of apparel to the U.S. retail market surged by over 67.8 percent during the same time frame. The problem of oversupply is the root of many challenges faced by apparel companies today, from the intense market competition, pressure of controlling production and sourcing cost, struggling with excessive inventory and deep discounts to balancing sustainability and business growth.

2: What’s happening with sourcing? How is the sourcing landscape likely to shift in 2018, and what can apparel firms and their suppliers do to stay ahead?

The 2017 US Fashion Industry Benchmarking Study, which I conducted in collaboration with the US Fashion Industry Association (USFIA) earlier this year, provides some interesting insights into companies’ latest sourcing strategies and trends. Based on a survey of 34 executives at the leading U.S. fashion companies, we find that:

First, most surveyed companies continue to maintain a relatively diversified sourcing base, with 57.6 percent currently sourcing from 10+ different countries or regions, up from 51.8 percent last year. Larger companies, in general, continue to have a more diversified sourcing base than smaller companies. Further, around 54 percent of respondents expect their sourcing base will become more diversified in the next two years, up from 44 percent in 2016; over 60 percent of those expecting to diversify currently source from more than 10 different countries or regions already. Given the uncertainties in the market and the regulatory environment (such as the Trump Administration’s trade policy agenda), companies may use diversification to mitigate potential market risks and supply chain disruptions due to protectionism.

Second, although U.S. fashion companies continue to seek alternatives to “Made in China” actively, China’s position as top sourcing destination remains unshakable. Many respondents attribute China’s competitiveness to its enormous manufacturing capacity and overall supply chain efficiency. Meanwhile, it is interesting to note that the most common sourcing model is shifting from “China Plus Many” to “China Plus Vietnam Plus Many” (i.e. China typically accounts for 30-50 percent of total sourcing value or volume, 11-30 percent for Vietnam and less than 10 percent for other sourcing destinations). I think this sourcing model will likely to continue in 2018.

Third, social responsibility and sustainability continue to grow in importance in sourcing decisions. In the study, we find that nearly 90 percent of respondents give more weight to sustainability when choosing where to source now than in the past. Around 90 percent of respondents also say they map their supply chains, i.e., keeping records of name, location, and function of suppliers. Notably, more than half of respondents track not only Tier 1 suppliers, suppliers they contract with directly, but also Tier 2 suppliers, i.e., supplier’s suppliers. However, the result also suggests that a more diversified sourcing base makes it more difficult to monitor supply chains closely. Making the apparel supply chain more socially responsible, sustainable and transparent will continue to be a hot topic in 2018.

3: What should apparel firms and their suppliers be doing now if they want to remain competitive further into the future? What will separate the winners from the losers?

I assume many experts will suggest what apparel firms should change to stay competitive into the future. However, the question in my mind is what should companies keep doing regardless of the external business environment? First, I think companies should always strive to understand and impress consumers and control their supply chains. Despite the growing popularity of e-commerce and the adoption of transformative new technologies, the fundamental nature of apparel as a buyer-driven business will remain the same. Second, companies should always leverage their resources and stay “unique,” no matter it means offering differentiated products or value-added services, maintaining exclusive distribution channels or keeping the leadership position in a particular niche market. Third, apparel firms should always follow the principle of “comparative advantage” and smartly define the scope of their core business functions instead of trying to do everything. Additionally, winners will always be those companies that can take advantage of the mega-development trends of the industry and be willing to make long-term and visionary investments, both physical and intangible (such as human talents).

4: What keeps you awake at night? Is there anything else you think the apparel industry should be keeping a close eye on in the year ahead? Do you expect 2018 to be better than 2017, and why?

I think the apparel industry should keep a close eye on the following issues in 2018:

  • The destiny of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA): The potential policy change to NAFTA means so much to the U.S. textile and apparel industry as well as suppliers in other parts of the world. Notably, through a regional textile and apparel supply chain facilitated by the agreement over the past 23 years, the NAFTA region has grown into the single largest export market for U.S. textile and apparel products as well as a major apparel sourcing base for U.S. fashion brands and retailers. In 2016, as much as half of U.S. textile and apparel exports went to the NAFTA region, totaling US$11billion, and U.S. apparel imports from Mexico and Canada exceeded US$3.9billion. Understandably, if NAFTA no longer exists, sweeping changes in the trade rules, such as import duties, could significantly affect the sourcing and manufacturing behaviors of U.S. textile and apparel companies and consequentially alter the current textile and apparel trade patterns in the NAFTA region. For example, Mexico’s focus on basic apparel items suggests that U.S. importers could quickly source from elsewhere if duty savings under NAFTA are eliminated.
  • The possible reaching of the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP): Even though RCEP is less well-known than the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), we should not ignore the potential impact of the agreement on the future landscape of textile and apparel supply chain in the Asia-Pacific region. One recent study of mine shows that the RCEP will lead to a more integrated textile and apparel supply chain among its members but make it even harder for non-RCEP members to get involved in the regional T&A supply chain in the Asia-Pacific. This conclusion is backed by the latest data from the World Trade Organization (WTO): In 2016, around 91 percent of Asian countries’ textile imports came from other Asian countries, up from 86 percent in 2006. The more efficient regional supply chain as a result of RCEP will further help improve the price competitiveness of apparel made by “factory Asia” in the world marketplace. Particularly in the past few years, textile and apparel exports from Asia have already posted substantial pressures on the operation of the textile and apparel regional supply chain in the Western Hemisphere.
  • Automation of apparel manufacturing and its impact on the job market: Recall my observations at the MAGIC this August, several vendors showcased their latest technologies which have the potential to automate the cut and sew process entirely or substantially reduce the labor inputs in garment making. The impact of automation on the future of jobs is not a new topic, but the apparel industry presents a unique situation. Globally, over 120 million people remain directly employed in the textile and apparel industries today, a good proportion of whom are females living in poor rural areas. According to the World Trade Organization (WTO), for quite a few low-income and lower-middle income countries such as Bangladesh, Gambia, Pakistan, Madagascar, Sri Lanka, and Cambodia, as much as over 70 percent of their total merchandise exports were textile and apparel products in 2016. Should these labor-intensive garment sewing jobs in the developing countries were replaced by machines, the social and economic impacts will be consequential. I think it is the time to start thinking about the possible scenarios and the appropriate policy responses.