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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Debate on the impact of the US-China tariff war

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

by Sheng Lu

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

by Sheng Lu

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

What’s Happening with Myanmar’s Apparel Exports (Updated August 2022)

Zara (UK) sells plain trench coats “Made in Myanmar”

The prospect of Myanmar as an apparel sourcing base has been a hot-button issue since the country’s 2021 military coup. Notably, the labor-intensive apparel sector remained one of Myanmar’s largest employers and accounted for more than 30% of the country’s total exports in 2021 (UNComtrade, 2022). However, the military coup had also resulted in substantial job losses and growing concerns about the working conditions in Myanmar’s apparel sector.  

Nevertheless, fashion companies’ Myanmar apparel sourcing strategy seems to evolve in 2022 in response to the shifting business environment, particularly the inflation factor and the need to reduce “China exposure.” Specifically:

First, data from UNComtrade shows that fashion brands and retailers continued to source apparel from Myanmar in 2022, although the practice varied by country.

  • While Myanmar’s apparel export suffered a notable decline in 2021, it somehow bounced back in 2022 (Jan-May). Among its top apparel export markets, Myanmar’s market shares stayed stable in the EU and the US, and it enjoyed a remarkable increase in Japan (i.e., back to the level before the military coup).
  • That being said, Mynammar’s market shares in the leading apparel import markets (e.g., US, EU, and Japan) remain tiny (less than 5%). Likewise, fashion brands and retailers typically treat Myanmar as a supplementary sourcing base as part of their overall sourcing diversification strategy.
  • Meanwhile, Myanmar is gradually diversifying its export market after the military coup. For example, over 8.5% of Myanmar’s apparel exports went to other Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) members in 2021, up from only 3.0% in 2020 and 2.7% in 2019.
  • As a developing country, Myanmar relies on imported textile raw materials for its apparel production. In 2021, 97.3% of Myanmar’s imported textiles came from Asia, including 72% from China.

Second, Myanmar’s apparel export performance is associated with the level of trade-related sanctions imposed by the importing countries.

Third, from the business perspective, fashion companies commonly use Myanmar as a low-cost sourcing destination for specialized product categories, particularly outwear.

  • Brands and retailers currently source apparel from Myanmar include Zara, H&M, Adidas, Fast Retailing Group, C.P. Company, among others.
  • Outwear is the single largest category of products fashion companies sourced from Myanmar (around 37%).In comparison, fashion companies typically source tops and bottoms from Bangladesh and Vietnam.
  • Also, industry sources indicate that, on average, outwear “Made in Myanmar” (around $70/piece) is priced much lower than those sourced from China (over $200/piece) and Vietnam (over $150/piece) in the retail market (EU, US, and Japan).
  • As fashion companies struggled with the hiking sourcing costs in 2022 and the pressure of reducing China exposure further, Myanmar remains a reasonable sourcing destination to fulfill certain orders from the business perspective.

Nevertheless, Myanmar’s outlook as an apparel sourcing base remains quite uncertain, especially given the recent new political instability in the country. Notably, some labor unions call for the EU to suspend Myanmar’s EBA eligibility. Without the duty-free benefits, it would be detrimental to Myanmar’s apparel exports. Meanwhile, labor unions also ask fashion brands and retailers to “make responsible exit from Myanmar,” including committing to transparency throughout and ensuring workers receive all wages, benefits, and severance payments owed to them.

by Sheng Lu

2022 USFIA Fashion Industry Benchmarking Study Released

Report release webinar (July 18, 2022)

The full report is available HERE

Key findings of this year’s report:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Japanese Fashion Companies Continue to Diversify Apparel Sourcing Base

Japan has one of the world’s largest apparel consumption markets, with retail sales totaling USD$100bn in 2021, only after the United States (USD$476bn) and China (USD$411bn). Meanwhile, like many other developed economies, most apparel consumed in Japan are imported, making the country a considerable sourcing and market access opportunity for fashion companies and sourcing agents around the globe.

Japanese fashion companies primarily source apparel from Asia. Data shows that Japanese fashion brands and retailers consistently imported more than 90% of clothing from the Asia region, much higher than their peers in the US (about 75%), the EU (50%), and the UK (about 60%). This pattern reflects Japan’s deep involvement in the Asia-based textile and apparel supply chain.

Notably, Japan’s apparel imports from Asia often contain textile raw materials “made in Japan.” Data shows that in 2021, about 65% of Japan’s yarn exports, 75% of woven fabric exports, and 90% of knit fabric exports went to the Asia region, particularly China and ASEAN members. Understandably, in Japan’s apparel retail stores, it is not rare to find clothing labeled “made in China” or “Made in Vietnam” but include phrases like “high-quality luster unique to Japanese fabrics” and “with Japanese yarns” in the product description.

The Global value chain analysis further shows that of Japan’s $5.32 billion gross textile exports in 2017, around 34% (or $1.79 billion) contributed to export production in other economies, mainly China ($496 million), Vietnam ($288 million), South Korea ($98 million), and Taiwan ($92 million).

China remains Japan’s top apparel supplier at the country level. However, Japanese fashion brands and retailers have been diversifying their sourcing base. Since the elimination of the quota system in 2005, China, for a long time, was the single largest apparel supplier for Japan, with an unparalleled market share of more than 80% measured by value. However, as “Made in China” became more expensive, among other factors, China’s market share dropped to 56.4% in 2021. Japanese fashion brands and retailers actively seek China’s alternatives like their US and EU counterparts. Notably, Japan’s apparel imports from Vietnam, Bangladesh, and Indonesia have grown particularly fast, even though their production capacity and market shares are still far behind China’s.

As Japanese fashion companies source from more places, the total market shares of the top 5 apparel suppliers, not surprisingly, had dropped from over 94% back in 2010 to only 82.3% in 2021, measured by value. Similarly, the Herfindahl-Hirschman Index (HHI), commonly used to calculate market concentration, dropped from 0.64 in 2011 to 0.35 in 2021 for Japan’s apparel imports. In other words, Japanese fashion companies’ apparel sourcing bases became ever more diverse.

Fast Retailing Group’s apparel sourcing base (Data source: Open Apparel Registry)

We can observe the same pattern at the company level. For example, the Fast Retailing Group, the largest Japanese apparel retailer which owns Uniqlo, used to source nearly 100% of its products from China. However, as of 2021, the Fast Retailing Group sourced finished apparel from over 550 factories in more than 20 countries. While about half of these factories were in China, the Fast Retailing Group had strategically developed production capacity in Vietnam, Bangladesh, Indonesia, and India. On the other hand, in April 2021, the Fast Retailing Group opened a 3D-knit factory in Shinonome, allowing the company to re-shoring some production back to Japan.

Additionally, Japan is a member of the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), the world’s most economically influential free trade agreement. Notably, Japan commits to reducing its apparel import tariffs to zero for RCEP members following a 21-year phaseout schedule. However, as Table 8 shows, Japan’s tariff cut for apparel products is more generous toward ASEAN members and less for China and South Korea due to competition concerns. For example, by 2026, Japan’s average tariff rate will be reduced from 9.1% today to only 1.9% for apparel imports from ASEAN members but will remain above 6% for imports from China. Given the tariff difference, it can be highly expected that ASEAN members such as Vietnam could become more attractive sourcing destinations for Japanese fashion companies.

by Sheng Lu

Further reading: Lu, Sheng (2022). Japan’s apparel market has strong sourcing potential. Just-Style.

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

The Changing Face of Textile and Apparel “Made in Asia” (Updated February 2022)

Video 1: Asian garment and textile industry seeks a path to a bright and sustainable future

Video 2: Smart tech at E China clothing factory

Video 3: Vietnam’s textile and apparel industry amid the pandemic

Video 4: Fashion has a sustainability problem – here’s how TAL is tackling it

Discussion questions:

  1. How are textile and apparel “Made in Asia” changing its face? What are the driving forces of these changes?
  2. What are the examples of the “flying geese model” in the videos? Overall, why or why not do you think this pattern is still valid today?
  3. How to understand COVID-19’s impact on Asia’s textile and apparel industry? What strategies have been adopted by garment factories in Asia to survive the pandemic? What challenges do they still face?
  4. What is your evaluation of Asia’s competitiveness as a textile and apparel production and sourcing hub over the next five years? Why? What factors could be relevant?  
  5. Anything else you find interesting/intriguing/thought-provoking/debatable in the video? Why?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

by Sheng Lu

[The comment is closed]

Outlook 2022– Key Issues to Shape Apparel Sourcing and Trade

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

What next for apparel sourcing?

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

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

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

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

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

Apparel industry challenges and opportunities

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

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

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

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

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

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

by Sheng Lu

COVID-19 Hits the Bangladeshi Garment Industry

Discussion questions [Anyone is more than welcome to join our online discussions; For FASH455, please address at least two questions in your comment; please also mention the question number (i.e., #1, or #3; no need to repeat the question) in your comment.]

#1: How to understand apparel is a global sector from the video?

#2: How to understand the economic, social, and political implications of apparel sourcing and trade from the video?

#3: What are the top challenges facing Bangladeshi garment factories during COVID-19? Why or why not do think these challenges will go away soon?

#4: How is the big landscape of apparel sourcing changing because of COVID-19? Any apparel trade or sourcing patterns that COVID-19 didn’t change based on the video?

#5: Anything else you find interesting/intriguing/controversial/thought-provoking from the video? Why?

[discussion for this post is closed]

Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) and Textiles and Apparel (Updated November 2021)

What is RCEP?

The Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) is a free trade agreement between ten member states of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN)* and five other large economies in the Asia-Pacific region (China, Japan, South Korea, New Zealand, and Australia). RCEP was reached on November 15, 2020, after nearly eight years of tough negotiation. (Note: ASEAN members include Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, and Vietnam. India was an original RCEP member but decided to quit in late 2019 due to concerns about competing with Chinese products, including textiles and apparel.)

So far, RCEP is the world’s largest trading bloc. As of 2019, RCEP members accounted for nearly 26.2% of world GDP, 29.5% of world merchandise exports, and 25.9% of world merchandise imports.

As of November 1, 2021, Lao, Burnei, Cambodia, Singapore and Thailand (ASEAN members), as well as China, Japan, New Zealand and Australia have ratified the agreement. This has met the minimum criteria for RCEP to enter into force (i.e., six members, including at least three ASEAN members and three non-ASEAN members).

As announced by Australia on November 2, 2021, RCEP will enter into force on January 1, 2022

Why RCEP matters to the textile and apparel industry?

RCEP matters significantly for the textile and apparel (T&A) sector. According to statistics from the United Nations, in 2019, the fifteen RCEP members altogether exported US$374 billion worth of T&A (or 50% of the world share) and imported US$139 billion (or 20% of the world share).

In particular, RCEP members serve as critical apparel-sourcing bases for many US and EU fashion brands. For example, in 2019, close to 60% of US apparel imports came from RCEP members, up from 45% in 2005. Likewise, in 2019, 32% of EU apparel imports also came from RCEP members, up from 28.1% in 2005.

Notably, RCEP members have been developing and forming a regional textile and apparel supply chain. More economically advanced RCEP members (such as Japan, South Korea, and China) supply textile raw materials to the less economically developed countries in the region within this regional supply chain. Based on relatively lower wages, the less developed countries typically undertake the most labor-intensive processes of apparel manufacturing and then export finished apparel to major consumption markets worldwide.

As a reflection of an ever more integrated regional supply chain, in 2019, as much as 72.8% of RCEP members’ textile imports came from other RCEP members, a substantial increase from only 57.6% in 2005. Nearly 40% of RCEP members’ textile exports also went to other RCEP members in 2019, up from 31.9% in 2005.

What are the key provisions in RCEP related to textiles and apparel?

First, RCEP members have committed to reducing the tariff rates to zero for most textile and apparel traded between RCEP members on day one after the agreement enters into force. That being said, the detailed tariff phaseout schedule for textile and apparel products under RCEP is very complicated. Each RCEP member sets their own tariff phaseout schedule, which can last more than 20 years (for example, 34 years for South Korea and 21 years for Japan.) Also, different from U.S. or EU-based free trade agreements, the RCEP phaseout schedule is country-specific. For example, South Korea sets different tariff phaseout schedules for textile and apparel products from ASEAN, China, Australia, Japan, and New Zealand. Japan’s tariff cut for apparel products is more generous toward ASEAN members and less so for China and South Korea (see the graph above). Companies interested in taking advantage of the duty-free benefits under RCEP need to study the “rules of the game” in detail.

Second, in general, RCEP adopts very liberal rules of origin for apparel products. It only requires that all non-originating materials used in the production of the good have undergone a tariff shift at the 2-digit HS code level (say a change from any chapters from chapters 50-60 to chapter 61). In other words, RCEP members are allowed to source yarns and fabrics from anywhere in the world, and the finished garments will still qualify for duty-free benefits.  Most garment factories in RCEP member countries can immediately enjoy the RCEP benefits without adjusting their current supply chains.

What are the potential economic impacts of RCEP on the textile and apparel sector?

On the one hand, the implementation of RCEP is likely to further strengthen the regional textile and apparel supply chain among RCEP members. Particularly, RCEP will likely strengthen Japan, South Korea, and China as the primary textile suppliers for the regional T&A supply chain. Meanwhile, RCEP will also enlarge the role of ASEAN as the leading apparel producer in the region.

On the other hand, as a trading bloc, RCEP could make it even harder for non-RCEP members to get involved in the regional textile and apparel supply chain formed by RCEP members. Because an entire regional textile and apparel supply chain already exists among RCEP members, plus the factor of speed to market, few incentives are out there for RCEP members to partner with suppliers from outside the region in textile and apparel production. The tariff elimination under the RCEP will put textile and apparel producers that are not members of the agreement at a more significant disadvantage in the competition. Not surprisingly, according to a recent study, measured by value, only around 21.5% of RCEP members’ textile imports will come from outside the area after the implementation of the agreement, down from the base-year level of 29.9% in 2015.

Further, the reaching of RCEP could accelerate the negotiation of other trade agreements in the Asia-Pacific region, such as the China-South Korea-Japan Free Trade Agreement. We might also see growing pressures on the Biden administration to join the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP) to strengthen the US economic ties with countries in the Asia-Pacific region. The economic competition between the United States and China in the area could also intensify as the combined effects of RCEP and CPTPP begin to shape new supply chains and test the impacts of the two countries on the regional trade patterns.

By Sheng Lu

Further reading

Exclusive Interview with FIBRE2FASHION about the Latest World Textile and Apparel Trade Patterns (October 2021)

The full interview is available HERE

Selected interview questions

The virus is here to stay. What steps the companies must take to mitigate its impact?

Sheng: Earlier this year, I, together with the US Fashion Industry Association, surveyed about 30 leading US fashion brands and retailers to understand COVID-19’s impact on their sourcing practices. Respondents emphasized two major strategies they adopted in response to the current market environment. One is to strengthen the relationship with key vendors, and the other is to improve flexibility and agility in sourcing. These two strategies are also highly connected. As one respondent told us “We’re adjusting our sourcing model mix (direct vs. indirect) & establishing stronger strategic supplier relationships across entire matrix continue to build flexibility and dual sourcing options.” Many respondents, especially those large-scale fashion brands and retailers, also say they plan to reduce the number of vendors in the next few years to improve operational efficiency and obtain greater leverage in sourcing.

Which are the countries benefitting out of the US-China tariff war and why?

Sheng: The trade war benefits nobody, period. Today, textiles and apparel are produced through a highly integrated supply chain, meaning the US-China tariff war could increase everyone’s production and sourcing costs. Back in 2018, when the tariff war initially started, the unit price of US apparel imports from Vietnam, Bangladesh, and India all experienced a notable increase. Whereas companies tried to switch their sourcing orders, the production capacity was limited outside China.  Meanwhile, China plays an increasingly significant role as a leading textile supplier for many apparel exporting countries in Asia. Despite the trade war, removing China from the textile and apparel supply chain is impossible and unrealistic.

How do you compare the African and Asian markets when it comes to sourcing and manufacturing? Which are the advantages both offer?

Sheng: Asia as a whole remains the world’s dominant textile and apparel sourcing base. According to statistics from the United Nations (i.e., UNComtrade), Asian countries as a whole contributed about 65% of the world’s total textile and apparel exports in 2020. In the same year, Asian countries altogether imported around 31% of the world’s textiles and 19% of apparel. Asian countries have also established a highly efficient and integrated regional supply chain by leveraging regional free trade agreements or arrangements. For example, as much as 85% of Asian countries’ textile imports came from other Asian countries in 2019, a substantial increase from only 70% in the 2000s. With the recent reaching of several mega free trade agreements among countries in the Asia-Pacific region, such as the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), the pattern of “Made in Asia for Asia” is likely to strengthen further.

In comparison, only about 1% of the world’s apparel imports come from Africa today. And this percentage has barely changed over the past decades. Many western fashion brands and retailers have expressed interest in expanding more apparel sourcing from Africa. However, the tricky part is that these fashion companies are hesitant to invest directly in Africa, without which it is highly challenging to expand African countries’ production and export capacity. Political instability is another primary concern that discourages more investment and sourcing from Africa. For example, because of the recent political turmoil, Ethiopia, one of Africa’s leading apparel sourcing bases, could be suspended for its eligibility for the African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA). Without AGOA’s critical support, Ethiopia’s apparel exports to the US market could see a detrimental decline. On the other hand, while these trade preference programs are crucial in supporting Africa’s apparel exports, they haven’t effectively solved the structural issues hindering the long-term development of the textile and apparel industry in the region. More work needs to be done to help African apparel producers improve their genuine export competitiveness.

Another issue is Brexit. Is that having any significant impact on the sourcing scenario of the world or is it just limited to the European nations?

Sheng: Despite Brexit, the trade and business ties between the UK and the rest of the EU for textile and apparel products continue to strengthen. Thanks to the regional supply chain, EU countries remain a critical source of apparel imports for UK fashion brands and apparel retailers. Nearly 35% of the UK’s apparel imports came from the EU region in 2019, a record high since 2010. Meanwhile, the EU region also is the single largest export market for UK fashion companies—about 79% of the UK’s apparel exports went to the EU region in 2019 before the pandemic.

However, trade statistics in the short run may not fully illustrate the impacts of Brexit. For example, some recent studies suggest that Brexit has increased fashion companies’ logistics costs, delayed customs clearance, and made talent-hiring more inconvenient. Meanwhile, Brexit provides more freedom and flexibility for the UK to reach trade deals based on its national interests. For example, the UK recently submitted its application to join the Comprehensive Progressive Agreement of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP). The UK is also negotiating a bilateral trade agreement with the United States. The reaching of these new trade agreements, particularly with non-EU countries, could significantly promote the UK’s luxury apparel exports and help the UK diversity its source of imports.

How do you think the power shortages happening across Europe, China, and other nations, are going to impact the apparel supply chains?

Sheng: One of my primary concerns is that the new power shortage could exacerbate inflation further and result in a more severe price hike throughout the entire textile and apparel supply chain. When Chinese factories are forced to cease production because of power shortage, the impact could be far worse than recent COVID-related lockdowns in Vietnam and Bangladesh. As mentioned earlier, more than half of many leading Asian apparel exporting countries’ textile supplies come from China today. Also, no country can still compete with China in terms of the variety of apparel products to offer. In other words, for many western fashion brands and retailers, their stores and shelves could look more empty (i.e., having less variety of products to sell) because of China’s power shortage problem.

Sourcing at MAGIC 2021: What’s On the Horizon for Trade Policy and Sourcing

About the seminar: A look at apparel sourcing trends and the impact of trade policy decisions on a successful sourcing strategy.

  • US apparel trade policy updates 1:27
  • US apparel sourcing trends (extended version) 14:45

Speakers:

  • Julie Hughes, President, US Fashion Industry Association (USFIA)
  • Dr. Sheng Lu, Associate Professor, Fashion and Apparel Studies, University of Delaware

2021 Apparel Textile Sourcing Trade Show Educational Seminar: Trade Policy & Sourcing (Sep 2021)

Panelists

  • Julie Hughes, President, United States Fashion Industry Association
  • Rich Harper, Director of Government Affairs, Outdoor Industry Association
  • Dr. Sheng Lu, Associate Professor, Fashion and Apparel Studies, University of Delaware
  • Discussion: Top US trade policy issues in 2021 (beginning-37 min)
  • Presentation: Latest US apparel sourcing trends (38 min—55 min)

China’s Membership in CPTPP and the US Textile Industry

As one breaking news, on 16 September 2021, China officially presented its application to join the 11-member Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP). While the approval of China’s membership in CPTPP remains a long shot and won’t happen anytime soon, the debate on the potential impact of China’s accession to the trade agreement already starts to heat up.

Like many other sectors, textile and apparel companies are on the alert. Notably, China plus current CPTPP members accounted for nearly half of the world’s textile and apparel exports in 2020. Many non-CPTPP countries are also critical stakeholders of China’s membership in the agreement. In particular, the Western Hemisphere textile and apparel supply chain, which involves the US textile industry, could face unrepresented challenges once China joins CPTPP. 

First, once China joins CPTPP, the tariff cut could provide strong financial incentives for Mexico and Canada to use more Chinese textiles. China is already a leading textile supplier for many CPTPP members. In 2019, as much as 47.7% of CPTPP countries’ textile imports (i.e., yarns, fabrics, and accessories) came from China, far more than the United States (12.1%), the other leading textile exporter in the region. 

Notably, thanks to the Western Hemisphere supply chain and the US-Mexico-Canada Trade Agreement (USMCA, previously NAFTA), the United States remains the largest textile supplier for Mexico (48.2%) and Canada (37.2%). Mexico and Canada also serve as the largest export market for US textile producers, accounting for as many as 46.4% of total US yarn and fabric exports in 2020.

However, US textile exporters face growing competition from China, offering more choices of textile products at a more competitive price (e.g., knitted fabrics and man-made fiber woven fabrics). From 2005 to 2019, US textile suppliers lost nearly 20 percentage points of market shares in Mexico and Canada, equivalent to what China gained in these two markets over the same period.

Further, China’s membership in CPTPP means its textile exports to Mexico and Canada could eventually enjoy duty-free market access. The significant tariff cut (e.g., from 9.8% to zero in Mexico) could make Chinese textiles even more price-competitive and less so for US products. This also means the US textile industry could lose its most critical export market in Mexico and Canada even if the Biden administration stays away from the agreement.

Second, if both China and the US become CPTPP members, the situation would be even worse for the US textile industry. In such a case, even the most restrictive rules of origin would NOT prevent Mexico and Canada from using more textiles from China and then export the finished garments to the US duty-free. Considering its heavy reliance on exporting to Mexico and Canada, this will be a devastating scenario for the US textile industry.

Even worse, the US textile exports to CAFTA-DR members, another critical export market, would drop significantly when China and the US became CPTPP members. Under the so-called Western-Hemisphere textile and apparel supply chain, how much textiles (i.e., yarns and fabrics) US exports to CAFTA-DR countries depends on how much garments CAFTA-DR members can export to the US. In comparison, US apparel imports from Asia mostly use Asian-made textiles. For example, as a developing country, Vietnam relies on imported yarns and fabrics for its apparel production. However, over 97% of Vietnam’s textile imports come from Asian countries, led by China (57.1%), South Korea, Taiwan, and Japan (about 25%), as opposed to less than 1% from the United States.

The US textile industry also deeply worries about Vietnam becoming a more competitive apparel exporter with the help of China under CPTPP. Notably, among the CPTPP members, Vietnam is already the second-largest apparel exporter to the United States, next only to China. Despite the high tariff rate, the value of US apparel imports from Vietnam increased by 131% between 2010 and 2020, much higher than 17% of the world average. Vietnam’s US apparel import market shares quickly increased from only 7.6% in 2010 to 16.6% in 2020 (and reached 19.3% in the first half of 2021). The lowered non-tariff and investment barriers provided by CPTPP could encourage more Chinese investments to come to Vietnam and further strengthen Vietnam’s competitiveness in apparel exports.  

Understandably, when apparel exports from China and Vietnam became more price-competitive thanks to their CPTPP memberships, more sourcing orders could be moved away from CAFTA-DR countries, resulting in their declined demand for US textiles. Notably, a substantial portion of US apparel imports from CAFTA-DR countries focuses on relatively simple products like T-shirts, polo shirts, and trousers, which primarily compete on price. Losing both the USMCA and CAFTA-DR export markets, which currently account for nearly 70% of total US yarns and fabrics exports, could directly threaten the survival of the US textile industry.

by Sheng Lu

Related readings:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

by Sheng Lu

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

by Sheng Lu

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

WTO Reports World Textiles and Apparel Trade in 2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

By Sheng Lu

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

Appendix

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

By Sheng Lu

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

2021 USFIA Fashion Industry Benchmarking Study Released

The 2022 USFIA Fashion Industry Benchmarking Study is now available

The full report is available HERE

Key findings of this year’s report:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

#6 Sourcing from the Western Hemisphere is gaining new momentum

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

by Sheng Lu

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

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

Key findings

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

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

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

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

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

By Emma Davis and Dr. Sheng Lu

What Do You Take Away from FASH455?

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

First of all, I hope students can take away essential knowledge about textile and apparel (T&A) trade & sourcing from FASH455. As you may recall from the video, in FASH455:

We examined the phenomenon of globalization and its profound social, economic and political implications.

We also discussed various trade theories and the general evolution pattern of a country’s T&A industry and its close relationship with that country’s overall industrialization process.

We further explored three primary T&A supply chains in the world (namely the Western-Hemisphere supply chain, the flying geese model in Asia, and the phenomenon of intra-region T&A trade in Europe).

Last but not least, we looked at unique and critical trade policies that matter significantly to the T&A sector (e.g., U.S.-China tariff war and the yarn-forward rules of origin) as well as the complicated factors behind the making of these trade policies. 

Whether your dream job is to be a fashion designer, buyer, merchandiser, sourcing specialist, or marketing analyst, understanding how trade and sourcing work will be highly relevant and beneficial to your future career given the global nature of today’s fashion industry.

Second, I hope FASH455 helps students shape a big-picture vision of the T&A industry in the 21st-century world economy and provides students a fresh new way of looking at the world. Throughout the semester, we’ve examined many critical, timely, and pressing global agendas that are highly relevant to the T&A industry, from the impact of COVID-19 on apparel sourcing and trade, apparel companies’ social responsibility practices, the debate on the textile and apparel provisions in the U.S.-Mexico-Canada Trade Agreement (USMCA or NAFTA2.0)  to the controversy of forced labor in the apparel supply chain. It is critical to keep in mind that we wear more than clothes: We also wear the global economy, international business, public policy, and trade politics that make affordable, fashionable, and safe clothes possible and available for hardworking families. This is also the message from many of our distinguished guest speakers this semester, and I do hope you find these special learning events enlightening and inspiring.

Likewise, I hope FASH455 can put students into thinking about why “fashion” matters. A popular misconception is that “fashion and apparel” is just about “sewing,” “fashion magazine,” “shopping” and “Project Runway.” In fact, as one of the largest and most economically influential sectors in the world today, the fashion industry plays a critical and unique role in creating jobs, promoting economic development, enhancing human development and reducing poverty. As we mentioned in the class, over 120 million people remain directly employed in the T&A industry globally, and a good proportion of them are females living in poor rural areas. For most developing countries, T&A typically accounts for 70%–90% of their total merchandise exports and provides one of the very few opportunities for these countries to participate in globalization. COVID-19, in particular, reveals the enormous social and economic impacts of the apparel sector and many problems that need our continuous efforts to make an improvement. 

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

  • How has COVID-19 fundamentally and permanently changed the pattern of apparel sourcing and trade?
  • How to make apparel sourcing and trade more sustainable and socially responsbile?
  • How will automation, AI and digital technologies change the future landscape of apparel sourcing, trade, and job opportunities?
  • How to use trade policy as a tool to solve tough global issues such as forced labor and climate change?
  • Is inequality a problem caused by global trade? If global trade is the problem, what can be the alternative?

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

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

Dr. Sheng Lu

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

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

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

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

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

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

by Sheng Lu

Relate readings:

ModCloth Sourcing and Supply Chain Strategies during the Pandemic

Credit: Apparel and Textile Sourcing Tradeshow

Speaker: Linda Ollmann, Director – Sourcing Operations, ModCloth

Event summary

ModCloth is a womenswear company that strives to empower women along every step of their manufacturing process. The customer loves the clothing and the pieces can be utilized in many different ways throughout many different seasons.

As of right now, ModCloth does most of their sourcing partnerships with vendors in China, largely because vendors in China were able to give ModCloth the most efficient price point at the shortest lead time. However, ModCloth did start to look for vendors outside of China in countries such as Vietnam, Sri Lanka, and India, but they found that the lead times were still the shortest when they sourced with vendors in China.

While ModCloth wants to continue having short lead times to satisfy their customer, they have some new sourcing strategies that they are going to be implementing in the near future. One thing they are going to do is find the best suppliers possible to get their fabric from so that their customers are happy and can even possibly love the company even more than they already do. In addition to this, ModCloth is dedicated to pursuing sustainable practices and this includes within the factories that they partner with. They also want to find a way to continue having a shorter lead time from the time customers order a garment to the time it gets delivered at their doorstep, all while having a low carbon footprint and being as environmentally conscious as possible.

Just like every other company in the world, ModCloth was impacted by COVID-19. However, since ModCloth started out as an entirely ecommerce brand they were able to adapt to the new virtual norm very well. They decided that with the pandemic slowing everything down, it was important that they focus on improving the company from the inside out. This helped them become more stable internally so they could inevitably build the brand up again on the outside. People have been primarily shopping online due to the closure of brick and mortar stores, so ModCloth did not see too much of a dip in their sales.

ModCloth is very interested in what their customers want and need. Their customers have expressed a need for more sustainable clothing and fabrics and this is exactly what ModCloth wants to give to them. It was mentioned in the webinar that it is easy to put information about the sustainability of a garment in the product description on their website which helps the customer really understand where the piece of clothing they are about to purchase is coming from. This will help customers remain faithful in the brand as well as help the customer feel connected to the brand

Summarized by Lexi Dembo (FASH455 spring 2021)

The Future of Asia as a Textile and Apparel Sourcing Base—Discussion Questions from Students in FASH455

Garment factories in Vietnam adopt RFID; Video credit: Li &Fung

#1: How to explain the phenomenon that US fashion companies are diversifying apparel sourcing from China, but not so much from the Asia region? For example, as of 2020, still, around 75% of US apparel imports came from Asian countries.

#2: From the readings and your observation, to which extent will automation challenge the conclusions of the “flying geese model” and the evolution pattern of Asian countries’ textile and apparel industry over the past decades?

#3: It could be a crazy idea, but given the current business environment, what would the textile and apparel supply chain in Asia look like without “Made in China”? What would be the implications for US fashion companies sourcing strategies?

#4: RCEP members are with a diverse competitiveness in textile and apparel production and exports. Several leading Asian apparel-exporting countries are not RCEP members (such as Bangladesh). Is it unavoidable that RCEP will create BOTH winners and losers for textile and apparel trade? How so?

#5: Is the growth model and development path of Asian countries’ textile and apparel industry an exception—meaning it is challenging to apply it to the rest of the world, such as the Western Hemisphere and Africa? What is your view?

#6: What is your outlook of Asia as a textile and apparel-sourcing base in the post-Covid world? Why?

(Welcome to our online discussion. For students in FASH455, please address at least two questions and mention the question number (#) in your reply)

How Is the Pandemic Changing the Global Fashion Industry?

Note: In the video “Textile” actually refers to “garment”

Related readings

How Has COVID-19 Affected Apparel Exports from China, Vietnam, and Bangladesh?

Key findings:

compiled by Victoria Langro and Sheng Lu (2021)

During the pandemic, three factors are most relevant to a country’s apparel export performance: government lockdown measures, textile raw material access, and comprehensive export competitiveness. Against these three factors, apparel producers and exporters in China, Vietnam, and Bangladesh face common but differentiated business challenges and opportunities during the pandemic (see the table above).

China, Vietnam, and Bangladesh all suffered an unprecedented (nearly 30% year over year) drop in their apparel exports to the world in 2020 (Q1-Q3) due to COVID-19. This result mirrored the reduced import demand in the world’s major apparel consumer markets, where the local economies were also hit hard by the pandemic, including the US (down 2.3%), the EU (down 4.3%), and Japan (down 4.8%).

However, the three countries’ export performance is most different in the US market—China’s apparel exports dropped by 31.6%, much steeper than Vietnam (down 6.9%) and Bangladesh (down 12.6%). It seems that even though COVID-19 may favor China as an apparel sourcing base from an economic perspective, US fashion companies have given more weight to non-economic factors, such as the outlook of the trade war, in their sourcing decisions involving China.

COVID-19 had disrupted apparel exporters’ regular production and export schedule in 2020. The lockdown measures in these three countries seem to affect their export seasonal pattern most significantly. For example, as the first country hit by COVID-19, China’s apparel exports were at the bottom from February to April 2020; however, China’s apparel exports recovered quickly since May 2020 when factories resumed production. In comparison, apparel exports from Vietnam and Bangladesh were at their lowest level from April to May and May to June 2020, respectively, when their factories had to close.

Additionally, Bangladesh’s apparel export seasonality had experienced a more dramatic change in 2020 than in China and Vietnam. A possible reason behind the phenomenon is the export product structure. Notably, China and Vietnam export a more diverse range of products, whereas apparel exports from Bangladesh concentrate on basic fashion items.

Industry sources also indicate that between February 2020 and February 2021, US apparel imports from China and Vietnam see a significant structural change—they include more COVID-popular items such as sweaters, smock dresses, and sweatpants, and fewer dresses, shirts, and suits. However, over the same period, the product structure of US apparel imports from Bangladesh barely changed, and they also included few COVID-popular categories mentioned above. In other words, despite order cancellations, garment factories in China and Vietnam seem more likely to receive new sourcing orders than their counterparts in Bangladesh because of advantages in production flexibility and agility.

Further, China, Vietnam, and Bangladesh all turned less diversified in their apparel export market during the pandemic. Notably, the US, EU, and Japan have become more critical export markets ever. Compared with fashion companies’ efforts in sourcing diversification, it could be more challenging for garment-producing countries to diversify their export market during the pandemic.

Further reading: Victoria Langro and Sheng Lu (2021). Sourcing’s new order – Covid’s impact on world’s top three apparel exporters. Just-Style.

[for FASH455 in spring 2022: If you comment on this blog post, please respond to this question: as we are 2 years into the pandemic, why or why not do you think the study’s findings are still valid?]

Which Apparel Sourcing Factors Matter?

Key findings:

The apparel sourcing formula is getting ever more sophisticated today. US fashion brands and retailers consider a wide range of factors when deciding where to source their products. The long list of sourcing factors includes #1 Capacity, #2 Price & tariff, #3 Stability, #4 Sustainability, and #5 Quality (see the table below).

When evaluating the world’s top 27 largest apparel supplying countries’ performance,  no souring destination appears to be perfect. In general, fashion brands and retailers have many choices for sourcing destinations that can meet their demand for production capacity, price point, and quality. However, fashion companies face much more limited options when seeking an apparel sourcing destination with a stable financial and political environment and a strong sustainability record.

When we compare the trade volume and the performance against the five primary sourcing factors:

  • Apparel sourcing today is no longer a “winner takes all” game. Notably, the factor “Capacity” is suggested to have limited impacts on the value of apparel imports from a particular sourcing destination.
  • Apparel sourcing is not merely about “competing on price” either--the impact of the factor “Price & tariff” on the pattern of apparel imports statistically is not significant.
  • Improving financial and political stability as well as product quality can help a country enhance its attractiveness as an apparel sourcing base. In particular, American and Asia-based fashion companies seem to give substantial weight to the factors of “Stability” and “Product quality” in their sourcing decisions.
  • Fashion companies’ current sourcing model does not always provide strong financial rewards for sustainability. Interestingly, the result indicates that a higher score for the factor “sustainability” does NOT result in more sourcing orders at the country level. Behind the result, fashion companies today likely consider sustainability and compliance at the vendor level rather than at the country level in their sourcing decisions. It is also likely that sustainability and compliance are treated more as pre-requisite or “bottom-line” criteria instead of a factor to determine the volume of the sourcing orders. 

In conclusion, fashion companies’ sourcing decisions seem to be more complicated and subtle than what is often described in public.

By Emma Davis and Sheng Lu

Further reading: Emma Davis & Sheng Lu (2021). Which apparel sourcing factors matter the most?. Just-Style.

Regional Supply Chain Remains a Key Feature of World Textile and Apparel Trade

While textile and apparel is well-known as a global sector, the latest statistics show that world textile and apparel trade patterns remain largely regional-based. Three particular regional textile and apparel trade flows are critical to watch:

First, Asian countries are increasingly sourcing textile raw material from within the region. As much as 85% of Asian countries’ textile imports came from other Asian countries in 2019, a substantial increase from only 70% in the 2000s. This result reflects the formation of an ever more integrated regional textile and apparel supply chain in Asia. However, as Asian countries become more economically integrated, textile and apparel producers in other parts of the world could find it more challenging to get involved in the region. With the recent reaching of several mega free trade agreements among countries in the Asia-Pacific region, such as the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), the pattern of “Made in Asia for Asia” is likely to strengthen further.

Second, the EU intra-region trade pattern for textile and apparel stays relatively strong and stable. Intra-region trade refers to trade flows between EU members. Statistics show that 54.6% of EU(27) members’ textile imports and 37.4% of their apparel imports came from within the EU(27) region in 2019. This pattern only slightly changed over the past decade. In other words, despite the reported increasing competition from Asian suppliers, many of which even enjoy duty-free market access to the EU market (such as through the EU Everything But Arms program), a substantial share of apparel sold in the EU markets are still locally made.

EU consumers’ preferences for “slow fashion” (i.e., purchasing less but for more durable products with higher quality) may contribute to the stable EU intra-region trade pattern. Many EU consumers also see textile and apparel as cultural products and do NOT shop simply for the price. This explains why Western EU countries such as Italy, Germany, and France rank the top apparel producers and exporters in the EU region despite their high wage and production costs.

Third, the Western Hemisphere (WH) supply chain faces significant challenges despite the seemingly growing popularity of “near-sourcing.” On the one hand, textile and apparel exporters in the Western-Hemisphere still rely heavily on the regional market. In 2019, respectively, as much as 79% of textiles and 86% of apparel exports from countries in the Western Hemisphere went to the same region. 

However, on the other hand, the Western-Hemisphere supply chain is facing increasing competition from Asian suppliers. For example, in 2019, only 22% of North, South, and Central American countries’ textile imports and 15% of their apparel imports came from within the Western Hemisphere, a new record low in ten years. Similarly, in the first eleven months of 2020, only 15.7% of US apparel imports came from the Western Hemisphere, down from 17.1% in 2019 before the pandemic. The limited local textile production capacity and the high production cost are the two notable factors that discourage US fashion brands and retailers from committing to more “near-sourcing” from the Western Hemisphere.

In comparison, Asian countries supplied a new record high of 62.2% of textiles and 75% apparel to countries in the Western Hemisphere in 2019, up from 49.1% and 71.1% ten years ago. This trend suggests that as the competitiveness of “Factory Asia” continues to improve, even regional trade agreements (such as USMCA and CAFTA-DR) and their restrictive “yarn-forward” rules of origin have limits to protect the Western Hemisphere supply chain.

In comparison, Asian countries supplied a new record high of 62.2% of textiles and 75% apparel to countries in the Western Hemisphere in 2019, up from 49.1% and 71.1% ten years ago. This trend suggests that as the competitiveness of “Factory Asia” continues to improve, even regional trade agreements (such as USMCA and CAFTA-DR) and their restrictive “yarn-forward” rules of origin have limits to protect the Western Hemisphere supply chain.

Additionally, many say that the reaching of RCEP creates new pressure for the new Biden administration to consider joining the CPTPP and strengthening economic ties with countries in the Asia-Pacific region. Notably, several USMCA and CAFTA-DR members, such as Mexico, also have RCEP or CPTPP membership. Apparel producers in these Western Hemisphere countries may find it more rewarding to access the cheaper textile raw material from Asia through CPTPP or RCEP rather than claiming the duty-saving benefits for finished garments under USMCA or CAFTA-DR. Like it or not, the Biden administration’s inaction will also have consequences. 

by Sheng Lu

Further reading: Lu, Sheng. (2021). Regional supply chains still shape textile and apparel trade. Just-Style

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