Blog Articles

USTR Releases Negotiating Objectives of the Proposed U.S.-Kenya Free Trade Agreement

On May 22, 2020, Office of the U.S. Trade Representative (USTR) released the specific negotiating objectives of the proposed U.S.-Kenya Free Trade Agreement. Overall, the proposed free trade agreement (FTA) intends to “builds on the objectives of the African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA) and serve as an enduring foundation to expand U.S.-Africa trade and investment across the continent.” USTR also visions to conclude an agreement with Kenya that “can serve as a model for additional agreements in Africa, leading to a network of agreements that contribute to Africa’s regional integration objectives.”

Regarding the textiles and apparel (T&A) sector, USTR says it will “Secure duty-free access for U.S. textile and apparel products and seek to improve competitive opportunities for exports of U.S. textile and apparel products while taking into account U.S. import sensitivities.” The proposed agreement also will “Establish origin procedures that streamline the certification and verification of rules of origin and that promote strong enforcement, including with respect to textiles.” The same/very similar language is used in the proposed U.S.-Japan Free Trade Agreement and U.S.-EU trade negotiation.

Of the total $667million U.S. merchandise imports from Kenya in 2019, nearly 70% were apparel items, making the sector the single largest stakeholder of the proposed FTA. While still being a relatively minor supplier, Kenya’s apparel exports to the U.S. reached a record high of $453million in 2019, which was an increase of 132% from ten years ago. For many U.S. fashion companies, Kenya is also its single largest apparel-sourcing base in Sub-saharan Africa (SSA), accounting for one-third of the region’s total apparel exports to the U.S. in 2019.

However, how to design the textile and apparel chapter in the proposed U.S.-Kenya FTA is anything but easy. A preliminary content analysis of the 133 public comments submitted to the U.S. International Trade Commission (USITC) as of May 2020 shows that various stakeholders have proposed competing views on several complicated issues, ranging from the rules of origin to the tariff elimination schedule. Specifically:

First, the fashion apparel industry has expressed strong unanimous support for the proposed U.S.-Kenya FTA. Notably, Kenya is widely regarded as a growing sourcing destination for U.S. fashion brands and retailers. As noted by the U.S. Fashion Industry Association (USFIA) in its comment “there is a tremendous opportunity to expand trade between the United States and Kenya” through the elimination of both tariff and non-tariff barriers under the FTA.

Second, the fashion apparel industry calls for the proposed U.S.-Kenya FTA to “do no harm” to the existing supply chain established based on AGOA and ensure a seamless transition between the two trade programs. For example, PVH, one of the largest U.S. fashion corporations, says in its comment, “no change should be made with respect to market access and dutyfree treatment for apparel made in Kenya effective from the date of entry into force of the agreement.” Likewise, USFIA calls for the new FTA to “Preserve the commercial opportunities developed through AGOA benefits.” The American Apparel and Footwear Association (AAFA) further proposes to extend AGOA for another ten years after 2025, regardless of the status of the U.S.-Kenya FTA.

Third, despite the overall support for the agreement, industry stakeholders hold different views on how liberal the apparel-specific rules of origin should be in the U.S.-Kenya FTA and how long to keep it. Data shows, between 2015 and 2019, 99.7% of U.S. apparel imports from Kenya claimed the AGOA benefits. Of these imports, almost 100% took advantage of the so-called “third-country” fabric provision, which allows lesser-developed SSA countries like Kenya to enjoy duty-free access to the U.S. market for apparel made from yarns and fabrics originating from anywhere in the world (also known as the “cut and sew” or “single transformation” rules of origin).

On the one hand, some argue that without AGOA-like liberal rules of origin, Kenya won’t survive as an apparel sourcing destination for U.S. fashion companies because of the lack of local textile manufacturing capacity. For example, according to the African Coalition for Trade representing businesses in several SSA countries, “Africa does not currently have the capacity to produce the volume and variety of yarn and fabric necessary to support its apparel industry. Any tightening of the third-country fabric rule of origin in the post-AOGA model FTA would decimate the African apparel industry and lead to the loss of hundreds of thousands of jobs.”

However, some other industry stakeholders suggest that U.S.-Kenya FTA should gradually adopt the more restrictive “yarn-forward” rules of origin to encourage the development of the local textile industry in Kenya and the broader SSA region. Should U.S.-Kenya FTA adopt the “yarn-forward” rules of origin, garment factories in Kenya would have to either import yarns and fabrics from the United States, an option that is commercially infeasible given the long-distance, or use textile inputs locally-made. PVH, in its comment, explains the rationale behind the proposal, “we should move to a yarn forward rule of origin in phases…to allow the orderly verticalization of the apparel industry (in Kenya).” AAFA further adds, “A strong, vertical supply chain for the apparel and footwear industry in Kenya will reduce costs, minimize disruption and improve efficiency.”

Notably, the National Council of Textile Organizations (NCTO), which represents the voice of the U.S. textile industry, has not commented on U.S.-Kenya FTA yet but may potentially join the rules of origin debate. For years, NCTO insists that all U.S. free trade agreements should adopt the strict “yarn-forward” rules of origin. NCTO is most likely to hold the same position for the proposed U.S.-Kenya FTA because of two reasons: 1) avoid setting a “bad precedent” that may have implications for future U.S. FTA negotiations; 2) prevent the case when U.S. apparel imports from Kenya substantially increase and negatively affect apparel suppliers in the Western Hemisphere (such as Mexico and countries in Central America).

Furthermore, the debate on rules of origin is connected with the discussion on how to promote a regional textile and apparel supply chain in SSA and enhance regional economic integration. Several stakeholders, including AAFA, urge that U.S.-Kenya FTA should support regional supply chain collaboration rather than intensify the competition between Kenya and other AGOA members in the U.S. apparel market. The Atlantic Council, a well-known think tank also argues, “the bilateral (FTA) approach should not undercut the US’ longstanding support for regional integration in African markets and the progress that has been made in the East African Community (EAC) and the African continental free trade agreement area (AfCFTA).” Mauritius embassy echoes and suggests that the U.S.-Kenya FTA “could be made conductive to regional integration in Africa by allowing cumulation provisions in the agreement that would allow the use of materials sourced from other African partners to achieve the rules of origin requirements.

Fourth, industry stakeholders also suggest that U.S.-Kenya FTA could include modern trade agendas to make the agreement more relevant to the needs of the fashion apparel industry in the 21st-century world economy. The most commonly mentioned issues include: 1) Sustainability, labor, and environmental standard; 2) E-commerce, digital trade, and data protection; 3) Strengthened intellectual property rights (IP) protection; 4) Transparency and trade facilitation. The released USTR negotiation objectives have covered most of these topics.

Additionally, how to deal with Kenya’s secondhand clothing import restriction could be another thorny issue relevant to fashion apparel in the U.S.-Kenya FTA negotiation. In its submitted comment, the Secondary Materials and Recycled Textiles Association (SMART), whose members export 8-10 million kilograms of used clothing each year, urged the proposed U.S.-Kenya FTA to “prohibit the imposition of any import ban on secondhand clothing” and “phase-in duty eliminations on secondhand clothing.” However, SMART’s position could be at odds with apparel manufacturers in Kenya, along with U.S. fashion brands and retailers interested in expanding apparel sourcing from the country.

Further readings:

  1. Lu, S. (2019). Challenges for sub-Saharan Africa as an apparel sourcing hubJust-Style.
  2. Kendall Keough and Sheng Lu. (2020). U.S.-Kenya Free Trade Agreement: Comments from the Fashion Apparel Industry. Just-Style.

New Reports: Time for Change & State of Fashion 2020 (Coronavirus update)

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The study was conducted based on a survey of 116 sourcing executives from fashion retailers and brands predominantly in North America and Western Europe between April 14 and April 22, 2020.

Key findings:

First, the fashion industry’s sourcing operations have been hit hard by COVID-19

  • Sales revenues are expected to contract by 27 to 30 percent in 2020 year over year.
  • Jointed affected by store closures and supply disruptions, two-thirds of fashion sourcing executives expect a cut in sourcing volumes by at least 20 percent in 2020, while only 18 percent expect a smaller decline of between 5 and 20 percent.

Second, regarding fashion companies’ immediate response to COVID-19:

  • Most sourcing executives are adopting a mixed approach to managing existing orders through a combination of reducing the number of orders, reducing the quantities per order, and canceling finished-goods orders. Almost half of the respondents (49 percent) have canceled less than a quarter of their existing orders of finished goods, while 22 percent have not canceled any orders at all. In general, European fashion players are using cancellations less often than those from North America.
  • Most fashion retailers and brands (90 percent of respondents) are accepting shipping delays for at least some of their orders. Around two-fifths of respondents are accepting delays for more than half of their orders.

Third, fashion brands and retailers are taking measures to support critical supplier base:

  • Measures commonly taken by fashion companies include collaboration with factories in cost reduction, providing payment of raw material and fabrics, forward looking collaboration in research and development, or product design.
  • However, still, only 19 percent of respondents say they are providing pre-payment for sourcing orders.
  • Meanwhile, 45 percent of sourcing executives expecting more than half of their suppliers to be in the next six months.

Fourth, fashion companies are thinking about the “next normal” for apparel sourcing:

  • 76 percent of respondents believe that COVID-19 will accelerate flexibility and speed for apparel sourcing. This includes a high acceleration of more flexible product development with shorter lead times and smaller batch sizes in sourcing orders.
  • Achieving social and environmental sustainability in sourcing is becoming mainstream in the next normal. The pandemic has shone a spotlight on companies’ commitments to the safety of their customers, staff, and those working in the global value chain.
  • 74 percent of respondents anticipate that digitization of product development and sourcing processes will accelerate and 60 percent agree that on-demand production through (semi)-automation will be a key driver in enabling new business models.

Fifth, regarding fashion companies’ adjustment of sourcing destinations:

  • The report suggests “the trend to move volume out of China has been slowed slightly by COVID-19”, particularly because “the strong value chain integration in China that makes raw material access less disruption prone than the globally interconnected value chains that fashion production countries depend upon.”
  • South-East Asian sourcing markets have been less disrupted and are expected to gain share compared to the pre-COVID-19 five-year trend.
  • COVID-19 has led to a reversal of the medium-term trends in Bangladesh with about a third of sourcing executives expecting volume decreases.
  • 46 percent of sourcing executives indicated they expect the trend of “near-sourcing” to increase next year

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Key findings:

  • The fashion industry is just at the beginning of its struggle with COVID-19: 1) duration and ultimate severity of the pandemic remains unknown; 2) Stores and factory closures have significantly disrupted the supply chain; 3) consumers’ demand plummets.
  • The developing world, where most clothing is currently sourced from, will face the most hardship caused by COVID-19, namely Bangladesh, India, Cambodia, Honduras, and Ethiopia. While developed nations could recover from COVID-19 relatively fast, these developing counties, especially the least developed ones (LDCs), may suffer from a more extended period of high unemployment, which means widespread hunger and disease.
  • COVID-19 will result in significant shifts in consumers’ preferences: 1) The pandemic will bring values around sustainability into sharp focus, intensifying discussions around materialism, over-consumption, and irresponsible business practices. 2) A significant drop in consumer spending on apparel will result in massive inventory build-ups. 3) Social distancing has highlighted the importance of digital channels more than ever and the lockdown has elevated digital as an urgent priority across the entire value chain.
  • The fashion industry will look very different in the post-Covid19 world. 1) The ensuing financial distress will spur industry consolidation to an extent significantly greater than that caused by the 2008 global financial crisis. 2) COVID-19 will turn fashion into an even more “winner-takes-all” industry. 3) Innovation will scaled-up along the entire fashion value chain. Regarding sourcing, it means “near sourcing” and “vendor integration.”

Summarized by Meera Kripalu (Honors student, Marketing and Fashion Merchandising double majors).

What Do You Take Away from FASH455?

I encourage everyone to watch the video above, which provides an excellent wrap-up for FASH455 and reminds us of the meaning and significance of our course. BTW, the names of several experts featured in the video should sound familiar to you, such as David Spooner (former U.S. Chief Textile Negotiator and Assistant Secretary of Commerce), Julia Hughes (president of the US Fashion Industry Association, USFIA) and Auggie Tantillo (former president of the National Council of TextileOrganizations, NCTO).

First of all, I hope students can take away essential knowledge about textile and apparel (T&A) trade & sourcing from FASH455. As you may recall from the video, in FASH455, we’ve examined the phenomenon of globalization and its profound social, economic and political implications. We also discussed various trade theories and the general evolution pattern of a country’s T&A industry and its close relationship with that country’s overall industrialization process. We further explored three primary T&A supply chains in the world (namely the Western-Hemisphere supply chain, the flying geese model in Asia and the phenomenon of intra-region T&A trade in Europe). Last but not least, we looked at unique and critical trade policies that matter significantly to the T&A sector (e.g., U.S.-China tariff war, and the yarn-forward rules of origin) as well as the complicated factors behind the making of these trade policies. No matter your dream job is to be a fashion designer, buyer, merchandiser, sourcing specialist or marketing analyst, understanding how trade and sourcing work will be highly relevant and beneficial to your future career given the global nature of today’s fashion industry.

Second, I hope FASH455 helps students shape a big-picture vision of the T&A industry in the 21st-century world economy and provides students a fresh new way of looking at the world. Throughout the semester, we’ve examined many critical, timely and pressing global agendas that are highly relevant to the T&A industry, from apparel companies’ social responsibility practices, the debate on the textile and apparel provisions in the U.S.-Mexico-Canada Free Trade Agreement (USMCA or NAFTA2.0) and Trump Administration’s trade policy agenda to the controversy of used clothing trade. It is critical to keep in mind that we wear more than clothes: We also wear the global economy, international business, public policy and trade politics that make affordable, fashionable, and safe clothes possible and available for hardworking families. This is also the message from many of our distinguished guest speakers this semester, and I do hope you find these special learning events enlightening and inspiring.

Likewise, I hopeFASH455 can put students into thinking about the meaning of being a FASH major/minor (as well as a college graduate) and how to contribute to the world we are living in today positively. A popular misconception is that T&A is just about “sewing,” “fashion magazine,” “shopping” and “Project Runway.” In fact, as one of the largest and most economically influential sectors in the world today, T&A industry plays a critical and unique role in creating jobs, promoting economic development, enhancing human development and reducing poverty. As we mentioned in the class, globally over 120 million people remain directly employed in the T&A industry and a good proportion of them are females living in poor rural areas. For most developing countries, T&A typically accounts for 70%–90% of their total merchandise exports and provides one of the very few opportunities for these countries to participate in globalization. The spread of COVID-19, in particular, reveals the enormous social and economic impacts of the apparel sector and many problems that need our continuous efforts to make an improvement. 

Last but not least, I hope from taking FASH455, students will take away meaningful questions that can inspire their future study and even life’s pursuit. For example:

  • How will COVID-19 fundamentally change the pattern of apparel sourcing and trade, particularly regarding China?
  • How to make the growth of global textile and apparel trade more inclusive and equal?
  • How to make sure tragedies like the Rana Plaza building collapse will never happen again?
  • How will automation, AI and digital technologies change the future landscape of apparel sourcing, trade, and job opportunities?
  • How to use trade policy as a tool to solve tough global issues such as labor practices and environmental standards?
  • Is inequality a problem caused by global trade? If global trade is the problem, what can be the alternative?

These questions have no good answers yet. But they are waiting for you, the young professional and the new generation of leaders, to write the history, based on your knowledge, wisdom, responsibility, courage, and creativity!

So what do you take away from FASH455? Please feel free to share your thoughts and comments.

Dr. Sheng Lu

COVID-19 and U.S. Apparel Imports (Updated: May 2020)

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The latest statistics from the Office of Textiles and Apparel (OTEXA) show that the negative impact of COVID-19 on U.S. apparel imports deepened in March 2020. Specifically:

  • The value of U.S. apparel imports sharply decreased by 14.8% in March 2020 from a year ago. Between January and March 2020, the value of U.S. apparel imports decreased by 12.1% year over year, which has been worse than the performance during the 2008-2009 global financial crisis (down 11.8%).
  • As the first country took a hit by COVID-19, China’s apparel exports to the United States continue to deteriorate—its value decreased by as much as 52.4% in March 2020 compared with a year ago (and -43.1% drop year to date in 2020). This result is also worse than the official Chinese statistics, which reported an overall 20.6% drop in China’s apparel exports in the first quarter of 2020.

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  • For the first time in history, Vietnam surpassed China and became the top apparel supplier to the U.S. market in March 2020. Notably, China’s market shares in the U.S. apparel import market dropped to only 11% in March 2020 (and 18.3% year to date in 2020), a new record low in history (was 30% in 2019). However, it should be noted that long before COVID-19, U.S. fashion brands and retailers have begun to reduce their exposure to sourcing from China, especially since October 2019 due to concerns about the US-China tariff war.

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  • China’s lost market shares have been picked up mostly by other Asian suppliers, particularly Vietnam (18.9% YTD in 2020 vs. 16.2% in 2019) and Bangladesh (9.4% YTD in 2020 vs.7.1% in 2019). However, no clear evidence has suggested that U.S. fashion brands and retailers are giving more apparel sourcing orders to suppliers from the Western Hemisphere. In the first three months of 2020, still, only 10.3% of U.S. apparel imports came from CAFTA-DR members (no change from 2019) and 4.4% from NAFTA members (down from 4.5% in 2019).

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  • The unit price of U.S. apparel imports remains relatively stable. The price index (2010=100) in the first three months of 2020 was 103 compared with 104.7 in 2019. However, as a reflection of weak demand, the price index of U.S. apparel imports from China substantially dropped to 72.2 Year to Date in 2020 compared with 83.5 in 2019.

USITC Report: U.S. Apparel Sourcing under African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA)

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A newly released study by the U.S. International Trade Commission (USITC) suggests that the African Growth Opportunity Act (AGOA) and its “third-country fabric provision” are critical for U.S. apparel sourcing from sub-Saharan Africa (SSA). Specifically:

U.S. apparel imports from SSA grew faster than the world average. During 2016–19, U.S. apparel imports from SSA enjoyed a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 11.8 percent (compared with 1.3 percent CAGR of all countries), from $1.0 billion in 2016 to $1.4 billion in 2019. However, SSA overall remained a small apparel supplier to the U.S. market, accounting for only 1.7 percent of the market shares in 2019 (lower than 2.7 percent in 2004, but was a record high since 2015).

U.S. apparel imports from SSA remain uneven across countries. The five SSA countries–Kenya, Lesotho, Madagascar, Mauritius, and Ethiopia altogether accounted for almost 95 percent of all apparel imported from the SSA region under AGOA. The growth of U.S. apparel imports from Ethiopia was particularly fast (86.4% CAGR during 2016-2019), thanks to the country’s industrial parks and its increased use of AGOA benefits. Several global brands such as H&M, Calvin Klein, and Tommy Hilfiger currently source apparel from garment factories located in these industrial parks.

The USITC report suggests that the duty-free preferences awarded under AGOA and the liberal rules of origin available for apparel under the “third-country fabric provision”* are the key competitive advantages of SSA serving as an apparel sourcing destination for U.S. companies. Due to limited yarn and fabric production in SSA, the third-country fabric provision remained critical for SSA exports of apparel to receive duty-free entrance to the United States. Notably, nearly all U.S. imports of apparel from SSA countries entered under AGOA (98 percent). Of these imports, virtually all of them (95.8 percent) used the third-country fabric provision in 2018.

Further, the USITC report used Madagascar as an example to illustrate the significance of AGOA and its third-country fabric provision in particular to SSA countries’ apparel exports to the United States. As noted by USITC:

  • Madagascar was evidenced by the sharp decline in its apparel exports to the U.S. after the country lost its AGOA eligibility in 2009. Without duty-free access to the United States, the average duty rate for U.S. imports of apparel from Madagascar rose to 19.6 percent, and apparel exports to the United States from Madagascar fell from over $211 million in 2009 to only $40 million in 2011.
  • Madagascar’s AGOA benefits were reinstated in 2014. Just in two years, U.S. apparel imports from Madagascar bounced back to one-half of the 2009 level. In 2019, U.S. apparel imports from Madagascar totaled $243 billion, a new record high since 2015.

The USITC report mentioned several factors that are encouraging more U.S. apparel sourcing from SSA. For example:

  • U.S. fashion companies’ sourcing diversification strategy
  • U.S. fashion companies’ rising emphasis on corporate social responsibility (CSR) in sourcing
  • Deepened regional economic integration among SSA countries through regional trade arrangements such as the African Continental Free Trade Area

However, it remains a concern that SSA countries are lack of genuine competitiveness as apparel sourcing destinations. According to the USITC report, SSA countries’ current competitive advantage in apparel “comes solely through the cutting of tariffs on apparel to zero, since the apparel sectors of Bangladesh, Vietnam, and China are more cost-competitive than those of SSA countries. The current competitive advantage that SSA countries have in the apparel sector will decline significantly if AGOA expires in 2025. The uncertainty about AGOA renewal will likely discourage U.S. FDI in the SSA apparel sector.”

Related, as quoted by the USITC report, according to the 2019 Fashion Industry Benchmarking Study, almost half of the surveyed U.S. fashion companies expressed hesitancy about investing in the SSA region due to the temporary nature of AGOA. Moreover, long lead times, lack of infrastructure, and high logistical costs continue to deter apparel retailers from investing in the AGOA region.

*About the African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA)

The African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA) is a non-reciprocal trade agreement enacted in 2000 that provides duty-free treatment to US imports of certain products from eligible sub-Saharan African (SSA) countries. AGOA intends to promote market-led economic growth and development in SSA and deepen US trade and investment ties with the region.

Because apparel production plays a dominant role in many SSA countries’ economic development, apparel has become one of the top exports for many SSA countries under AGOA. Particularly, the “third-country fabric provision” under AGOA allows US apparel imports from certain SSA countries to be qualified for duty-free treatment even if the apparel use yarns and fabrics produced by non-AGOA countries/regions (such as China, South Korea, and Taiwan). This special rule is deemed as critical because most SSA countries still have no capacity in producing capital and technology-intensive textile products.

On 29 June 2015, the Obama Administration signed a new bill to extend the AGOA (including the third-country fabric provision) for another ten years (until 30 September 2025). The new law simplifies the AGOA rules of origin; gives the president the ability to withdraw, suspend or limit benefits (rather than just terminate eligibility) if designated AGOA countries do not comply with the eligibility criteria; adds notification and reporting requirements; and improves transparency and participation in the AGOA review process.

About the “Third-Country Fabric” provision under AGOA

This is a “Special Rule” for lesser-developed SSA countries (LDCs) under AGOA. According to the rule, these SSA LDCs can enjoy duty-free and quota-free access to the U.S. market for apparel made from yarns and fabrics originating from anywhere in the world. In comparison, most U.S. free trade agreements require the more restrictive “yarn-forward” rules of origin.

Related reading: Challenges facing Sub-Saharan Africa (SSA) as an Apparel Sourcing Base

The Evolving Apparel Industry in Asia—Discussion Questions from FASH455

#1 Do you think that automation and digitization will be more beneficial or harmful to the fashion/garment industry specifically when it concerns developing countries, such as Bangladesh and Cambodia? How will this affect the shift of production/supply chains?

#2 Who will be the “winners” and “losers” in the fashion industry’s shift to proximity-driven production? In your opinion, will the Western Hemisphere textile and apparel supply chain survive as the competition from “Factory Asia?” intensifies?

#3 We have read previously about the fact that Bangladesh is becoming an increasingly popular spot for apparel manufacturing as an alternative to sourcing from China. One of the reasons that Bangladesh is popular is because of the fact that labor is so inexpensive. However, do you think this “death of fast fashion” could repress Bangladesh’s ability to surpass China (i.e., “being cheap” is no longer that important)? Do you think that Bangladesh should continue to invest in new technologies or will cheap labor remain its only advantage?

#4 Pressure from global clothing brands is forcing manufacturers to turn to automation and digitalization, but this is also reducing the amount of human labor needed. This is a growing tradeoff that has yet to be resolved. Do you think there is any feasible solution that will allow manufacturers to remain efficient and cheap enough to attract buyers and still require human labor? If so, what could it be? And if you don’t think so, why?

#5 Why or why not do you think the U.S.-China trade war and COVID-19 will significantly shift U.S. fashion companies’ sourcing strategy, particularly regarding China and Asia?

(Welcome to our online discussion. For students in FASH455, please answer question #5 + one question from #1-4 in your reply)

Related: The Changing Face of Textile and Apparel “Made in Asia”

Explore Canada’s Apparel Sourcing Patterns

Presenter: Mikayla Dubreuil  (MS 2020, Fashion and Apparel Studies)

Canada is one of the world’s top ten largest apparel consumption markets, with retail sales totaling USD$28.04bn in 2019 (Euromonitor, 2020). Similar to other developed nations, clothing sold in Canada is predominately imported, making Canada a significant market access opportunity for clothing manufacturers, wholesalers, fashion brands, and retailers around the world. Based on the latest market and trade data, this study intends to provide an in-depth analysis of the Canadian apparel sourcing patterns.

Key findings:

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First, the volume of Canada’s apparel imports mirrors its economic growth. As the apparel business is buyer-driven, the performance of Canada’s national economy has a huge impact on its apparel imports. Canada’s GDP growth is an important predictor for its growth in apparel imports.  When Canada’s national economy boomed, its apparel imports also enjoyed a proportional expansion thanks to consumers’ higher income and purchasing power. Such a strong correlation, however, also suggests a likely sharp decline in Canada’s apparel imports in 2020 due to its national economy took a hard hit by the Covid-19 pandemic. [Note: with a 6.2% drop in GDP growth as forecasted by IMF, Canada’s apparel imports in 2020 could decrease by 16.4% from 2019. At the 95% confidence level, the worst case in 2020 will be a 29% decline of apparel imports from a year earlier and the most optimistic case will be a 4% decline.]

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Second, although China remains the top apparel supplier for Canada, Canadian fashion companies are increasingly sourcing from South Asia. Three trends to note: 1) China’s market share in Canada has been declining steadily from its peak in the 2010s. 2) Meanwhile. Canada is moving more sourcing orders to other Asian countries, particularly Vietnam and Bangladesh. 3) Additionally, thanks to the EU-Canada Free Trade Agreement (CETA), which provisionally entered into force in 2017, Canada’s apparel imports from the European Union (EU) has been rising steadily. In 2019, EU members altogether accounted for 6% of Canada’s apparel imports, an increase from 4% in 2010. Around half of Canada’s apparel imports from the EU are made in Italy, whose high-end luxury apparel exports could be among the biggest beneficiaries of the duty-saving opportunities provided by CETA.

Third, near sourcing from the Americas remains an essential component of Canadian fashion companies’ sourcing portfolio; However, sourcing from the NAFTA regions is in decline.  Approximately 9% of Canada’s apparel imports come from North, Central, and South Americas altogether, a pattern that has stayed relatively stable since 2010. As consumers in Canada are seeking “faster fashion”, Canadian fashion companies are attaching even greater importance to leveraging near sourcing from the Americas and improving their speed to market. For example, Lululemon placed around 8% of its sourcing orders with factories in the Americas in 2018, higher than 3%-5% five years ago.

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Canada’s apparel imports from members of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), however, has suffered a notable drop from 12.3% back in 2005 to the record low of 5.4% in 2019. As President Trump repeatedly threatened to withdraw the United States from NAFTA since he took office in 2017, the mounting uncertainty had caused Canadian fashion companies to cut sourcing from the region. For years, many Canadian fashion companies have been actively using the tariff preference level (TPL) mechanism to import apparel from the NAFTA region, although only a limited amount of TPL quota is allowed each year. While the TPL utilization rate for Canada’s cotton and man-made fiber apparel imports from the United States always reached 100%, the utilization rate slipped to a record low of 84% in 2019.

The upcoming implementation of the U.S.-Mexico-Canada Free Trade Agreement (USMCA or NAFTA2.0) on July 1, 2020 could help create a more stable environment for Canadian fashion companies interested in sourcing from the United States and Mexico. However, as USMCA fails to add any significant flexibility to the NAFTA apparel-specific rules of origin, whether the new agreement will improve the attractiveness of sourcing from North America for Canadian fashion companies remains to be seen.

by Mikayla DuBreuil and Sheng Lu

Additional Reading: Mikayla DuBreuil and Sheng Lu (2020). Canada’s clothing market – Top selling and sourcing trendsJust-Style.