US-China Tariff War and Apparel Sourcing: A Four-Year Review

On September 2, 2022, the Office of the US Trade Representative (USTR) announced it would continue the billions of dollars of Section 301 punitive tariffs against Chinese products. USTR said it made the decision based on requests from domestic businesses benefiting from the tariff action. As a legal requirement, USTR will launch a full review of Section 301 tariff action in the coming months.

In her remarks at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace on Sep 7, 2022, US Trade Representative Katharine Tai further said that the Section 301 punitive tariffs on Chinese imports “will not come down until Beijing adopts more market-oriented trade and economic principles.” In other words, the US-China tariff war, which broke out four years ago, is not ending anytime soon.

A Brief History of the US Section 301 tariff action against China

The US-China tariff war broke out as both unexpected and not too surprising. For decades, the US government had been criticizing China for its unfair trade practices, such as providing controversial subsidies to state-owned enterprises (SMEs), insufficient protection of intellectual property rights, and forcing foreign companies to transfer critical technologies to their Chinese competitors. The US side had also tried various ways to address the problems, from holding bilateral trade negotiations with China and imposing import restrictions on specific Chinese goods to suing China at the World Trade Organization (WTO). However, despite these efforts, most US concerns about China’s “unfair” trade practices remain unsolved.

When former US President Donald Trump took office, he was particularly upset about the massive and growing US trade deficits with China, which hit a record high of $383 billion in 2017. In alignment with the mercantilism view on trade, President Trump believed that the vast trade deficit with China hurt the US economy and undermined his political base, particularly with the working class.

On August 14, 2017, President Trump directed the Office of the US Trade Representative (USTR) to probe into China’s trade practices and see if they warranted retaliatory actions under the US trade law. While the investigation was ongoing, the Trump administration also held several trade negotiations with China, pushing the Chinese side to purchase more US goods and reduce the bilateral trade imbalances. However, the talks resulted in little progress.

President Trump lost his patience with China in the summer of 2018. In the following months, citing the USTR Section 301 investigation findings, the Trump administration announced imposing a series of punitive tariffs on nearly half of US imports from China, or approximately $250 billion in total. As a result, for more than 1,000 types of products, US companies importing them from China would have to pay the regular import duties plus a 10%-25% additional import tax. However, the Trump administration’s trade team purposefully excluded consumer products such as clothing and shoes from the tariff actions. The last thing President Trump wanted was US consumers, especially his political base, complaining about the rising price tag when shopping for necessities. The timing was also a sensitive factor—the 2018 congressional mid-term election was only a few months away.

President Trump hoped his unprecedented large-scale punitive tariffs would change China’s behaviors on trade. It partially worked. As the trade frictions threatened economic growth, the Chinese government returned to the negotiation table. Specifically, the US side wanted China to purchase more US goods, reduce the bilateral trade imbalances and alter its “unfair” trade practices. In contrast, the Chinese asked the US to hold the Section 301 tariff action immediately.

However, the trade talks didn’t progress as fast as Trump had hoped. Even worse, having to please domestic forces that demanded a more assertive stance toward the US, the Chinese government decided to impose retaliatory tariffs against approximately $250 billion US products. President Trump felt he had to do something in response to China’s new action. In August 2019, he suddenly announced imposing Section 301 tariffs on a new batch of Chinese products, totaling nearly $300 billion. As almost everything from China was targeted, apparel products were no longer immune to the tariff war. With the new tariff announcement coming at short notice, US fashion brands and retailers were unprepared for the abrupt escalation since they typically placed their sourcing orders 3-6 months before the selling season.

Nevertheless, Trump’s new Section 301 actions somehow accelerated the trade negotiation. The two sides finally reached a so-called “phase one” trade agreement in about two months. As part of the deal, China agreed to increase its purchase of US goods and services by at least $200 billion over two years, or almost double the 2017 baseline levels. Also, China promised to address US concerns about intellectual property rights protection, illegal subsidies, and forced technology transfers. Meanwhile, the US side somewhat agreed to trim the Section 301 tariff action but rejected removing them. For example, the punitive Section 301 tariffs on apparel products were cut from 15% to 7.5% since implementing the “phase one” trade deal.

Trump lost the 2020 presidential election, and Joe Biden was sworn in as the new US president on January 20, 2021. However, the Section 301 tariff actions and the US-China “phase one” trade deal stayed in force. 

Debate on the impact of the US-China tariff war

Like many other trade policies, the US Section 301 tariff actions against China raised heated debate among stakeholders with competing interests. This was the case even among different US textile and apparel industry segments.

On the one hand, US fashion brands and retailers strongly oppose the punitive tariffs against Chinese products for several reasons:

First, despite the Section 301 tariff action, China remained a critical apparel sourcing base for many US fashion companies with no practical alternative. Trade statistics show that four years into the tariff war, China still accounted for nearly 40 percent of US apparel imports in quantity and about one-third in value as of 2021. According to the latest data, in July 2022, China accounted for 43% of US apparel imports in quantity and 27.2% in value, far exceeding any other sources. Studies also consistently find that US fashion companies rely on China to fulfill orders requiring a small minimum order quantity, flexibility, and a great variety of product assortment.

Second, having to import from China, fashion companies argued that the Section 301 punitive tariffs increased their sourcing costs and cut profit margins. For example, for a clothing item with an original wholesale price of around $7, imposing a 7.5% Section 301 punitive tariff would increase the sourcing cost by about 5.8%. Should fashion companies not pass the cost increase to consumers, their retail gross margin would be cut by 1.5 percentage points. Notably, according to the US Fashion Industry Association’s 2021 benchmarking survey, nearly 90 percent of respondents explicitly say the tariff war directly increased their company’s sourcing costs. Another 74 percent say the tariff war hurt their company’s financials.

Third, as companies began to move their sourcing orders from China to other Asian countries like Vietnam, Bangladesh, and Cambodia to avoid paying punitive tariffs, these countries’ production costs all went up because of the limited production capacity. In other words, sourcing from everywhere became more expensive because of the Section 301 action against China. 

Further, it is important to recognize that fashion companies supported the US government’s efforts to address China’s “unfair” trade practices, such as subsidies, intellectual property rights violations, and forced technology transfers. Many US fashion companies were the victims of such practices. However, fashion companies did not think the punitive tariff was the right tool to address these problems effectively. Instead, fashion brands and retailers were concerned that the tariff war unnecessarily created an uncertain and volatile market environment harmful to their business operations.

On the other hand, the National Council of Textile Organizations (NCTO), representing manufacturers of fibers, yarns, and fabrics in the United States, strongly supported the Section 301 tariff actions against Chinese products. As most US apparel production had moved overseas, exporting to the Western Hemisphere became critical to the survival of the US textile industry. Thus, for years, NCTO pushed US policymakers to support the so-called Western Hemisphere textile and apparel supply chain, i.e., Mexico and Central American countries import textiles from the US and then export the finished garments for consumption. Similarly, NCTO argued that Section 301 tariff action would make apparel “Made in China” less price competitive, resulting in more near sourcing from the Western Hemisphere.

However, interestingly enough, while supporting the Section 301 action against finished garments “Made in China,” NCTO asked the US government NOT to impose punitive tariffs on Chinese intermediaries. As NCTO’s president testified at a public hearing about the Section 301 tariff action in 2019,

“While NCTO members support the inclusion of finished products in Section 301, we are seriously concerned that…adding tariffs on imports of manufacturing inputs that are not made in the US such as certain chemicals, dyes, machinery, and rayon staple fiber in effect raises the cost for American companies and makes them less competitive with China.”

Mitigate the impact of the tariff war: Fashion Companies’ Strategies

Almost four years into the trade war, US fashion companies attempted to mitigate the negative impacts of the Section 301 tariff action. Notably, US apparel retailers were cautious about raising the retail price because of the intense market competition. Instead, most US fashion companies chose to absorb or control the rising sourcing cost; however, no strategy alone has proven remarkably successful and sufficient.

The first approach was to switch to China’s alternatives. Trade statistics suggest that Asian countries such as Vietnam and Bangladesh picked up most of China’s lost market shares in the US apparel import market. For example, in 2022 (Jan-July), Asian countries excluding China accounted for 52% of US apparel imports, a substantial increase from 41% in 2018 before the tariff war. In comparison, unlike what US textile manufacturers had expected, there was no clear sign that the tariff war had resulted in more apparel sourcing from the Western Hemisphere.  

The second approach was to adjust what to source from China by leveraging the country’s production capacity and flexibility. For example, market data from industry sources showed that since the Section 301 tariff action, US fashion companies had imported more “Made in China” apparel in the luxury and premium segments and less for the value and mass markets. Such a practice made sense as consumers shopping for premium-priced apparel items typically were less price-sensitive, allowing fashion companies to raise the selling price more easily to mitigate the increasing sourcing costs. Studies also found that US companies sourced fewer lower value-added basic fashion items (such as tops and underwear), but more sophisticated and higher value-added apparel categories (such as dresses and outerwear) from China since the tariff war.

China is no longer treated as a sourcing base for low-end cheap product
More apparel sourced from China target the premium and luxuary market segments

Related, US fashion companies such as Columbia Sportswear leveraged the so-called “tariff engineering” in response to the tariff war. Tariff engineering refers to designing clothing to be classified at a lower tariff rate. For example, “women’s or girls’ blouses, shirts, and shirt-blouses of man-made fibers” imported from China can tax as high as 26.9%. However, the same blouse added a pocket or two below the waist would instead be classified as a different product and subject to only a 16.0% tariff rate. Nevertheless, using tariff engineering requires substantial financial and human resources, which often were beyond the affordability of small and medium-sized fashion companies.

Third, recognizing the negative impacts of Section 301 on US businesses and consumers, the Office of the US Trade Representative (USTR) created a so-called “Section 301 exclusion process.” Under this mechanism, companies could request that a particular product be excluded from the Section 301 tariffs, subject to specific criteria determined at the discretion of USTR. The petition for the product exclusion required substantial paperwork, however. Even companies with an in-house legal team typically hire a DC-based law firm experienced with international trade litigation to assist the petition, given the professional knowledge and a strong government relation needed. Also of concern to fashion companies was the low success rate of the petition. The record showed that nearly 90 percent of petitions were denied for failure to demonstrate “severe economic harm.” Eventually, since the launch of the exclusion process, fewer than 1% of apparel items subject to the Section 301 punitive tariff were exempted. Understandably, the extra financial burden and the long shot discouraged fashion companies, especially small and medium-sized, from taking advantage of the exclusion process.

In conclusion, with USTR’s latest announcement, the debate on Section 301 and the outlook of China as a textile and apparel sourcing base will continue. Notably, while economic factors matter, we shall not ignore the impact of non-economic factors on the fate of the Section 301 tariff action against China. For example, with the implementation of the Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act (UFLPA), only 13.5% of US cotton apparel imports came from China so far in 2022 (Jan-Jul), the lowest in a decade.  As the overall US-China bilateral trade relationship significantly deteriorated in recent years and the friction between the two countries expanded into highly politically sensitive areas, the Biden administration could “willfully” choose to keep the Section 301 tariff as negotiation leverage. Domestically, President Biden also didn’t want to look “weak” on his China policy, given the bipartisan support for taking on China’s rise.

by Sheng Lu

Patterns of US Apparel Imports in the First Half of 2022 and Key Sourcing Trends

First, US apparel imports enjoyed a decent growth but started to face softening demand.

  • Thanks to consumers’ spending, in the first half of 2022, US apparel imports went up 40% in value and 24% in quantity from a year ago.
  • However, due to US consumers’ weakening demand amid the economic downturn, the speed of import expansion is slowing down quickly. As an alert, the US consumer confidence index (CCI) fell to 54.8 in June 2022 (January 2019=100), the lowest since the pandemic. This result suggests that US consumers were increasingly worried about their household’s financial outlook and would hold back their discretionary clothing spending.
  • The month-over-month growth of US apparel imports dropped to only 2.6% in value and nearly zero in quantity in June 2022 from over 10% at the beginning of the year.
  • As the trajectory of the US economy remains highly uncertain in the medium term, we could expect many US fashion companies to turn more conservative about placing new sourcing orders in the second half of 2022 to control inventory and avoid overstock.

Second, fashion companies struggled with hiking apparel sourcing costs driven by multiple factors.

  • The price index of US apparel imports reached 103.9 in June 2022 (January 2019=100), a 3.1% increase from a year ago and the highest since 2019. USITC data further shows that, of the over 200 types of apparel items (HS Chapters 61 and 62) at the six-digit code level, nearly 70% had a price increase in the first half of 2022 from a year ago, including almost 40% experiencing a price increase exceeding 10 percent.
  • According to the 2022 Fashion Industry Benchmarking Study recently released by the US Fashion Industry Association (USFIA), 100 percent of respondents expect their sourcing costs to increase in 2022, including nearly 40 percent expecting a substantial cost increase from a year ago. Further, respondents say that almost everything has become more expensive this year, from textile raw materials, shipping, and labor to the costs associated with compliance with trade regulations.
  • To make the situation even worse, the more expensive “cost of goods” resulted in heavier burdens of ad valorem import duties for US fashion companies. USITC data shows that in the first five months of 2022, US companies paid $6,117 million in tariffs for apparel imports (HS Chapters 61 and 62), a significant increase of 42.9% from a year ago. Of these import duties paid by US companies, about 30% (or $1,804 million) resulted from the controversial US Section 301 action against Chinese imports. Because of the Section 301 tariff action, the average applied US tariff rate for apparel imports also increased from 17.2% in 2018 to 18.7% in the first half of 2022.
  • Even though the US retail price index for clothing reached 102.7 in June 2022 (January 2019=100), the price increase was behind the import cost surge over the same period. In other words, given the intense market competition and weaker demand, US fashion companies couldn’t pass the sourcing cost increase to consumers entirely.

Third, US fashion companies continued to diversify their sourcing base in 2022, which benefited large-scale suppliers in Asia.

  • The Herfindahl–Hirschman index (HHI), a commonly-used measurement of market concentration, went down from 0.11 in 2021 to 0.10 in the first half of 2022, suggesting that US apparel imports came from even more diverse sources. Similarly, the CS3 index, measuring the total market shares of the top three suppliers (i.e., China, Vietnam, and Bangladesh), fell below 50% in the first half of 2022, the lowest since 2018.
  • The Asia region remains the dominant source of apparel for US fashion companies: about 74.4% of US apparel imports came from Asian countries in the first half of 2022 (by value), which has stayed stable for over a decade.
  • One critical factor behind the apparent “contradictory” phenomenon is US fashion companies’ intention to reduce their “China exposure” further. Notably, considering all primary sourcing factors, from cost, speed to market, production flexibility, agility, and compliance risks, relatively large-scale Asian suppliers are the most likely alternatives to “Made in China.” Thus, the CR5 index excluding China (i.e., the market shares of Vietnam, Bangladesh, Indonesia, India, and Cambodia) increased from 40.7% in 2021 to 45.5% in the first half of 2022.

Fourth, US fashion companies’ evolving China sourcing strategy is far more subtle and complicated than simply “moving out of China.”

  • US fashion companies doubled their efforts to reduce sourcing from China in 2022, particularly in response to the newly implemented Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act (UFLPA) and the growing geopolitical risks. For example, measured in value, only 13.2% of US cotton apparel imports (OTEXA code 31) came from China in the first half of 2022, which fell from 14.4% a year ago and much lower than nearly 30% back in 2017.
  • Industry sources indicate that US fashion companies are “upgrading” what they source from China, possibly to offset the Section 301 punitive tariffs. The structural change includes importing less basic apparel items (e.g., tops and bottoms) and more sophisticated and higher-valued categories (e.g., dresses). Also, US fashion companies increasingly source from China for apparel items sold in the high-end market. For example, measured by the number of Stock Keeping Units (SKU), about 94% of apparel labeled “Made in China” sold in the US retail market targeted the value segment in 2018. However, of those apparel “Made in China” newly launched to the US retail market between January and July 2022, less than 2% were in the value segment. Instead, items targeting the higher-priced premium and mass market segments surged from 5% to 64%. Another 33% of “Made in China” were luxury apparel items. In other words, US fashion companies no longer see China as a sourcing base for cheap low-end products. Their sourcing decisions regarding China would give more consideration to non-price factors.
  • Further, some US fashion companies still see China as a promising sales market with growth potential. Localizing the supply chain (i.e., made in China for China) could be an increasingly popular practice for these companies. Thus, fashion companies’ vision for China could increasingly differ between those that only import products from China and those that see China as an emerging sales market.

Fifth, US apparel imports from the free trade agreements and trade preference programs partners stayed relatively stable in 2022 but lacked growth.

  • Despite the growing enthusiasm among US fashion companies for expanding near sourcing from the Western Hemisphere, the trade volume stayed stagnant. For example, in the first half of 2022, members of the Dominican Republic-Central America Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA-DR) accounted for 8.8% of US apparel imports in quantity and 9.9% in value, lower than a year ago (i.e., 9.9% in quantity and 11.1% in value). Likewise, Mexico also reported lower market shares in the US apparel import market in 2022. The results remind us that encouraging more US apparel sourcing from free trade agreements and preference program partners should go beyond offering preferential duty treatment.
  • Product diversification is a critical area that needs improvement, particularly regarding Western Hemisphere sourcing. For example, results show that US apparel sourcing from CAFTA-DR and Mexico generally concentrated on basic items such as tops and bottoms. In comparison, Asian countries, such as China, Vietnam, and Bangladesh, could offer much more diverse categories of products. This explains why US fashion companies treat large-scale Asian countries as their preferred alternatives to “Made in China” rather than moving sourcing orders to CAFTA-DR or Mexico.
  • Even though the ultimate goal is to expand US apparel sourcing from the Western Hemisphere, we need to make more efforts to practically and creatively solve the bottleneck of textile raw material supply facing garment producers in the region.

by Sheng Lu

Additional reading: Lu, Sheng. (2022). Asia triumphs in June despite US apparel sourcing diversification efforts. Just-Style.

2022 USFIA Fashion Industry Benchmarking Study Released

Report release webinar (July 18, 2022)

The full report is available HERE

Key findings of this year’s report:

U.S. fashion companies report significant challenges coming from the macro-economy in 2022, particularly inflation and rising cost pressures. However, most respondents still feel optimistic about the next five years.

  • Respondents rated “increasing production or sourcing costs” and “inflation and outlook of the U.S. economy” as their 1st and 3rd top business challenges in 2022.
  • As a new record, 100 percent of respondents expect their sourcing costs to increase in 2022, including nearly 40 percent expecting a substantial cost increase from a year ago. Further, almost everything has become more expensive this year, from textile raw materials, shipping, and labor to the costs associated with compliance with trade regulations.
  • Over 90 percent of respondents expect their sourcing value or volume to grow in 2022, but more modest than last year.
  • Despite the short-term challenges, most respondents (77 percent) feel optimistic or somewhat optimistic about the next five years. Reflecting companies’ confidence in their businesses, nearly ALL respondents (97 percent) plan to increase hiring over the next five years.

U.S. fashion companies adopt a more diverse sourcing base in response to supply chain disruptions and the need to mitigate growing sourcing risks.

  • Asia remains the dominant sourcing base for U.S. fashion companies—eight of the top ten most utilized sourcing destinations are Asia-based, led by China, Vietnam, Bangladesh, and India.
  • More than half of respondents (53 percent) report sourcing apparel from over ten countries in 2022, compared with only 37 percent in 2021.
  • Reducing “China exposure” is one crucial driver of U.S. fashion companies’ sourcing diversification strategy. One-third of respondents report sourcing less than 10% of their apparel products from China this year. In addition, a new record of 50 percent of respondents sources MORE from Vietnam than China in 2022.
  • Nearly 40 percent of respondents plan to “source from more countries and work with more suppliers” over the next two years, up from only 17 percent last year.

Managing the risk of forced labor in the supply chain is a top priority for U.S. fashion companies in 2022, especially with the new implementation of the Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act (UFLPA).

  • Over 95 percent of respondents expect UFLPA’s implementation to affect their company’s sourcing. Notably, more than 85 percent of respondents plan to cut their cotton-apparel imports from China, and another 45 percent to further reduce non-cotton apparel imports from the country.
  • Most respondents (over 92 percent) do NOT plan to reduce apparel sourcing from Asian countries other than China. However, nearly 60 percent of respondents also would “explore new sourcing destinations outside Asia” in response to UFLPA.
  • Mapping and understanding the supply chain is a critical strategy adopted by U.S. fashion companies to address the forced labor risks in the supply chain. Almost all respondents currently track Tier 1 and 2 suppliers. With the help of new traceability technologies, 53 percent of respondents have started tracking Tier 3 suppliers this year (i.e., those manufacturing yarn, threads, and trimmings), a substantial increase from 25-36 percent in the past.

There is considerable new excitement about increasing apparel sourcing from members of the Dominican Republic-Central America Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA-DR). Respondents also call for more textile raw sourcing flexibility to encourage apparel sourcing from the CAFTA-DR region.

  • CAFTA-DR plays a more significant role as a sourcing base. About 20 percent of respondents place more than 10% of their sourcing orders from the region, doubling from 2021. 
  • Over the next two years, more than 60 percent of respondents plan to increase apparel sourcing from CAFTA-DR members as part of their sourcing diversification strategy.
  • CAFTA-DR is critical in promoting U.S. apparel sourcing from the region. Around 80 percent of respondents took advantage of the agreement’s duty-free benefits when sourcing apparel from the region this year, up from 50—60 percent in the past.
  • Respondents say the exceptions to the “yarn-forward” rules of origin, such as the “short supply” and “cumulation” mechanisms, provide essential flexibility that encourages more apparel sourcing from CAFTA-DR members.
  • Respondents say improving textile raw material supply is critical to encouraging more U.S. apparel sourcing from CAFTA-DR members. Particularly, “allowing more flexibility in souring fabrics from outside CAFTA-DR” and “improving yarn production capacity and variety within CAFTA-DR” are the top two priorities.

U.S. fashion companies strongly support another ten-year renewal of the African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA). Meanwhile, Ethiopia’s loss of AGOA eligibility discourages U.S. apparel sourcing from the ENTIRE AGOA region.

  • As much as 75 percent of respondents say another ten-year AGOA renewal will encourage more apparel sourcing from the region and making investment commitments.
  • However, despite the tariff benefits and the liberal rules of origin, respondents express explicit concerns about the region’s lack of competitiveness in speed to market, political instability, and having an integrated regional supply chain.
  • Ethiopia’s loss of AGOA benefits had a notable negative impact on sourcing from the country AND the entire AGOA region. Notably, no respondent plans to move sourcing orders from Ethiopia to other AGOA beneficiaries.

New Study: Expand U.S. Apparel Sourcing from CAFTA-DR Members and Solve the Root Causes of Migration: Perspectives from U.S. Apparel Companies

The full study is available HERE.

Executive Summary:

This study offers valuable input and practical policy recommendations from U.S. apparel companies’ perspectives regarding expanding U.S. apparel sourcing from CAFTA-DR members. For the study, we consulted executives at 27 leading U.S.-based apparel companies (note: 85% report having annual revenues exceeding $500 million; over 95% have been sourcing apparel from the CAFTA-DR region for more than ten years).

The results confirm that expanding U.S. apparel sourcing from CAFTA-DR could be the best chance to effectively create more jobs in Central America and solve the root causes of migration there. To achieve this goal, we need to focus on four areas:

First, improve CAFTA-DR’s apparel production capacity and diversify its product offers.

  • As many as 92 percent of respondents report currently sourcing apparel from CAFTA-DR members.
  • Highly consistent with the macro trade statistics, the vast majority of respondents (i.e., 60 percent) place less than 10 percent of their company’s total sourcing orders with CAFTA-DR members.
  • Whereas respondents rate CAFTA-DR members overall competitive in terms of “speed to market,” they express concerns about CAFTA-DR countries’ limited production capacity in making various products. As a result, U.S. companies primarily source basic fashion items like T-shirts and sweaters from the region. These products also face growing price competition with many alternative sourcing destinations.
  • Improving CAFTA-DR’s production capacity and diversifying product offers would encourage U.S. apparel companies to move more sourcing orders from Asia to the region permanently.

Second, practically solve the bottleneck of limited textile raw material supply within CAFTA-DR and do NOT worsen the problem.

  • The limited textile raw material supply within CAFTA-DR is a primary contributing factor behind the region’s stagnated apparel export volume and a lack of product diversification.
  • Notably, respondents say for their apparel imports from CAFTA-DR members, only 42.9% of fabrics, 40.0% of sewing threads, and 23.8% of accessories (such as trims and labels) can be sourced from within the CAFTA-DR area (including the United States). CAFTA-DR’s textile raw material supply problem could worsen as the U.S. textile industry switches to making more technical textiles and less so for apparel-related fabrics and textile accessories.
  • Maintaining the status quo or simply calling for making the CAFTA-DR apparel supply chain more “vertical” will NOT automatically increase the sourcing volume. Instead, allowing CAFTA-DR garment producers to access needed textile raw materials at a competitive price will be essential to encourage more U.S. apparel sourcing from the region.

Third, encourage more utilization of CAFTA-DR for apparel sourcing.

  • CAFTA-DR plays a critical role in promoting U.S. apparel sourcing from the region. Nearly 90 percent of respondents say the duty-free benefits provided by CAFTA-DR encourage their apparel sourcing from the region.
  • The limited textile supply within CAFTA-DR, especially fabrics and textile accessories, often makes it impossible for U.S. companies to source apparel from the region while fully complying with the strict “yarn-forward” rules of origin. As a result, consistent with the official trade statistics, around 31 percent of respondents say they sometimes have to forgo the CAFTA-DR duty-free benefits when sourcing from the region.
  • Respondents say the exceptions to the “yarn-forward” rules of origin, including “short supply,” “cumulation,” and “cut and assemble” rules, provide necessary flexibilities supporting respondents’ apparel sourcing from CAFTA-DR members. Around one-third of respondents utilize at least one of these three exceptions when sourcing from CAFTA-DR members when the products are short of meeting the strict “yarn-forward” rules of origin. It is misleading to call these exceptions “loopholes.”

Fourth, leverage expanded apparel sourcing to incentivize more investments in the CAFTA-DR region’s production and infrastructure.

  • U.S. apparel companies are interested in investing in CAFTA-DR to strengthen the region’s sourcing and production capacity. Nearly half of respondents explicitly say they will make investments, including “building factories or expanding sourcing or manufacturing capacities” in the CAFTA-DR region through 2026.
  • CAFTA-DR will be better positioned to attract long-term investments in its textile and apparel industry with a sound and expanded apparel sourcing volume.

Additional resources:

Understand West Africa as an Emerging Apparel Sourcing Hub and Its New Sustainable Development Model: FASH455 Exclusive Interview with Kekeli Ahiable

(photo courtesy: Kekeli Ahiable)

Kekeli Ahiableis a private sector development Advisor with the Tony Blair Institute’s Industrialisation Practice. Working with industry leaders over the past 10 years, she has facilitated business and job creation opportunities in the trade infrastructure, supply chain, and manufacturing sectors across four continents.

In her current technical support role at TBI, she manages the Institute’s regional textile and apparel (T&A) project which aims to support the development of a best in class, sustainable, and circular cotton-to-apparel manufacturing hub across five West African countries.

She holds a Master of Public Policy (MPP) from the University of Oxford, with a focus on trade policy and economic development.

Interview Part:

Sheng: Thank you so much for speaking with us, Kekeli. First of all, would you please tell us a little about the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change (TBI) and your involvement with the textile and apparel (T&A) industry in West Africa?

Kekeli: Sure! The Tony Blair Institute for Global Change (TBI) is a not-for-profit organization that offers strategic advice and practical support to political leaders and governments so they can deliver reforms that raise standards and transform lives. Our work includes advising on a range of sectors including industrialization, energy, and technology. We currently work in 17 African countries.

Since 2019, we have been working with several governments in West Africa – specifically Cote d’Ivoire, Ghana, and Togo – to support the development of a best-in-class and sustainable textile and apparel sector that meets the needs of British, European, and North American retailers and consumers.

Our role has centered around supporting our partner governments to:

  • prepare for doing business; work with them to develop relevant sector strategy & review policy, etc.
  • design attractive investment incentives
  • attract interest in the region from relevant fashion trade actors

For instance, we facilitated a week-long investor roadshow to the three countries in 2019, with participation from three of the largest global apparel brands together with their mills and manufacturers (with a combined turnover of over US$ 70 billion). This was co-sponsored under the banner of Amcham Hongkong.

Covid-19 naturally impacted our physical scoping events and so we moved the conversations to virtual roundtable forums. Last December, eight of the UK’s biggest retailers, plus several European retailers, attended a session we organized, led by Rt Hon. Tony Blair. Representatives from the three main governments and other non-governmental groups involved in developing textiles and apparel in the region were also present to engage in discussion with the investors. We have also worked with the American Apparel and Footwear Association (AAFA) and the United States Fashion Industry Association (USFIA) to update US brands and retailers on West Africa’s potential as a nearshore sourcing destination for the North American market.

In summary, TBI is very much to help create top-of-mind awareness about West Africa’s suitability to grow a viable T&A sourcing hub and ultimately facilitate investment into the priority countries.

Sheng: What is the current state of the textile and apparel (T&A) industry in West Africa? What are the key development trends? How about the impact of COVID?

Kekeli: West Africa’s T&A market is rapidly expanding. Although considered nascent when compared to Asia’s more developed markets, its many greenfield opportunities also mean there are fewer legacy challenges to contend with. This offers a ripe opportunity for investors and manufacturers to start from an almost clean slate, which is crucial as the apparel industry makes strides toward a more environmentally sustainable footprint.

The region also has numerous natural and competitive advantages for textiles and apparel manufacturing and has seen increased interest from global actors, brands, manufacturers, infrastructure developers, development finance institutions, etc., over the last few years.

Key development trends

Recognizing shifting patterns in global T&A trade and the immense value in domestic processing of abundantly available raw materials, West African governments are demonstrating an ambition to harness their competitive advantages and expand their T&A sectors.

The governments of Cote d’Ivoire, Ghana, and Togo especially, are walking the talk. Togo’s agile government closed a ground-breaking €200 million investment deal with Arise IIP, in August 2020. The deal included building a 400-hectare eco-industrial park dedicated to textiles and apparel manufacturing. Apart from the park, the Arise group is investing into vertically integrated (fiber to fashion) knit apparel units which will start commercial operations in mid-2023.

Ghana has the most advanced industrial base of the three highlighted countries and hosts DTRT Apparel, which has been running its operation in Ghana for the past 7 years and is currently the largest apparel exporter from West Africa. As a further boost towards vertical integration, in March, they partnered on a co-creation deal with the International Finance Corporation (IFC) to jointly develop setting up a synthetic fabric mill in the region. Meanwhile, Northshore Apparel, another garment actor, recently began constructing a 10,000-worker garment factory in Ghana. To attract more foreign direct investment (FDI), the government is drafting a new T&A sector policy and incentive framework under the UK’s Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office (FCDO) funded £16 million-pound JET Programme.

In a similar vein, Cote d’Ivoire, Africa’s second-largest cotton seed grower, is carrying out sector reforms and strategy development aimed at facilitating the domestic transformation of at least 50% of their annual cotton output.

Altogether, it is an exciting time to be developing the T&A sector in West Africa. We are excited to contribute towards this vision to create a best in class, vertical and sustainable manufacturing hub in the region, and help to create 500k direct and indirect jobs.

Impact of COVID

Most existing garment manufacturers pivoted to producing PPE for both domestic and international markets. For instance, DTRT is making this a permanent feature of their production, although orders have resumed from their traditional apparel buyers.

We have also witnessed a stronger resolve from governments to support their domestic T&A manufacturing sectors’ growth.  The Togo deal, for instance, happened at the height of covid lockdowns. Some countries also offered waivers on value-add tax for their textile and apparel manufacturers and used the time to restructure their labor codes to meet international standards.

Sheng: How to understand West African countries’ competitiveness as an apparel-sourcing base for western fashion companies?

Kekeli: First, there is an immense opportunity to vertically integrate the T&A manufacturing value chain. The region produces around 1.5 million metric tons of cotton annually, which represents about 60% of Africa’s total output and 15% of global exports. The vast majority of this is exported unprocessed. Farming methods feature rain-fed irrigation with harvest done by handpicking, leading to 80% being labeled as preferred, sustainable cotton under Better Cotton Initiative (BCI) and Cotton made in Africa (CmiA) standards.

Secondly, its geographical location means it offers a natural nearshore market to Europe and US markets – literally less than two weeks away from Europe by sea.

Note: transit times are shorter depending on the shipping line. Transit references for the US are New York and Charleston, Antwerp and Hamburg for Europe, and Hangzhou for China/Asia. Source: Freightos, Bollore Africa Logistics interviews

Other benefits include an abundant trainable labor force, cost savings to manufacturers under favorable trade instruments like African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA), EU’s Economic Partnership Agreement (EPA)/Everything But Arms (EBA) program, etc., as well as consolidated political stability in all three countries. Moreover, there is strong potential for developing a circular textile economy facilitated by green manufacturing and initiatives like our West Africa Regeneration Zone (WARZ) initiative, on which TBI is collaborating with key brands and figures from the industry.

Apart from the main retail regions, there is a growing online retail market in Africa – estimated to increase to $75 billion by 2025 with projected $3.4 trillion aggregate GDP under African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA). As we have seen with recent moves to the continent by Twitter, Google, and others, there is large scope for fashion retailers to use manufacturing in West Africa as a launchpad into this growing continental market, with free movement of goods and services under AfCFTA.

These are attractive propositions for buyers and manufacturers looking to diversify their supply chains and leave a greener carbon footprint in the process.

Sheng: It is of concern that used clothing exports from developed countries to Africa hurt the local textile and apparel industry. What is your assessment?

Kekeli: That is correct. The reality is that there is strong consumer demand for second-hand clothing, due to the cheap prices and readily available clothing for re-use. This is the main reason why the supply chains are routing the bales to other markets, including Africa. Most consumers in Africa rely heavily on the second-hand clothing markets. In this configuration, it is difficult for local players to compete and attract the same consumers’ appetites.

Moreover, this is quite complex, especially in an era of global value chains and [free] trade pacts that enjoin countries to offer some levels of reciprocity in their trade relations. Governments wishing to partake in international trade cannot simply ban imports of goods to protect their local industries. It is, therefore, crucial to explore practical win-win solutions.

For instance, there is a fast-growing global market for fabrics made from recycled materials as brands and manufacturers are taking steps to make their footprint greener. Receiver countries of second clothes could develop other business opportunities from the materials that arrive, with funding from relevant partners. Take Ghana as an example – its Kantamanto market, arguably the world’s largest reuse, repair, and upcycle market, process hundreds of tons of clothing each week. A large percentage of what comes to the market however ends up as landfilled waste due to various reasons.

One remedy is recycling, which ploughs back the many unsold and non-reusable clothes into the textile manufacturing economy. This not only reduces the need for virgin fibers but with the scale envisioned for the West Africa T&A manufacturing project, it increases the fabric feedstock available for domestic Cut, Make, Trim (CMT) manufacturers thus supporting to differentiate the region as a destination for circular apparel sourcing. Managed properly, we envision this would have positive spillover effects on the domestic market. At TBI, we published a piece on tackling Ghana’s textile waste which can be read here for a deeper dive into the subject.

Sheng: How does the textile and apparel industry in West Africa embrace sustainability?

Kekeli: The strongest aspect is from an environmental perspective. With rain-fed irrigation, around 80% of the region’s cotton is labeled as preferred cotton. Vertically integrating the cotton value chain by processing within one geographical area supports a lower carbon footprint of each final product.

West Africa’s geographical proximity to main buyer markets also increases its environmental sustainability credentials as a nearshore market.

Moreover, circularity is part of the culture in this part of the world – people reuse and pass on clothes to other family relations after use, with very little going to waste. We see an opportunity to scale this with the West Africa regeneration (WARZ) initiative. The WARZ initiative aims to support the development of a sustainable and circular textile and apparel supply base in West Africa where post-consumer textile waste is recycled at scale and becomes feedstock for making new apparel. This would be underpinned by disruptive recycling and traceability technology.

In our role as non-vested convenors and facilitators, we have convened a consortium of international and domestic stakeholders to develop a pilot project in Ghana, which is the world’s number two importer of second-hand clothing. Preliminary scoping puts the entire project size at over US$500 million with the potential to generate over 60K jobs along the value chain over the next 5-10 years. The following image depicts the initial concept for the regeneration zone project:

Relatedly, to demonstrate emerging support at the continental level, the African Development Bank recently approved the establishment of a €4 million Africa Circular Economy Facility to drive integration of the circular economy into African efforts to achieve nationally defined contribution targets.

Sheng: How important are trade preference programs like the African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA) to the development of the textile and apparel industry in West Africa? Do you think AGOA should be extended after 2025? Should the agreement keep the liberal “third-country fabric” rules of origin? Why or why not?

Kekeli: Trade preference programs are extremely important to facilitate the growth of Africa’s manufacturing and export capacity. As fundamentals like infrastructure tend to be less developed on the continent, preferential regimes like AGOA serve as a key enabler for manufacturing FDI. The T&A industries in countries like Kenya, Lesotho, and Madagascar have grown tremendously in the past few years thanks to AGOA’s tariff-free concessions. West Africa’s T&A industry is now in the beginning stages of development and needs an extension of AGOA to grow.

I believe in the short-medium term, maintaining third-country fabric rules is also crucial (note: Third-country fabric rules allow for apparel made with fabrics sourced from outside the AfCFTA/Sub-Saharan Africa region to qualify for duty-free access). The simple reason is that West Africa’s cotton value chain needs support to develop. While countries have ambitions for vertical integration by processing cotton within the region, these backward linkages will take time to develop.

A phase-out period may be negotiated to further incentivize accelerating the move towards domestic production of fibers that qualify to be used by CMT manufacturers in the [sub]-region.

Sheng: What does the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA) mean for the textile and apparel industry in West Africa? 

Kekeli: The AfCFTA pact aims to form the world’s largest free trade area by connecting almost 1.3bn people across 54 African countries. The goal is to create a single market for goods and services to deepen the economic integration of Africa, with a combined GDP of around $3.4 trillion.

Historically, the most developed world regions have been those that have figured out and developed strong regional value chains. The EU, which is the world’s largest regional trade agreement (RTA) by value has over 64% of trade taking place within the regional block. Similar cases pertain in the US-Mexico-Canada (USMCA) and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) free trade areas.

Intra-Africa trade on the contrary is currently under 20%, with strong potential for growth. Trade figures show that when African countries trade with each other, it is mostly intermediate or finished goods, which naturally have more value. The goal is to encourage more of this.

Textiles and apparel development in West Africa has strong potential to become a flagship example of what AfCFTA implementation could practically look like. In the next couple of years, I envision fabrics from Cote d’Ivoire, Benin, being exported to Ghana duty-free to feed apparel factories, designers from Cote d’Ivoire offering their expertise across the sub-region with no restrictions on their movement, textiles from Ghana being traded in Nigeria, etc. The possibilities are truly endless. 

–END–

State of U.S. Textile and Apparel Manufacturing: Output, Employment, and Trade (Updated May 2022)

Textile and apparel manufacturing in the U.S. has significantly shrunk in size over the past decades due to multiple factors ranging from automation, import competition to the shifting U.S. comparative advantages for related products. However, U.S. textile manufacturing is gradually coming back. The output of U.S. textile manufacturing (measured by value added) totaled $16.59 billion in 2021, up 23.8% from 2009. In comparison, U.S. apparel manufacturing dropped to $9.5 billion in 2019, 4.4% lower than ten years ago (Bureau of Economic Analysis, 2021).

Meanwhile, like many other sectors, U.S. textile and apparel production was hit hard by COVID-19 in the first half of 2020 but started to recover in the 3rd quarter. Notably, as of December 2021, U.S. textile production had returned to its pre-COVID level.

On the other hand, as the U.S. economy is turning more mature and sophisticated, the share of U.S. textile and apparel manufacturing in the U.S. Gross Domestic Product (GDP) dropped to only 0.12% in 2020 from 0.57% in 1998 (Bureau of Economic Analysis, 2021).

The U.S. textile and apparel manufacturing is changing in nature. For example, textile products had accounted for over 66% of the total output of the U.S. textile and apparel industry as of 2019, up from only 58% in 1998 (Bureau of Economic Analysis, 2020). Textiles and apparel “Made in the USA” are growing particularly fast in some product categories that are high-tech driven, such as medical textiles, protective clothing, specialty and industrial fabrics, and non-woven. These products are also becoming the new growth engine of U.S. textile exports. Notably, “special fabrics and yarns” had accounted for more than 34% of U.S. textile exports in 2019, up from only 20% in 2010 (Data source: UNComtrade, 2021).

Compatible with the production patterns, employment in the U.S. textile industry (NAICS 313 and 314) and apparel industry (NAICS 315) fell to the bottom in April-May 2020 due to COVID-19 but started to recover steadily since June 2020. From January 2021 to December 2021, the total employment in the two sectors increased by 4.5% and 4.2%, respectively (Seasonally adjusted). However, the employment level remains much lower than the pre-COVID level (benchmark: December 2019).

To be noted, as production turns more automated and thanks to improved productivity (i.e., the value of output per worker), U.S. textile and apparel factories have been hiring fewer workers even before the pandemic. The downward trend in employment is not changing for the U.S. textile and apparel manufacturing sector.  Related, how to attract the new generation of workforce to the factory floor remains a crucial challenge facing the future of textile and apparel “Made in the USA.”

International trade supports textiles and apparel “Made in the USA.” Notably, nearly 42% of textiles “Made in the USA” (NAICS 313 and 314) were sold overseas in 2019, up from only 15% in 2000. A recent study further shows that product category and the size of the firm were both statistically significant factors that affected the U.S. textile and apparel manufacturer’s likelihood of engaged in exports.

from Nordstrom Rack

It is not rare to find clothing labeled “made in the USA with imported fabric” or “made in the USA with imported material” in the stores. Statistical analysis shows a strong correlation between the value of U.S. apparel output and U.S. yarn and fabric imports from 1998 to 2019.

Like many other developed economies whose textile and apparel industries had reached the stage of post-maturity, the United States today is a net textile exporter and net apparel importer. COVID-19 has affected U.S. textile and apparel trade in several ways:

  • Trade volume fell and yet fully recovered: Both affected by the shrinkage of import demand and supply chain disruptions, the value of U.S. textile and apparel imports dropped by as much as 19.3% in 2020 from a year ago, particularly apparel items (down 23.5%). Likewise, the value of U.S. textile and apparel exports in 2020 decreased by 15.6%, including an unprecedented 26% decrease in yarn exports. Further, thanks to consumers’ robust demand, the value of US apparel imports enjoyed a remarkable 27.4% growth in 2021 from a year ago and but was still 2.5% short of the level in 2019.
  • Trade balance shifted: Before the pandemic, U.S. was a net exporter of fabrics. However, as the import demand for non-woven fabrics (for making PPE purposes) surged during the pandemic, U.S. ran a trade deficit of $502 million for fabrics in 2020; the trade deficit expanded to $975 million in 2021. Meanwhile, as retail sales slowed and imports dropped during the pandemic, the U.S. trade deficit in apparel shrank by 19% in 2020 compared with 2019. However, the shrinkage of the trade deficit did not necessarily boost clothing “Made in the USA” in 2020, reminding us that the trade balance often is not an adequate indicator to measure the economic impact of trade.
  • No change in export market: More than 70% of U.S. textile and apparel export went to the Western Hemisphere in 2021, a pattern that has stayed stable over the past decades (OTEXA, 2022). More can be done to strengthen the Western Hemisphere supply chain and textile and apparel production in the region by leveraging regional trade agreements like CAFTA-DR and USMCA.

By Sheng Lu

Further reading:

What Do You Take Away from FASH455?

I encourage everyone to watch the two short videos above, which provide an excellent wrap-up for FASH455 and remind us of the meaning and significance of our course.

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:

Whether 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 the impact of COVID-19 on apparel sourcing and trade, apparel companies’ social responsibility practices, the debate on the textile and apparel provisions in U.S. free trade agreements to the controversy of forced labor in the apparel supply chain. 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 hope FASH455 can put students into thinking about why “fashion” matters. A popular misconception is that “fashion and apparel” are 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, the fashion 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, over 120 million people remain directly employed in the T&A industry globally, 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. COVID-19, in particular, reveals the fashion industry’s enormous social and economic impacts 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 studies and even life’s pursuit. For example:

  • How to make apparel sourcing and trade more sustainable, socially responsible and transparent? What needs to be done further–fashion companies, government, consumers and other stakeholders?
  • How has COVID-19 fundamentally and permanently changed the pattern of apparel sourcing and trade? What role can the textile and apparel sector play in contributing to the post-COVID economic recovery?
  • How will automation, AI and digital technologies change the future landscape of apparel sourcing, trade, and job opportunities? What may fashion education look like ten years from now given the shifting nature of the industry?
  • How to use trade policy as a tool to solve challenging global issues such as forced labor and climate change? Or shall we leave these issues to the market forces?

We don’t have solid answers yet for these questions. However, these issues 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

FASH455 Earth Day Reading (April 2022)

Trade and sourcing play a critical role in building a more sustainable fashion apparel supply chain. Below are recent FASH455 blog posts addressing climate change, sustainability, recycling, and transparency issues. Feel free to join our online discussion and share your ideas on improving sustainable, ethical, and more socially responsible sourcing.

Other recommended readings

USTR Fiscal Year 2023 Goals and Objectives—Textile and Apparel

In April 2022, the Office of the United States Trade Representative (USTR) released its 2023 Fiscal Year Budget report, outlining five goals and objectives for 2023. Notably, textile and apparel is a key sector USTR plans to focus on in the coming year:  

 Goal 1: Open Foreign Markets and Combat Unfair Trade

  • Provide policy guidance and support for international negotiations or initiatives affecting the textile and apparel sector to ensure that the interests of U.S. industry and workers are taken into account and, where possible, to provide new or enhanced export opportunities for U.S. industry.
  • Conduct reviews of commercial availability petitions regarding textile and apparel products and negotiate corresponding FTA rules of origin changes, where appropriate, in a manner that takes into account market conditions while preserving export opportunities for U.S. producers and employment opportunities for U.S. workers.
  • Engage relevant trade partners to address regulatory issues potentially affecting the U.S. textile and apparel industry’s market access opportunities.
  • Continue to engage under CAFTA-DR working groups and committees to optimize inclusive economic opportunities; strengthen the agreement and address non-tariff trade impediments; provide capacity building in textile and apparel trade-related regulation and practice on customs, border and market access issues, including agriculture and sanitary and phytosanitary regulation, to avoid barriers to trade.
  • Continue to engage CAFTA-DR partners and stakeholders to identify and develop means to increase two-way trade in textiles and apparel and strengthen the North American supply chain to enhance formal job creation.

Goal 2: Fully Enforce U.S. Trade Laws, Monitor Compliance with Agreements, and Use All Available Tools to Hold Other Countries Accountable

  • Closely collaborate with industry and other offices and Departments to monitor trade actions taken by partner countries on textiles and apparel to ensure that such actions are consistent with trade agreement obligations and do not impede U.S. export opportunities.
  • Research and monitor policy support measures for the textile sector, in particular in China, India, and other large textile producing and exporting countries, to ensure compliance with international agreements.
  • Continue to work with the U.S. textile and apparel industry to promote exports and other opportunities under our free trade agreements and preference programs, by actively engaging with stakeholders and industry associations and participating, as appropriate, in industry trade shows.

Goal 4: Develop Equitable Trade Policy Through Inclusive Processes

Take the lead in providing policy advice and assistance in support of any Congressional initiatives to reform or re-examine preference programs that have an impact on the textile and apparel sector.

[This blog post is not open for comment]

Sourcing Apparel from the CAFTA-DR Region—The Modern Cotton Story Podcast

Discussion questions:

  • What are the advantages and disadvantages of CAFTA-DR as an apparel-sourcing base for US fashion companies?
  • What are the key bottlenecks that prevent more apparel sourcing from CAFTA-DR members?
  • Do you support liberalizing the rules of origin or keeping the strict “yarn-forward” rules of origin in CAFTA-DR, and why?

The Shifts in US Textile Manufacturing Raise Questions About the Availability of US-made Textile Inputs for the Western Hemisphere Apparel Supply Chain

The full study is available here (need Just-Style subscription)

By leveraging production and trade statistics from government databases, we examined the critical trends of US textile manufacturing and supply. Particularly, we try to understand the strengths and weaknesses of the United States as a textile raw material supplier for domestic garment manufacturers and those in the Western Hemisphere. Below are the key findings:

First, fiber, yarn, and thread manufacturing is a long-time strength in the US, whereas fabric production is much smaller in scale. Specifically, fiber, yarn, and thread (NAICS 31311) accounted for nearly 18% of US textile mills’ total output in 2019. In comparison, less than 13% of the production went to woven fabrics (NAICS 31321) and only about 5% for knit fabrics (NAICS 31324).

Second, the US textile industry shifts to make more technical textiles and less apparel-related yarns, fabrics, and other raw materials. Data shows that from 2015 to 2019, the value of US fiber, yarn, and thread manufacturing (NAICS code 31311) dropped by as much as 16.8 percent. Likewise, US broadwoven fabric manufacturing (NAICS code 31321) and knit fabric (NAICS code 31324) decreased by 2.0 percent and 2.7 percent over the same period. Labor cost, material cost, and capital expenditure are critical factors behind the structural shift of US textile manufacturing.

Third, the structural change of US textile manufacturing directly affects the role of the US serving as a textile supplier for domestic apparel producers and those in the Western Hemisphere.

On the one hand, the US remains a critical yarns and threads supplier in the Western Hemisphere. For example, from 2010 to 2019, the value of US fibers, yarn and threads exports (NAICS31311) increased by 25%, much higher than other textile categories. Likewise, in 2021, fibers, yarns, and threads accounted for about 23.3% of US textile exports, higher than 21.0% in 2010. Additionally, nearly 40% of Mexico and CAFTA-DR members’ yarn imports in 2021 (SITC 651) still came from the US, the single largest source. This trend has stayed stable over the past decade.

On the other hand, the US couldn’t sufficiently supply fabrics and other textile accessories for garment producers in the Western Hemisphere, and the problem seems to worsen. Corresponding to the decline in manufacturing, US broadwoven fabric (NAICS 31321) and knit fabric (NAICS 31324) exports decreased substantially.

The US also plays a declining role as a fabric and textile accessories supplier for garment factories in the Western Hemisphere. Garment producers in Mexico and CAFTA-DR members had to source 60%-80% of woven fabrics and 75-82% of knit fabrics from non-US sources in 2021. Likewise, only 40% and 14.6% of Mexico and CAFTA-DR members’ textile accessories, such as labels and trims, came from the US in 2021.

Likewise, the limited US fabric supply affects the raw material sourcing of domestic apparel manufacturers. For example, according to the “Made in the USA” database managed by the Office of Textiles and Apparel (OTEXA), around 36% of US-based apparel mills explicitly say they use “imported material,” primarily fabrics.

The study’s findings echo some previous studies suggesting that textile raw material supply, especially fabrics and textile accessories, could be the single most significant bottleneck preventing more apparel “Made in the USA” and near-sourcing from the Western Hemisphere.

Meanwhile, how to overcome the bottleneck could trigger heated public policy debate. For example, US policymakers could encourage an expansion of domestic fabric and textile accessories manufacturing as one option. However, to make it happen takes time and requires substantial new investments. Also, economic factors may continue to favor technical textiles production over apparel-related fabrics in the US.

As an alternative, US policymakers could make it easier for garment producers in the Western Hemisphere to access their needed fabrics and textile accessories outside the US, such as improving the rules of origin flexibility in CAFTA-DR or USMCA. But this option is likely to face strong opposition from US yarn producers and be politically challenging to implement.

(About the authors: Dr Sheng Lu is an associate professor in fashion and apparel studies at the University of Delaware; Anna Matteson is a research assistant in fashion and apparel studies at the University of Delaware).

Barcelona Fashion Summit 2022 Exclusive Interview: Apparel Sourcing, Trade, and Globalization

Video Discussion: How Companies Are Overhauling Supply Chains to Ease Bottlenecks?

WSJ, January 2022

Discussion questions:

  1. According to the video, how has the supply chain for apparel and footwear changed over the past decade?
  2. What are the pros and cons of moving from a global supply chain to a regional one for fashion companies?
  3. For fashion companies interested in “near-shoring” and “re-shoring”, what factors should they consider? Why?
  4. Anything else you find interesting/intriguing/thought-provoking/debatable in the video? Why?

Note: Everyone is welcome to join our online discussion. For students in FASH455, please address at least two questions. Please mention the question number # (no need to repeat the question) in your comment.

COVID-19 and US Apparel Imports: Key Trends (Updated: January 2022)

First, US apparel imports continue to rebound in November 2021 as companies build the inventory for the holiday season. Thanks to US consumers’ strong demand and the upcoming holidays, the value of US apparel imports went up by 15.7% in November 2021 from a month ago (seasonally adjusted) and increased by as much as 39.7% from 2020. However, before the pandemic, the value of US apparel imports always peaked in October and then gradually slipped in November and December. The unusual surge of imports in November 2021 could be the combined effects of price inflation and the late arrival of goods due to the shipping crisis.

Meanwhile, US apparel imports so far in 2021 have been far more volatile than in the past few years because of uncertainties and disruptions caused by COVID-19 and the shipping crisis. For example, the year-over-year (YoY) growth rate ranged from 131% in May to 17.6% in July, causing fashion companies additional inventory planning and supply chain management challenges. Unfortunately, the new omicron variant could worsen the market uncertainty and volatility.

Second, Asian countries remain the dominant sourcing base for US fashion companies as the production capacity elsewhere is limited. Asian countries’ market shares fell from 74.2% in 2020 to 71.3% in July 2021, primarily because of the COVID lockdowns in Vietnam and Bangladesh. US apparel imports came from Asian countries rebounded to 74.8% and 72.5% in October and November 2021, respectively. This result suggests a lack of alternative sourcing destinations outside Asia, especially for large volume items. Meanwhile, the worsening shipping crisis affecting the route from Asia to North America could explain why Asian suppliers’ market shares in November were somewhat lower than a month ago.

Third, US companies continue to treat China as one of their essential sourcing bases in the current business environment. However, companies are NOT reversing their long-term strategy of reducing “China exposure.”  China stays the largest supplier for the US market in November 2021, accounting for 41.5% of total US apparel imports in quantity and 25.8% in value. Due to the seasonal factor, China’s market shares typically peak from June to September and then drop from October until March-April.

Both industry sources and the export product diversification index also consistently show that China supplied the most variety of products to the US market with no near competitors. In comparison, US apparel imports from Bangladesh, Mexico, and CAFTA-DR members concentrate more on specific product categories.

Nevertheless, the HHI index and market concentration ratios (CR3 and CR5) calculated based on the latest data suggest that US fashion companies continue to move their apparel sourcing orders from China to other Asian countries overall. For example, only around 15% of US cotton apparel comes from China, compared with about 27% in 2018. My latest studies also indicate that it has become ever more common to see a fashion company places only around 10% of its total sourcing value or volume from China compared to over 30% in the past. Furthermore, with the growing tensions of the US-China relations and the newly enacted Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act, fashion companies could take another look at their China sourcing strategy to avoid potential high-impact disruptions.

Fourth, near sourcing from the Western Hemisphere, especially CAFTA-DR members, continue to gain popularity. Specifically, 17.3% of US apparel imports came from the Western Hemisphere year-to-date (YTD) in 2021 (January-November), higher than 16.1% in 2020. Notably, CAFTA-DR members’ market shares increased to 10.6% in 2021 (January to November) from 9.6% in 2020. The value of US apparel imports from CAFTA-DR also enjoyed a 41.7% growth in 2021 (January—November) from a year ago, one of the highest among all sourcing destinations. The imports from El Salvador (up 42.6%), Honduras (up 47.1%), and Guatemala (36.6%) had grown particularly fast so far in 2021. However, the political instability in some Central American countries could make fashion companies feel hesitant to permanently switch their sourcing orders to the region or make long-term investments.

Additionally, the latest trade data suggests a notable increase in the price of US apparel imports. Notably, the unit price of US apparel imports from almost all leading sources went up by more than 10% from January 2021 to November 2021. As worldwide inflation continues, the rising sourcing cost pressure won’t ease anytime soon.

by Sheng Lu

[The comment is closed]

Outlook 2022– Key Issues to Shape Apparel Sourcing and Trade

In December 2021, Just-Style consulted a panel of industry leaders and scholars in its Outlook 2022–what’s next for apparel sourcing briefing. Below is my contribution to the report. All comments and suggestions are more than welcome!

What next for apparel sourcing?

As “COVID sets the agenda” and the trajectory of several critical market and non-market forces hard to predict (for example, global inflation, and geopolitics), fashion companies may still have to deal with a highly volatile and uncertain market environment in 2022. That being said, it is still hopeful that fashion companies’ toughest sourcing challenges in 2021 will start to gradually ease at some point in the new year, including the hiking shipping costs, COVID-related lockdowns, and supply chain disruptions.

In response to the “new normal,” fashion companies may find several sourcing strategies essential:

One is to maintain a relatively diverse apparel sourcing base. The latest trade data suggests that US, EU, and Japan-based fashion companies have been steadily sourcing from a more diverse group of countries since 2018, and such a trend continues during the pandemic. Echoing the pattern, in the latest annual benchmarking study I conducted in collaboration with the United States Fashion Industry Association (USFIA), we find that “China plus Vietnam plus many” remains the most popular sourcing model among respondents. This strategy means China and Vietnam combined now typically account for 20-40 percent of a fashion company’s total sourcing value or volume, a notable down from 40-60 percent in the past few years. Fashion companies diversify their sourcing away from “China plus Vietnam” to avoid placing “all eggs in one basket” and mitigate various sourcing risks. In addition, more than 85 percent of surveyed fashion companies say they will actively explore new sourcing opportunities through 2023, particularly those that could serve as alternatives to sourcing from China.

The second strategy is to strengthen the relationship with key vendors further. As apparel is a buyer-driven industry, fashion brands and retailers fully understand the importance of catering to consumers’ needs. However, the supply chain disruptions caused by COVID-19 remind fashion companies that building a close and partner-based relationship with capable suppliers also matters. For example, working with vendors that have a presence in multiple countries (or known as “super-vendors”) offers fashion companies a critical competitive edge to achieve more flexibility and agility in sourcing. Sourcing from vendors with a vertical manufacturing capability also allows fashion companies to be more resilient toward supply chain disruptions like the shortage of textile raw materials, a significant problem during the pandemic.

Further, we could see fashion companies pay even closer attention to textile raw material sourcing in the year ahead. On the one hand, given the growing concerns about various social and environmental compliance issues like forced labor, fashion brands and retailers are making more significant efforts to better understand their entire supply chain. For example, in addition to tracking who made the clothing or the fabrics (i.e., tier 1 & 2 suppliers), more companies have begun to release information about the sources of their fibers, yarns, threads, and trimmings (i.e., tier 3 & tier 4 suppliers). On the other hand, many fashion brands and retailers intend to diversify their textile material sourcing from Asia, particularly China, against the current business environment. Compared with cutting and sewing garments, much fewer countries can make textiles locally, and it takes time to build textile production capacity. Thus, fashion companies interested in taking more control of their textile raw material sourcing need to take concrete actions such as shifting their sourcing model and making long-term investments intentionally.

Apparel industry challenges and opportunities

One key issue we need to watch closely is the US-China relations. China currently remains the single largest source of apparel globally, with no near alternative. China also plays an increasingly significant role as a textile supplier for many leading apparel exporting countries in Asia. However, as the US-China relations become more concerning and confrontational, we could anticipate new trade restrictions targeting Chinese products and products from any sources that contain components made in China. Notably, with strong bipartisan support, President Biden signed into law the Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act on December 23, 2021. The new law is a game-changer! Depending on the detailed implementation guideline to be developed by the Customs and Border Protection (CBP), US fashion companies may find it not operationally viable to source many textiles and apparel products from China. In response, China may retaliate against well-known western fashion brands, disrupting their sales expansion in the growing Chinese consumer market. Further, as China faces many daunting domestic economic and political challenges, a legitimate question for fashion companies to think about is what an unstable China means for their sourcing from the Asia-Pacific region and what the contingency plan will be.

Another critical issue to watch is the regional textile and apparel supply chains and related free trade agreements. While apparel is a global sector, apparel trade remains largely regional-based, i.e., countries import and export products with partners in the same region. Data shows that from 2019 to 2020, around 80% of Asian countries’ textile and apparel imports came from within Asia and about 50% for EU countries. Over the same period, over 87% of Western Hemisphere (WH) countries’ textile and apparel exports went to other WH countries and about 75% for EU countries.

Notably, the reaching and implementation of new free trade agreements will continue to alter and shape new regional textile and apparel supply chains in 2022 and beyond. For example, the world’s largest free trade agreement, the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), officially entered into force on January 1, 2022. The tariff reduction and the very liberal rules of origin in the agreement could strengthen Japan, South Korea, and China as the primary textile suppliers for the Asia-based regional supply chain and enlarge the role of ASEAN as the leading apparel producer. RCEP could also accelerate other trade agreements in the Asia-Pacific region, such as the China-South Korea-Japan Free Trade Agreement currently under negotiation.

As one of RCEP’s ripple effects, we can highly anticipate the Biden administration to announce its new Indo-pacific economic framework soon to counterbalance China’s influences in the region. The Biden administration also intends to leverage trade programs such as the Dominican Republic-Central America Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA-DR) to boost textile and apparel production, trade, and investment in the Western Hemisphere and address the root causes of migration. These trade initiatives will be highly relevant to fashion companies that could use the opportunity to expand near sourcing, take advantage of import duty-saving benefits and explore new supply chains. 

Additionally, fashion companies need to be more vigilant toward political instability in their major sourcing destinations. We have already seen quite a turmoil recently, from Myanmar’s military coup, Ethiopia’s loss of the African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA) benefits, concerns about Haiti and Nicaragua’s human rights, and the alleged forced labor in China’s Xinjiang region. Whereas fashion brands and retailers have limited or no impact on changing a country’s broader human rights situation, the reputational risks could be very high. Having a dedicated trade compliance team monitoring the geopolitical situation routinely and ensuring full compliance with various government regulations will become mainstream among fashion companies.

And indeed, sustainability, due diligence, recycling, digitalization, and data analytics will remain buzzwords for the apparel industry in the year ahead.

by Sheng Lu

Which Apparel Products are Out of Stock in the US Retail Market?

US fashion brands and apparel retailers face the challenge of running out of inventory amid the holiday season and the ongoing shipping crisis. Based on consultation with industry insiders and resources, we take a detailed look at which apparel products are more likely to be out of stock in the US retail market. Several patterns are noteworthy:

First, clothing products targeting the premium and mass market face more significant shortages than luxury or value apparel items in the US. Take clothing items in the premium market, for example. Of those apparel products newly launched to the US retail market from August 1 to November 1, 2021, nearly half of them were already out of stock as of November 10, 2021 (note: measured by SKUs).  The increased demand from middle-class US consumers could be among the primary contributing factors.

Second, seasonal products and stable fashion items are more likely to be out of stock. For example, as we are already in the winter season, it is not surprising to see many swimwear products run out of stock. Meanwhile, it is interesting to see stable fashion products like hosiery and underwear also report a relatively high percentage of inventory shortage. The result could be the combined effects of consumers’ robust demand and the shipping delay.

Third, apparel products locally sourced from the US seem to have the lowest out-of-stock rate. Reflecting the shipping crisis, clothing items sourced from Bangladesh and India report a much higher out-of-stock rate. However, a substantial percentage of “made in the USA” apparel was in the category of “T-shirt”, implying switching to domestic sourcing often is not a viable option for US fashion brands and retailers.

Additionally, fast fashion retailers overall report a much lower out-of-stock rate than department stores and specialty clothing stores.  This result showcases fast fashion retailers’ competitive advantages in supply chain management, which payoffs in the current challenging business environment.

On the other hand, the latest trade data suggests a notable increase in the price of US apparel imports. Notably, the unit price of US apparel imports from almost all leading sources went up by more than 10% from January 2021 to September 2021.

by Sheng Lu

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US Apparel Sourcing from USMCA and CAFTA-DR: How Much Import Duties Were Saved and For Which Products?

The following findings were based on an analysis of trade volume and tariff data at the 6-digit HTS code level.

#1 Amid COVID-19, shipping crisis, and US-China tariff war, US fashion brands and retailers demonstrate a new round of interest in expanding “near-sourcing” from member countries of the US-Mexico-Canada Trade Agreement (USMCA, previously NAFTA) and Dominican Republic-Central America Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA-DR).

Data shows that 15.2% of US apparel imports came from USMCA and CAFTA-DR members YTD in 2021 (January-August), higher than 13.7% in 2020 and about 14.7% before the pandemic (2018-2019). Notably, CAFTA-DR members’ market shares increased to 11% in 2021 (January to Aug) from 9.6% in 2020. The value of US apparel imports from CAFTA-DR also enjoyed a 54% growth in 2021 (January—Aug) from a year ago, faster than 25% of the world’s average.

#2 Sourcing apparel from USCMA and CAFTA-DR members helps US fashion brands and retailers save around $1.6-1.7 billion tariff duties annually. (note: the estimation considers the value of US apparel imports from USMCA and CAFTA-DR members at the 6-digit HTS code level and the applied MFN tariff rates for these products; we didn’t consider the additional Section 301 tariffs US companies paid for imports from China). Official trade statistics also show that measured by value, about 73% of US apparel imports under free trade agreements came through USMCA (25%) and CAFTA-DR (48%) from 2019 to 2020.

#3 US apparel imports from USMCA and CAFTA-DR members do NOT necessarily focus on items subject to a high tariff rate. Measured at the 6-digit HS code level, apparel items subject to a high tariff rate (i.e., applied MFN tariff rate >17%) only accounted for about 8-9% of US apparel imports from USMCA members and 7-8% imports from CAFTA-DR members. In comparison, even having to pay a significant amount of import duties, around 17% of US apparel imports from Vietnam and 10% of imports from China were subject to a high tariff rate (see table below).

The phenomenon suggests that USCMA and CAFTA-DR members still have limited production capacity for many man-made fibers (MMF) clothing categories (such as jackets, swimwear, dresses, and suits), typically facing a higher tariff rate. This result also implies that expanding production capacity and diversifying the export product structure could make USMCA and CAFTA-DR more attractive sourcing destinations.

#4 US apparel imports from USMCA and CAFTA-DR members tend to focus on large-volume items subject to a medium tariff rate. Specifically, from 2017 to 2021 (Jan-Aug), ten products (at the 6-digit HTS code level) typically contributed around half of the US tariff revenues collected from apparel items (HS chapters 61-62). However, the average applied MFN tariff rates for these items were only about 13%. Meanwhile, these top tariff-revenue-contributing apparel items accounted for about 50% of US apparel imports from USMCA members and nearly 64%-69% of imports from CAFTA-DR members.

Likewise, the top ten products (at the 6-digit HTS code level) typically accounted for 65%-68% of US apparel imports from USMCA members and nearly 73-75% of US apparel imports from CAFTA-DR members. These products also had a medium average applied MFN rate at 11-12% for USMCA and 12-13% in the case of CAFTA-DR.

Given the duty-saving incentives, expanding “near-sourcing” from USMCA and CAFTA-DR members could prioritize these large-volume apparel items with a medium tariff rate in short to medium terms. However, in the long run, a shortcoming of this strategy is that many such items are basic fashion clothing that primarily competes on price (such as T-shirts and trousers) and cannot leverage the unique competitive edge of near-sourcing (such as speed to market). When the US reaches new free trade agreements, particularly those involving leading apparel-producing countries in Asia, it could offset the tariff advantages enjoyed by USMCA and CAFTA-DR members and quickly result in trade diversion.

by Sheng Lu

More reading:

What Is the Apparel Industry Doing To Tackle Climate Change? An Analysis of Corporate Filings

By leveraging the GlobalData Apparel Intelligence Center’sCompany Filing Analytics” tool, we took a detailed look at apparel companies’ latest efforts on addressing climate change.  Specifically, we conducted a content analysis of annual and quarterly filings (e.g., 10-Q report and corporate annual report) submitted by over a hundred leading apparel companies worldwide from June 2020 to September 2021. 

Key findings:

First, addressing climate change has become a more critical topic for apparel companies over the past five years. The percentage of apparel companies that mention “climate change” in their corporate filings nearly doubled from 43% in 2016 to 80% in 2020. Notably, different from the public perception, fast fashion brands like Inditex and H&M were among apparel companies that most frequently mentioned “climate change” in their corporate reports over that period.

Second, many apparel companies see their business risks associated with climate change growing. Results from GlobalData show that apparel companies are particularly concerned about potential supply chain disruption caused by climate change. Apparel companies are also concerned that climate change could increase their sourcing and production costs and hurt financials. As a leading fashion brand noted, “Disasters, climate change…may cause escalating prices or difficulty in procuring the raw materials (such as cotton, cashmere, down, etc.)”. Another added, “In the long term, the broader impacts of climate change may impact the cost and accessibility of materials used to manufacture products or other resources needed to operate business.

Third, an increasing number of apparel companies have incorporated climate change into their corporate strategies or long-term business visions. Some apparel companies also established a dedicated office or governance structure to address climate change.

Further, apparel companies call for more detailed and transparent regulatory guidelines that can help them combat climate change. As one leading fashion brand commented, “Any assessment of the potential impact of future climate change legislation, regulations or industry standards, as well as any international treaties and accords, is uncertain given the wide scope of potential regulatory change in the countries in which we operate… As a result, the effects of climate change could have a long-term adverse impact on our business and the results of operations.

In conclusion, addressing climate change is no longer a topic apparel companies can only ignore or treat as a marketing slogan. Instead, we are likely to see companies allocate more dedicated resources to this area in the long run, from human resources to research & development (R&D) spendings. Meanwhile, apparel companies may find it necessary and beneficial to effectively communicate their efforts and needs to address climate change with key stakeholders like consumers and public policymakers.

Full article: Sheng Lu (2021). Apparel supply chains tackling climate change. Just-Style.

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COVID-19 and US Apparel Imports: Key Trends (Updated: September 2021)

First, the shipping crisis and new wave of COVID cases start to affect US apparel imports negatively. While US consumers’ demand for clothing overall remains strong, for the second month in a row, the value of US apparel imports (seasonally adjusted) in July 2021 decreased by 5.5% from a month ago and down 9.7% from May to June. The absolute value of US apparel imports year to date (YTD) in 2021 (January—July) was 25.3% higher than in 2020 and around 87% of the pre-COVID level (benchmark: January-July, 2019). However, the year-over-year growth in July 2021 was only 15.4%, compared with 60.0% in May 2021 and 29.1% in June 2021. Overall, the results remind us that the market environment is far from stable yet as the COVID situation in the US and other parts of the world continues to evolve.

Second, Asian countries lost market shares as some leading apparel supplying countries, including Vietnam and Bangladesh, struggled with new COVID lockdowns. While Asia as a whole remains the single largest apparel sourcing base for US companies, Asian countries’ market shares fell from 74.2% in 2020 to 71.3% in July 2021, the lowest since 2010.  The new COVID lockdowns in Vietnam and Bangladesh, the No. 2 and No. 3 top suppliers for the US market, post significant challenges to US fashion companies trying to build inventory for the upcoming holiday season. Notably, US companies source many high-volume products from these two countries, and there is a lack of alternative sourcing destinations in the short run.

Third, US companies continue to treat China as an essential sourcing base during the current challenging time. However, there is no clear sign that companies are reversing their long-term strategy of reducing “China exposure.”  China stays the largest supplier for the US market in July 2021, accounting for 41.3% of total US apparel imports in quantity and 26.0% in value. The export product diversification index also suggests that China supplied the most variety of products to the US market. US apparel imports from Bangladesh, Mexico, and CAFTA-DR members are more concentrated on specific product categories. In other words, should China were under lockdowns, the negative impacts on US companies’ inventory management could be even worse.

Nevertheless, the HHI index and market concentration ratios (CR3 and CR5) calculated based on the latest data suggest that US fashion companies continue to move their apparel sourcing orders from China to other Asian countries overall.  For example, only 14.7% of US cotton apparel imports came from China in 2021 (January—July), a new record low in the past ten years. Further, as US apparel imports from China typically peak from June to September because of seasonal factors, China’s market shares are likely to drop in the next few months. Additionally, the fundamental concerns about sourcing from China are NOT gone. On the contrary, new US actions against alleged forced labor in Xinjiang are likely in the coming months and affect imports from China beyond cotton products.

Fourth, US apparel sourcing from the Western Hemisphere, especially CAFTA-DR members, gains new momentum. Specifically, 18.1% of US apparel imports came from the Western Hemisphere YTD in 2021 (January-July), higher than 16.1% in 2020 and 17.1% before the pandemic. Notably, CAFTA-DR members’ market shares increased to 11.2% in 2021 (January to July) from 9.6% in 2020. The value of US apparel imports from CAFTA-DR also enjoyed a 58.4% growth in 2021 (January—July) from a year ago, one of the highest among all sourcing destinations. The imports from El Salvador (up 75.2%), Honduras (up 74.6%), Dominican Republic (45.1%), and Guatemala (40.6%) had grown particularly fast so far in 2021.

Meanwhile, US apparel imports from USMCA members stayed stable (i.e., no significant change in market shares). CAFTA-DR and USMCA members currently account for around 60% and 25% of US apparel imports from the Western Hemisphere. They are also the single largest export market for US textile products (about 70%).

Fifth, US apparel imports start to see a notable price increase. While an across-the-board price increase was not a big concern at the beginning of 2021, the increase has become more noticeable since June 2021. For example, of the top 20 US apparel imports (HS chapters 61-62) at the 6-digit HS code level based on import value, the price of thirteen products increased from May to June 2021. The price increase at the country level is even more significant. From May to July 2021, the average unit price of US apparel imports from leading sources all went up substantially, including China (7%), Vietnam (13%), Bangladesh (13.9%), and India (15.6%).

As almost everything is becoming more expensive, from raw material, shipping to labor, the August and September trade data (to be released in October and November) could suggest an even more significant price increase.

by Sheng Lu

AAFA Released New Statistics Showing the Economic Impacts of the US Apparel and Footwear Industry

According to the latest statistics released by the American Apparel and Footwear Association (AAFA):

  • In 2020, the US apparel and footwear industry directly employed about 3 million Americans and employed another 2.3 million indirectly.
  • In 2020, on average, every man, woman, and child in the United States spent $1,067.93 to buy 51.8 pieces of clothes and 5.8 pairs of shoes.
  • In 2020, US apparel and footwear production accounted for 3.5 percent and 2.3 percent of the US market, respectively.
  • Due to COVID-19, in 2020, US imports of apparel and footwear sank 16.4 percent and 23.5 percent, respectively. However, imports still supplied 96.5 percent of apparel and 97.7 percent of footwear available in the US market.
  • In 2020, the average effective tariff rate hit records for both apparel and footwear, reaching 15.5 percent and 13.0 percent, respectively.

Related reading: State of U.S. Textile and Apparel Manufacturing: Output, Employment, and Trade (Updated October 2021)

Military Coup Hurts Myanmar’s Prospect as an Apparel Sourcing Destination (updated August 2021)

The textile and apparel industry plays a significant role in Myanmar’s economy, particularly the export sector. Data from UNComtrade shows that textile and apparel accounted for nearly 69% of Myanmar’s total exports of manufactured goods in 2020, a substantial increase from only 27% in 2011. Data from the International Labor Organization (ILO) also indicates that the textile and industry (ISIC 17 & 18) employed more than 1.1 million workers in Myanmar in 2019, up from 0.69 million in 2015. Most garment workers in Myanmar are women today (around 87%).

Since the United States lifted the import ban on Myanmar and the EU reinstated the Everything But Arms (EBA) trade preferences in 2013, Myanmar was one of the most popular emerging apparel sourcing bases among fashion companies. From 2020 to July 2021, some of the top fashion brands that carry “Made in Myanmar” apparel items include United Colors of Benetton, Next, Only, H&M, Guess, and Jack & Jones.

Thanks to foreign investment (note: nearly half of Myanmar’s garment factories are foreign-owned), Myanmar specializes in making relatively higher-quality functional/technical clothing (i.e., outwear like jackets and coats. Here is an example). This is different from many other apparel-exporting countries like Bangladesh, Vietnam, and Cambodia, mostly exporting low-cost tops and bottoms.

However, the latest trade data shows that Myanmar’s military coup that broke out in early 2021 had hurt the country’s apparel exports significantly. According to the US International Trade Commission (USITC), even though the total US apparel imports enjoyed a robust recovery in the first half of 2021 (up nearly 27%), the value of US apparel (HTS chapters 61 and 62) imports from Myanmar dropped by 0.4%. Almost ALL Myanmar’s top apparel exports to the US suffered a substantial decline or much slower growth in 2021 than the trend BEFORE the military coup (see the Table above). As US fashion companies switch sourcing orders from Myanmar to other suppliers, Myanmar’s market shares fell from 0.5% in 2020 to only 0.3% in the first half of 2021.

Highly consistent with the trade data, according to the 2021 Fashion Industry Benchmarking Study, many surveyed US fashion companies expressed concerns about the military coup in Myanmar and the rising labor and social compliance risks when sourcing from the country.  Some respondents explicitly say they are leaving because of the current situation. “(We) have terminated sourcing from Myanmar due to instability.” says one respondent. Another adds, “We had orders in Myanmar that have already been moved to Cambodia. We are unlikely to place orders until the current situation is resolved.”

In another recent study, we find that apparel sourcing is not merely about “competing on price.” Instead, fashion companies give substantial weight to the factors of “political stability” and “financial stability” in their sourcing decisions today. In other words, the reputation risks matter for sourcing.

Unfortunately, the situation could get worse. The international community, including the US and the EU, is considering new sanctions against Myanmar, including suspending Myanmmar’s trade-preference program eligibility.

Designated as a “least developed country” (LDC) by the World Trade Organization, Myanmar’s apparel exports enjoy duty-free market access in the EU, Japan, and South Korea. These countries also, in general, offer very liberal “single transformation” (or commonly known as cut and sew) rules of origin for qualifying apparel made in Myanmar. This explains why Myanmar’s apparel exports mostly go to the EU (56%), Japan, and South Korea (around 30%).

The United States is another important export market for Myanmar, accounting for 7% of the country’s total apparel exports in 2020. As a beneficiary of the US Generalized System of Preferences (GSP) program, Myanmar’s luggage exports enjoy duty-free benefits in the US market. However, the US GSP program excludes textile and apparel products, meaning Myanmar’s apparel exports to the US still are subject to the regular Most-Favored-Nation (MFN) tariff rate at around 14.3% on average in 2020.

The Office of the US Trade Representative (USTR) already hinted that even if US Congress renews the GSP program, which expired on 31 December 2020, the US government likely will suspend Myanmar’s GSP eligibility because of the military coup in the country. Likewise, in February 2021, the European Union suspended its support for development projects in Myanmar to avoid providing financial assistance to the military after the coup. Should Myanmar lose the EU’s Everything But Arms (EBA) program eligibility, its export-oriented garment sector and millions of garment workers could be among the biggest losers.

Further, given Myanmar’s highly concentrated apparel export markets and the pandemic, it will be challenging for Myanmar’s garment producers to find alternative apparel export markets in a relatively short period. For example, although China is recognized as one of the world’s largest and fastest-growing emerging import markets, only 1.4% of Myanmar’s apparel exports went to China in 2020.

by Sheng Lu

Further reading: Lu, Sheng (2021). A snapshot of the Myanmar apparel and exports industry in 2021. Just-Style.

WTO Reports World Textiles and Apparel Trade in 2020

According to the World Trade Statistical Review 2021 report released by the World Trade Organization (WTO), the textiles and apparel trade patterns in 2020 include both continuities and new trends affected by the pandemic and companies’ evolving production and sourcing strategies in response to the shifting business environment.

Pattern #1: COVID-19 significantly affected the world textile and apparel trade volumes, resulting in substantial growth of textile exports and a declined demand for apparel. 

Driven by increased personal protective equipment (PPE) production, global textile exports grew by 16.1% in 2020, reaching $353bn. In comparison, affected by lockdown measures, worsened economy, and consumers’ tighter budget for discretionary spending, global apparel export decreased by nearly 9% in 2020, totaling $448bn, the worst performance in decades. The apparel sector is not alone.  The world merchandise trade in 2020 also suffered an unprecedented 8% drop from a year ago, with COVID-19 to blame.

Notably, as economic activities returned in the second half of 2020, the world clothing export quickly rebounded to around 95% of the pre-covid level by the end of 2020. That being said, the unexpected resurgence of COVID cases in summer 2021, especially the delta variant, caused new market uncertainties. Overall, the world textile and apparel trade recovery process from COVID-19 will differ from our experiences during the 2008 global financial crisis.  

Pattern #2: COVID-19 did NOT shift the competitive landscape of the world textile exports; Meanwhile, textile exports from China and Vietnam gained new momentum during the pandemic.

China, the European Union (EU), and India remained the world’s three largest textile exporters in 2020. Together, these top three accounted for 65.8% of the world’s textile exports in 2020, similar to 66.9% before the pandemic (2018-2019).

Notably, China and Vietnam enjoyed a substantial increase in their textile exports in 2020, up 28.9% and 10.7% from a year ago, respectively. The complete textile and apparel supply chain and considerable production capability allow these two countries to switch clothing production to PPE manufacturing quickly. In particular, Vietnam exceeded South Korea and ranked the world’s sixth-largest textile exporter in 2020 ($10 bn of exports), the first time in history.

The United States dropped one place and ranked the world’s fifth-largest textile exporter in 2020 (was 4th from 2015 to 2019), accounting for 3.2% of the shares (was 4.4% in 2019). Production disruptions at the beginning of the pandemic and the shift toward PPE production for domestic consumption were the two primary contributing factors behind the decline in U.S. textile exports. Due to the regional trade patterns, around 67% of U.S. textile exports went to the Western Hemisphere in 2020, including 46% for members of the U.S.-Mexico-Canada Trade Agreement (USMCA) and another 17.2% for members of the Dominican Republic-Central America Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA-DR).

Pattern #3: Fashion companies’ efforts to diversify apparel sourcing from China somehow slowed during the pandemic. 

China, the European Union, Vietnam, and Bangladesh unshakably remained the world’s four largest apparel exporters in 2020. Altogether, these top four accounted for 72.2% of the world market shares in 2020, higher than 71.4% in 2019.

Notably, while China steadily accounted for declining shares in the world’s total apparel exports since 2015, its market shares rebounded to 31.6% in 2020 from 30.7% in 2019.  We can observe a similar pattern in Canada (up from 36.2% to 41.2%) and the EU (31.2% to 31.3%), two of the world’s leading apparel import markets. Even in the U.S. market, where Chinese goods face adverse impacts of the tariff war, the market shares of “Made in China” only marginally decreased from 30.8% in 2019 to 29.8% in 2020, compared with a more significant drop before the pandemic (i.e., fell from 34.4% 2018 to 30.8% in 2019).

Several factors could explain the resilience of China’s apparel exports: 1) fashion brands and retailers’ particular sourcing criteria match China’s competitiveness during the pandemic (e.g., flexibility, agility, and total landed sourcing cost). 2) China has one of the world’s most complete textile and apparel supply chains, allowing garment factories to access textile raw material and accessories locally. 3) Compared with many other apparel exporting countries, China suffered a shorter COVID lockdown period and resumed apparel production earlier and more quickly. Most Chinese textile and apparel factories started to reopen in April 2020, and they resumed an overall 90%-95% operational capacity rate by July 2020.

Nonetheless, fashion companies are NOT reversing their long-term strategies to reduce “China exposure” for apparel sourcing. On the contrary, non-economic factors, particularly the concerns about forced labor in China’s Xinjiang region, push most western fashion brands and retailers to develop apparel sourcing capacities beyond China. Meanwhile, no single country has yet and will likely become the “Next China” because of capacity limits. Instead, from 2015 to 2020, China’s lost market shares in the world apparel exports (around 7.8 percentage points) were picked up jointly by its competitors in Asia, including ASEAN members (up 4.4 percentage points), Bangladesh (up 1.3 percentage points), and Pakistan (up 0.3 percentage point). Such a trend is most likely to continue in the post-COVID world.

Pattern #4: Developed economies led textile PPE imports during the pandemic, whereas the developing countries imported fewer textiles as their apparel exports dropped.

On the one hand, the value of textile imports by developed economies, including EU members, the United States, Japan, and Canada, surged by more than 30 percent in 2020, driven mainly by their demand for PPE. The result also reveals the significant contribution of international trade in supporting the supply and distribution of textile PPE globally. On the other hand, the developing countries engaged in apparel production and export drove the import demand for textile raw materials like yarns and fabrics. However, most of these developing countries’ textile imports fell in 2020, corresponding to their decreased apparel exports during the pandemic.

Pattern #5: Despite COVID-19, the world apparel import market continues to diversify. The import demand increasingly comes from emerging economies with a booming middle class.  

Affected by consumers’ purchasing power (often measured by GDP per capita) and the size of the population, the European Union, the United States, and Japan remained the world’s three largest apparel importers in 2020, a stable pattern that has lasted for decades. While these top three still absorbed 56.2% of the world’s apparel imports in 2020, it was a new record low in the past ten years (was 58.1% in 2019 and 61.5% in 2018), and much lower than 84% back in 2005.

Behind the numbers, it is not the case that consumers in the EU, the United States, and Japan necessarily purchase less clothing over the years. Instead, several emerging economies have become fast-growing apparel-consuming markets with robust import demand. For example, despite COVID-19, China’s apparel imports totaled $9.5bn in 2020, up 6.5% from 2019. From 2010 to 2020, China’s apparel imports enjoyed a nearly 15% annual growth, compared with only 0.56% of the traditional top three. Around 30% of China’s apparel imports today are luxury items made in the EU.

By Sheng Lu

Further reading: Lu, S. (2021). World textiles and apparel trade amidst a pandemic – statistical review 2021. Just-Style.

Appendix

Why Sourcing from China? A Case Study on VF Corporation’s Textile and Apparel Sourcing and Supply Chain Strategy

The prospect of China as a textile and apparel sourcing base for US fashion companies is becoming ever more intriguing. While China remains the top textile and apparel supplier to the US market, US fashion companies have been actively seeking China’s alternatives due to concerns ranging from rising wages, trade wars to perceived supply chain risks.

Recently, VF Corporation, one of the most historical and largest US apparel corporations, released the entire supply chain of its 20 popular apparel items, such as Authentic Chino Stretch, Men’s Merino Long Sleeve Crewe, and Women’s Down Sierra Parka. VF Corporation used 326 factories worldwide to make these apparel items and related textile raw materials. We conducted a statistical analysis of these factories, focusing on exploring their geographic locations, production features, and related factors. The results help us gain new insights into VF Corporation’s supply chain strategy and offer a unique firm-level perspective to understand China’s outlook as a textile and apparel sourcing base for US fashion companies. Specifically:

First, China remains the single largest sourcing base across VF Corporation’s entire textile and apparel supply chain. Specifically, as many as 113 (or 35%) of the total 326 factories used by VF Corporation are China-based, far exceeding any other country or region. Besides China, VF Corporation sourced products from the US (42), Taiwan (31), South Korea (16), Mexico (13), Honduras (12), Vietnam (11), Indonesia (8), as well as a few EU countries, such as Germany, Czech Republic, and France.

Notably, thanks to its unparalleled production capacity, China also offered the most variety of textiles and apparel among all suppliers. Chinese factories supplied products ranging from chemicals, yarns, fibers, trims, threads, labels, packing materials to finished garments. In comparison, most other countries or regions serve a narrower role in VF Corporation’s supply chain. For example, 65% of US-based factories supplied yarns, threads, trims, and fabrics; 80% of Taiwan-based factories supplied trims, fabrics, and zippers; and VF Corporation used most factories from Vietnam, Mexico, Honduras, and Indonesia to cut and sew garments only.

Second, VF Corporation is more likely to source from China when a higher percentage of the production processes across the apparel supply chain happens in Asia. For example, VF did not use any Chinese textile and apparel factory for its Williamson Dickies’s Original 874® Work Pant. Instead, Williamson Dickies’s supply chain was primarily based in the Western Hemisphere, involving the US (yarns, trims, and fabric suppliers), Mexico (fabric suppliers and garment manufacturers), Honduras (garment manufacturers), and Nicaragua (garment manufacturers).

In comparison, VF used China-made textiles for Napapijri’s Parka Coat Celsius. Nearly 83% of this product’s production processes also happened in the Asia region, such as Taiwan (fabrics, zippers, plastic suppliers), Hong Kong (trim suppliers), and Vietnam (garment manufacturers). This pattern reflects China’s deep involvement and central role in the Asia-based regional textile and apparel production network. We may also expect such an Asia-based regional supply chain to become more economically integrated and efficient after implementing the Regional Comprehensive and Economic Partnership (RCEP) and other regional trade facilitation initiatives in the next few years.

Third, reflecting the evolving nature of China’s textile and apparel industry, the result shows that VF Corporation is more likely to use China as a supplier of textile intermediaries than the finished garment. Due to various reasons, from the US Section 301 tariffs to the wage increases, China already plays a less significant role as a garment supplier for VF Corporation, accounting for just around 10% of the company’s tier 1 suppliers. This result is highly consistent with the official trade statistics—measured by value, only 23.7% of US apparel imports came from China in 2020, a new record low over the past decade.

Fourth, interesting enough, the results indicate that when an apparel item involves more production stages or needs a greater variety of inputs, it will reduce VF Corporation’s likelihood of sourcing from China. For example, the supply chain of Icebreaker’s Men’s Merino 200 Oasis Long Sleeve Crewe included five different processes (e.g., wool fiber, wool yarn, and finished garments). VF Corporation used around 21 various factories and facilities across the supply chain, of which 57.1% were China-based. In comparison, North Face’s Women’s Denali 2 Jacket included around 21 different processes (e.g., polyester yarn, nylon yarn, tape, zipper, trim, polyester interlining, thread, eyelet, label, and finished products). The supply chain included around 24 various factories and facilities, of which only 16.7% were China-based. One possible contributing factor behind this phenomenon is the cost of moving intermediaries across China’s borders. Sourcing from China seems to be disadvantaged by the relatively high trade barriers and a lack of free trade agreements with key trading partners, especially when some components in the supply chain need to come from outside the Asia region, such as the Western Hemisphere and the EU.

Additionally, NO clear evidence suggests that pricing and environmental and social compliance significantly affect VF Corporation’s decision to source from China. For example, the apparel items using either China-made textile raw material or cut and sew in China had a wide price range in the retail market, from as little as $26 to as much as $740. The retail price of those apparel cut and sew in China ranged from $56 to $86, which was neither exceptionally high nor low (i.e., no particular pattern).

Meanwhile, according to VF Corporation, around 61.9% of its China-based factories across the apparel supply chain had received at least one type of “environmental & chemical management certification.” This record was on par with non-Chinese factories (64.8%). Likewise, around 29.0% of China-based tier 1 & tier 2 factories had received one type of “Health, Safety and Social Responsibility Certification(s),” similar to 22.5% of non-Chinese factories. Overall, how US fashion companies like VF Corporation factored in pricing, environmental, and social compliance in their sourcing decisions need to be explored further.

By Sheng Lu

The study will be presented at the 2021 ITAA-KSCT Joint Symposium in November 2021

2021 USFIA Fashion Industry Benchmarking Study Released

The 2022 USFIA Fashion Industry Benchmarking Study is now available

The full report is available HERE

Key findings of this year’s report:

#1 COVID-19 continues to substantially affect U.S. fashion companies’ sourcing and business operations in 2021

  • Recovery is happening: Most respondents expect their business to grow in 2021. Around 76 percent foresee their sourcing value or volume to increase from 2020. Around 60 percent of respondents expect a full recovery of their sourcing value or volume to the pre-COVID level by 2022.
  • Uncertainties remain: Still, 27 percent find it hard to tell when a full recovery will happen. About 20 percent of respondents still expect 2021 to be a very challenging year financially.
  • U.S. fashion companies’ worries about COVID still concentrate on the supply side, including driving up production and sourcing costs and causing shipping delays and supply chain disruptions. U.S. fashion companies’ COVID response strategies include strengthening relationships with key vendors, emphasizing sourcing agility and flexibility, and leveraging digital technologies. In comparison, few respondents canceled sourcing orders this year.

#2 The surging sourcing costs are a significant concern to U.S. fashion companies in 2021.

  • As many as 97 percent of respondents anticipate the sourcing cost to increase further this year, including 37 percent expect a “substantial increase” from 2020.
  • Respondents say almost EVERYTHING becomes more expensive in 2021. Notably, more than 70 percent of respondents expect the “shipping and logistics cost,” “cost of textile raw material (e.g., yarns and fabrics),” “cost of sourcing as a result of currency value and exchange rate changes,” and “labor cost” to go up.

#3 U.S. fashion companies’ sourcing strategies continue to envovle in response to the shifting business environment.

  • Asia’s position as the dominant apparel sourcing base for U.S. fashion companies remains unshakeable.
  • China plus Vietnam plus Many” remains the most popular sourcing model among respondents. However, the two countries combined now typically account for 20-40 percent of a U.S. fashion company’s total sourcing value or volume, down from 40-60 percent in the past few years.
  • Asia is U.S. fashion companies’ dominant sourcing base for textile intermediaries. “China plus at least 1-2 additional Asian countries” is the most popular textile raw material sourcing practice among respondents.
  • As U.S. fashion companies prioritize strengthening their relationship with key vendors during the pandemic, respondents report an overall less diversified sourcing base than in the past few years.

#4 U.S. fashion companies continue to reduce their China exposure. However, the debate on China’s future as a textile and apparel sourcing base heats up.

  • Most U.S. fashion companies still plan to source from China in short to medium terms. While 63 percent of respondents plan to decrease sourcing from China further over the next two years, it is a notable decrease from 70 percent in 2020 and 83 percent in 2019.
  • Most respondents still see China as a competitive and balanced sourcing base from a business perspective. Few other sourcing countries can match China’s flexibility and agility, production capacity, speed to market, and sourcing cost. As China’s role in the textile and apparel supply chain goes far beyond garment production and continues to expand, it becomes ever more challenging to find China’s alternatives.
  • Non-economic factors, particularly the allegations of forced labor in China’s Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region (XUAR), significantly hurt China’s long-term prospect as a preferred sourcing base by U.S. fashion companies. China also suffered the most significant drop in its labor and compliance rating this year.

#5 With an improved industry look and the continued interest in reducing “China exposure,” U.S. fashion companies actively explore new sourcing opportunities.

  • Vietnam remains a hot sourcing destination. However, respondents turn more conservative this year about Vietnam’s growth potential due to rising cost concerns and trade uncertainties caused by the Section 301 investigation.
  • U.S. fashion companies are interested in sourcing more from Bangladesh over the next two years. Respondents say apparel “Made in Bangladesh” enjoys a prominent price advantage over many other Asian suppliers. However, the competition among Bangladeshi suppliers could intensify as U.S. fashion companies plan to “work with fewer vendors in the country.”
  • Respondents are also interested in sourcing more from Sub-Saharan Africa by leveraging the African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA). Respondents also demonstrate a growing interest in investing more in AGOA members directly. “Replace AGOA with a permanent free trade agreement that requires reciprocal tariff cuts and continues to allow the “third-country fabric provision” is respondents’ most preferred policy option after AGOA expires in 2025.

#6 Sourcing from the Western Hemisphere is gaining new momentum

  • Overall, U.S. fashion companies’ growing interest in the Western Hemisphere is more about diversifying sourcing away from China and Asia than moving the production back to the region (i.e., reshoring or near-shoring).
  • Respondents say CAFTA-DR’s “short supply” and “cumulation” mechanisms provide critical flexibility that allow U.S. fashion companies to continue to source from its members. However, despite the “yarn-forward” rules of origin, only 15 percent of respondents sourcing apparel from CAFTA-DR members say they “purposefully use U.S.-made fabrics” to enjoy the agreement’s duty-free benefits.
  • Respondents suggest that encouraging more apparel sourcing from the Western Hemisphere requires three significant improvements: 1) make the products more price competitive; 2) strengthen the region’s fabric and textile raw material production capacity; 3) make rules of origin less restrictive in relevant U.S. trade agreements.

This year’s benchmarking study was based on a survey of executives at 31 leading U.S. fashion companies from April to June 2021. The study incorporates a balanced mix of respondents representing various types of businesses in the U.S. fashion industry. Approximately 54 percent of respondents are self-identified retailers, 46 percent self-identified brands, 69 percent self-identified importers/wholesalers. Around 65 percent of respondents report having more than 1,000 employees. Another 27 percent of respondents represent medium-sized companies with 101-999 employees.

COVID-19 and U.S. Apparel Imports: Key Trends (Updated: June 2021)

First, thanks to consumers’ resumed demand and a more optimistic outlook for the U.S. economy, U.S. apparel imports continue to rebound. However, uncertainties remain. On the one hand, mirroring retail sales patterns, the value of U.S. apparel imports in April 2021 went up by 66% from a year ago, a new record high since the pandemic. The absolute value of U.S. apparel imports so far in 2021 (January –April) also recovered to around 88% of the pre-Covid level (i.e., January to April 2019). However, the value of U.S. apparel imports in April 2021 was 11.2% lower than in March 2021 (seasonally adjusted), suggesting that the market environment is far from stable yet as the COVID situation in the U.S. and other parts of the world continue to evolve.

Second, data indicates that Asia as a whole remains the single largest sourcing base for U.S. fashion companies, stably accounting for around 72-75% of the import value. Studies show that two factors, in particular, contribute to Asia’s competitiveness as a preferred apparel sourcing base—price and flexibility & agility.  Asia’s highly integrated regional supply chains and its vast production capacity shape its competitiveness in these two aspects.

However, the recent surge of COVID cases in India and its neighboring Southeast Asian countries has raised new worries about the potential sourcing risks and supply chain disruptions for U.S. fashion companies currently sourcing from there.  

Third, as the direction of the US-China relations becomes ever more concerning, U.S. fashion companies seem to accelerate diversifying sourcing from China. Even China remains the top apparel supplier for the U.S. market, from January to April 2021, China’s market shares fell to 32.1% in quantity (was 36.6% in 2020) and 20.2% in value (was 23.7% in 2020).  Also, the HHI index and market concentration ratios (CR3 and CR5) suggest that US fashion companies are increasingly moving their apparel sourcing orders from China to other Asian countries. For example, according to a leading U.S. fashion corporation in its latest annual report, “in response to the recent tariffs imposed by the current US administration, the Company has reduced the amount of goods being produced in China.”

Further, the latest data suggests that the concerns about the alleged forced labor in Xinjiang hurt China’s prospect as an apparel sourcing destination, BOTH for cotton and non-cotton items. Measured by value, only 11.9% of U.S. cotton apparel came from China in April 2021, a new record low since implementing the CBP WROs, which impose a regional ban on any cotton and cotton apparel made in the Xinjiang region. The latest data also suggests that China is quickly losing market shares for non-cotton textile and apparel items.

Fourth, U.S. apparel sourcing from CAFTA-DR members gains new momentum, reflecting the strong interest in sourcing more from the region from the business community and policymakers. For example, 17.5% of U.S. apparel imports came from the Western Hemisphere in 2021 (Jan-Apr), higher than 16.1% in 2020 and 17.1% before the pandemic. Notably, CAFTA-DR members’ market shares increased to 10.8% in 2021 (Jan-Apr) from 9.6% in 2020. The value of U.S. apparel imports from CAFTA-DR also enjoyed a 25.8% growth in 2021 (Jan-Apr) from a year ago, one of the highest among all sourcing destinations. The imports from El Salvador (up 29.2%), Honduras (up 28.0%), and Guatemala (27.0%) had grown particularly fast in 2021.

Meanwhile, U.S. apparel imports from USMCA members stayed stable overall. CAFTA-DR and USMCA members currently account for around 60% and 25% of U.S. apparel imports from the Western Hemisphere. They are also the single largest export market for U.S. textile products (around 70%). The Biden administration has signaled its strong interest in strengthening the western hemisphere textile and apparel supply chain by leveraging CAFTA-DR along with other trade policy tools.

by Sheng Lu

How COVID-19 has shifted US apparel companies’ sourcing strategies?

The article is available HERE (need Just-Style subscription)

Key findings

First, more US apparel companies prioritize consolidating their existing sourcing base than diversification during the pandemic. Nearly half of the top 30 US apparel companies we examined explicitly say they either sourced from fewer countries or worked with fewer vendors in 2020 than 2017-2019 before the pandemic. In comparison, only about one-third of respondents say they were sourcing from more countries in 2020 than two years.

Second, the desire to form a closer relationship with key vendors and ensure social and environmental compliance are the two primary factors behind US apparel companies’ consolidation strategy. In a time of uncertainty like the pandemic, apparel companies are leaning more heavily on suppliers that have proven reliable, capable, and flexible. Working closely with the suppliers and building an efficient and trust-based supply chain also play a central role in US fashion companies’ COVID-mitigation strategies. Meanwhile, with social and environmental compliance becoming increasingly crucial in apparel sourcing today, companies are cutting ties with vendors that are not adhering to government mandates and proprietary codes of conduct. Notably, US apparel companies’ higher expectations for sustainability as well as social and environmental compliance may have resulted in a smaller pool of qualified suppliers.

Third, the desire to steer away from China and reduce sourcing risks are the two main drivers behind US fashion companies’ recent sourcing diversification strategy. US apparel companies mostly moved their sourcing orders from China to China’s competitors in Asia instead of expanding “near-sourcing. On the other hand, it is not uncommon to see US apparel companies keep a relatively diverse sourcing base to control various sourcing risks in the current business setting.

Fourth, the content analysis further reveals that US fashion brands and retailers commit to sourcing and supply chain innovation in response to COVID-19 and the new business environment. Some specific sourcing strategies are noteworthy:

  • Work with “super vendors,” i.e., vertically integrated suppliers that can execute multiple steps in the supply chain or those with production facilities in numerous countries.
  • Optimize supply chain process to improve speed to market.
  • Adjust fabric and textile raw material sourcing base, although the specific strategies vary from company to company.

By Emma Davis and Dr. Sheng Lu

The State of Apparel Supply Chain Transparency: A Case Study on VF Corporation

With the public’s increasing demand, fashion companies are making more significant efforts to improve their apparel supply chains’ transparency, i.e., mapping where the product is made and knowing suppliers’ compliance with social and environmental regulations.

Recently, VF Corporation, one of the most historical and largest US apparel corporations, released the entire supply chain of its 20 popular apparel items, such as Authentic Chino Stretch, Men’s Merino Long Sleeve Crewe, and Women’s Down Sierra Parka. VF Corporation used more than 300 factories worldwide to make these apparel items and related textile raw materials.

We conducted a statistical analysis (Multivariate analysis of variance, MANOVA) of these factories, aiming to evaluate the state of VF Corporation’s apparel supply chain transparency, including its strengths and areas that can be improved further. The findings of this study will fulfill a critical research gap and significantly enhance our understanding of the nature of today’s apparel supply chain and the opportunities and challenges to improve its transparency.

The results show that VF Corporation’s suppliers in different segments of the apparel supply chain had different transparency performances overall:

  • While more than 92% of tier 1 & 2 suppliers shared their environmental or social compliance information with VF Corporation, less than 60% of VF Corporation’s tier 3 & 4 suppliers did so (note: statistically significant).
  • A higher percentage of VF Corporation’s tier 2 & 3 suppliers (i.e., mills making fabrics, yarns, or accessories) received environmental compliance-related certification than tier 1 suppliers (i.e., garment factories) (note: statistically significant).
  • Meanwhile, VF Corporation’s tier 1 suppliers were more active in pursuing social compliance-related certification than suppliers in other levels (note: statistically significant)
  • However, no evidence suggests that whether from a developed or developing country will statistically affect a vendor’s transparency performance.

The study’s findings have several important implications:

  • First, more work can be done to strengthen fashion companies’ transparency of tier 3 & 4 suppliers (i.e., textile mills making yarns and fibers). Despite the significant efforts to know their garment factories (i.e., tier 1 suppliers), fashion companies like VF Corporation still have limited knowledge about vendors upper in the supply chain. Notably, even VF Corporation doesn’t have much leverage to request environmental and social compliance-related information from these vendors. According to VF Corporation, often “Supplier was unresponsive to VF’s request for information.”
  • Second, the results suggest that vendors at different supply chain levels have their respective transparency priorities. However, it is debatable whether tier 1 & 2 suppliers also need to care about environmental and sustainability-related compliance, and if tier 3 & 4 suppliers should be more transparent about their social compliance record. The growing concerns about forced labor involved in cotton production (i.e., tier 4 suppliers) make the debate even more relevant.
  • Additionally, different from the public perception and previous studies, the findings call for equal treatment of suppliers from developed and developing countries when vetting their environmental and social compliance-related transparency.

Because this case study looked at VF Corporation only, future research can continue to investigate other fashion companies’ supply chain transparency based on data availability. It will also be meaningful to hear directly from tier 3 & 4 suppliers to understand their perception about improving the apparel supply chain’s transparency and related opportunities and challenges.

by Sheng Lu and Lora Merryman

Note: The study will be presented at the 2021 International Textile and Apparel Association (ITAA) Annual Conference in November.

What Do You Take Away from FASH455?

I encourage everyone to watch the two short videos above, which provide an excellent wrap-up for FASH455 and remind 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 Textile Organizations, 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 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. 

Whether 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 the impact of COVID-19 on apparel sourcing and trade, apparel companies’ social responsibility practices, the debate on the textile and apparel provisions in the U.S.-Mexico-Canada Trade Agreement (USMCA or NAFTA2.0)  to the controversy of forced labor in the apparel supply chain. 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 hope FASH455 can put students into thinking about why “fashion” matters. A popular misconception is that “fashion and apparel” 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, the fashion 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, over 120 million people remain directly employed in the T&A industry globally, 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. 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 has COVID-19 fundamentally and permanently changed the pattern of apparel sourcing and trade?
  • How to make apparel sourcing and trade more sustainable and socially responsbile?
  • 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 forced labor and climate change?
  • 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. However, 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

Is the Western Hemisphere Textile and Apparel Supply Chain in Trouble?

Within the Western-Hemisphere (WH) textile and apparel supply chain, the United States serves as the leading textile supplier, whereas developing countries in North, Central, and South America (such as Mexico and countries in the Caribbean region) assemble imported textiles from the United States or elsewhere into apparel. The majority of clothing produced in the area is eventually exported to the United States or Canada.

WH countries still form a close supply chain partnership in textile and apparel production. For example, close to 70% of US textile exports went to WH members in 2020, a pattern that has stayed stable over the past decades (OTEXA, 2021). Meanwhile, the United States serves as the single largest export market for most apparel exporting countries in the WH For example, in 2019, close to 89% of apparel exports from CAFTA-DR and USMCA (NAFTA) members went to the US.

However, the WH textile and apparel supply chain is not without significant challenges. For example, CAFTA-DR and Mexico are increasingly using textiles inputs from outside the WH region, which weakens the US role as a dominant textile supplier. Notably, most of the market shares lost by US textile suppliers are fulfilled by Asian countries, including China and other members of the RCEP (Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership). Theoretically, using cheaper textile inputs from Asia may help apparel producing countries in the WH improve the price competitiveness of their finished garments and diversify their export markets beyond the US.

Meanwhile, despite the apparent popularity of “near-sourcing”, no evidence suggests that US fashion brands and retailers are sourcing more from WH countries, including CAFTA-DR and USMCA (NAFTA) members. Neither the US-China trade war nor COVID-19 seems to have shifted the trends. Instead, close to 75%-80% of US apparel imports still come from Asian countries (OTEXA, 2021). Studies further show that a vast majority of US apparel imports from WH concentrate on a limited category of products, such as tops and bottoms, which is far from sufficient to meet retailers’ sourcing needs.

On the other hand, technical textiles and industrial textiles account for a growing share in the total US textile exports, and Asia is a particularly fast-growing market. However, there is few US free trade agreement with Asian countries, making it a disadvantage to promote “Made in the USA” products in these markets. It is debatable what should be the priority for the US textile and apparel trade policy: to continue to protect the exports of yarn and fabrics to the WH or open new export markets for technical and industrial textiles outside the WH region?

by Sheng Lu

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