Second, I hope FASH455 helps students shape a big-picture vision of the fashion apparel 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 textile and apparel industry, from the impact of COVID-19 on apparel sourcing and trade, the growing interest in expanding near-shoring from the Western Hemisphere, 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.
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 class, over 120 million people remain directly employed in the textile and apparel industry globally, and a good proportion of them are females living in poor rural areas. For most developing countries, textile and apparel typically account for 70%–90% of their total merchandise exports and provide one of the very few opportunities for these countries to participate in globalization. The global pandemic, in particular, reveals the fashion industry’s enormous social and economic impacts and many problems that need our continuous efforts to make meaningful improvements.
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?
To which extent will geopolitics, such as the Russia-Ukraine war and US-China tensions, affect world trade patterns and fundamentally shift fashion companies’ sourcing and supply chain strategies?
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 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.
The full paper is HERE. Below are the key findings:
Over the past decade, U.S. fashion brands and retailers have seen Central America as a critical emerging apparel-sourcing destination. Especially since implementing the Dominican-Republic Central America Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA-DR) in 2006, a trade deal among the United States, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, the Dominican Republic (joined in 2007), and Costa Rica (joined in 2009), apparel sourcing from the region gained consistent interest among U.S. companies.
Nevertheless, U.S. apparel sourcing from CAFTA-DR members is NOT without significant challenges. For example, CAFTA-DR countries’ market shares in the U.S. apparel import market fell from 11.8% in 2005 before the trade agreement entered into force to only 10.6% in 2022, measured by value. Trade data also indicated that U.S. apparel sourcing from CAFTA-DR members concentrated on simple and low-value items, such as T-shirts, and lacked product diversification with no improvement over the years.
Given the high stakes of improving the status quo, this study quantitatively evaluated the impact of textile raw material access on CAFTA-DR’s apparel exports to the United States. Specifically, this study assumed that CAFTA-DR members cut their textile import tariff rates to improve garment producers’ textile raw material access (i.e., to reduce the cost of sourcing textiles from anywhere in the world and beyond the U.S. supply). The computable general equilibrium (CGE) model estimation based on the GTAP9 database shows mixed results:
On the one hand, cutting CAFTA-DR members’ textile import tariffs to improve their garment producers’ textile raw material access would significantly improve CAFTA-DR members’ price competitiveness of their apparel exports to the United States and increase the export volume.
However, cutting CAFTA-DR members’ textile import tariffs to improve their garment producers’ textile raw material access would significantly expand their textile imports from non-U.S. sources. This means that CAFTA-DR members’ dependence on the U.S. textile raw material supply may decline further.
Overall, the study’s findings remind us that the debate on expanding U.S. apparel sourcing from CAFTA-DR members should go beyond CAFTA-DR members’ garment production. Instead, more efforts could be made to enhance CAFTA-DR garment producers’ textile raw material access as an effective way to expand the region’s apparel exports to the United States.
Meanwhile, several leading CAFTA-DR apparel exporting countries, including Honduras and Nicaragua, have been engaged in negotiations for free trade agreements with China, Taiwan, and other Asian economies. As the study’s findings indicate, these new trade deals could incentivize CAFTA-DR apparel manufacturers to increase their textile sourcing from Asia. In other words, inaction on the U.S. side and maintaining the status quo still could have significant implications for the future stability of the Western Hemisphere textile and apparel supply chain.
The Asia-Pacific region includes several mega free trade agreements:
ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) is a regional intergovernmental organization comprising ten countries in Southeast Asia (Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, and Vietnam). In 2021, ASEAN members have a combined GDP of $3.11 trillion and a population of 673 million.
CPTPP (Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership) is a free trade agreement signed by 11 countries in the Asia-Pacific region, including Japan, Malaysia, Vietnam, Australia, Singapore, Brunei, New Zealand, Canada, Mexico, Peru, and Chile. The CPTPP covers a market of 495 million people with a combined GDP of $13.5 trillion in 2021. The United States was originally a participant in the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) negotiations, but in January 2017, former US President Trump withdrew the US from the agreement. The Biden administration has indicated no interest in rejoining CPTPP. Additionally, China is actively seeking to join CPTPP.
RCEP (Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership) is a free trade agreement signed by 15 countries in the Asia-Pacific region, including China, Japan, South Korea, Australia, New Zealand, Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, Vietnam. In 2021, RCEP members collectively represented a market of 2.3 billion people with a combined GDP of $26.3 trillion. India was an RCEP member but withdrew from the agreement due to concerns about import competition with China.
IPEF (Indo-Pacific Economic Framework for Prosperity) is a US-led economic cooperation framework that aims to “link major economies and emerging ones to tackle 21st-century challenges and promote fair and resilient trade for years to come.” IPEF is NOT a traditional free trade agreement, and it does not address market access issues like tariff cuts. Instead, IPEF includes four pillars: trade, supply chains, clean economy, and fair economy. IPEF members in the Asia-Pacific region include the United States, Japan, Australia, New Zealand, South Korea, India, Fiji, Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, and Vietnam. The IPEF is designed to be flexible, meaning that IPEF partners are not required to join all four pillars. For example, India chooses not to join the trade pillar of the framework. In 2021, IPEF countries collectively represented a market of 2.1 billion people with a combined GDP of $23.3 trillion. The potential economic impact of IPEF remains too early to tell.
Notably, ASEAN, CPTPP, RCEP, and IPEF members play significant roles in the world textile and apparel trade. Specifically:
ASEAN and RCEP members have established a highly integrated regional textile and apparel supply chain. For example, a substantial portion of ASEAN and RECP members’ textile imports came from within the region.
ASEAN and RCEP members’ supply chain connection with China has substantially strengthened over the past decade. In contrast, the US barely participated in Asia-based textile and apparel supply chains. For example, other than CPTPP, the US accounted for less than 2% of ASEAN, RCEP, and IPEF members’ textile imports in 2021.
ASEAN and RCEP members also hold significant market shares in the world textile and apparel export (over 50%). Meanwhile, the US and EU are indispensable export markets for ASEAN and RCEP members.
Because of the United States, IPEF represented one of the world’s largest apparel import markets (i.e., 33.7% in 2021, measured in value). Similarly, in 2022, about 26% of US apparel imports came from current IPEF members. Should IPEF address market access issues, it could potentially offer significant duty-saving opportunities for textile and apparel products.
Additionally, UK’s membership in CPTPP may have a limited direct impact on the textile and apparel sector, at least in short to medium terms. For example, current CPTPP members only accounted for about 6% of UK’s apparel imports in 2021.
USITC adopted two methods to estimate Section 301 tariffs’ economic impacts:
Econometric model estimates using monthly trade data (10-digit HS code) from January 2017 to December 2021.
A set of partial equilibrium models that linked section 301 tariffs to domestic prices and production at the four-digit NAICS code level. USITC used data from 2018 to 2021 as the base year.
USITC only considered Section 301 tariffs’ direct impacts, i.e., “how tariffs impacted prices, production, and trade for products subject to section 301 tariffs and domestic sectors that compete directly with those imports.”
Regarding the overall impact of Section 301 actions, USITC found that the tariffs imposed on Chinese goods resulted in a price rise paid by US importers, but the exporter prices received by Chinese firms were mostly unchanged. As a result, “imports from China decreased in quantity, leading to a substantial decline in their import value. These changes, in turn, caused an increase in production and prices in US domestic industries that were competing with Chinese imports.”
USITC also evaluated the specific impacts of Section 301 tariffs on the Cut and Sew apparel (NAICS 3152) sector. According to USITC:
First, Section 301 tariffs hurt US apparel imports from China. USITC estimated that US woven apparel (NAICS 3152) imports from China decreased by 14.7% in 2019 but fell nearly 40% in 2020 and 2021 due to Section 301 tariffs. However, USITC didn’t explain why imports from China suddenly worsened, nor if other factors, such as the Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act (UFLPA), played a role.
Second, Section 301 tariffs mostly replaced US woven apparel (NAICS3152) imports from China with other sources. However, the direct benefits of Section 301 tariffs to US domestic cut and sew manufacturing seemed limited. Specifically, USITC estimated that US woven apparel imports from sources other than China increased by 7.1% in 2019, 24.8% in 2020, and 25.2% in 2021 due to Section 301 tariffs. In comparison, Section 301 tariffs resulted in modest growth of US domestic woven apparel (NAICS3152) production (up to 6.3%) over the same period.
Actual trade and production data further showed that US woven apparel (NAICS 3152) imports from sources other than China increased from $55.3 billion in 2018 to $61.2 billion in 2021 (or up 10.7%). Over the same period, US domestic woven apparel (NAICS 3152) sales & value of shipments declined from $7.49 billion to $7.38 billion (or down 1.4%) (Data source: Census). In other words, no clear evidence suggests that Section 301 tariffs boosted US domestic woven apparel production.
Third, Section 301 tariffs made US woven apparel (NAICS 3152) imports from EVERYWHERE more expensive. On the one hand, USITC found that the price of US woven apparel (NAICS 3152) imports from China increased by 4.4% in 2019, 14.7% in 2020, and 14.5% in 2021 due to the Section 301 tariffs. However, similar to the case of trade volume, USITC didn’t explain why Section 301 tariffs’ price impact suddenly became more significant in 2020 and 2021. (Note: In fact, the Tranche 4A tariffs were 15% since September 1, 2019, but were reduced to 7.5% effective February 14, 2020, because of the US-China Phase One deal.)
Meanwhile, due to limited production capacity outside of China, the Section 301 tariffs caused an increase in the cost of US woven apparel imports from all other countries. Specifically, USITC found that the price of US woven apparel (NACIS 3152) imports from sources other than China increased by 3.2% from 2018 to 2021. (Note: given the hiking sourcing costs in 2022, the price increase could be more significant should USITC include updated 2022 trade data in the estimation.)
Additionally, USITC acknowledged that its estimation may “likely captures the most significant impacts of these tariffs in the short run.” However, some effects of section 301 tariffs would likely be delayed. For example, USITC said, “if importers and domestic producers anticipated the tariffs remaining in place long enough,” they may consider more costly changes, such as adjusting their supply chains and investing in domestic production.
Based on USITC’s assessment, should President Biden keep or remove the Section 301 tariffs on imports from China? Why or why not?
Regarding the impact of Section 301, any questions remain unanswered or can be studied further?
Any findings in the USITC report surprised you and why?
Trend 1: US fashion companies continue to diversify their sourcing base in 2022
Numerous studies suggest that US fashion companies leverage sourcing diversification and sourcing from countries with large-scale production capacity in response to the shifting business environment. For example, according to the 2022 fashion industry benchmarking study from the US Fashion Industry Association (USFIA), more than half of surveyed US fashion brands and retailers (53%) reported sourcing apparel from over ten countries in 2022, compared with only 37% in 2021. Nearly 40% of respondents plan to source from even more countries and work with more suppliers over the next two years, up from only 17% in 2021.
Trade data confirms the trend. For example, the Herfindahl–Hirschman index (HHI), a commonly-used measurement of market concentration, went down from 0.110 in 2021 to 0.105 in 2022, suggesting that US apparel imports came from even more diverse sources.
Trend 2: Asia as a whole will remain the dominant source of imports
Measured in value, about 73.5% of US apparel imports came from Asia in 2022, up from 72.8% in 2021. Likewise, the CR5 index, measuring the total market shares of the top five suppliers—all Asia-based, i.e., China, Vietnam, Bangladesh, Indonesia, and India, went up from 60.6% in 2021 to 61.1% in 2022. Notably, the CR5 index without China (i.e., the total market shares of Vietnam, Bangladesh, Indonesia, India, and Cambodia) enjoyed even faster growth, from 40.7% in 2021 to 43.7% in 2022.
Additionally, facing growing market uncertainties and weakened consumer demand amid high inflation pressure, US fashion companies may continue to prioritize costs and flexibility in their vendor selection. Studies consistently show that Asia countries still enjoy notable advantages in both areas thanks to their highly integrated regional supply chain, production scale, and efficiency. Thus, US fashion companies are unlikely to reduce their exposure to Asia in the short to medium term despite some worries about the rising geopolitical risks.
Trend 3: US fashion companies’ China sourcing strategy continues to evolve
Several factors affected US apparel sourcing from China negatively in 2022:
One was China’s stringent zero-COVID policy, which led to severe supply chain disruptions, particularly during the fall. As a result, China’s market shares from September to November 2022 declined by 7-9 percentage points compared to the previous year over the same period.
The second factor was the implementation of the Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act (UFLPA) in June 2022, which discouraged US fashion companies from sourcing cotton products from China. For example, only about 10% of US cotton apparel came from China in the fourth quarter of 2022, down from 17% at the beginning of the year and much lower than nearly 27% back in 2018.
The third contributing factor was the US-China trade tensions, including the continuation of Section 301 punitive tariffs. Industry sources indicate that US fashion companies increasingly source from China for relatively higher-value-added items targeting the premium or luxury market segments to offset the additional sourcing costs.
Further, three trends are worth watching regarding China’s future as an apparel sourcing base for US fashion companies:
One is the emergence of the “Made in China for China” strategy, particularly for those companies that view China as a lucrative sales market. Recent studies show that many US fashion companies aim to tailor their product offerings further to meet Chinese consumers’ needs and preferences.
Second is Chinese textile and apparel companies’ growing efforts to invest and build factories overseas. As a result, more and more clothing labeled “Made in Bangladesh” and “Made in Vietnam” could be produced by factories owned by Chinese investors.
Third, China could accelerate its transition from exporting apparel to providing more textile raw materials to other apparel-exporting countries in Asia. Notably, over the past decade, most Asian apparel-exporting countries have become increasingly dependent on China’s textile raw material supply, from yarns and fabrics to various accessories. Moreover, recent regional trade agreements, particularly the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), provide new opportunities for supply chain integration in Asia.
Trend 4: US fashion companies demonstrate a new interest in expanding sourcing from the Western Hemisphere, but key bottlenecks need to be solved
Trade data suggests a mixed picture of near-shoring in 2022. For example, members of the Dominican Republic-Central America Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA-DR) and US-Mexico-Canada Trade Agreement (USMCA) accounted for a declining share of US apparel imports in 2022, measured in quantity and value. While CAFTA-DR and USMCA members showed an increase in their market share of US apparel imports in the fourth quarter of 2022, reaching 10.7% and 3.1%, respectively, this growth was not accompanied by an increase in trade volume. Instead, US apparel imports from these countries decreased by 11% and 15%, respectively, compared to the previous year. CAFTA-DR and USMCA members’ gain in market share was mainly due to a sharper decline in US apparel imports from the rest of the world (i.e., decreased by over 25% in the fourth quarter of 2022).
Trade data also suggests two other bottlenecks preventing more US apparel sourcing from CAFTA-DR and USMCA members. One is the lack of product diversity. For example, the product diversification index consistently shows that US apparel imports from CAFTA-DR members and Mexico concentrated on only a limited category of products, and the problem worsened in 2022. The result explained why US fashion companies often couldn’t move souring orders from Asia to CAFTA-DR and USMCA members.
Another problem is the underutilization of the trade agreement. For example, CAFTA-DR’s utilization rate for US apparel imports consistently went down from its peak of 87% in 2011 to only 74% in 2021. The utilization rate fell to 66.6% in 2022, the lowest since CAFTA-DR fully came into force in 2007. This means that as much as one-third of US apparel imports from CAFTA-DR did NOT claim the agreement’s preferential duty benefits. Thus, regarding how to practically grow US fashion companies’ near-shoring, we could expect more public discussions and debates in the new year.
Mango is a fashion company based in Barcelona, Spain that was founded in 1984 by brothers Isak Andic and Nahman Andic. The company has grown significantly since its inception and now has over 2,700 stores in 109 countries worldwide. Mango is known for its trendy and high-quality clothing, which is targeted toward young women.
One of the critical factors in Mango’s success has been its ability to stay current and relevant in the fast-paced fashion world. The company regularly collaborates with top designers and influencers to create unique and fashionable collections that appeal to its target audience. Mango also closely monitors emerging trends and adapts its collections accordingly.
Besides clothing, Mango also offers accessories, such as bags, shoes, jewelry, and a home collection. The company has a solid online presence, with an e-commerce website that allows customers to shop from anywhere in the world.
In December 2022, Mango announced the Sustainable 2030 strategy, which “aims to move towards the full traceability and transparency of its value chain, in order to continue with the process of auditing its suppliers and ensuring that appropriate working conditions are being fulfilled for the workers in the factories the company works with around the world.” As part of the strategy, Mango will “focus its efforts on moving towards a more sustainable collection, prioritizing materials with a lower environmental impact and incorporating circular design criteria, so that by 2030 these will predominate in the design of its products and all its fibers will be of sustainable origin or recycled.”
Mango’s Apparel Sourcing Strategies (as of December 2022)
First, Mango adopted a sophisticated global sourcing network for its apparel products. Specifically, Mango’s apparel supply chain involves 1,878 Tier 1, Tier 2, and Tier 3 factories in 29 countries worldwide. About 31% of these factories produce garments (Tier 1), 19% supply fabrics (Tier 2), and 49% provide textile raw materials like yarns and accessories (Tier 3). Further, about 407 factories (or 21%) have vertical production capability (e.g., making both finished garments and textile inputs).
Second, like many EU fashion companies, near-shoring from the EU and Turkey is a critical feature of Mango’s apparel sourcing strategy. For example, about 44.8% of Mango’s Tier 1 garment suppliers were EU based (including Turkey), whereas Asia suppliers only accounted for 54%. Likewise, about 34% of Mango’s Tier 2 fabric suppliers and nearly half of its Tier 3 yarn and accessories suppliers were also EU based. The result reflects the EU’s intra-region textile and apparel trade patterns, supported by the region’s relatively complete textile and apparel supply chain. In comparison, US fashion companies typically source more than 80% of finished garments from Asia, and most of these garments also use Asia-based textile raw materials.
Third, measured by the number of suppliers, Mango’s top Tier 1 apparel production bases include Turkey (187 factories), China (176 factories), India (135 factories), and Italy (107 factories). Industry sources further indicated that between 2021 and 2022, Mango primarily sourced from Turkey and India for Tops (69% and 78%, respectively). Mango’s imports from China and Italy were more diverse in product categories (e.g., dresses, outwear, bottoms, and swimwear). On the other hand, Mango’s apparel imports from Italy were much higher priced ($107 retail price on average) than those from the other three countries ($38-41 retail price on average).
Fourth, the factory size and vertical production capabilities of Mango’s suppliers seem to vary by region. Notably, Mango’s Asia-based suppliers are more likely to be large-sized (with 1,000+ employees) and offer vertical production (e.g., making both finished garments and textile input). Mango’s Africa and America-based suppliers were relatively small-sized or lacked vertical integration.
This study explored the survival strategies of apparel manufacturing in a high-wage developed economy using “Made in Ireland” as a case study. Based on a statistical analysis of 4,000 apparel items for sale in the retail market from January 2018 to December 2021, the study found that:
First, unlike the conventional views like the factor proportion trade theory and the global value chain theory, the study’s results showed that garment manufacturing did NOT disappear in Ireland as a high-wage developed country. Notably, garments “Made in Ireland” demonstrated many unique attributes, such as:
statistically more likely to target luxury and high-end markets than foreign-made apparel imported into Ireland;
statistically more likely to highlight their Irish cultural heritage and mention keywords such as “traditional,” “centuries-old,” “craftsmanship,” and “historical” in the product description;
statistically more likely to focus on manufacturing specific product categories with a world reputation, including jumpers and kilts;
statistically less likely to be seen in categories with an abundant supply from lower-cost imports, such as bottoms;
In other words, economic theories need to incorporate non-price competition factors and better explain the development patterns of a country’s garment sector, particularly in developed economies.
Second, the findings called for a rethink of the strategies supporting the garment-manufacturing sector in a high-wage developed country. Current industry practices and government policies aiming to promote garment manufacturing in a developed country primarily focus on implementing protectionist trade measures (i.e., restricting imports) or investing in modern technologies like automation. However, the study’s findings suggested new approaches. For example, using disaggregated product data at the Stock Keeping Unit (SKU) level, the study indicated that a substantial portion of garments “Made in Ireland” was sold overseas. Thus, promoting exports instead of curbing imports could be a more effective way of expanding garment production in a high-wage developed country.
On the other hand, the popularity of “Made in Ireland” jumpers and kilts in the world marketplace suggested that garment manufacturers in a high-wage developed country could survive their business by leveraging cultural heritage, history, and traditional craftsmanship instead of fancy new technologies. Likewise, to a certain extent, the value of maintaining garment manufacturing in a high-wage developed country in the 21st Century may not necessarily be about replacing imports, improving “speed to market,” or creating jobs but preserving a country’s unique cultural heritage and history.
Third, the study’s findings revealed the challenges facing garment manufacturers in a high-wage developed country like Ireland. For example, garments “Made in Ireland” were more likely to be sold with a discount, implying their price competition with foreign-made imports might not be entirely avoidable despite all the efforts from targeting the niche markets to differentiating product assortments.
On the other hand, garments “Made in Ireland” often targeted the high-end market, requiring the workforce to obtain demanding skills such as advanced sewing, craftsmanship, and a deep understanding of the Irish culture. However, the aging workforce and the shortage of skilled labor, a common problem facing developed countries, could also prevent the expansion of apparel manufacturing in Ireland in the long run. Thus, prompting the traditional Irish culture and apparel production craftsmanship, especially to attract the young generation to garment factories and be willing to pursue a career there, would be critical for sustaining the garment manufacturing sector in Ireland and other high-wage developed countries.
Ireland has a long history of making garments, and specific categories of apparel “Made in Ireland” are famous worldwide, such as jumpers and kilts. As of 2020 (i.e., the latest data available), about 340 garment factories still operate in Ireland, a notable increase from 293 in 2010 (Eurostat, 2022). Meanwhile, the output of Ireland’s apparel manufacturing sector totaled $68 million in 2020 (measured in value-added), a substantial drop from $142 million ten years ago (Eurostat, 2022).
Meanwhile, export was critical in supporting apparel “Made in Ireland” today. Statistics show that Ireland’s apparel exports totaled $270 million in 2019 before the pandemic, down about 19% from 2005 (UNComtrade). However, over that period, Ireland’s apparel exports to most developed countries enjoyed positive growth, such as Spain (up 151%), the Netherlands (up 4.5%), Germany (up 14.5%), France (up 61.6%), and Japan (up 20.2%). Further, Ireland’s top four largest apparel export markets were all developed Western EU countries (UNComtrade, 2022). Geographic proximity and the specific product structure of Ireland’s apparel exports could be important factors behind these distinct export patterns.
by Miriam Keegan (FASH MS student, Fulbright-EPA scholar) and Sheng Lu
Full paper: Keegan, M. & Lu, S. (2023). Can garment production survive in a developed economy in the 21st century? A study of “Made in Ireland”. Research Journal of Textile and Apparel. (ahead of print) https://doi.org/10.1108/RJTA-09-2022-0113
In December 2022, Just-Style consulted a panel of industry experts and scholars in its Outlook 2023–what’s next for apparel sourcing briefing. Below is my contribution to the report. All comments and suggestions are more than welcome!
2023 is likely another year full of challenges and opportunities for the global apparel industry.
First, the apparel industry may face a slowed world economy and weakened consumer demand in 2023. Apparel is a buyer-driven industry, meaning the sector’s volume of trade and production is highly sensitive to the macroeconomic environment. Amid hiking inflation, high energy costs, and retrenchment of global supply chains, leading international economic agencies, from the World Bank to the International Monetary Fund (IMF), unanimously predict a slowing economy worldwide in the new year. Likewise, the World Trade Organization (WTO) forecasts that the world merchandise trade will grow at around 1% in 2023, much lower than 3.5% in 2022. As estimated, the world apparel trade may marginally increase between 0.8% and 1.5% in the new year, the lowest since 2021. On the other hand, the falling demand may somewhat help reduce the rising sourcing cost pressure facing fashion companies in the new year.
Second, fashion brands and retailers will likely continue leveraging sourcing diversification and strengthening relationships with key vendors in response to the turbulent market environment. According to the 2022 fashion industry benchmarking study I conducted in collaboration with the US Fashion Industry Association (USFIA), nearly 40 percent of surveyed US fashion companies plan to “source from more countries and work with more suppliers” through 2024. Notably, “improving flexibility and reducing resourcing risks,” “reducing sourcing from China,” and “exploring near-sourcing opportunities” were among the top driving forces of fashion companies’ sourcing diversification strategies. Meanwhile, it is not common to see fashion companies optimize their supplier base and work with “fewer vendors.” For example, fashion companies increasingly prefer working with the so-called “super-vendors,” i.e., those suppliers with multiple-country manufacturing capability or can make textiles and apparel vertically, to achieve sourcing flexibility and agility. Hopefully, we could also see a more balanced supplier-importer relationship in the new year as more fashion companies recognize the value of “putting suppliers at the core.”
Third, improving sourcing sustainability and sourcing apparel products using sustainable textile materials will gain momentum in the new year. On the one hand, with growing expectations from stakeholders and pushed by new regulations, fashion companies will make additional efforts to develop a more sustainable, socially responsible, and transparent apparel supply chain. For example, more and more fashion brands and retailers have voluntarily begun releasing their supplier information to the public, such as factory names, locations, production functions, and compliance records. Also, new traceability technologies and closer collaboration with vendors enable fashion companies to understand their raw material suppliers much better than in the past. Notably, the rich supplier data will be new opportunities for fashion companies to optimize their existing supply chains and improve operational efficiency.
On the other hand, with consumers’ increasing interest in fashion sustainability and reducing the environmental impact of textile waste, fashion companies increasingly carry clothing made from recycled textile materials. My latest studies show that sourcing clothing made from recycled textile materials may help fashion companies achieve business benefits beyond the positive environmental impacts. For example, given the unique supply chain composition and production requirements, China appeared to play a less dominant role as a supplier of clothing made from recycled textile materials. Instead, in the US retail market, a substantial portion of such products was “Made in the USA” or came from emerging sourcing destinations in America (e.g., El Salvador, Nicaragua) and Africa (e.g., Tunisia and Morocco). In other words, sourcing clothing made from recycled textile materials could help fashion companies with several goals they have been trying to achieve, such as reducing dependence on sourcing from China, expanding near sourcing, and diversifying their sourcing base. Related, we are likely to see more public dialogue regarding how trade policy tools, such as preferential tariffs, may support fashion companies’ efforts to source more clothing using recycled or other eco-friendly textile materials.
Additionally, the debates on fashion companies’ China sourcing strategy and how to meaningfully expand near-sourcing could intensify in 2023. Regarding China, fashion companies’ top concerns and related public policy debates next year may include:
What contingency plan will be should the geopolitical tensions in the Asia-Pacific region directly affect shipping from the region?
Meanwhile, driven by various economic and non-economic factors, fashion companies will likely further explore ways to “bring the supply chain closer to home” in 2023. However, the near-shoring discussion will become ever more technical and detailed. For example, to expand near-shoring from the Western Hemisphere, more attention will be given to the impact of existing free trade agreements and their specific mechanisms (e.g., short supply in CAFTA-DR) on fashion companies’ sourcing practices. Even though we may not see many conventional free trade agreements newly launched, 2023 will be another busy year for textile and apparel trade policy deliberation, especially behind the scene and on exciting new topics.
By Sheng Lu
Discussion question: As we approach the middle of the year, why do you agree or disagree with any predictions in the outlook? Please share your thoughts.
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.
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 agreementin 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 the first ten months of 2022, China remained the top apparel supplier, accounting for 35% of US apparel imports in quantity and 22.2% in value. 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.
“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
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-Nov), Asian countries excluding China accounted for 51.2% of US apparel imports, a substantial increase from 41.2% in 2018 before the tariff war. In comparison, about 16.4% of U.S. apparel imports came from the Western Hemisphere in 2021 (Jan-Nov), lower than 17.0% in 2018. In other words, no evidence shows that Section 301 tariffs have expanded U.S. 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.
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 about 10% of US cotton apparel imports came from China in the first ten months of 2022 (latest data available), 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.
This article provided a comprehensive review of the world textiles and clothing trade patterns in 2021 based on the newly released data from the World Trade Statistical Review 2022 and the United Nations (UNComtrade). Affected by the ongoing pandemic and companies’ evolving production and sourcing strategies in response to the shifting business environment, the world textiles and clothing trade patterns in 2021 included both continuities and new trends. Specifically:
Pattern #1: As the world economy recovered from COVID, the world clothing export boomed in 2021, while the world textile exports grew much slower due to a high trade volume the year before. Specifically, thanks to consumers’ strong demand, world clothing exports in 2021 fully bounced back to the pre-COVID level and exceeded $548.8bn, a substantial increase of 21.9% from 2020. The apparel sector is not alone. With economic activities mostly resumed, the world merchandise trade in 2021 also jumped 26.5% from a year ago, the fastest growth in decades.
In comparison, the value of world textiles exports grew slower at 7.8% in 2021 (i.e., reached $354.2bn), lagging behind most sectors. However, such a pattern was understandable as the textile trade maintained a high level in 2020, driven by high demand for personal protective equipment (PPE) during the pandemic.
Nevertheless, the world textiles and clothing trade could face strong headwinds down the road due to a slowing world economy and consumers’ weakened demand. Notably, amid hiking inflation, high energy costs, and retrenchment of global supply chains, leading international economic agencies, from the World Bank to the International Monetary Fund (IMF), unanimously predict a slowing economy worldwide. Likewise, the World Trade Organization (WTO) forecasts that the growth of world merchandise trade will be cut to 3.5% in 2022 and down further to only 1% in 2023. As a result, the world textiles and clothing trade will likely struggle with stagnant growth or a modest decline over the next two years.
Pattern #2: COVID did NOT fundamentally shift the competitive landscape of textile exports but affected the export product structure. Meanwhile, some long-term structural changes in world textile exports continued in 2021.
Specifically, China, the European Union (EU), and India remained the world’s three largest textile exporters in 2021, a pattern that has stayed stable for over a decade. Together, these top three accounted for 68% of the world’s textile exports in 2021, similar to 66.9% before the pandemic (2018-2019). Other textile exporters that made it to the top ten list in 2021 were also the same as a year ago and before the pandemic (2018-2019).
Meanwhile, the growth rate of the top ten textile exporters varied significantly in 2021, ranging from -5.5% (China) to 47.8% (India). The demand shift from PPE to apparel-related yarns and fabrics was a critical contributing factor behind the phenomenon. For example, China’s PPE-related textile exports decreased by more than $33bn (or down 43%) in 2021. In contrast, the world knit fabric exports (SITC code 655) surged by more than 30% in 2021, led by India (up 74%) and Pakistan (up 72%). Nevertheless, as consumers’ lifestyles almost reached a “new normal,” we could expect the textile export product structure to stabilize soon.
On the other hand, as a trend already emerged before the pandemic, middle-income developing countries continued to play a more significant role in textile exports, whereas developed countries lost market shares. For example, the United States, Germany, and Italy led the world’s textile exports in the 2000s, accounting for more than 20% of the market shares. However, these three countries’ shares fell to 12.8% in 2019 and hit a new low of 11.3% in 2021. In comparison, middle-income developing countries like China, Vietnam, Turkey, and India have entered the development stage of expanding textile manufacturing. As a result, their market share in the world’s textile exports rose steadily. These countries also achieved a more balanced textiles/clothing export ratio over the years, meaning more textile raw materials like yarns and fabrics can be locally produced instead of relying on imports. For example, Vietnam, known for its competitive clothing products, achieved a new high of $11.5bn in textile exports in 2021 and ranked sixth globally. Vietnam’s textiles/clothing ratio also doubled from 0.15 in 2005 to 0.37 in 2021. It is not unlikely that Vietnam’s textile exports may surpass the United States over the next few years.
Pattern #3: Countries with large-scale production capacity stood out in world clothing exports in 2021. Meanwhile, clothing exporters compete to become China’s alternatives, but there seems to be no clear winner yet.
Consumers’ surging demand and COVID-related supply chain disruptions significantly impacted the world’s clothing export patterns in 2021. As fashion brands and retailers were eager to find sourcing capacity, countries with large-scale production capacity and relatively stable supply enjoyed the fastest growth in clothing exports. For example, except for Vietnam, which suffered several months of COVID lockdowns, all other top five clothing exporters enjoyed a more than 20% growth of their exports in 2021, such as China (up 24%), Bangladesh (up 30%), Turkey (up 22%), and India (up 24%).
As another critical trend, many international fashion brands and retailers have been trying to reduce their apparel sourcing from China, driven by various economic and non-economic factors, from cost considerations and trade tensions to geopolitics. Notably, despite its strong performance in 2021, China accounted for only 23.1% of US apparel imports in 2022 (January to September), much lower than 36.2% in 2015. Likewise, China’s market shares in the EU, Japanese, and Canadian clothing import markets also fell over the same period, suggesting this was a worldwide phenomenon.
With reduced apparel sourcing from China, fashion companies have actively sought alternative sourcing destinations, but the latest trade data suggests no clear winner yet. For example, Vietnam and Bangladesh, the two most popular candidates for “Next China,” accounted for 6.5% and 5.7% shares in the world’s clothing export in 2021, still far behind China (32.1%). Interestingly, from 2015 to 2021, the world’s top four largest clothing exporters next to China (i.e., Bangladesh, Vietnam, Turkey, and India) did not substantially gain new market shares. Instead, China’s lost market was filled by “the rest of the world.”
Additionally, recent studies show that many fashion companies have switched back to the sourcing diversification strategy in 2022 as managing risks and improving sourcing flexibility become more urgent priorities. In other words, the world’s clothing export market could turn more “crowded” and competitive in the coming years.
Pattern #4: Regional supply chains remain critical features of the world textiles and clothing trade. Several factors support and shape the regional textiles and clothing trade patterns. First, as clothing production often needs to be close to where textile materials are available, many developing clothing-producing countries rely heavily on imported textile materials, primarily from more advanced economies in the same region. Second, through lowered trade barriers, regional free trade agreements also financially encouraged garment producers, particularly in Asia, the EU, and Western Hemisphere (WH), to use locally or regionally made textile materials. Further, fashion companies’ interest in “near-shoring” supported the regional supply chain, and related textiles and clothing trade flows between neighboring countries.
The latest trade data indicated that Asia’s regional textiles and clothing trade patterns strengthened further despite supply chain chaos during the pandemic. Specifically, in 2021, as many as 82% of Asian countries’ textile imports came from within Asia, up from 80% in 2015. China, in particular, has played a more prominent role as a leading textile supplier for other Asian clothing-exporting countries. For example, more than 60% of Vietnam’s textile imports came from China in 2021, a substantial increase from 23% in 2005. The same pattern applied to Pakistan, Cambodia, Bangladesh, and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) members.
In January 2022, the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), a mega free trade agreement involving all major economies in Asia, entered into force. The tariff cut and very liberal rules of origin of the agreement will hopefully drive Asia’s booming regional textiles and clothing trade and further deepen its regional economic integration.
Besides Asia, the regional textiles and clothing trade pattern in the EU (or the so-called Intra-EU trade) was also in good shape. In 2021, 50.8% of EU countries’ textile imports and 37% of clothing imports came from other EU members. This pattern has changed little over the past decade, thanks to many EU countries’ commitment to maintaining local textiles and clothing production rather than outsourcing.
In comparison, the Western Hemisphere (WH) textile and apparel supply chain (e.g., clothing made in Mexico or Central America using US or regionally made textiles) seemed to struggle in recent years. As of 2021, only 20% of WH countries’ textile imports came from within WH, down from 26% in 2015. Likewise, WH countries (mainly the US and Canada) just imported 14.6% of clothing from WH in 2021, down from 15.3% in 2015 and much lower than their EU counterparts (37% in 2021). It will be interesting to see whether US and Canadian fashion companies’ expressed interest in expanding near-shoring may reverse the course.
Furthermore, the regional textiles and clothing trade patterns in Sub-Saharan Africa (SSA) are also worth watching. Compared with Asia and the EU, SSA clothing producers used much fewer locally-made textiles (i.e., stagnant at around 11% only from 2011 to 2021), reflecting the region’s lack of textile manufacturing capability. Most trade programs with SSA countries, such as the US-led African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA) and EU’s Everything But Arms (EBA) program, adopt liberal rules of origin for clothing products, allowing third-party textile input to be used. It can be studied whether such liberal rules of origin somehow disincentivize building SSA’s own textile manufacturing sector or are still essential given the reality of SSA’s limited textile production capacity.
Question: What does a typical day look like during your AAFA internship?
Ally: I would arrive at American Apparel and Footwear Association (AAFA)’s beautiful DC office, take the elevator up to the third floor, greet the two other interns, and make my way over to my desk. For the policy interns, our typical day consisted of working on individual projects and attending committee meetings, such as the weekly Social Responsibility Committee call with member companies, environmental and product safety meetings, trade policy meetings, and others. We also took notes on hearings and events and paid particular attention to topics related to the apparel sector. For example, I listened in and took notes on Hill hearings, workshops hosted by the World Trade Organization (WTO), and International Labour Organization (ILO) meetings. Some additional internship projects included updating country sourcing profiles for AAFA member companies to use in their factory selection process and analyzing trade data.
A very exciting and beneficial component of the AAFA internship experience was being able to attend special industry events such as the Washington International Trade Association (WITA) dinner and AAFA’s Annual Traceability and Sustainability Conference in Pittsburgh, PA. The WITA dinner is often referred to as “Trade Prom” and is packed with a ‘Who’s Who of trade policy professionals–over 500 attendees each year. Volunteering at this event with the other AAFA and WITA interns was incredible. The AAFA 2022 Traceability and Sustainability Conference in Pittsburgh, PA was another highlight of my internship experience. The conference took place at the American Eagle corporate headquarters, which was very exciting to tour. I spent three days in Pittsburgh with the AAFA team and heard presentations from top leaders in the fashion sustainability space, which was a dream! Member retailers spoke about what their companies are working on, what key challenges the industry faces, and how brands can collectively make a difference. It was a truly inspiring event and a phenomenal networking opportunity. This was an experience I will never forget!
Question: Any major projects did you work on during your internship? What did you learn from the experiences?
Ally:One of the main projects I worked on during my internship was updating AAFA’s Sourcing Profiles for their member companies. These country-specific sourcing profiles include essential information relevant to apparel companies’ sourcing decisions, such as a country’s political situation, minimum wage, membership in trade agreements, and economic outlook. Updating these sourcing profiles allowed me to understand why fashion brands and apparel retailers choose to source from particular countries over others. Having this solid background knowledge of leading apparel-sourcing destinations helps me tremendously, especially given that I am very interested in pursuing a career in sourcing. Some other projects I worked on include analyzing the latest US import patterns for travel goods and creating a “Corporate Social Responsibility Checklist” for AAFA members.
Question: What insights did you learn about the fashion apparel industry from the internship? For example, the key issues the industry cares about or the challenges it faces.
Ally: Through this highly valuable internship with AAFA, I saw the fashion industry through a unique policy and “DC” perspective. A key issue the industry cares about is sustainability. For example, fashion companies are increasingly implementing more and more environmentally and socially responsible business practices. Many leading US apparel brands shared their perspectives on building a more sustainable and transparent fashion supply chain at AAFA’s Traceability and Sustainability Conference. Fashion companies are also investing in innovative new technologies to work toward a closed-loop, circular economy.
Another challenge the fashion industry faces today is improving the supply chain’s transparency. For example, the alleged forced labor in China’s Xinjiang region is a huge concern to US apparel companies. With the recent implementation of the Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act (UFLPA) in June 2022, many US fashion brands and retailers are seeking advice on how to comply with this new law and minimize potential sourcing disruptions. Now, more than ever, apparel companies need to ensure they can map their supply chains all the way back to the very beginning, such as where they source their raw cotton.
There is also much interest among fashion companies in finding new sourcing destinations outside of China. For example, Sri Lanka sees this as an opportunity, as well as other developing countries such as Vietnam and Cambodia. We could see some notable shifts in US fashion companies’ sourcing patterns in the coming years.
Further, this Fall, I have been interning virtually at Worldwide Responsible Accredited Production (WRAP). WRAP is a non-profit organization headquartered in Arlington VA, with staff worldwide. WRAP certifies factories in the apparel, footwear, and sewn-products sector regarding their social responsibility performance. WRAP helps factories achieve this certification by conducting audits and working with factories directly to improve working conditions. AAFA and WRAP work closely with one another on numerous projects and industry events, and it has been wonderful to connect these two internship experiences. For example, I read and studied factory audit reports at WRAP. This allowed me to see fashion companies’ and auditors’ respective perspectives when examining a factory’s social compliance. Something that I took away from both internships is that garment factories could use auditing as an opportunity rather than a burden. By investing time and energy into improving factory working conditions and getting certified by a third-party organization, such as WRAP, a factory can attract more retailers, gain more business, and provide a better working environment for its workers.
Question: How do your learning experiences at FASH help with your internship? Any specific knowledge or skillsets do you find most critical?
Ally:My learning experiences in the UD’s FASH department were what influenced and inspired me to pursue the internship with AAFA and now with WRAP. FASH455 (Global apparel trade and sourcing), specifically, is what sparked my interest in apparel sourcing, supply chain, and trade. Before taking this class, I certainly had not thought about how free trade agreements affect the fashion industry. I found all the sourcing rules of origin such as “yarn-forward” and “fabric-forward” to be interesting and intriguing and I was eager to learn more. That is part of what led me to seek out these fashion opportunities in DC.
What I’ve learned through my time in the FASH department is that there are so many career directions a fashion merchandising degree can take you. Fashion is not all about runway shows and magazines- although those elements are very exciting. Many people often do not think about so many other aspects of the industry, like sourcing and trade. The fashion department at UD does a great job in providing students with a well-rounded education and improving students’ critical thinking skills, writing skills, data analytic skills, as well as other skills useful in preparing us for our future careers.
Being selected as a UD Summer Scholar during the Summer of 2021 was another fascinating and unique learning experience, which allowed me to begin researching an area of the fashion industry that I am most interested in–sustainability. Specifically, working with Dr. Lu, I researched US fashion retailers’ merchandising and marketing strategies for clothing made from recycled materials. I expanded the Summer Scholar’s research project into my master’s thesis which was recently published in the Journal of Fashion Design, Technology and Education. This is super exciting!
Choosing the University of Delaware and its fashion department for my education was the best choice I could have made. I have such positive memories such as my first business of fashion class with Professor Ciotti, my assortment planning and buying class with Professor Shaeffer, where we simulated working for a department store, and Dr. Cao’s sustainability and textile courses. Being Co-President of the Sustainable Fashion Club was also a highlight of my time in the FASH department. All of my coursework and experiences in the FASH department gave me the confidence needed to succeed in my internship and work experiences.
Question: What’s your plan after graduation?
Ally: I am currently nearing graduation from my Master’s program. I am on track to receive my Master’s degree in Spring 2023 (or earlier!). I am looking for full-time job opportunities in the realm of fashion sourcing, sustainability, and supply chain. I am hoping to live in either New York or DC after graduation, depending on what job opportunities become available. I am also keeping an open mind to other locations/job prospects. I am eager and excited to start my career in an industry that I am so passionate about, and I look forward to seeing where the future takes me!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
(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).
According to the video, how has the supply chain for apparel and footwear changed over the past decade?
What are the pros and cons of moving from a global supply chain to a regional one for fashion companies?
For fashion companies interested in “near-shoring” and “re-shoring”, what factors should they consider? Why?
Anything else you find interesting/intriguing/thought-provoking/debatable in the video? Why?
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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.
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.
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.
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 leveraging theGlobalData Apparel Intelligence Center’s “Company 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.