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?  

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]

Fashion Education in China: An Exclusive Dialogue with Fashion Majors from the Donghua University (September 2018)

(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?

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!