COVID-19 and U.S. Apparel Imports (Updated: July 2020)

The latest statistics from the Office of Textiles and Apparel (OTEXA) show that COVID-19 continued to enlarge its negative impact on U.S. apparel imports in May 2020, and the path to recovery will NOT be straightforward and quick. Specifically:

The value of U.S. apparel imports decreased by more than 60% in May 2020 from a year ago, setting a new record of single-month loss in trade volumes. Between January and May 2020, the value of U.S. apparel imports decreased by 27.8% year over year, which has been much worse than the performance during the 2008-2009 global financial crisis (down 11.8%).

As the first country hit by Covid-19, China’s apparel exports to the U.S. dropped by 60.2% in May 2020 from a year ago, close to its performance in April 2020 (down 59% YoY). While the figure itself is far from exciting, it suggests the sinking of China’s apparel exports could have hit bottom. As an important sign, China regained its position as the largest apparel supplier to the U.S. in May 2020, with 27.2% market shares in value and 41.4% market shares in quantity. Notably, this is a significant rebound from only 11% market shares back in February 2020. Overall, it seems U.S. fashion brands and retailers continue to treat China as an essential and probably indispensable apparel sourcing base, despite a new low of U.S.-China relations and companies’ sourcing diversification strategy. Meanwhile, the official Chinese statistics report a 20.3% drop in China’s apparel exports in the first five months of 2020.

Despite Covid-19, Asia as a whole remains the single largest source of apparel for the U.S. market. Other than China, Vietnam (20.1% YTD in 2020 vs. 16.2% in 2019), ASEAN (34.6% YTD in 2020 and vs. 27.4% in 2019) and Bangladesh (9.4% YTD in 2020 vs.7.1% in 2019) all gain additional market shares in 2020 from a year ago.

However, no clear evidence has suggested that U.S. fashion brands and retailers are giving more apparel sourcing orders to suppliers from the Western Hemisphere. In the first five months of 2020, still, only 9.1% of U.S. apparel imports came from CAFTA-DR members (down from 10.3% in 2019) and 4.0% from NAFTA members (down from 4.5% in 2019). Two factors might explain the pattern: 1) Due to factory lock-down, the production capacity in the Western Hemisphere is affected negatively; 2) With an unrepresented high level of unemployment, U.S. consumers are becoming ever more price sensitive.  However, apparel produced in the Western Hemisphere, in general, are less price competitive than those made in Asia.

As a reflection of weak demand, the unit price of U.S. apparel imports was lower in the first five months of 2020 (price index =101.5) compared with 2019 (price index =104.7).  Imports from China have seen the most notable price decrease so far (price index =71.0 YTD in 2020 vs. 83.5 in 2019).

by Sheng Lu

How will EU Trade Curb Affect Cambodia’s Apparel Industry?

Key findings:

1. The garment industry matters significantly to Cambodia, both economically, and socially. As of 2019, as much as 70% of Cambodia’s merchandise exports were apparel items. Likewise, around one-third of Cambodia’s manufacturing output currently comes from the garment sector alone. Further, as of 2016, the garment industry in Cambodia employed nearly 928,600 workers (almost 79% were female), an increase of 239% from 2007.

2. Cambodia’s apparel exports have enjoyed steady growth in recent decades,  reaching US$7.83 billion in 2018 – a jump of 256% from US$2.2 billion in 2005. Yet, it faces several major challenges:

  • Due to limited production techniques and capital availability, apparel producers in Cambodia are still mostly engaged in cut-make-trim (CMT) activities, meaning they rely heavily on imported textile raw material and are only able to make a marginal profit based on low-value-added sewing work.
  • Cambodia’s apparel exports are highly concentrated on the EU and the US markets, which together accounted for 73.4% of the country’s total garment exports in 2019.
  • Cambodia is facing intense competition in its main apparel export markets—there has been little growth in Cambodia’s share of EU and US apparel imports over the past two decades, remaining as low as 3% as of 2019.

3. Cambodia has benefited significantly from the EU Everything But Arms (EBA) program. Established in 2001, the EBA trade initiative provides least developed countries (LDCs), such as Cambodia, with duty-free and quota-free access to the vast EU market for all products except weapons and ammunition. Like other EBA beneficiary countries, the majority (around 95%) of Cambodia’s apparel exports to the EU currently claim the duty- and quota-free EBA benefits.  

4. Out of concerns over Cambodia’s “serious and systematic violations of the human rights principles enshrined in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights,” the European Commission on 12 February 2020 formally announced the withdrawal of part of the tariff preferences granted to Cambodia under the EBA program. Starting from 12 August 2020, a select group of Cambodia’s apparel exports to the EU, together with all travel goods, sugar, and some footwear will be subject to the EU’s Most-Favored-Nation (MFN) tariff rat, which were at the rate of 11.5% on average for apparel items in 2019

5. Even the partial suspension of Cambodia’s EBA eligibility could result in significant and lasting negative impacts on its apparel exports to the EU:

  • The apparel items directly affected by the EBA suspension accounted for around 15% of the value of Cambodia’s total apparel exports to the EU in 2019. For those apparel categories directly targeted by the EBA suspension, EU fashion brands and retailers may quickly shift sourcing orders from Cambodia to other supplying countries to avoid paying the additional tariffs.
  • Social responsibility is being given more weight in fashion companies’ sourcing decisions. This means even those apparel items not directly targeted by the EU EBA suspension could face widespread order cancellations as sourcing from Cambodia is deemed to involve higher social compliance risks. In a worse but possible scenario, Cambodia’s apparel exports to the whole world could be under threat as many EU fashion brands and retailers operate globally and adopt a unified ethical standard and code of conduct for apparel sourcing across different markets.
  • Additionally, the timing cannot be worse: Due to the devastating hit by Covid-19, as of April 2020, Cambodia had reported nearly 130 garment factory closures and more than 100,000 workers laid off. These numbers may increase further as the effect of the pandemic continue to unfold.

Further reading: Abby Edge and Sheng Lu (2020). How will EU trade curb affect Cambodia’s apparel industry? Just-Style.

Discussion questions:

  1. What you would suggest to the Cambodian government or garment factories there to mitigate the negative impacts of the EU EBA suspension?
  2. Why or why not the EU should reconsider its decision to partially suspend Cambodia’s EBA eligibility because of Covid-19?
  3. If you were fashion brands and retailers that source from Cambodia, what would you do?

EU-Vietnam Free Trade Agreement and Outlook of Vietnam’s Apparel Export

Vietnam’s National Assembly officially approved the EU-Vietnam Free Trade Agreement (EVFTA) on 8 June 2020, which is expected to take into effect as early as in August 2020.

EVFTA will eliminate nearly all tariffs (over 99%) between the EU and Vietnam. However, textile and apparel (T&A) are among a few exceptions that will not be able to enjoy duty-free treatment on day one. Specifically:

Created by Dr. Sheng Lu based on the EVFTA text
  • The EU will eliminate duties with more extended staging periods (up to 7 years) for some sensitive products in the textile apparel and footwear sectors (see the graphs above).
  • By adopting the fabric-forward rules of origin (or the so-called “double transformation”) for apparel items, EVFTA intends to prevent products from a third party (such as China) from flooding the EU market. Specifically, to benefit from preferential access, garments will need to use fabrics produced in Vietnam or the EU. However, through the EVFTA cumulation provision, fabrics originating in South Korea or other ASEAN countries with which the EU has a free trade agreement in force will be considered as originating in Vietnam. (Note: South Korea is a free trade agreement partner of the EU).  While China remains the top textile supplier for Vietnam, the EVFTA apparel-specific rules of origin will provide more incentives for Vietnam to reduce its China dependence and restructure its textile and apparel supply chain. On the other hand, the totality of EU textile fabric exports to Vietnam will be liberalized immediately when the agreement enters into force.
  • Statistics show that Vietnam was EU’s sixth-largest extra-region apparel supplier in 2019 (after China, Bangladesh, Turkey, India, and Cambodia), accounting for 4.3% in value (or US$4.3 billion). Many of Vietnam’s primary competitors already enjoyed duty-free market access to the EU, such as Turkey (through the Customs Union), Bangladesh, and Cambodia (through the EU Everything But Arms program). EVFTA will provide a level playing field for Vietnam, which is expected to see a continuous robust growth of its apparel exports to the EU and gain additional market shares in the years to come. Meanwhile, not eligible for any EU preferential duty benefit, apparel exports from China are likely to face intensified competition in the EU market after the implementation of EVFTA.

COVID-19 and U.S. Apparel Imports (Updated: June 2020)

The latest statistics from the Office of Textiles and Apparel (OTEXA) show that the negative impact of COVID-19 on U.S. apparel imports deepened further in April 2020. Specifically:

  1. Unusually but not surprisingly, the value of U.S. apparel imports sharply decreased by 44.5% in April 2020 from a year ago. Between January and April 2020, the value of U.S. apparel imports decreased by 19.6% year over year, which has been much worse than the performance during the 2008-2009 global financial crisis (down 11.8%).

2. As the first country took a hit by COVID-19, China’s apparel exports to the United States continue to deteriorate—its value decreased by a new record of 59.0% in April 2020 compared with a year ago (and -46.4% drop year to date). This result is also worse than the official Chinese statistics, which reported an overall 22% drop in China’s apparel exports in the first four months of 2020).

3. For the second month in a row, Vietnam surpassed China and ranked the top apparel supplier to the U.S. market in April 2020. China’s market shares in the U.S. apparel import market remained as low as 18.2% in April 2020 (was 30% in 2019), although it slightly recovered from only 11% in March 2020. With U.S.-China relations at a new low, there have been more intensified discussions on how to move the entire textile and apparel supply chain out of China and diversify apparel sourcing from the Asia region as a whole. However, as China itself has grown into one of the world’s largest apparel consumption markets, there is little doubt that China will remain a critical player for apparel sourcing, especially for the “China for China” business model.

4. Continuing the trend emerged in recent years, China’s lost market shares have been picked up mostly by other Asian suppliers, particularly Vietnam (19.7% YTD in 2020 vs. 16.2% in 2019) and Bangladesh (9.8% YTD in 2020 vs.7.1% in 2019). However, no clear evidence has suggested that U.S. fashion brands and retailers are giving more apparel sourcing orders to suppliers from the Western Hemisphere. In the first four months of 2020, still only 9.4% of U.S. apparel imports came from CAFTA-DR members (down from 10.3% in 2019) and 4.1% from NAFTA members (down from 4.5% in 2019).

5. As a reflection of weak demand, the unit price of U.S. apparel imports was lower in the first four months of 2020 (price index =102.1) compared with 2019 (price index =104.7).  Imports from China have seen the most notable price decrease so far (price index =71.5 YTD in 2020 vs. 83.5 in 2019).

by Dr. Sheng Lu

The Evolving Apparel Industry in Asia—Discussion Questions from FASH455

#1 Do you think that automation and digitization will be more beneficial or harmful to the fashion/garment industry specifically when it concerns developing countries, such as Bangladesh and Cambodia? How will this affect the shift of production/supply chains?

#2 Who will be the “winners” and “losers” in the fashion industry’s shift to proximity-driven production? In your opinion, will the Western Hemisphere textile and apparel supply chain survive as the competition from “Factory Asia?” intensifies?

#3 We have read previously about the fact that Bangladesh is becoming an increasingly popular spot for apparel manufacturing as an alternative to sourcing from China. One of the reasons that Bangladesh is popular is because of the fact that labor is so inexpensive. However, do you think this “death of fast fashion” could repress Bangladesh’s ability to surpass China (i.e., “being cheap” is no longer that important)? Do you think that Bangladesh should continue to invest in new technologies or will cheap labor remain its only advantage?

#4 Pressure from global clothing brands is forcing manufacturers to turn to automation and digitalization, but this is also reducing the amount of human labor needed. This is a growing tradeoff that has yet to be resolved. Do you think there is any feasible solution that will allow manufacturers to remain efficient and cheap enough to attract buyers and still require human labor? If so, what could it be? And if you don’t think so, why?

#5 Why or why not do you think the U.S.-China trade war and COVID-19 will significantly shift U.S. fashion companies’ sourcing strategy, particularly regarding China and Asia?

(Welcome to our online discussion. For students in FASH455, please answer question #5 + one question from #1-4 in your reply) 

The discussion is closed for this post.

Related: The Changing Face of Textile and Apparel “Made in Asia”

COVID-19 and U.S. Apparel Imports (Updated: March 2020)

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Jointly affected by the U.S.-China tariff war and the spread of the coronavirus, the value of U.S. apparel imports from China see a significant drop in January 2020.

Specifically, the value of U.S. apparel imports from China went down by as much as 36.1% month over month in January 2020. As a result, China’s market shares also dropped from nearly 30% in 2019 to a new record low of 23.9% in January 2020. However, it is important to note that such a downward trend started in October 2019, as U.S. fashion brands and retailers were eager to reduce their exposure to sourcing from China.

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China’s lost market shares have been picked up mostly by other Asian suppliers, particularly Vietnam and Bangladesh. However, there is no evidence showing that U.S. fashion brands and retailers are giving more apparel sourcing orders to suppliers from the Western Hemisphere. In January 2020, only 8.1% of U.S. apparel imports came from CAFTA-DR members (down from 10.3% in 2019) and 3.7% from NAFTA members (down from 4.5% in 2019). Recent studies show that there’s more divergence in the products imported into the US  from Asian countries and the western hemisphere.

Meanwhile, according to the latest statistics from China’s Customs, the value of China’s apparel exports in the first two months of 2020 dropped by nearly 20% from a year earlier.

Evolving Patterns and Social Economic Impacts of World Textiles and Apparel Trade: Discussions Questions from FASH455

 

Patterns of world textile and apparel trade

#1 Based on the readings, why or why not do you think Africa is on the right track to become the next hub for apparel sourcing for western fashion brands?

#2 Based on the readings, do you think that any of the countries/regions discussed can become the “next China?” If so, what are the challenges faced by these exporters that have been gaining market shares (such as Vietnam and Bangladesh)?

#3 Why is Asian companies investing the most into the apparel industry in Sub Saharan Africa (SSA) rather than U.S. or EU investors? Notably, the African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA) is a trade preference program between the U.S. and SSA countries.

#4 If the punitive tariffs on Chinese goods are removed next year, why or why do you think U.S. retailers will increase apparel sourcing from China again?

#5 To which extent do you think the comparative advantage theory can explain the evolving world textile and apparel trade patterns?

#6 What policies or strategies could the US government use to convince companies to invest in the Sub-Saharan African region instead of countries like China and Vietnam?

Debate on used clothing trade

#7 Did you feel that the United States really explored every and any possible solution before deciding to suspend Rwanda’s eligibility under the AGOA? If not, what more could they have done or done differently?

#8 The US-EAC trade dispute on used clothing import ban is a very multilayered matter, which can be broken down with the help of trade preference programs. How can we improve the effectiveness of these trade preference programs and revolutionize them to become more significant in today’s economy?

#9 EAC countries are having a difficult time developing their local textile and apparel industry due to the large amounts of used clothing being imported and even proposed a high tariff to lower the amount of clothing being imported. Do you believe the ban on used clothing is the only option they have left for economic growth? If not, what are some ideas of ways they can grow their economy?

#10 The EAC countries have shown their unwillingness to used clothing trade. However, the US has presented that they are indifferent to regulate the used clothing trade as they are one of the biggest used clothing exporters. Are there any solutions to achieve the win-win situation on used clothing trade?

#11 The used clothing ban is put in place in order to develop the apparel and textile industry, but there needs to be more education for countries on sustainability. There is a big stigma about used clothing that needs to be abolished as well. An alternative to this ban is allowing used clothing, but also creating new clothing more sustainably so apparel and textile companies can profit. What are some other sustainable alternatives that benefit both sides?

#12 Given the debate on used clothing trade and its impact on East African nations, will you continue to donate used clothing? Why or why not?

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

Survey Results: Garment Factories in China Slowly Resume Production amid the Fight against the Coronavirus Outbreak

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A recent survey of 294 apparel companies and 20 apparel industry clusters* in China was conducted by the China Garment Association between February 19 and 20, 2020, aiming to understand the impact of the coronavirus (2019-nCoV) on China’s garment industry and production. The respondents of the survey include both garment factories (63.3%) and apparel brands (36.7%). Around 83.4% surveyed companies reported over RMB20 million (or $2.85million) sales revenues.  Below are the key findings:

State of Production

  • 68.4% of surveyed companies say they have gradually resumed production. Of these companies, about 45.6% of their workers in need have returned. The surveyed companies also expect their production output to reach 50% of its normal level by March and could fully recover by April, should the situation stabilized.
  • However, still, as many as 31.6% of surveyed companies say they have not resumed production because of a mix of factors ranging from the need to prevent coronavirus, government restrictions, to the difficulty in recruiting workers. Further, for apparel companies from areas most affected by the coronavirus, they report no plan for reopening anytime soon.
  • Around 87.2% surveyed “large companies” have resumed production, much higher than “medium-sized” (65.4%) and “small-sized” (34.7%) enterprises. [Note: according to China’s Bureau of Statistics, for manufacturers, “large companies” typically refer to those with over 1,000 employees and over RMB400 million (or $57million) annual sales revenue; “small or mini-sized companies” are those with employees less than 200 and less than RMB3million (or $0.43million) annual sales revenues. “medium-sized companies” are those in between].
  • Further, around 74.3% of surveyed apparel brands have resumed business operations, higher than 64.9% of garment factories. Meanwhile, some apparel brands say only their management team have resumed work or those positions that can be done through work from home; however, their plants remain closed.
  • Over half of the surveyed companies (54.08%) say less than 50% of their workers have returned. The lack of workers is a more pressing issue for small-sized companies, with over 80% having less than 50% of workers returned.

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Key challenges facing the surveyed companies:

  • #1: Lack of workers, especially to have those workers from other parts of China return to the factory due to travel restrictions (68.7%)
  • #2: Production cost increase and a lack of supply of raw material from the upstream sector (29.9%)
  • #3: Slow and stagnant sales, overstock of finished products due to delayed orders and tight with cash flows (20.6%)
  • #4: Weak market demand and cancellation of orders (19.2%)
  • #4: Disrupted logistics and transportation (19.2%)
  • #6: Hard to procure protective equipment for staffs and workers (such as facial masks) (16.8%)
  • #7: Cancellation of exhibitions, harder to explore markets and more financial burdens (8.4%)

(*Note: apparel industry clusters refer to geographic concentrations of interconnected factories that manufacture a particular type of apparel product)

Related reading: Apparel Sourcing in the Shadow of Coronavirus (updated February 2020)

Patterns of U.S. Textile and Apparel Imports (updated February 2020)

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The value of U.S. textile imports totaled $27,461 million in 2019, down 2.3 percent from 2018. This is the first time since 2016 that U.S. textile imports incurred a negative growth, which could be related to the slowed U.S. domestic textile and apparel production. Meanwhile, the value of U.S. apparel imports reached $83,822 million in 2019, up 1.2 percent from a year earlier but was substantially lower than a 3.4% growth between 2017 and 2018. Despite the trade uncertainties, the U.S. apparel imports overall still mirror the trend of apparel retail sales in the U.S. market.

Looking ahead, while the reaching of the “phase one” U.S.-China trade deal was a relief to U.S. fashion companies, the unexpected outbreak of the coronavirus in China since January and its fast spread had cast a new shadow on the outlook of the world economy. U.S. Fed Chairman Jerome Powell recently cited the prospect of a hit to tourism, exports and financial markets as ways the coronavirus could dent U.S. economic growth. As a consequence, the value of U.S. textile and apparel imports in 2020 could grow at a more modest rate than previously expected.

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Because the United States is no longer a major apparel manufacturer but one of the largest apparel consumption markets in the world, apparel products accounted for 75.3 percent of total U.S. textile and apparel imports in 2019, followed by made-up textiles (17.9 percent), fabrics (5.6 percent) and yarns (1.2 percent). This structure has remained quite stable over the past decade.

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The U.S. imported apparel from more than 150 countries in 2019. Meanwhile, the Herfindahl index declined from 0.269 in 2010 to 0.253 in 2019, suggesting that overall the U.S. apparel import market is becoming less concentrated. This result is consistent with some recent studies, which show that U.S. fashion brands and retailers continue to diversify their sourcing bases gradually. Reducing the dependence on sourcing from China, catering to the increasing demand for speed to market and fulfilling the market expansion needs were among the top-cited reasons for companies’ sourcing diversification strategy.

Specifically, all top apparel suppliers to the United States in 2019 (by value) were developing countries and most of them were located in Asia, including China (29.7%, down from 33.0% in 2018), Vietnam (16.2%, up from 14.7% in 2018), Bangladesh (7.1%, up from 6.5%), Indonesia (5.3%, down from 5.4% in 2018), India (4.8%, up from 4.6% in 2018) and Mexico (3.7%, down from 4.0% in 2018).

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Except for China, the average unit price of U.S. apparel imports from other major sources all went up in 2019, including Vietnam (up 4.6%), Bangladesh (up 5.6%), Indonesia (up 2.1%), India (up 3.1%), Cambodia (up 7.5%) and CAFTA-DR members (up 4.4%). The results suggest that U.S. fashion brands and retailers had to pay a higher price when they move their sourcing orders from China to other alternatives, due to much smaller production capacity and more costly raw material supply there.

Additional reading: US apparel Sourcing Patterns are Changing. Here is How (by Sheng Lu, on just-style). Key findings:

  • Consumption demand remains the most significant factor in shaping the volume of U.S. apparel imports. Between 2010 and 2019, the value of U.S. apparel retail sales always stayed at around three times as much as the value of U.S. apparel imports. Over the same period, the amount of U.S. apparel retail sales and apparel imports also changed in the same direction, and both enjoyed a roughly 3.0% annual growth on average. Such a synchronized move reminds us about the buyer-driven nature of the apparel business today and explains why this industry is so sensitive towards the health of the national economy.
  • The U.S.-China tariff war had resulted in a change of the seasonal patterns for apparel sourcing and shipment. While July to October used to be the busiest time for U.S. fashion brands and retailers to receive their sourcing orders from China, in 2019 the peak season started earlier in June and ended in September–mostly because U.S. fashion companies tried to avoid the hit of the proposed 15% Section 301 punitive tariffs on Tranche 4A products, which covered most apparel items. For the same reason, U.S. apparel imports from China in November and December 2019 were much lighter than usual.
  • U.S. fashion brands and retailers continue to diversify their sourcing base, yet the options available remain limited. The lack of qualified alternatives to “Made in China” is one big challenge. Despite the hundreds of apparel exporting countries in the world, only nine of them met the following two criteria: 1) enjoyed a 5% or higher growth of their apparel exports to the U.S. for two consecutive years since 2017; 2) achieved a minimum 1% market share as of 2019. Of these nine countries, only Vietnam, Bangladesh, and Cambodia ranked the top 10 apparel suppliers for the U.S. market in 2019.
  • U.S. fashion brands and apparel retailers increasingly source both from Asia and the Western Hemisphere, but for different purposes. Notably, the value of export similarity index (ESI) between China and the Western Hemisphere was as low as 40.8 in 2015 and went down further to only 39.6 in 2019, suggesting their export product structure had turned even more heterogeneous. In contrast, between 2015 and 2019, China, ASEAN (whose members include leading apparel exporting countries such as Vietnam, Indonesia, Cambodia, Malaysia, and Thailand) and Bangladesh appear to export increasingly similar products to the United States. This explained why Asian suppliers rather than NAFTA and CAFTA-DR members saw their apparel exports to the United States increased in 2019 as a result of the U.S.-China tariff war.

Apparel Sourcing in the Shadow of Coronavirus (updated February 2020)

[The situation has been quickly evolving. Please check the updated analysis: How Might Covid-19 Affect Apparel Sourcing and Trade ]

  • The real impact of the coronavirus is yet to come. Western fashion brands and retailers know that sourcing from China is always slow in January and early February because of the Chinese New Year (CNY). Instead, the immediate economic impact of the coronavirus right now is on China’s domestic retail market, as many stores (including well-known clothing and footwear brands) have been closed.
  • As the disease continues to spread quickly, the concerns about the outlook of sourcing from China are growing. Even though factories in China are scheduled to reopen on February 3, according to the latest government announcement, over dozens of major cities in the country have been locked down (encircling roughly 50 million people so far), making it impossible for many workers to return to their job. Further, it is hard to predict how long such an unprecedented large-scale lockdown will last.

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  • Many Western fashion companies are in the status of “wait and see what is going to happen.” Some delays in the arrival of their orders seem unavoidable. However, shifting sourcing orders to other countries does not seem to be a quick solution at this point either for three reasons: 1) China remains the single largest textile and apparel supplier with no alternatives (see the table above); 2) other apparel exporting countries (especially those in Asia) rely heavily on textile raw material, such as yarns and fabrics made in China. 3) for apparel factories in Asia and Africa, it is not rare to see their management team is from China. However, starting from the end of January, countries around the world have begun to impose travel restrictions targeting Chinese travelers.
  • While last year’s tariff war had already pushed Western fashion brands to source less from China, the coronavirus could accelerate companies’ sourcing diversification strategy further. Western fashion brands and retailers may also see their overall sourcing cost to go up as it requires additional resources to move products around and build new supply chains.

Interview with Modaes.es on the Latest Trends of Apparel Sourcing and Trade

The original interview (in Spanish) is available HERE. Below is the translated version.

Question: Is there a reversal in the globalization of fashion?

Sheng Lu: The fashion industry is becoming more global AND regional — the making and selling of a garment “travel” through more and more countries. Just look at the label of a Gap sweatshirt: it is an American clothing brand, but the product is “Made in Vietnam,” and the label includes the size standards in six different countries. The business model of the fashion industry today is “making anywhere in the world and selling anywhere in the world.”

Q .: What do you mean the industry is becoming more “regional”?

Sheng Lu: The trade flows of textiles and apparel today are heavily influenced by regional free trade agreements (FTAs). For example, while China is known as the world’s largest apparel producer and exporter, nearly 50% of the clothing consumed by European consumers are still produced by EU countries themselves. Notably, consumers have different expectations for clothing: many are price-sensitive, but others prefer more trendy items, which requires “near sourcing”—this explains why fashion companies have to adopt a more balanced sourcing portfolio.

Q .: Is the price still the most important factor in fashion companies’ sourcing decisions?

Sheng Lu: Sourcing is far more than just about chasing for the lowest cost. Sourcing decisions today have to consider a mix of factors, ranging from flexibility, speed to market, sustainability, to compliance risks. In fact, few companies “put all eggs in one basket.” My recent studies show that both in the United States and the EU, fashion companies with more than 1,000 employees, typically sourced from more than twenty different countries—sometimes even exceed forty. Behind such a diversified sourcing practice is the necessity to strike a balance between so many different sourcing factors.

Q .: Is apparel sourcing becoming more diversified today than a decade ago?

Sheng Lu: From my observations, fashion companies are souring from more countries and regions than a decade ago, but not in terms of producers. Especially in the last two or three years, I see some large companies are consolidating their supplier base to build a closer relationship with key vendors. The reason is the same as mentioned earlier: a very competitive price is not enough for apparel sourcing today.

Q .: How has the tariff war between the United States and China affected apparel sourcing?

Sheng Lu: The trade war between the United States and China is having big impacts on apparel sourcing that go beyond the two countries. Notably, American fashion brands and retailers are moving sourcing orders from China to other Asian countries such as Vietnam and Bangladesh. However, finding China’s alternatives is anything but easy. Despite the tariff war, China remains a competitive player in apparel sourcing. The unparalleled production capacity that can fulfill orders nearly for any products in any quantity, and the ability to comply with complex sustainability and social responsibility regulations are among China’s unique competitive advantages. Understandably, companies are not giving up sourcing from China, as there are few other “balanced” sourcing destinations in the world. That being said, it is important to recognize that the big landscape of apparel sourcing is evolving. Even in Europe, which is not having a trade war with China, apparel “Made in China” is seeing a notable decline in its market share.

Q .: How is China adapting?

Sheng Lu: The textile and apparel industry in China is undergoing a structural change. Partially caused by the tariff war, apparel producers in China are increasingly moving their factories to nearby Asian countries (especially for big-volume and/or relatively low value-added product categories). Meanwhile, China itself is changing from an apparel producer to become a leading textile supplier for other apparel-exporting countries in Asia. This is NOT a temporary move, but a permanent transition, which has happened in many industrialized economies in history. Somehow, the tariff war has accelerated the adjustment process, however.

Q .: Will Africa be the next hub for apparel sourcing in the near future?

Sheng Lu: As textile and clothing trade is turning more regional-based, Africa is facing significant challenges to become an attractive tier-1 sourcing base for Western fashion brands and apparel retailers.

Q .: Why is that?

Sheng Lu: In general, there are three primary apparel import markets in the world: the United States, the European Union, and Japan—as of 2018, these three regions altogether still accounted for as many as 70% of the world apparel imports. Surely, Asian countries are important apparel suppliers for all these three regions. However, each of these three markets also has its respective regional suppliers—Mexico and Central & South American countries for the United States, China, and a few Southeast Asian countries for Japan and Eastern European countries for the EU market. Other than geographic proximity, often, these regional suppliers also enjoy preferential market access to the US, EU, and Japan provided by regional free trade agreements.

Africa, on the other hand, is not close to any of these three major apparel import markets geographically. Why would fashion companies in the United States, Japan, or the EU have to source from Africa when there are so many other options available?

Q .: For price?

Sheng Lu: Several trade preference programs currently offer apparel exporters in African countries preferential or duty-free market access to the United States, the EU, and Japan (such as the African Growth Opportunity Act and the EU and Japan Generalized System of Preferences programs). However, sourcing from Africa will entail other extra costs—for example, the raw material cost will be higher as yarns and fabrics have to be imported from Asia first, and the transportation bill could be costly due to the poor infrastructure. Further, not like their counterpart in Asia, the apparel industry is not regarded as a development priority in many African countries, which continue to rely heavily on the export of raw materials instead. Manufacturing for the local market is also complicated—apparel producers in Africa are struggling with both the cheap clothing imported from Asia and the mounting used clothing sent from the West.

Q .: It is said that fashion might be the most regulated sector in international trade other than agriculture. How to explain this?

Sheng Lu:  I think we need some changes here. For example, in 2018, textiles and apparel accounted for only 5% of the total U.S. merchandise imports but contributed nearly 40% of the tariff revenue collected. This phenomenon, which makes no sense economically, is the result of the industry lobby—trying to protect domestic manufacturers from import competition.

As another example, around 15%-17% of Mexico’s clothing exports to the United States do not claim the duty-free benefits provided by the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), as the NAFTA rules of origin strictly require the using of regional yarns and fabrics for qualified apparel items. In the end, companies prefer bigger savings on the raw material cost than claiming the NAFTA duty-saving benefits. We should think about how to modernize these trade rules and make them more supply-chain friendly in the 21st century.

Meanwhile, policymakers are developing new regulations to address some emerging areas in international trade, such as E-commerce, labor standards and environmental protection. Increasingly, trade policy is moving from “measures at the border” to “measures behind the borders.”

Top Ten Most-read Blog Posts on Shenglufashion in 2019

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#1 WTO reports world textile and apparel trade in 2018

#2 Wage level for garment workers in the world (updated in 2017)

#3 China’s changing role in the world textile and apparel supply chain

#4 Timeline of trade policy in the Trump administration

#5 State of the EU textile and apparel industry (updated April 2019)

#6  2019 U.S. fashion industry benchmarking study released

#7 U.S. textile and apparel industry is NOT immune to the U.S.-China tariff war

#8 U.S. apparel retailers’ shifting sourcing strategy for “Made in China” under the shadow of the tariff war

#9 Demystify the “Made in the USA” apparel sourcing strategy

#10 U.S. textile and apparel industry assesses the impacts of USMCA (NAFTA2.0)

Happy Holidays!

How Has the Tariff War Affected the Competitiveness of China’s Textile and Apparel Exports to the U.S.? (December 2019)

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This study intends to explore how has the U.S.-China trade tension since 2017 affected the competitiveness of China’s textile and apparel (T&A) exports to the U.S. market. The findings of the study will shed new light on the mega-trend of T&A sourcing from China in the medium term, and support T&A companies’ sourcing decision making in the current uncertain business environment.

Data for the analysis were collected from the Office of Textiles and Apparel (OTEXA) under the U.S. Department of Commerce, including the value of U.S. imports from China between 2016 (i.e., the year before the U.S. launched the section 301 investigation against China) and October 2019 (the latest data available) for a total of 167 categories of T&A products.

Specifically, based on the constant market share (CMS) model, a commonly adopted international trade analysis tool, this study decomposed the value of U.S. T&A imports from China into the following four factors:

  • Market growth effect: changes in China’s T&A exports to the U.S. due to the growth of total U.S. import demand for T&A
  • Commodity structural effect: changes in China’s T&A exports to the U.S. due to the shifting product structure of China’s T&A exports
  • General competitive effect: changes in China’s T&A exports to the U.S. due to the shifting competitiveness of Chinese T&A products in the U.S. market (measured by China’s market shares)
  • Product competitive effect: changes in China’s T&A exports to the U.S. due to the joint effect of the product structure of China’s T&A exports and the shifting competitiveness of Chinese T&A products in the U.S. market (measured by China’s market shares)

Four findings are of note:

First, the U.S.-China trade tension has affected China’s T&A exports to the U.S. negatively. Even though Section 301 tariffs on the majority of apparel products didn’t start until September 2019, China’s T&A exports to the U.S. had suffered a significant drop. This result, however, was at odds with the overall trend of China’s T&A exports to the U.S. in recent years. Notably, except apparel, China’s yarns, fabrics and made-up textile exports to the U.S. all enjoyed a steady and positive growth between 2016 and 2018. The impact of the tariff war is real.

Second, the increased U.S. import demand has partially mitigated the negative impact of trade tension on China’s T&A exports to the U.S. market. Results of the CMS model indicate that expanded total U.S. import demand for T&A driven by the booming U.S. economy had avoided an even worse decline of U.S. T&A imports from China. In other words, without such a market growth, China’s T&A exports to the U.S. would have been $2,065 million less in 2018 (including $528 million for apparel) and $878 million less (including $613 million for apparel) in the first ten months of 2019 than their current level.

Third, China’s export competitiveness is shifting from apparel to textiles. Results of the CMS model show that even before the tariff war, the competitiveness of China’s apparel exports has been weakening steadily, which was the most significant contributing factor to the decline of $530 million U.S. apparel imports from China between 2016 and 2018. In comparison, China is exporting more yarns and fabrics to the U.S. in recent years. Data from OTEXA shows that between 2016 and 2018, China’s yarn and fabric exports to the U.S. enjoyed a 13.1% and 2.6% compound annual growth, respectively, compared with a 0.6% decline of apparel. The CMS model further suggests that China’s improved export competitiveness can explain the majority of these increased exports.

Fourth, China is adjusting its T&A export structure to mitigate the negative impact of the tariff war. As estimated, through targeting those product categories with higher growth in import demand, China was able to achieve an additional $36.7 million apparel export to the U.S. in the first ten months of 2019.  Likewise, the commodity structural effect also favored China’s made-up textile exports to the U.S. market in 2019, resulting in $148.7 million more exports than otherwise.

By Sheng Lu

Japan’s Apparel Sourcing Patterns

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(The full article is available HERE)

Key findings:

First, the total value of Japan’s apparel imports has been growing steadily in line with consumption patterns. Between 2010 and 2018, the value of Japan’s apparel imports enjoyed a 2.7% compound annual growth rate, which was lower than the US (3.4%), but higher than the EU (1.9%) and the world average (1.3%) over the same period.

Second, while China remains the top supplier, Japanese fashion brands and retailers are also diversifying their sourcing bases. Similar to their counterparts in the US and EU, Japanese fashion brands and retailers are actively seeking alternatives. Imports from Vietnam, Bangladesh, and Indonesia have been growing particularly fast, even though their production capacity and market shares are still far behind China.

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Third, Japanese fashion companies are increasingly sourcing from Asia. As of 2018, only 7.5% of Japan’s apparel imports came from non-Asian countries (mostly western EU countries), a notable drop from 11.4% back in 2000. A good proportion of Japan’s apparel imports from Asia actually contain fibers and yarns originally made in Japan. For example, it is not difficult to find clothing labeled ‘Made in China’ or ‘Made in Vietnam’ that also includes phrases such as ‘Using soft, slow-spun Japanese fabric’ and ‘With Japanese yarns’ in the detailed product description.

Fourth, overall, Japan sets a lower tariff barrier for apparel than other leading import countries. As of September 2019, there were around 15 FTAs and TPAs in force in Japan, whose members include several 1st tier apparel supplying countries in Asia, such as Vietnam, Bangladesh, India, Indonesia, and Cambodia. Most of these trade programs adopt the so-called “fabric-forward” rules of origin (also known as “double-transformation” rules of origin). Additionally, Japan is actively engaged in negotiations on a trilateral free trade agreement with China and South Korea, and the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), which involves Japan, South Korea, China and members of the Association of Southeast Asian (ASEAN) countries. Once reached and implemented, these trade agreements will provide new exciting duty-saving sourcing opportunities, including from China, the top apparel exporter in the world.

The Changing Face of Textile and Apparel “Made in Asia”

Video 1: How one Chinese shirt-maker uses automation to safeguard its future

Video 2: Chinese investors move clothing factory to Bangladesh

Video 3: Can Vietnam become the next China?

Discussion questions (for FASH455: Please finish watching ALL the three short videos above before sharing your viewpoints)

  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” from the videos? Overall, why or why not do you think this model is still valid today?
  3. Why or why not do you think the U.S.-China tariff war has fundamentally changed the patterns of textile and apparel production and trade in Asia?

Related readings

Fashion Education in China: An Exclusive Dialogue with Fashion Majors from the Donghua University (October 2019)

 

(Student fashion show–from College of Fashion and Design at DHU)

To enhance students’ global awareness and facilitate cross-cultural exchange, we are very pleased to have several special guests from the Donghua University (DHU) to answer questions proposed by FASH455 students regarding the fashion education in China. Donghua University (DHU), located in downtown Shanghai and formerly known as the China Textile University, has one of the oldest and most prestigious fashion programs in China.

  • Luo Wang: a Ph.D. student at the College of Fashion and Design at DHU. Luo received her B.S. in fashion design and engineering from DHU and was an exchange student at the North Carolina State University, College of Textiles.
  • Caixia Chen: a Ph.D. student at the College of Fashion and Design at DHU. Caixia received her B.S. in fashion design and engineering from DHU as well. Her research interests include fashion marketing and fashion supply chain management.
  • Zongyu Xiong: an M.S. student in the College of Fashion and Design at DHU. Her research interests include cost management in the fashion supply chain.
  • Jingjing Wang: a freshman majoring in Fashion Design and Engineering in the College of fashion and design at DHU.
  • Bai Li: Bai received her B.S. in fashion design and engineering from DHU and M.S. in Fashion and Apparel Studies from UD. Currently, Bai is a Ph.D. student at UD studying functional apparel design and physical therapy. 

Question from FASH455: Why do you choose to be a fashion major—personal interest or guaranteed job offer?

Luo Wang: For me, it is personal interest. Both my bachelor and master degrees were in fashion design. I was interested in the development of the luxury apparel market in China. As China’s economy continues to grow, I have been studying the purchasing behaviors of Chinese consumers for apparel as well.

Caixia: Personal interest.

Zongyu: Personal interest is the main reason above all. And I also hope that I can engage in fashion-related jobs in the future.

Jingjing: I choose to be a fashion major because of my personal interest. But my future work may not be in the fashion area.

Bai Li: Both–personal interest in fashion and a kind of guaranteed job offer because of the engineering component of the major.

Question from FASH455: What classes do you take as a fashion major in China?

Luo Wang: At the Donghua University, we have two departments in the College of Fashion and Design. One is fashion design, and the other is apparel engineering. I was a design major. For my undergraduate studies, I have taken Design Introduction, fashion design, pattern making, Apparel Production, and Marketing Management, Apparel Making Basic Techniques,Fashion Illustration,Computer-Aided Fashion Illustration,Apparel Making Techniques,Apparel Accessory Design,Clothing CAD,Apparel Accessory Design.

For my graduate studies, I have taken Branded Fashion Exertion, Fashion Accessories Art Design, Design management, History of Art Design, Branded Fashion Design, Fashion Brand Constitution, Fashion Comments, Western Modern Art, and Western Art Literary Theory.

Caixia: Fashion marketing, fashion manufacture management, fashion buyer, fashion English, Fashion trade, fashion forecasting, draping, and pattern-making.

Actually, the Donghua Universty offers two fashion majors. One is fashion design which focuses on design. The students majored in fashion design are good at drawing. Another one is fashion engineering, which focuses on draping, pattern-making, fashion trade, fashion marketing etc.

Zongyu: Global marketing of clothing, Market research and forecast, Consumer psychology, Clothing Materials, CAD, Fashion Illustration, Clothing craft, Draping, and some theoretical course.

Jingjing: So far I’ve taken clothing marketing and merchandising, garment production management, fashion retail management, etc..

Bai Li:  1) Engineering basic courses: chemistry, physics, electrical and electronic engineering, and C programming, etc. 2) Fashion design courses: pattern making, trend forecasting, draping, clothing materials, etc. 3) Senior thesis and senior collections for the fashion show

Question from FASH455: What is the percentage of fashion majors in your school that receive job offers immediately after finishing their studies?

Caixia: As I know,  around 100 fashion engineering majors graduate from the college of fashion and design at DHU every year. Among them, about 50% receive job offers immediately after finishing their studies, and about 20% will continue to pursue a master degree in China. Another 20% will choose to study abroad.

Zongyu: According to the official statistics released by DHU, the employment rate reached 92.18% for the total 729 class of 2015 graduated from the college of fashion and design.

Jingjing: About 90%.

Question from FASH455: How do your professors tell you about the fashion industry in the United States?

Luo Wang: We were told that a notable competitive advantage of the U.S. fashion industry is in marketing and business strategy. As we know, U.S. has the world’s top business schools and MBA programs; I think this is why our professors told us we need to learn more about the business strategy of U.S. fashion companies.

Caixia: U.S. is one of the largest textile and apparel importers in the world. China — by far is the largest supplier of textiles and apparel to the U.S..

Zongyu: I’m sorry for my limited knowledge. I just know a little about the recent trend of American textile industry moving back to the U.S..

Jingjing: The fashion industry in the United States is quite developed, and it has an important place in the world. However, it also meets bottlenecks at its present development stage. Some classic brands are managed less well than in previous years.

Bai Li: Not much…some professors had limited knowledge of the fashion industry in the States.

Question from FASH455: How do you think globalization has affected China, especially its textile and apparel industry?

Luo Wang: In my opinion, globalization is a double-edged sword that brings China both changes and opportunities. The low labor cost was a significant advantage of the apparel industry in China. With the deepening of globalization, however, China has been strengthening the enforcement of regulations in the social aspects, which focus on improving worker’s welfare and meeting the international labor standards. As a result, China is gradually losing the advantages in labor cost compared with many other developing countries. On the other hand, an opportunity for the apparel industry in China is that we begin to pay more attention to the building of our indigenous fashion brands rather than making knockoffs.

Caixia: It is of grave concerns to some Chinese manufacturers that more and more international buyers now switch to source from lower-cost countries such as Bangladesh and Vietnam. However, in my opinion, Chinese manufacturers still enjoy competitive advantages. For example, Chinese suppliers can provide better quality products and more value-added services. Furthermore, by adopting new technologies, Chinese factories are able to offset the impact of increased production cost through improved efficiency and product quality.

On the other hand, globalization has made it more difficult for Chinese fashion companies to develop its own brands. In particular, the local Chinese fashion brands are facing grant challenges with the flood of international brands into the Chinese market.

Zongyu: For Chinese companies,  globalization not only has resulted in more competitive pressures but also has created more opportunities to get access to the world marketplace.  Chinese companies realize that they have to embrace a global version and develop high quality and innovative products so as to stand out from the market competition.

In terms of the Chinese consumers, globalization has brought them with more choices of better quality and lower-priced products.

Jingjing: Globalization is a two-edged sword, creating both opportunities and challenges for China. In the past, low-cost labor is a major competitive advantage for China. But now China’s cost advantage is gradually diminishing compared with other less developed countries whereas China is still not “strong enough” to compete on technology with advanced economies.

Bai Li: Of course, globalization has created many new job opportunities in China but also has caused some labor and environmental issues.

Questions from FASH455: What are the working conditions of garment factories in China?

Caixia: The working condition in China’s garment factory has improved significantly as you can see from the pictures below. Automation and technology advancement also play an important role.

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Zongyu: Dragons and fishes jumbled together, meaning there are companies in either good or bad conditions. But compared with the past, working conditions in the Chinese garment factories overall have much improved. Most factories have met the 5S (5s is the name of a workplace organization method that uses a list of five words: sort, set in order, shine, standardize and sustain) or 6S(5s plus safety) requirements.

Jingjing: Following the principle of 5s management, Chinese garment factories overall are getting cleaner, more orderly and more modernized.

Question from FASH455: Does it bother the Chinese people that American companies send work to China to produce cheap labor?

Zongyu: It is just my personal view: exporting textile and apparel is necessary for China as a developing country to generate economic growth and create job opportunities. But China is also transforming and upgrading its economy.

Jingjing: I think it is a normal phenomenon in the developing world. Actually, Chinese companies have started to offshore production to less developed countries with cheaper labor.

Anything else you would like to share with our students? 

Luo Wang: As a pillar industry supporting China’s exports and foreign exchange earnings, the textile and apparel industry is a sector of strategic importance to China’s national economy. You can find the world’s most complete textile and apparel supply chain in China, from material planting to retailing. I would strongly recommend you to come and visit China, from its garment factories in Guangdong province (located in the South Part of China), online apparel retail businesses in Zhejiang Province (for example, Alibaba), to Shanghai where you can enjoy the most novel way of clothing shopping. Further, in today’s supply-chain based economy, China plays a critical role in linking the textile and apparel industry around the world. I am sure understanding China will help you shape a big picture of the global textile and apparel industry and beneficial for your future careers.

Questions from our DHU guests for FASH455 students:

  1. What do Americans think of “Made in China” today?
  2. Do the classes you take help with your career preparation?
  3. Have you taken any internship classes at UD? What did you do?

U.S.-Japan Trade Agreement (Updated: September 2019)

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On 16 September 2019, the Trump administration notified U.S. Congress of its intent to enter into a trade agreement on “tariff barriers” with Japan as well as an “executive agreement” on digital trade. According to the announcement, the Trump administration plans to utilize Section 103(a) of the 2015 Trade Promotion Authority law, which allows the president to modify tariffs WITHOUT congressional approval. While details of the tariff agreement are not yet available, U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer in August said the deal with Japan would focus on beef, pork, wheat, dairy products, wine, and ethanol, as well as on industrial goods.

The 16 September notification also says the Trump administration will “further negotiations with Japan to achieve a comprehensive trade agreement that results in more fair and reciprocal trade between the United States and Japan.” Such a more comprehensive trade agreement, however, will require congressional approval.

On December 21, 2018, Office of the U.S. Trade Representative (USTR) released negotiating objectives of the proposed U.S.-Japan Free Trade Agreement (USJTA). Overall, USJTA aims to address both tariff and non-tariff barriers to achieve fairer and more balanced trade between the two countries. Regarding the textiles and apparel sector, USTR says it will “secure duty-free access for U.S. textile and apparel products and seek to improve competitive opportunities for exports of U.S. textile and apparel products while taking into account U.S. import sensitivities” during the negotiation. USJTA also will “establish origin procedures for the certification and verification of rules of origin that promote strong enforcement, including with respect to textiles.”

Should the newly announced U.S.-Japan trade deal remove the tariffs for textiles and apparel traded between the two countries, the overall economic impact on related trade flows could be modest. Data from the UNComtrade shows that in 2018 U.S. imported $656 million textiles (SITC 26 and 65) and $88 million apparel (SITC 84) from Japan, accounting for 2.1% and 0.1% of total U.S. textile and apparel imports respectively. Meanwhile, in 2018 Japan imported around $353 million textiles and $121 million apparel from the U.S., accounting for 3.7% and 0.4% of Japan’s total textile and apparel imports that year respectively.

In comparison, over 70% of U.S. textile and apparel exports went to the Western-Hemisphere and U.S. imported textiles and apparel mostly from NAFTA & CAFTA-DR members and other Asian countries (such as China and Vietnam). Likewise, Japan also has a much closer trade tie with other Asian countries because of the regional textile and apparel trade patterns (or commonly known as “factory Asia”).

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On the other hand, the elimination of tariffs and potentially non-tariff barriers under the U.S.-Japan trade deal could expand the bilateral trade flows for technical textiles. Notably, the top categories of U.S. textile and apparel exports to Japan in 2018 were mostly technical textiles such as specialty and industrial fabrics, filament yarns, and non-woven textiles. Likewise, the top categories of Japan’s textile and apparel exports to the U.S. in 2018 also include special-purpose fabric, non-woven fabric, and synthetic filament fabrics.

Additionally, the textiles and apparel-specific rules of origin (RoO) is likely to remain a heated debate in the US-Japan trade negotiation. To protect the interests of the U.S. textile industry and the Western-Hemisphere regional textile and apparel supply chain, most free trade agreements enacted in the United States adopt the so-called “yarn-forward” RoO. Even though the U.S.-Japan trade agreement may not be a too big deal economically, the U.S. textile industry is unlikely to give up the RoO fight. However, most free trade agreements enacted in Japan adopt more liberal fabric-forward rules of origin (or commonly called “double transformation”). As textile and apparel production in Japan is increasingly integrated with other Asian countries, the strict “yarn-forward” RoO could prevent Japanese textile and apparel exporters from enjoying the preferential duty benefits under the U.S.-Japan trade agreement fully.

U.S. Textile and Apparel Industry is NOT Immune to the U.S.-China Tariff War

The full article is available HERE

This article tries to evaluate the potential impact of the U.S.-China tariff war on the U.S. textile and apparel (T&A) industry, including manufacturing and related trade activities.

The quantitative evaluation conducted is based on the Global Trade Analysis Project (GTAP) model. Data came from the latest GTAP9 database, which covers trade, employment and production in 57 sectors in 140 countries. In correspondence to the recent development of the U.S.-China tariff war, the analysis focuses on the following three scenarios:

  • Scenario 1: 10% punitive tariff + base year tariff rate in 2017 applied to products traded between the U.S. and China, except textiles and apparel
  • Scenario 2: 10% punitive tariff + base year tariff rate in 2017 applied to products traded between the U.S. and China, including textiles and apparel
  • Scenario 3: 25% punitive tariff + base year tariff rate in 2017 applied to products traded between the U.S. and China, including textiles and apparel

Three findings are of note:

First, the tariff war with China will increase the market price for T&A in the United States and consequentially incentivize more production of T&A “Made in the USA.” As shown in Figure 1, the annual U.S. T&A production will increase when the punitive tariff is imposed on textile and apparel imports from China. The most significant increase will happen in scenario 3 (textile output expands by US$8,829 million and apparel output expands by US$6,044 million) when a 25 percent punitive tariff is imposed and the market price of T&A in the U.S. also correspondingly goes up by nearly 1.5% compared with the base year level in 2017.

Second, the tariff war with China will hurt U.S. textile exports. The results show that the tariff war will increase the production cost of “Made in the USA,” and result in a decline of U.S. textile exports due to reduced price competitiveness. This is the case even in scenario 1 when the tariff war does not target T&A directly, but nevertheless, raises the price of intermediaries for producing textiles in the United States. The results further show that the annual U.S. textile exports will suffer the most significant decline in scenario 3 (down US$1,136 million), especially to China and other Asian countries where U.S. textile products are facing intense competition from local suppliers. In comparison, U.S. textile exports to the Western Hemisphere will suffer a loss as well in the tariff war, but to a much less extent due to the strong supply-chain relationship with the region.

Third, the trade diversion effect of the tariff war will bring in more apparel imports to the U.S. market from Asian suppliers other than China. As shown in the figure above, when the punitive tariff imposed on textile and apparel products, the value of U.S. apparel imports from China will decline ranging from US$4,573 million (10 percent punitive tariff imposed) to US$8,858 million (25 percent punitive tariff imposed) annually compared with the base year level in 2017. This result reflects U.S. apparel importers and retailers’ mounting concerns about sourcing cost in the setting of the tariff war. However, apparently, the tariff war will do little to help U.S. domestic apparel manufacturers reduce the competitive pressure with imports. Particularly, in scenario 3, U.S. apparel imports from suppliers other than China will increase as much as US$10,400 million, worsening the U.S. trade deficit in the apparel sector further.

by Sheng Lu

U.S. Apparel Retailers’ Shifting Sourcing Strategy for “Made in China” under the Shadow of the Tariff War

The full article is available HERE

Key findings:

First, U.S. fashion brands and retailers are sourcing less from China, particularly in quantity. Notably, the number of “Made in China” apparel newly launched to the market had significantly dropped from 26,758 SKUs in the first quarter of 2018 to only 8,352 SKUs in the first quarter of 2019 . Nevertheless, consistent with the macro-level trade statistics, China remains the single largest apparel supplier to the U.S. retail market.

Second, apparel “Made in China” are becoming more expensive in the U.S. retail market, yet remain price-competitive overall. Notably, apparel “Made in Vietnam” is becoming more expensive in the U.S. retail market too—an indication that as more production is moving from China to Vietnam, apparel producers and exporters in Vietnam are facing growing cost pressures.

Third, U.S. fashion retailers are shifting what apparel products they source from China. U.S. apparel retailers have been sourcing less 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 2018. The shifting product structure could also be a factor that contributed to the rising average retail price of “Made in China” in the U.S. market.

On the other hand, U.S. retailers adopt a very different product assortment strategy for apparel sourced from China versus other regions of the world. There seems to be much fewer alternative sourcing destinations for more sophisticated product categories, such as accessories and outerwear. Somehow ironically, moving to source more sophisticated and higher value-added products from China could make U.S. fashion brands and retailers even MORE vulnerable to the tariff war because of fewer alternative sourcing destinations.

In conclusion, the results imply that China will remain a critical sourcing destination for U.S. fashion brands and retailers in the near future, regardless of the scenario of the U.S.-China tariff war. Meanwhile, we should expect U.S. fashion companies continue to adjust their sourcing strategy for apparel “Made in China” in response to the escalation of the tariff war.

Related reading: Trade war to hit high-end US fashion brands dependent on specialized Chinese manufacturing

Cambodia May Lose Its Eligibility for European Union’s Everything But Arms (EBA) Program

Last week in FASH455, we discussed the unique critical role played by textile and apparel trade in generating economic growth in many developing countries. The developed countries also use trade policy tools, such as trade preference programs, to encourage the least developed countries (LDCs) making and exporting more apparel. However, a debate on these trade programs is that they have done little to improve the genuine competitiveness of LDCs’ apparel exports in the world marketplace, but instead have made LDCs rely heavily on these trade programs to continue their apparel exports. Here is one more example:

With growing concerns about “the deterioration of democracy, respect for human rights and the rule of law in Cambodia”, in a statement made on February 12, 2019, the European Union says it has started the process that could lead to a temporary suspension of Cambodia’s eligibility for EU’s Everything But Arms (EBA) program. Specifically, the EU process will include the following three stages:

  • Stage 1: six months of intensive monitoring and engagement with the Cambodian government;
  • Stage 2: another three months for the EU to produce a report based on the findings in stage 1
  • Stage 3: after a total of twelve months in stages 1 & 2, the EU Commission will conclude the procedure with a final decision on whether or not to withdraw tariff preferences; it is also at this stage that the Commission will decide the scope and duration of the withdrawal. Any withdrawal would come into effect after a further six-month period.

However, the EU Commission also stressed that launching the temporary withdrawal procedure does not entail an immediate removal of Cambodia’s preferential access to the EU market, which “would be the option of last resort.”

Developed in 2001, the EBA program establishes duty-free and quota-free treatment for all Least Developed Countries (LDCs) in the EU market. EBA includes almost all industries other than arms and armaments. As of February 2019, there are 49 EBA beneficiary countries.

The EBA program has benefited the apparel sector in particular given clothing accounts for the lion’s share in many LDCs’ total merchandise exports. Because of the preferential duty benefits provided by EBA, many LDCs can compete with other competitive apparel powerhouses such as China. Notably, the EBA program also adopts the “cut and sew” rules of origin for apparel, which is more general than the “double transformation” rules of origin typically required by EU free trade agreement and trade preference programs. Under the “cut and sew” rule, Cambodia’s apparel exports to the EU can enjoy the import duty-free treatment while using yarns and fabrics sourced from anywhere in the world.

Cambodia is a major apparel supplier for the EU market, accounting for approximately 4% of EU’s total apparel imports in 2017. Exporting apparel to EU through the EBA program is also of particular importance to Cambodia economically. In 2016, the apparel sector created over 500,000 jobs in Cambodia, of whom 86% were female, working in 556 registered factories. According to Eurostat, of EU’s €4.9bn imports from Cambodia in 2017, around 74.9% were apparel (HS chapters 61 and 62). Meanwhile, of EU’s €3.7bn apparel imports from Cambodia in 2017, as high as 96.6% claimed the EBA benefits. Understandably, losing the EBA eligibility could hurt Cambodia’s apparel exports to the EU significantly.

Outlook 2019: Apparel Industry Issues in the Year Ahead

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

3: What should apparel firms and their suppliers be doing now if they want to remain competitive further into the future? What will separate the winners from the losers?

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

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

4: What keeps you awake at night? Is there anything else you think the apparel industry should be keeping a close eye on in the year ahead? Do you expect 2019 to be better than 2018, and why?

Two things are at the top of my watchlist:

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

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

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

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Regional Supply Chain Remains an Import Feature of World Textile and Apparel Trade

The full article is available HERE

Key findings:

The deepening of the regional production and trade network(RPTN) is a critical factor behind the increasing concentration of world textile and apparel exports. RPTN refers to the phenomenon that geographically proximate countries form a regional supply chain.

In general, three primary textile and apparel regional supply chains are operating in the world today:

Asia: within this regional supply chain, more economically advanced Asian countries (such asJapan, South Korea, and China) supply textile raw material to the less economically developed countries in the region (such as Bangladesh, Cambodia, and Vietnam). 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 around the world.

Europe: within this regional supply chain, developed countries in Southern and Western Europe such as Italy, France, and Germany, serve as the primary textile suppliers. Regarding apparel manufacturing in EU, products for the mass markets are typically produced by developing countries in Southern and Eastern Europe such as Poland and Romania, whereas high-end luxury products are mostly produced by Southern and Western European countries such as Italy and France. Furthermore, a high portion of finished apparel is shipped to developed EU members such as UK, Germany, France, and Italy for consumption.

Western-Hemisphere(WH): within this regional supply chain, the United States serves as the leading textile supplier, whereas developing countries in North, Central andSouth 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 UnitedStates or Canada for consumption.

Associated with these regional production and trade networks, three particular trade flows are important to watch:

First, Asian countries are increasingly sourcing textile inputs from within the region. In2017, close to 80 percent of Asian countries’ textile imports came from other Asian countries, up from around 70 percent in the 2000s.

Second, the pattern of EU intra-region trade for textile and apparel stays strong and stable. Intra-region trade refers to trade flows between EU members. In 2017, 55 percent of EU countries’ textile imports and 47 percent of EU countries’ apparel imports came from within the EU region. Over the same period, 68 percent of EU countries’ textile exports and 75 percent of their apparel exports also went to other EU countries.

Third, trade flows under the Western-Hemisphere textile and apparel supply chain are becoming more unbalanced. On the one hand, textile and apparel exporters in the Western-Hemisphere still rely heavily on the region. In 2017, respectively as much as 80 percent of textiles and 89 percent of apparel exports from countries in the Western Hemisphere went to the same region.  However, on the other hand, the operation of the Western-Hemisphere supply chain is facing growing competition from Asian suppliers. For example,  in 2017, only 24.8 percent of North, South and Central American countries’ textile imports and 15.7 percent of their apparel imports came from within the region, a record low in the past ten years.

Look ahead, it will be interesting to see how will the reaching and implementation of several new free trade agreements, such as CPTPP, RCEP, EU-Vietnam FTA, and the potential US-EU and US-Japan FTAs,  affect the regional pattern of world textile and apparel trade.

Recommended citation: Lu,S. (2018). How regional supply chains are shaping world textile and apparel trade. Just-Style. Retrieved from https://www.just-style.com/analysis/how-regional-supply-chains-are-shaping-world-textile-and-apparel-trade_id135021.aspx

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

by Sheng Lu

Asia’s Growth Potential as an Apparel Sourcing Base—Discussion Questions from FASH455

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#1 In 2017, over 75 percent of U.S. apparel imports came from Asia (including around 35 percent from China, 13 percent from Vietnam, and 6 percent from Bangladesh). Based on the readings and our class discussions, why or why not do you think Asia’s market share may continue to rise in the years ahead?

#2 Vietnam is often treated as the “next China” for apparel sourcing. However, some argue that Vietnam’s export potential for apparel could be more limited than we anticipated because of its small population size. What is your evaluation?

#3 It does not seem U.S. companies have a particular role to play in the Asia-based textile and apparel supply chain because of the “flying geese” pattern. What is your view?

#4 If U.S. and China were able to solve the trade dispute by early next year, would sourcing from China become popular again among U.S. fashion brands and apparel retailers? What are the most critical factors that drive China’s competitiveness as an apparel sourcing base in the next five years? Overall, is “Made in China” over?

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

CPTPP Tariff Phaseout Schedule for Textiles and Apparel

The Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP),  signed on March 8, 2018, is a new free trade agreement between Australia, Brunei, Canada, Chile, Japan, Malaysia, Mexico, New Zealand, Peru, Singapore, and Vietnam. Once the CPTPP enters into force, it will be one of the largest free trade agreements in the world and will provide enhanced market access to key Asian markets. Below is the detailed tariff phaseout schedule for textile and apparel products by CPTPP members:

CPTPP

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by Sheng Lu

Automation Comes to Fashion

Video Discussion Questions:

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

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

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

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

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

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

Outlook 2018: Apparel Industry Issues in the Year Ahead

Outlook 2019: Apparel Industry Issues in the Year Ahead is available 

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In January 2018, Just-Style consulted a panel of industry leaders and scholars in its Outlook 2018–Apparel Industry Issues in the Year Ahead management briefing. Below is my contribution to the report. All suggestions and comments are most welcome!

1. What do you see as the biggest challenges – and opportunities – facing the apparel industry in 2018, and why?

One of the biggest opportunities facing the apparel industry in 2018 could be the faster growth of the world economy. According to the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the global growth forecast for 2018 is expected to reach 3.7 percent, about 0.1 percent points higher than 2017 and 0.6 percent points higher than 2016. Notably, the upward economic growth will be broad-based, including the United States, the Euro area, Japan, China, emerging Europe and Russia. Hopefully, the improved growth of the world economy will translate into increased consumer demand for clothing in 2018.

Nevertheless, from the macroeconomic perspective, oversupply will remain a significant challenge facing the apparel industry in 2018. Data from the World Bank and the World Trade Organization (WTO) shows that, while the world population increased by 21.6 percent between 2000 and 2016, the value of clothing exports (inflation-adjusted) surged by 123.5 percent over the same period. Similarly, between 2000 and 2016, the total U.S. population increased by 14.5 percent and the GDP per capita increased by 22.2 percent, but the supply of apparel to the U.S. retail market surged by over 67.8 percent during the same time frame. The problem of oversupply is the root of many challenges faced by apparel companies today, from the intense market competition, pressure of controlling production and sourcing cost, struggling with excessive inventory and deep discounts to balancing sustainability and business growth.

2: What’s happening with sourcing? How is the sourcing landscape likely to shift in 2018, and what can apparel firms and their suppliers do to stay ahead?

The 2017 US Fashion Industry Benchmarking Study, which I conducted in collaboration with the US Fashion Industry Association (USFIA) earlier this year, provides some interesting insights into companies’ latest sourcing strategies and trends. Based on a survey of 34 executives at the leading U.S. fashion companies, we find that:

First, most surveyed companies continue to maintain a relatively diversified sourcing base, with 57.6 percent currently sourcing from 10+ different countries or regions, up from 51.8 percent last year. Larger companies, in general, continue to have a more diversified sourcing base than smaller companies. Further, around 54 percent of respondents expect their sourcing base will become more diversified in the next two years, up from 44 percent in 2016; over 60 percent of those expecting to diversify currently source from more than 10 different countries or regions already. Given the uncertainties in the market and the regulatory environment (such as the Trump Administration’s trade policy agenda), companies may use diversification to mitigate potential market risks and supply chain disruptions due to protectionism.

Second, although U.S. fashion companies continue to seek alternatives to “Made in China” actively, China’s position as top sourcing destination remains unshakable. Many respondents attribute China’s competitiveness to its enormous manufacturing capacity and overall supply chain efficiency. Meanwhile, it is interesting to note that the most common sourcing model is shifting from “China Plus Many” to “China Plus Vietnam Plus Many” (i.e. China typically accounts for 30-50 percent of total sourcing value or volume, 11-30 percent for Vietnam and less than 10 percent for other sourcing destinations). I think this sourcing model will likely to continue in 2018.

Third, social responsibility and sustainability continue to grow in importance in sourcing decisions. In the study, we find that nearly 90 percent of respondents give more weight to sustainability when choosing where to source now than in the past. Around 90 percent of respondents also say they map their supply chains, i.e., keeping records of name, location, and function of suppliers. Notably, more than half of respondents track not only Tier 1 suppliers, suppliers they contract with directly, but also Tier 2 suppliers, i.e., supplier’s suppliers. However, the result also suggests that a more diversified sourcing base makes it more difficult to monitor supply chains closely. Making the apparel supply chain more socially responsible, sustainable and transparent will continue to be a hot topic in 2018.

3: What should apparel firms and their suppliers be doing now if they want to remain competitive further into the future? What will separate the winners from the losers?

I assume many experts will suggest what apparel firms should change to stay competitive into the future. However, the question in my mind is what should companies keep doing regardless of the external business environment? First, I think companies should always strive to understand and impress consumers and control their supply chains. Despite the growing popularity of e-commerce and the adoption of transformative new technologies, the fundamental nature of apparel as a buyer-driven business will remain the same. Second, companies should always leverage their resources and stay “unique,” no matter it means offering differentiated products or value-added services, maintaining exclusive distribution channels or keeping the leadership position in a particular niche market. Third, apparel firms should always follow the principle of “comparative advantage” and smartly define the scope of their core business functions instead of trying to do everything. Additionally, winners will always be those companies that can take advantage of the mega-development trends of the industry and be willing to make long-term and visionary investments, both physical and intangible (such as human talents).

4: What keeps you awake at night? Is there anything else you think the apparel industry should be keeping a close eye on in the year ahead? Do you expect 2018 to be better than 2017, and why?

I think the apparel industry should keep a close eye on the following issues in 2018:

  • The destiny of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA): The potential policy change to NAFTA means so much to the U.S. textile and apparel industry as well as suppliers in other parts of the world. Notably, through a regional textile and apparel supply chain facilitated by the agreement over the past 23 years, the NAFTA region has grown into the single largest export market for U.S. textile and apparel products as well as a major apparel sourcing base for U.S. fashion brands and retailers. In 2016, as much as half of U.S. textile and apparel exports went to the NAFTA region, totaling US$11billion, and U.S. apparel imports from Mexico and Canada exceeded US$3.9billion. Understandably, if NAFTA no longer exists, sweeping changes in the trade rules, such as import duties, could significantly affect the sourcing and manufacturing behaviors of U.S. textile and apparel companies and consequentially alter the current textile and apparel trade patterns in the NAFTA region. For example, Mexico’s focus on basic apparel items suggests that U.S. importers could quickly source from elsewhere if duty savings under NAFTA are eliminated.
  • The possible reaching of the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP): Even though RCEP is less well-known than the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), we should not ignore the potential impact of the agreement on the future landscape of textile and apparel supply chain in the Asia-Pacific region. One recent study of mine shows that the RCEP will lead to a more integrated textile and apparel supply chain among its members but make it even harder for non-RCEP members to get involved in the regional T&A supply chain in the Asia-Pacific. This conclusion is backed by the latest data from the World Trade Organization (WTO): In 2016, around 91 percent of Asian countries’ textile imports came from other Asian countries, up from 86 percent in 2006. The more efficient regional supply chain as a result of RCEP will further help improve the price competitiveness of apparel made by “factory Asia” in the world marketplace. Particularly in the past few years, textile and apparel exports from Asia have already posted substantial pressures on the operation of the textile and apparel regional supply chain in the Western Hemisphere.
  • Automation of apparel manufacturing and its impact on the job market: Recall my observations at the MAGIC this August, several vendors showcased their latest technologies which have the potential to automate the cut and sew process entirely or substantially reduce the labor inputs in garment making. The impact of automation on the future of jobs is not a new topic, but the apparel industry presents a unique situation. Globally, over 120 million people remain directly employed in the textile and apparel industries today, a good proportion of whom are females living in poor rural areas. According to the World Trade Organization (WTO), for quite a few low-income and lower-middle income countries such as Bangladesh, Gambia, Pakistan, Madagascar, Sri Lanka, and Cambodia, as much as over 70 percent of their total merchandise exports were textile and apparel products in 2016. Should these labor-intensive garment sewing jobs in the developing countries were replaced by machines, the social and economic impacts will be consequential. I think it is the time to start thinking about the possible scenarios and the appropriate policy responses.