Outlook 2019: Apparel Industry Issues in the Year Ahead

In January 2019, Just-Style consulted a panel of industry leaders and scholars in its Outlook 2019–Apparel Industry Issues in the Year Ahead management briefing. Below is my contribution to the report. Any comments and suggestions are more than welcome!

1: What do you see as the biggest challenges – and opportunities – facing the apparel industry in 2019, and why?

In my view, uncertainty will remain the single biggest challenge facing the apparel industry in 2019, ranging from a more volatile global economy, the unpredictable outlook of the U.S.-China trade talks to the various possible scenarios of Brexit. While uncertainty creates exciting new research opportunities for scholars like me, it could be a big headache for companies seeking a foreseeable market environment to guide their future business plan and investments. 

Meanwhile, the increasing digitalization of the apparel supply chain based on big-data tools and artificial intelligence (AI) technologies means a huge opportunity for fashion companies. Indeed, the apparel industry is quickly changing in nature—becoming ever more globalized, supply-chain based, technology-intensive and data-driven. Take talent recruitment as an example. In the 2018 US Fashion Industry Benchmarking Study, which I conducted in collaboration with the US Fashion Industry Association (USFIA), as much as 68 percent of surveyed leading U.S. fashion brands and apparel retailers say they plan to increase hiring of data scientists in the next five years. Googling “apparel industry” together with terms such as “big data” and “data science” also returns much more results than in the past. It is hopeful that the advancement of digital technologies and the smarter use of data will enable apparel companies to overcome market uncertainties better and improve many aspects of their businesses such as speed to market, operational efficiency and even sustainability.

2: What’s happening with sourcing? How is the sourcing landscape likely to shift in 2019, and what can apparel firms and their suppliers do to stay ahead?

Based on my research, I have three observations regarding apparel companies’ sourcing trends and the overall sourcing landscape in 2019:

First, apparel companies overall will continue to maintain a diverse sourcing base. For example, in a recent study, we examined the detailed sourcing portfolios of the 50 largest U.S.-based apparel companies ranked by the Apparel Magazine. Notably, on average these companies sourced from over 20 different countries or regions using more than 200 vendors in 2017. Similarly, in the 2018 US Fashion Industry Benchmarking Study, which I conducted in collaboration with the US Fashion Industry Association (USFIA), we also found companies with more than 1,000 employees typically source from more than ten different countries and regions. Since no sourcing destination is perfect, maintaining a relatively diverse sourcing base allows apparel companies to strike a balance among various sourcing factors ranging from cost, speed, flexibility, to risk management.

Second, while apparel companies are actively seeking new sourcing bases, many of them are reducing either the number of countries they source from or the number of vendors they work with. According to our study, some apparel companies have been strategically reducing the number of sourcing facilities with the purpose of ensuring closer collaborations with their suppliers on social and environmental compliance issues. Some other companies are consolidating their sourcing base within certain regions to improve efficiency and maximize productivity in the supply chain. Related to this trend, it is interesting to note that approximately half of the 50 largest U.S. apparel companies report allocating more sourcing orders to their largest vendor in 2017 than three years ago.

Third, nearshoring or onshoring will become more visible. Take “Made in the USA” apparel for example. According to the 2018 U.S. Fashion Industry Benchmarking Study, around 46 percent of surveyed U.S. fashion brands and apparel retailers report currently sourcing “Made in the USA” products, even though local sourcing typically only account for less than 10 percent of these companies’ total sourcing value or volume. In a recent study, we find that 94 out of the total 348 retailers (or 27 percent) sold “Made in the USA” apparel in the U.S. market between December 2017 and November 2018. These “Made in the USA” apparel items, in general, focus on fashion-oriented women’s wear, particularly in the categories of bottoms (such as skirts, jeans, and trousers), dresses, all-in-ones (such as playsuits and dungarees), swimwear and suits-sets. The advantage of proximity to the market, which makes speedy replenishment for in-season items possible, also allows retailers to price “Made in the USA” apparel substantially higher than imported ones and avoid offering deep discounts. Looking ahead, thanks to automation technology and consumers’ increasing demand for speed to market, I think nearshoring or onshoring, including ”Made in the USA” apparel, will continue to have its unique role to play in fashion brands and retailers’ merchandising and sourcing strategies.

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?

2019 will be a year to test apparel companies’ resources, particularly in the sourcing area. For example, winners will be those companies that have built a sophisticated but nimble global sourcing network that can handle market uncertainties effectively. Likewise, companies that understand and leverage the evolving “rules of the game”, such as the apparel-specific rules of origin and tariff phase-out schedules of existing or newly-reached free trade agreements, will be able to control sourcing cost better and achieve higher profit margins. Given the heavy involvement of trade policy in apparel sourcing this year, companies with solid government relations should also enjoy unique competitive advantages. 

On the other hand, as apparel business is changing in nature, to stay competitive, apparel companies need to start investing the future. This includes but not limited to exploring new sourcing destinations, studying the changing consumer demographics, recruiting new talents with expertise in emerging areas, and adopting new technologies fitting for the digital age. 

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 2019 to be better than 2018, and why?

Two things are at the top of my watchlist:

First, what is the future of China as an apparel sourcing base? While external factors such as the U.S.-China tariff war have attracted most of the public attention, the genuine evolution of China’s textile and apparel industry is something even more critical to watch in the long run. From my observation, China is playing an increasingly important role as a textile supplier for apparel-exporting countries in Asia. For example, measured by value, 47 percent of Bangladesh’s textile imports came from China in 2017, up from 39 percent in 2005. Similar trends are seen in Cambodia (up from 30 percent to 65 percent), Vietnam (up from 23 percent to 50 percent), Pakistan (up from 32 percent to 71 percent), Malaysia (up from 25 percent to 54 percent), Indonesia (up from 28 percent to 46 percent), Philippines (up from 19 percent to 41 percent) and Sri Lanka (up from 15 percent to 39 percent) over the same time frame. A key question in my mind is how quickly China’s textile and apparel industry will continue to evolve and upgrade by following the paths of most other advanced economies in history.

Second, how will the implementation of several newly-reached free trade agreements (FTAs) affect the big landscape of apparel sourcing and the existing regional apparel supply chains? For example:

  • The newly-reached U.S.-Mexico-Canada Free Trade Agreement (USMCA or commonly called NAFTA2.0) includes several interesting changes to the textile and apparel specific rules of origin provisions, such as the adjustment of the tariff-preference level (TPL) mechanism. Whether these changes will boost textile and apparel production in the Western-Hemisphere and attract more sourcing from the region will be something interesting to watch.
  • The implementation of the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP) and the EU-Vietnam Free Trade Agreement (EVFTA) will allow Vietnam to get access to nearly 40% of the world apparel import market (i.e., EU + Japan) duty-free. However, restrained by the country’s relatively small population, the apparel industry is increasingly facing the challenge of competing for labor with other export-oriented sectors in Vietnam. Realistically, what is the growth potential of apparel “Made in Vietnam” after the implementation of CPTPP and EVFTA?
  • In 2017, close to 80% of Asian countries’ textile imports came from other Asian countries, up from around 70% in the 2000s. Similarly, in 2017, 85.6% of Asian countries’ apparel imports also came from within the region. The negotiation of the Regional Comprehensive and Economic Partnership (RCEP) is likely to conclude in 2019, whose membership includes member states of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and other six economies in the Asia-Pacific region (Australia, China, India, Japan, South Korea and New Zealand). Will RCEP result in an ever more integrated Asia-based textile and apparel supply chain and make the Asia region even more competitive as an apparel sourcing destination?  

Market Size of the Global Textile and Apparel Industry: 2016 to 2021/2022

Textile Mills

The textile mills market primarily includes yarns and fabrics. The market size is estimated based on the value of domestic production plus imports minus exports, all valued at manufacturer prices.

The value of the global textile mills market totaled $748.1 billion in 2016 (around 83.7% were fabrics and 16.3% were yarns), up 3.5% from a year earlier. The compound annual growth rate of the market was 2.7% between 2012 and 2015. The Asia-Pacific region accounted for 59.6% of the global textile mills market value in 2016 (up from 54.6% in 2015), Europe and the United States accounted for a further 19.1% and 10.8 of the market respectively.

The global textile mills market is forecast to reach $961.0 billion in value in 2021, an increase of 28.5% since 2016. The compound annual growth rate of the market between 2016 and 2021 is forecast to be 5.1%.

Apparel manufacturing market

The apparel manufacturing market covers all clothing except leather, footwear and knitted items as well as other technical, household, and made-up products. The market size is estimated based on the value of domestic production plus imports minus exports, all valued at manufacturer prices.

The value of the global apparel manufacturing market totaled $785.9 billion in 2016, up 3.3% from a year earlier. The compound annual growth rate of the market was 4.4% between 2012 and 2016. The Asia-Pacific region accounted for 61% of the market value in 2016 and Europe accounted for a further 15.2% of the market.

The global apparel manufacturing market is forecast to reach $992 billion in value in 2021, an increase of 26.2% since 2016. The compound annual growth rate of the market during the period of 2016 and 2021 is forecast to be 4.8%.

Apparel retail market

The apparel retail industry consists of the sale of all menswear, womenswear and childrenswear. The market value is calculated at retail selling price (RSP), and includes all taxes and duties.

The value of the global apparel retail market totaled $1,414.1 billion in 2017 (52.6% womenswear, 31.3% menswear and 16.1% childrenswear), up 4.9% from a year earlier. The compound annual growth rate of the market was 4.4% between 2013 and 2017. The Asia-Pacific region accounted for 37.1% of the global apparel retail market in 2017 (up from 36.8% in 2015), followed by followed by Europe (28.5%) and the United States (23.6%).

The global apparel retail market is forecast to reach $1,834 billion in value in 2022, an increase of 29.7% since 2017. The compound annual growth rate of the market between 2017 and 2022 is forecast to be 5.3%.

Data source: MarketLine (2018)

How Has the Apparel Trade Flow Reacted to the Section 301 Tariff Action against China? (updated November 2018)

While apparel products are not subject to the Section 301 tariff yet, the trade action nevertheless has created huge market uncertainties for U.S. fashion brands and apparel retailers. Here is how the monthly trade flow of U.S. apparel imports has reflected the impacts of the U.S.-China tariff war:

First, U.S. companies did NOT stop importing from China. Seasonally adjusted data shows that between January and September 2018, the value of U.S. apparel imports from China decreased by 0.6 percent in volume and 0.05 percent in value year on year. Despite the decline, China remained the No.1 apparel supplier for the U.S. market in the first nine months of 2018, accounting for 32.3 percent market share in value and 41.3 percent shares in quantity, only marginally dropped by 1 and 0.7 percentage points from a year earlier respectively .

Second, apparel “Made in China” are becoming even cheaper. Notably, the average unit price of U.S. apparel imports from China dropped from $2.5/SME in 2016,$2.38/SME in 2017 to $2.36/SME in the first nine months of 2018. On the one hand, this result suggests that cost concern is not the most influential factor that drives U.S. companies to source less from China. However, it is also likely that Chinese exporters are intentionally reducing their price to keep their orders and overcome the challenges caused by the Section 301.

Third, there is no perfect replacement for “Made in China”. In response to the market uncertainty created by the Section 301 trade action, U.S. apparel importers are diversifying their sourcing base. That being said, it is difficult to identify a single largest beneficiary–notably, the market shares of apparel exports from Vietnam, Bangladesh, NAFTA, and CAFTA regions only marginally increased in the first nine months of 2018 compared with a year ago.

Additionally, it remains unclear whether the section 301 trade action has benefited U.S. textile and apparel manufacturing. Data shows that in the first ten months of 2018, the production index (2012=100) of textile manufacturing in the United States slightly increased from 92.8 in 2017to 94.3. However, over the same period, the index of apparel manufacturing decreased from 73.6 to 72.4.

Looking ahead, the volume of US textile and apparel imports from China is likely to increase in the short run since U.S. importers are eager to complete their sourcing orders before the new tariff hit.  Usually, companies place sourcing orders several months ahead of the selling season. However, it will be interesting to see if the trade data in the first half of 2019 will reveal the negative impact of the Section 301 action on China’s apparel exports to the U.S. market.

Data source: Office of Textiles and Apparel (OTEXA), US Department of Commerce

by Sheng Lu

USITC Releases New Study on the State of the U.S. Textile and Apparel Manufacturing Sector

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A recent study released by the U.S. International Trade Commission (USITC) provides a comprehensive review and valuable insights into the state of textile and apparel manufacturing in the United States. According to the study:

First,  data suggests a mixed picture of the recovery of textile manufacturing in the U.S.

  • Total capital expenditures in plants and equipment for the textile sector increased by 36 percent in the 2013–16 period. Interesting enough, much of the new investment is by foreign firms, including new investments by Chinese and Indian firms, as well as by firms from Mexico, Canada, Turkey, and Saudi Arabia.
  • U.S. textile shipments increased in 2017 to $39.6 billion, but remained 3 percent below the 2013 level. The result suggests that rather than simply increasing capacity, some of the new investment is likely replacing existing equipment, as firms upgrade and modernize their manufacturing processes and/or focus their operations on different products. [Note: shipments measure the dollar value of products sold by manufacturing establishments and are based on net selling values, f.o.b. (free on board) plant, after discounts and allowances are excluded]
  • At $10.6 billion, U.S. textile exports in 2017 were also below the five-year high of $12.1 billion in 2014.
  • Employment in the textiles sector declined by 4 percent from 131,000 in 2013 to an estimated 126,000 in 2017. Meanwhile, official data on labor productivity index for yarns and fabrics show steady declines during 2013–16.

Second, some evidence suggests that reshoring has taken place in recent years in the apparel sector, although on a modest scale.

  • For the 2013–16 period, capital expenditures were up 5 percent to $301 million, suggesting capital investment in the apparel sector may be increasing, as the industry begins to adopt more labor-saving technologies.
  • Domestic shipments of apparel showed modest increases in the past two years, reaching $12.0 billion in 2016 and $12.5 billion in 2017, after a record low of $11.5 billion in 2014 and 2015.
  • Employment in the apparel sector steadily declined during 2013–17, down 21 percent from 145,000 workers in 2013 to 120,000 workers in 2017. Official data on labor productivity also showed steady declines during 2013–16.
  • U.S. fashion companies continue to source apparel from the United States, although in a relatively small amount.

Third, the advantages of making textiles and apparel in the United States include:

  • Advantages of producing textiles in the United States include local and state incentives for investment, and the benefits afforded by free trade agreement (FTA) preferences (i.e., the “yarn-forward” rules of origin) that encourage the use of U.S.-produced inputs in downstream production in FTA partner countries, energy cost and the availability and reliability of high-quality cotton. Meanwhile, product innovation and automation are important aspects of the U.S. textile sector’s competitiveness strategy.
  • Advantages of producing apparel in the United States include improved lead times, better quality control, and more flexible production. Many domestically made products also use “Made in USA” branding to capitalize on the buy-American trend and the appeal of “Made in USA.” The adoption of various automation and digital technologies to accelerate the process of product development, improve the fit of the final product and reduce the needs for skilled sewing operators may also help improve the competitiveness.  

Debate on Used Clothing Import Ban: Discussion Questions from FASH455

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Background: In a proclamation released by the White House on July 30, 2018, President Trump announced to suspend Rwanda’s duty-free treatment for all African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA)-eligible apparel products until Rwanda “comes back into compliance with the AGOA eligibility requirements.” Losing the AGOA benefits means Rwanda’s apparel exports to the United States now will be subject to the most-favored-nation (MFN) tariff rate, which averaged 12.8% for knitted apparel (HS chapter 61) and 10.1% on woven apparel (HS chapter 62). 

Back in June 2017, the U.S. Trade Representative Office (USTR) announced to conduct an out-of-cycle review of Rwanda, Tanzania, and Uganda’s AGOA eligibility in response to a petition filed by the Secondary Materials and Recycled Textiles Association (SMART). The SMART petition asserts that a March 2016 decision by the East Africa Community (EAC), which includes Kenya, Rwanda, Tanzania, and Uganda, to phase in a ban on imports of used clothing and footwear is imposing significant economic hardship on the U.S. used clothing industry. 

Discussion questions:

#1 Is it worth it to ban imports of used clothing in East Africa? Isn’t reusing or repurposing used clothing will be beneficial to the environment, and will promote trade, and provide lower priced to the less fortunate?

#2 Why or why not do you believe that the import ban on used clothing will boost the cotton, apparel, textile, and leather local textile industries in EAC countries and allow for an increase in jobs and economic growth there?

#3 Notably, almost none of the used clothing exported from the US to EAC countries are actually “Made in USA”—they were originally imported from Asian countries such as China, Vietnam, and Bangladesh. Also, most U.S. used clothing exports to EAC were “free giveaways” by U.S. consumers. Is it ethical for SMART to oppose the used clothing import ban so that its own can make a profit?

#4 Most EAC members are the least developed countries. Should they have the rights to reject used clothing from developed countries and start the industrialization process, or should the principle of “free trade” apply to used clothing trade?

#5 If all parties involved in the dispute on the second-hand clothing ban were to come to a compromise, what could that potentially look like and how might we go about it? Is it even possible?

#6 Why or why not do you think the booming of the used clothing trade challenges the stage of development theory we learned in week one (i.e., a country’s textile and apparel industry theoretically will go through six development stages)?

[For FASH455: 1) Please mention the question number in your comments; 2) Please address at least two questions in your comments]

Recommended reading: Why is the used clothing trade such a hot-button issue

BIS Released Assessment Report of the U.S. Textile and Apparel Manufacturing Sector

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The Bureau of Industry and Security (BIS) under the U.S. Department of Commerce recently released its assessment report of the U.S. textile and apparel (T&A) manufacturing sector. The report was based on a survey of 571 U.S. T&A manufacturers in summer 2017. These respondents include 230 textile mills (NAICS 313), 128 textile product mills (NAICS 314), and 213 apparel manufacturers (NAICS 315).

Below are the key findings of the study:

The state of the U.S. textile and apparel (T&A) manufacturing sector

  • U.S. T&A manufacturing has shrunk significantly: the value of T&A shipments (seasonally adjusted) in 2016 ($68 billion) was almost 56% decrease in real terms since 1995 ($153 billion).
  • U.S. T&A manufacturing has undergone substantial structural change: textiles and textile products accounted for 82% of the total shipments of the U.S. T&A industry as of 2016, compared to 57% in 1995. Notably, only 18% of shipments came from apparel manufacturing in 2016, compared to 43% in 1995.
  • U.S. T&A manufacturing sector is hiring less: Between 1990 and 2016, total employment decreased by 79%, from 1.7 million to 352,000 workers; over the same period, over 86% of apparel manufacturing jobs disappeared.
  • U.S. T&A manufacturers are making more capital investments: The overall total Capital Expenditures (CAPEX) of the 571 respondents increased 90 percent from 2012 to 2016 (from $1.6 billion to $3.1 billion). Particularly, the CAPEX of textile mills grew by 80 percent over that period—mostly on “Machinery, Equipment, and Vehicles.”
  • North Carolina hosted the largest number of U.S. T&A facilities (22 percent of the respondents), followed by Georgia (10 percent), and South Carolina (9 percent).
  • China, Mexico, and Canada are the most popular destinations for foreign investments by U.S. T&A manufacturers.

Competition landscape and factors

  • Respondents listed a total of 1,309 U.S. competitors and 552 non-U.S. competitors. Chinese companies were cited as the number one source of foreign competition.
  • “Quality,” “Lead Time,” and “Innovation” were the top three competitive advantages of U.S. T&A manufacturers as they related to foreign competition. “Labor Costs” was regarded as the top disadvantage of U.S. T&A manufacturing.
  • 43 percent of respondents believed that reshoring was occurring in U.S. T&A manufacturing. Almost all of these respondents believed that “Shorter Lead Times” and the “Marketability of the ‘Made in USA’ Label” were the factors driving the trend.
  • The Affordable Care Act (ACA), Minimum Wage regulations (Federal, State, and Local), and U.S. Trade Policy were the top governmental regulations and provisions cited as negatively impacting the competitiveness of U.S. T&A manufacturers.
  • 61 percent of respondents reported that they had difficulties hiring and/or retaining employees for their T&A operations, specifically production line workers such as operators and machine technicians. The skill gaps in the labor market for those positions were by far the biggest ones identified for the industry.
  • 43 percent of respondents believed that reshoring was occurring in T&A manufacturing (i.e., the practice of transferring a business operation that was moved to a non-U.S. location back to the United States.) Textile manufacturers were more likely to be aware of reshoring.

Trade and U.S. textile and apparel manufacturing

  • On average, respondents say 48 percent of their textile and textile products are “100 percent made in the U.S.”, while for apparel it was around 54 percent.
  • U.S. T&A exports dropped 10 percent between 2012 and 2016, from $2.2 billion to $1.98 billion. On average, exports accounted for only 12 percent of respondents’ total sales.
  • 33 percent of respondents considered themselves to be dependent on foreign sources for supplies, which was highest among textile mills.
  • 37 percent of respondents reported that they considered themselves to be dependent on non-U.S. sourcing for their machinery or equipment.

Berry Amendment and U.S. textile and apparel manufacturing

  • For textile mills, an average of 12 percent of U.S. output was Berry Amendment-related; for textile product mills the average was 21 percent, and for apparel production, it averaged 26 percent. 67 percent of respondents believed that the Berry Amendment had a positive impact on their organization’s business.

WTO Reports World Textile and Apparel Trade in 2017

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According to the newly released World Trade Statistical Review 2018 by the World Trade Organization (WTO), the current dollar value of world textiles (SITC 65) and apparel (SITC 84) exports totaled $296.1bn and $454.5bn respectively in 2017, increased by 4.2% and 2.8% from a year earlier. This is the first time since 2015 that the value of world textile and apparel exports enjoyed a growth.

Textiles and apparel are not alone. Driven by rising demand for imports globally, the current dollar value of world merchandise exports also grew by 4.7% in 2017–its most robust growth in six years, to reach $17.43 trillion. Particularly, the ratio of trade growth to GDP growth finally returned to its historic average of 1.5, compared to the much lower 1.0 ratio recorded in the years following the 2008 financial crisis.

China, European Union (EU28), and India remained the world’s top three exporters of textiles in 2017. Altogether, these top three accounted for 66.3% of world textile exports in 2017, up from 65.9% in 2016. All the top three also enjoyed a faster-than-average export growth in 2017, including 5.0% of China, 5.8% of EU(28) and 5.9% of India. The United States remained the world’s fourth top textile exporter in 2017, accounting for 4.6 percent of the shares, the same as a year earlier.

Regarding apparel, China, the European Union (EU28), Bangladesh and Vietnam unshakably remained the world’s top four largest exporters in 2017. Altogether, these top four accounted for as much as 75.8% of world market shares in 2017, which was higher than 74.3% a year earlier and a substantial increase from 68.3% back in 2007.

Continuing with the emerging trend in recent years, China is exporting less apparel and more textiles to the world. Notably, China’s market shares in world apparel exports fell from its peak—38.8% in 2014 to a record low of 34.9% in 2017. Meanwhile, China accounted for 37.1% of world textile exports in 2017, which was a new record high. It is important to recognize that China is playing an increasingly critical role as a textile supplier for many apparel-exporting countries in Asia. Measured by value, 47% of Bangladesh’s textile imports came from China in 2017, up from 39% in 2005. We observe similar trends in Cambodia (up from 30% to 65 %), Vietnam (up from 23 % to 50 %), Pakistan (up from 32 % to 71 %), Malaysia (up from 25 % to 54 %), Indonesia (up from 28 % to 46 %), Philippines (up from 19 % to 41 %) and Sri Lanka (up from 15 % to 39 %) over the same period.

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Additional readings: 
Lu, S. (2018). Changing trends in world textile and apparel trade. Just-Style.
Lu, S. (2018). How regional supply chains are shaping world textile and apparel trade. Just-Style.