The Section 301 Investigation against China Divides the U.S. Textile Industry and U.S. Fashion Brands and Retailers

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On April 3, 2018, the U.S. Trade Representative Office (USTR) released the proposed list of Chinese products to be subject to the retaliatory tariff under the Section 301 action. The proposed list covers approximately 1,300 separate tariff lines, including textile machinery. However, textile and apparel (HS chapters 50 to 63) were not on the list.

USTR says it will make a final decision on whether to implement the proposed tariff action after a public hearing process scheduled at around May 15, 2018. Most U.S.-based textile and apparel industry associated have submitted their public comments regarding the section 301 investigation. Because of their respective commercial interests, not surprisingly, the U.S. textile industry favors the retaliatory tariffs on imports from China whereas U.S. fashion brands and retailers oppose the action strongly. Specifically:

National Council of Textile Organizations (NCTO)

  • NCTO applauds the Trump Administration’s formal initiation of a Section 301 case designed to address China’s persistent and highly damaging actions in the area of intellectual property theft. NCTO argues that illegal activity on the part of the government of China has gone on for far too long, at the direct expense of U.S. manufacturers and the loss of millions of U.S. manufacturing jobs.
  • The U.S. textile industry is severely disappointed that the retaliation list published by USTR on April 3 does not contain a single textile or apparel product.
  • NCTO argues that China’s illegal IPR activities have damaged the U.S. textile industry and recommend that textile and apparel products be added to the retaliation list.

The United States Fashion Industry Association (USFIA)

  • USFIA opposes adding apparel (items classifiable under chapters 61 and 62 of the HTSUS) and other fashion products (such as footwear, handbags, and luggage) to the retaliation list against China.
  • USFIA argues that tariffs are NOT the appropriate mechanism to redress the activities outlined in USTR’s report to the White House. Imposing tariffs on imports of fashion products would do nothing to solve the concerns about China’s IP policies and practices outlined in USTR’s Section 301 report.
  • USFIA believes that the best way to address concerns about China’s IPR practices is action at the multilateral level that includes other US trading partners.

American Apparel and Footwear Association (AAFA)

  • AAFA strongly opposes the proposed imposition of tariffs on textile, apparel, and footwear equipment and machinery as this will result in increased costs for AAFA members who are making yarns, fabrics, clothes, and shoes in the United States.
  • AAFA believes that a tariff on textile and apparel products would be a hidden tax on U.S. consumers, particularly since China represents such a large source of U.S. imports of these products.
  • AAFA strongly supports the Trump Administration’s efforts to improve the protection of intellectual property rights in China.

Regional Textile and Apparel Supply Chains–Questions from FASH455

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NAFTA and Textile and Apparel Rules of Origin

#1 How do rules of origin (RoO) and free trade agreement (FTA) regulations affect speed to market in apparel sourcing? Do countries who are part of an FTA find it to be easier to get to market in a shorter amount of time if they are working with other FTA members? Or could RoO slow down the production process because producers have to be more careful about compliance with the complicated RoO?

#2 Why or why not the “yarn forward” rules of origin remains an effective way to promote textile and apparel production in the Western-Hemisphere?  What other options are available to improve the competitiveness of the Western-Hemisphere textile and apparel supply chain?

#3 What would happen to the Western-Hemisphere textile and apparel supply chain should NAFTA no longer exist?

#4 Should NAFTA be responsible for the loss of US apparel manufacturing jobs? Any hard evidence?

#5 If you were U.S. trade negotiators, what would you do with TPL in NAFTA given the competing views from the U.S. textile industry and U.S. fashion brands and retailers?

The Outlook of “Factory-Asia”

#6 From the perspective of the U.S. textile and apparel industry, is it a good idea for the United States to reach free trade agreement (FTA) with Asian countries? If so, what countries should be included in the new FTA? If not, why?

#7 How can U.S. companies get involved in the Asia-based textile and apparel supply chain?

#8 Why or why not is the “Flying geese model” unique to Asia? Can the model be replicated in America too?

(Welcome to join our online discussion. Please mention the question number in your reply)

State of the U.S. Textile and Apparel Industry and Companies’ Sourcing Strategy—Discussion Questions from FASH455

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#1 How is international trade associated with the prosperity of the U.S. textile and apparel industry today?

#2 Can trade policy bring textile and apparel manufacturing back to the United States? If so, how?

#3 The Trump Administration has decided to impose additional import tariffs to protect U.S. steel and aluminum production in the name of “national security.” Should U.S. textile mills and apparel manufacturers ask for similar trade protection too? Why or why not?

#4 The U.S. textile industry seems to be doing quite well— since 2009 its total value of output has risen 11%. However, why do you think the apparel factories in Los Angeles are struggling?

#5 Most U.S. apparel companies have already shifted their businesses to non-manufacturing activities such as design, branding, sourcing and retailing. Is it still meaningful to give so much attention to apparel manufacturing in the U.S.?

#6 According to the readings, the increasing minimum wage is a critical factor behind the closure of many garment factories in LA. Does it imply that we have to choose between paying garment workers poorly and keeping the factory open?

#7 Assume you are a sourcing manager for a major US fashion brand, how would you rank the following regarding importance when determining a sourcing destination: Speed to Market, Sourcing Cost, Risk of Compliance?  Why would you rank them as such?

#8 Why do you think U.S. fashion brands and apparel retailers are sticking with sourcing from China, when there are less expensive products in other countries, such as Bangladesh and Vietnam?

#9 According to the study, some apparel retailers source from more than 10 or even 20 different countries or regions. What are the benefits of adopting such a diversified sourcing base? Is it necessary?

(Welcome to our online discussion. Please mention the question # in your reply)

Automation Comes to Fashion

Video Discussion Questions:

#1 Why do you agree or disagree with the video that automation will post a significant challenge to garment workers in developing countries such as Bangladesh? How should policymakers react to the challenges?

#2 Can automation be a permanent solution to the social responsibility problem in the garment industry?

#3 In your view, how will automation affect the big landscape of apparel sourcing and the patterns of world textile and apparel trade?

#4 Why or why not do you anticipate a sizable return of apparel manufacturing to the United States if apparel production can be largely automated?

Additional reading: The robots are coming for garment workers. (WSJ, 2018)

Please feel free to share your views and join our online discussion!

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.