What Do Fashion Companies Say about China As an Apparel Sourcing Base? (Updated January 2023)

This study aims to understand western fashion brands and retailers’ latest China apparel sourcing strategies against the evolving business environment. We conducted a content analysis of about 30 leading fashion companies’ public corporate filings (i.e., annual or quarterly financial reports and earnings call transcripts) submitted from June 1, 2022 to December 31, 2022.

The results suggest several themes:

First, China remains one of the most frequently used apparel sourcing destinations. For example:

  • Express says, “The top five countries from which we sourced our merchandise in 2021 were Vietnam, China, Indonesia, Bangladesh and the Philippines, based on total cost of merchandise purchased.”
  • According to TJX, “a significant amount of merchandise we offer for sale is made in China.”
  • Children’s Place says, “We source from a diversified network of vendors, purchasing primarily from Vietnam, Cambodia, Indonesia, Ethiopia, Bangladesh, and China.
  • Ralph Lauren adds, “In Fiscal 2022, approximately 97% of our products (by dollar value) were produced outside of the US, primarily in Asia, Europe, and Latin America, with approximately 19% of our products sourced from China and another 19% from Vietnam.

However, many fashion companies have significantly cut their apparel sourcing volume from China. More often, China is no longer the No.1 apparel sourcing destination, overtaken by China’s competitors in Asia, such as Vietnam.

  • According to Lululemon, “During 2021, approximately 40% of our products were manufactured in Vietnam, 17% in Cambodia, 11% in Sri Lanka, 7% in China (PRC), including 2% in Taiwan, and the remainder in other regions… From a sourcing perspective, when looking at finished goods for the upcoming 2022 fall season, Mainland China represents only 4% to 6% of our total unit volume.”
  • Levi’s says, “The good thing about our supply chain is we’ve got truly a global footprint. We don’t manufacture a whole lot in China anymore. We’ve been slowly divesting manufacturing out of China, if you will, and kind of playing our chips elsewhere on the global map… Less than 1% of what we’re bringing into this country, into the US, less than 1% of it is coming from China.”
  • Adidas says, “In 2021, we sourced 91% of the total apparel volume from Asia (2020: 93%). Cambodia is the largest sourcing country, representing 21% of the produced volume (2020: 22%), followed by China with 20% (2020: 20%) and Vietnam with 15% (2020: 21%).”
  • Victoria’s Secret says, “On China, China is a single-digit percentage of our total inflow of merchandise. We’re not particularly dependent on China at all.”
  • Nike: “As of May 31, 2022, we were supplied by 279 finished goods apparel contract factories located in 33 countries. For fiscal 2022, contract factories in Vietnam, China and Cambodia manufactured approximately 26%, 20% and 16% of total NIKE Brand apparel, respectively

Meanwhile, fashion companies still heavily use China as a sourcing base for textile raw materials (such as fabrics). For example:

  • Columbia Sportswear says it sources most of its finished products from Vietnam, but “a large portion of the raw materials used in our products is sourced by our contract manufacturers in China.
  • Likewise, Puma says, “90% of our recycled polyester comes from Vietnam, China, Taiwan (China) and Korea.
  • Guess says, “During fiscal 2022, we sourced most of our finished products with partners and suppliers outside the U.S. and we continued to design and purchase fabrics globally, with most coming from China.”
  • Lulumemon says, “Approximately 48% of the fabric used in our products originated from Taiwan, 19% from China Mainland, 11% from Sri Lanka, and the remainder from other regions.

Second, Western fashion companies unanimously ranked the COVID situation as one of their top concerns for China. Many companies reported significant sales revenue and profits loss due to China’s draconian “zero-COVID” policy and lockdown measures. For example,

  • Tapestry says, “For Greater China, sales declined 11% due to lockdowns and business disruption… as a result, we have tempered our fiscal year 2023 outlook based on the expectation for a delayed recovery in China.”
  • Adidas says, “With Great China… we continue to see several market-specific challenges that are affecting our entire industry. The strict zero COVID-19 policy with nationwide restrictions remains in place amid more than 2000 daily new COVID-19 cases in November. As a consequence, offline traffic is subdued due to the imminent risk of new lockdowns.
  • Under Armour says, “Ongoing impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic and related preventative and protective actions in China…have negatively impacted consumer traffic and demand and may continue to negatively impact our financial results.
  • VF Corporation says, “The performance in Greater China…continues to be impacted by widespread rolling COVID lockdowns and restrictions as well as lower consumer spending.
  • Puma says, “COVID-19-related restrictions are still impacting business in Greater China, and higher freight rates and raw material prices continue to put pressure on margins.”

Notably, despite China’s most recent COVID policy U-turn, most fashion companies expect market uncertainties to stay in China, at least in the short run, given the surging COVID cases and policy unpredictability. For example:

  • PVH says, “While we remain optimistic about our business in China, it continues to be a challenging environment as restrictions have once again intensified in the fourth quarter of 2022.”
  • Nike says, “So we’ve taken a very cautious approach in our guidance to China, given the short-term uncertainties that are there.”
  • Abercrombie & Fitch also listed China’s COVID situation as one of their top risk factors, “risks and uncertainty related to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, including lockdowns in China, and any other adverse public health developments.”

Third, fashion companies report the negative impacts of US-China trade tensions on their businesses. Also, as the US-China relationship sours, fashion bands and retailers have been actively watching the potential effect of geopolitics. For example,

  • Express says, “recent geopolitical conditions, including impacts from the ongoing conflict between Russia and Ukraine and increased tensions between China and Taiwan, have all contributed to disruptions and rising costs to global supply chains.”
  • When assessing the market risk factors, Chico’s FAS says, “our reliance on sourcing from foreign suppliers and significant adverse economic, labor, political or other shifts (including adverse changes in tariffs, taxes or other import regulations, particularly with respect to China, or legislation prohibiting certain imports from China)
  • Adidas holds the same view, “In addition, the challenging market environment in China had an adverse impact on the company’s business activities… Additional challenges included the geopolitical situation in China and extended lockdown measures.”
  • Macy’s adds, “At this time, it is unknown how long US tariffs on Chinese goods will remain in effect or whether additional tariffs will be imposed. Depending upon their duration and implementation, as well as our ability to mitigate their impact, these changes in foreign trade policy and any recently enacted, proposed and future tariffs on products imported by us from China could negatively impact our business, results of operations and liquidity if they seriously disrupt the movement of products through our supply chain or increase their cost.
  • Gap Inc. says, “Trade matters may disrupt our supply chain. For example, the current political landscape, including with respect to U.S.-China relations, and recent tariffs and bans imposed by the United States and other countries (such as the Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act) has introduced greater uncertainty with respect to future tax and trade regulations.
  • QVC says, “The imposition of any new US tariffs or other restrictions on Chinese imports or the taking of other actions against China in the future, and any responses by China, could impair our ability to meet customer demand and could result in lost sales or an increase in our cost of merchandise, which would have a material adverse impact on our business and results of operations.”

Additionally, NO evidence shows that fashion companies are decoupling with China. Instead, Western fashion companies, especially those with a global presence, still hold an optimistic view of China as a long-term business opportunity. For example:

  • Inditex, which owns Zara, says, “we remain absolutely confident about our opportunities there (in China) in the medium to long term. Fashion demand continues to be strong in China. For sure it will remain a core market for us for Inditex.”
  • Ralph Lauren says, “China provides not only the successful blueprint for our elevated ecosystem strategy globally, it also represents one of several geographic long-term opportunities for our brand…We continue to see near and long term brand opportunities in China.”
  • Lululemon says, “On China, we remain very excited…we remain very, very excited about the potential and the role that will play in quadrupling our international business with Mainland China.”
  • Nike says, “We have remained committed to investing in Greater China for the long term.”
  • Adidas says, “On China, clearly, we believe in as a midterm opportunity in China… And then when the market opens up (from COVID), we believe, the western brand is well-positioned in China again, and we can start growing significant in China again.”

Meanwhile, Western fashion companies plan to make more efforts to localize their product offer and cater to the specific needs of Chinese consumers, especially the young generation. The “Made in China for China” strategy could become more popular among Western fashion companies. For example,

  • PVH says, “So, I think in general, our production in China is heavily oriented to China for China production. I think for us generally speaking, the biggest impact of the shutdowns that we’ve seen across Shanghai and Beijing has really been focused on the impact to our China market.”
  • Likewise, Levi’s says, “We’re manufacturing somewhere in the neighborhood of 5% of our global production is in China, and most of it staying in China.
  • Hanesbrands says, “we’re committed to opening new stores, and that’s continues to go well, despite, the challenges that are there. Looking specifically at Champion, we continued our expansion in China adding new stores in the quarter through our partners.”
  • H&M says, “we still see China as an important market for us.
  • According to Hugo Boss, “Thanks to overall robust local demand, revenues in China in 2021 grew 24% as compared to 2019.”
  • VF Corporation adds, “China is a significant opportunity…(We are) really pushing decision-making into the regions and providing more and more latitude for local-for-local decision-makings around product, around storytelling, certainly staying within the confines or the framework of the brand strategy, but really giving more freedom and more empowerment to the regions.”

by Sheng Lu

Further reading: Lu, S. (2023). Is China a business opportunity or liability for fashion companies in 2023? Just Style. https://www.just-style.com/features/is-china-a-business-opportunity-or-liability-for-fashion-companies/

Outlook 2023– Key Issues to Shape Apparel Sourcing and Trade

In December 2022, Just-Style consulted a panel of industry experts and scholars in its Outlook 2023–what’s next for apparel sourcing briefing. Below is my contribution to the report. All comments and suggestions are more than welcome!

2023 is likely another year full of challenges and opportunities for the global apparel industry.

First, the apparel industry may face a slowed world economy and weakened consumer demand in 2023. Apparel is a buyer-driven industry, meaning the sector’s volume of trade and production is highly sensitive to the macroeconomic environment. Amid hiking inflation, high energy costs, and retrenchment of global supply chains, leading international economic agencies, from the World Bank to the International Monetary Fund (IMF), unanimously predict a slowing economy worldwide in the new year. Likewise, the World Trade Organization (WTO) forecasts that the world merchandise trade will grow at around 1% in 2023, much lower than 3.5% in 2022. As estimated, the world apparel trade may marginally increase between 0.8% and 1.5% in the new year, the lowest since 2021. On the other hand, the falling demand may somewhat help reduce the rising sourcing cost pressure facing fashion companies in the new year.

Second, fashion brands and retailers will likely continue leveraging sourcing diversification and strengthening relationships with key vendors in response to the turbulent market environment. According to the 2022 fashion industry benchmarking study I conducted in collaboration with the US Fashion Industry Association (USFIA), nearly 40 percent of surveyed US fashion companies plan to “source from more countries and work with more suppliers” through 2024. Notably, “improving flexibility and reducing resourcing risks,” “reducing sourcing from China,” and “exploring near-sourcing opportunities” were among the top driving forces of fashion companies’ sourcing diversification strategies. Meanwhile, it is not common to see fashion companies optimize their supplier base and work with “fewer vendors.” For example, fashion companies increasingly prefer working with the so-called “super-vendors,” i.e., those suppliers with multiple-country manufacturing capability or can make textiles and apparel vertically, to achieve sourcing flexibility and agility. Hopefully, we could also see a more balanced supplier-importer relationship in the new year as more fashion companies recognize the value of “putting suppliers at the core.”

Third, improving sourcing sustainability and sourcing apparel products using sustainable textile materials will gain momentum in the new year. On the one hand, with growing expectations from stakeholders and pushed by new regulations, fashion companies will make additional efforts to develop a more sustainable, socially responsible, and transparent apparel supply chain. For example, more and more fashion brands and retailers have voluntarily begun releasing their supplier information to the public, such as factory names, locations, production functions, and compliance records. Also, new traceability technologies and closer collaboration with vendors enable fashion companies to understand their raw material suppliers much better than in the past. Notably, the rich supplier data will be new opportunities for fashion companies to optimize their existing supply chains and improve operational efficiency.

On the other hand, with consumers’ increasing interest in fashion sustainability and reducing the environmental impact of textile waste, fashion companies increasingly carry clothing made from recycled textile materials. My latest studies show that sourcing clothing made from recycled textile materials may help fashion companies achieve business benefits beyond the positive environmental impacts. For example, given the unique supply chain composition and production requirements, China appeared to play a less dominant role as a supplier of clothing made from recycled textile materials. Instead, in the US retail market, a substantial portion of such products was “Made in the USA” or came from emerging sourcing destinations in America (e.g., El Salvador, Nicaragua) and Africa (e.g., Tunisia and Morocco). In other words, sourcing clothing made from recycled textile materials could help fashion companies with several goals they have been trying to achieve, such as reducing dependence on sourcing from China, expanding near sourcing, and diversifying their sourcing base. Related, we are likely to see more public dialogue regarding how trade policy tools, such as preferential tariffs, may support fashion companies’ efforts to source more clothing using recycled or other eco-friendly textile materials.

Additionally, the debates on fashion companies’ China sourcing strategy and how to meaningfully expand near-sourcing could intensify in 2023. Regarding China, fashion companies’ top concerns and related public policy debates next year may include:

  • How to fully comply with the Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act (UFLPA) and reduce the forced labor risks in the supply chain?
  • What to do with Section 301 tariff actions against imports from China, including the tariff exclusion process?
  • How to reduce “China exposure” further in sourcing, especially regarding textile raw materials?
  • How should fashion companies respond and mitigate the business impacts of China’s shifting COVID policy and a new wave of COVID surge?
  • What contingency plan will be should the geopolitical tensions in the Asia-Pacific region directly affect shipping from the region?

Meanwhile, driven by various economic and non-economic factors, fashion companies will likely further explore ways to “bring the supply chain closer to home” in 2023. However, the near-shoring discussion will become ever more technical and detailed. For example, to expand near-shoring from the Western Hemisphere, more attention will be given to the impact of existing free trade agreements and their specific mechanisms (e.g., short supply in CAFTA-DR) on fashion companies’ sourcing practices. Even though we may not see many conventional free trade agreements newly launched, 2023 will be another busy year for textile and apparel trade policy deliberation, especially behind the scene and on exciting new topics.

By Sheng Lu

US-China Tariff War and Apparel Sourcing: A Four-Year Review (updated December 2022)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Debate on the impact of the US-China tariff war

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

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

First, despite the Section 301 tariff action, China remained a critical apparel sourcing base for many US fashion companies with no practical alternative. Trade statistics show that four years into the tariff war, China still accounted for nearly 40 percent of US apparel imports in quantity and about one-third in value as of 2021. According to the latest data, in the first ten months of 2022, China remained the top apparel supplier, accounting for 35% of US apparel imports in quantity and 22.2% in value. Studies also consistently find that US fashion companies rely on China to fulfill orders requiring a small minimum order quantity, flexibility, and a great variety of product assortment.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The first approach was to switch to China’s alternatives. Trade statistics suggest that Asian countries such as Vietnam and Bangladesh picked up most of China’s lost market shares in the US apparel import market. For example, in 2022 (Jan-Nov), Asian countries excluding China accounted for 51.2% of US apparel imports, a substantial increase from 41.2% in 2018 before the tariff war. In comparison, about 16.4% of U.S. apparel imports came from the Western Hemisphere in 2021 (Jan-Nov), lower than 17.0% in 2018. In other words, no evidence shows that Section 301 tariffs have expanded U.S. apparel sourcing from the Western Hemisphere.

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

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

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

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

In conclusion, with USTR’s latest announcement, the debate on Section 301 and the outlook of China as a textile and apparel sourcing base will continue. Notably, while economic factors matter, we shall not ignore the impact of non-economic factors on the fate of the Section 301 tariff action against China. For example, with the implementation of the Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act (UFLPA), only about 10% of US cotton apparel imports came from China in the first ten months of 2022 (latest data available), the lowest in a decade.  As the overall US-China bilateral trade relationship significantly deteriorated in recent years and the friction between the two countries expanded into highly politically sensitive areas, the Biden administration could “willfully” choose to keep the Section 301 tariff as negotiation leverage. Domestically, President Biden also didn’t want to look “weak” on his China policy, given the bipartisan support for taking on China’s rise.

by Sheng Lu

Suggested citation: Lu, S. (2022). US-China Tariff War and Apparel Sourcing: A Four-Year Review. FASH455 global apparel and textile trade and sourcing. https://shenglufashion.com/2022/09/10/us-china-tariff-war-and-apparel-sourcing-a-four-year-review/

WTO Reports World Textiles and Clothing Trade in 2021

This article provided a comprehensive review of the world textiles and clothing trade patterns in 2021 based on the newly released data from the World Trade Statistical Review 2022 and the United Nations (UNComtrade). Affected by the ongoing pandemic and companies’ evolving production and sourcing strategies in response to the shifting business environment, the world textiles and clothing trade patterns in 2021 included both continuities and new trends. Specifically:

Pattern #1: As the world economy recovered from COVID, the world clothing export boomed in 2021, while the world textile exports grew much slower due to a high trade volume the year before. Specifically, thanks to consumers’ strong demand, world clothing exports in 2021 fully bounced back to the pre-COVID level and exceeded $548.8bn, a substantial increase of 21.9% from 2020. The apparel sector is not alone. With economic activities mostly resumed, the world merchandise trade in 2021 also jumped 26.5% from a year ago, the fastest growth in decades.

In comparison, the value of world textiles exports grew slower at 7.8% in 2021 (i.e., reached $354.2bn), lagging behind most sectors. However, such a pattern was understandable as the textile trade maintained a high level in 2020, driven by high demand for personal protective equipment (PPE) during the pandemic.

Nevertheless, the world textiles and clothing trade could face strong headwinds down the road due to a slowing world economy and consumers’ weakened demand.  Notably, amid hiking inflation, high energy costs, and retrenchment of global supply chains, leading international economic agencies, from the World Bank to the International Monetary Fund (IMF), unanimously predict a slowing economy worldwide. Likewise, the World Trade Organization (WTO) forecasts that the growth of world merchandise trade will be cut to 3.5% in 2022 and down further to only 1% in 2023. As a result, the world textiles and clothing trade will likely struggle with stagnant growth or a modest decline over the next two years.

Pattern #2: COVID did NOT fundamentally shift the competitive landscape of textile exports but affected the export product structure. Meanwhile, some long-term structural changes in world textile exports continued in 2021.

Specifically, China, the European Union (EU), and India remained the world’s three largest textile exporters in 2021, a pattern that has stayed stable for over a decade. Together, these top three accounted for 68% of the world’s textile exports in 2021, similar to 66.9% before the pandemic (2018-2019). Other textile exporters that made it to the top ten list in 2021 were also the same as a year ago and before the pandemic (2018-2019).

Meanwhile, the growth rate of the top ten textile exporters varied significantly in 2021, ranging from -5.5% (China) to 47.8% (India). The demand shift from PPE to apparel-related yarns and fabrics was a critical contributing factor behind the phenomenon. For example, China’s PPE-related textile exports decreased by more than $33bn (or down 43%) in 2021. In contrast, the world knit fabric exports (SITC code 655) surged by more than 30% in 2021, led by India (up 74%) and Pakistan (up 72%). Nevertheless, as consumers’ lifestyles almost reached a “new normal,” we could expect the textile export product structure to stabilize soon.

On the other hand, as a trend already emerged before the pandemic, middle-income developing countries continued to play a more significant role in textile exports, whereas developed countries lost market shares. For example, the United States, Germany, and Italy led the world’s textile exports in the 2000s, accounting for more than 20% of the market shares. However, these three countries’ shares fell to 12.8% in 2019 and hit a new low of 11.3% in 2021. In comparison, middle-income developing countries like China, Vietnam, Turkey, and India have entered the development stage of expanding textile manufacturing. As a result, their market share in the world’s textile exports rose steadily. These countries also achieved a more balanced textiles/clothing export ratio over the years, meaning more textile raw materials like yarns and fabrics can be locally produced instead of relying on imports. For example, Vietnam, known for its competitive clothing products, achieved a new high of $11.5bn in textile exports in 2021 and ranked sixth globally. Vietnam’s textiles/clothing ratio also doubled from 0.15 in 2005 to 0.37 in 2021. It is not unlikely that Vietnam’s textile exports may surpass the United States over the next few years.

Pattern #3: Countries with large-scale production capacity stood out in world clothing exports in 2021. Meanwhile, clothing exporters compete to become China’s alternatives, but there seems to be no clear winner yet.

Consumers’ surging demand and COVID-related supply chain disruptions significantly impacted the world’s clothing export patterns in 2021. As fashion brands and retailers were eager to find sourcing capacity, countries with large-scale production capacity and relatively stable supply enjoyed the fastest growth in clothing exports. For example, except for Vietnam, which suffered several months of COVID lockdowns, all other top five clothing exporters enjoyed a more than 20% growth of their exports in 2021, such as China (up 24%), Bangladesh (up 30%), Turkey (up 22%), and India (up 24%).

As another critical trend, many international fashion brands and retailers have been trying to reduce their apparel sourcing from China, driven by various economic and non-economic factors, from cost considerations and trade tensions to geopolitics. Notably, despite its strong performance in 2021, China accounted for only 23.1% of US apparel imports in 2022 (January to September), much lower than 36.2% in 2015. Likewise, China’s market shares in the EU, Japanese, and Canadian clothing import markets also fell over the same period, suggesting this was a worldwide phenomenon.  

With reduced apparel sourcing from China, fashion companies have actively sought alternative sourcing destinations, but the latest trade data suggests no clear winner yet. For example, Vietnam and Bangladesh, the two most popular candidates for “Next China,” accounted for 6.5% and 5.7% shares in the world’s clothing export in 2021, still far behind China (32.1%). Interestingly, from 2015 to 2021, the world’s top four largest clothing exporters next to China (i.e., Bangladesh, Vietnam, Turkey, and India) did not substantially gain new market shares. Instead, China’s lost market was filled by “the rest of the world.”

Additionally, recent studies show that many fashion companies have switched back to the sourcing diversification strategy in 2022 as managing risks and improving sourcing flexibility become more urgent priorities. In other words, the world’s clothing export market could turn more “crowded” and competitive in the coming years.

Pattern #4: Regional supply chains remain critical features of the world textiles and clothing trade. Several factors support and shape the regional textiles and clothing trade patterns. First, as clothing production often needs to be close to where textile materials are available, many developing clothing-producing countries rely heavily on imported textile materials, primarily from more advanced economies in the same region. Second, through lowered trade barriers, regional free trade agreements also financially encouraged garment producers, particularly in Asia, the EU, and Western Hemisphere (WH), to use locally or regionally made textile materials. Further, fashion companies’ interest in “near-shoring” supported the regional supply chain, and related textiles and clothing trade flows between neighboring countries.

The latest trade data indicated that Asia’s regional textiles and clothing trade patterns strengthened further despite supply chain chaos during the pandemic. Specifically, in 2021, as many as 82% of Asian countries’ textile imports came from within Asia, up from 80% in 2015. China, in particular, has played a more prominent role as a leading textile supplier for other Asian clothing-exporting countries. For example, more than 60% of Vietnam’s textile imports came from China in 2021, a substantial increase from 23% in 2005. The same pattern applied to Pakistan, Cambodia, Bangladesh, and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) members.

In January 2022, the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), a mega free trade agreement involving all major economies in Asia, entered into force. The tariff cut and very liberal rules of origin of the agreement will hopefully drive Asia’s booming regional textiles and clothing trade and further deepen its regional economic integration.

Besides Asia, the regional textiles and clothing trade pattern in the EU (or the so-called Intra-EU trade) was also in good shape. In 2021, 50.8% of EU countries’ textile imports and 37% of clothing imports came from other EU members. This pattern has changed little over the past decade, thanks to many EU countries’ commitment to maintaining local textiles and clothing production rather than outsourcing.

In comparison, the Western Hemisphere (WH) textile and apparel supply chain (e.g., clothing made in Mexico or Central America using US or regionally made textiles) seemed to struggle in recent years. As of 2021, only 20% of WH countries’ textile imports came from within WH, down from 26% in 2015. Likewise, WH countries (mainly the US and Canada) just imported 14.6% of clothing from WH in 2021, down from 15.3% in 2015 and much lower than their EU counterparts (37% in 2021). It will be interesting to see whether US and Canadian fashion companies’ expressed interest in expanding near-shoring may reverse the course.

Furthermore, the regional textiles and clothing trade patterns in Sub-Saharan Africa (SSA) are also worth watching. Compared with Asia and the EU, SSA clothing producers used much fewer locally-made textiles (i.e., stagnant at around 11% only from 2011 to 2021), reflecting the region’s lack of textile manufacturing capability. Most trade programs with SSA countries, such as the US-led African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA) and EU’s Everything But Arms (EBA) program, adopt liberal rules of origin for clothing products, allowing third-party textile input to be used. It can be studied whether such liberal rules of origin somehow disincentivize building SSA’s own textile manufacturing sector or are still essential given the reality of SSA’s limited textile production capacity.

By Sheng Lu

Suggested citation: Lu, Sheng (2022). World Textiles and Clothing Trade in 2021: A Statistical Review. Just-Style. Retrieved from https://www.just-style.com/analysis/world-textiles-and-clothing-trade-in-2021-a-statistical-review/

Video Discussion: The Changing Face of Textiles and Apparel “Made in Asia” (Updated December 2022)

Video 1: China’s textile industry going global

Video 2: Smart tech at E China clothing factory

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

Video 4: How H&M’s Recycling Machines Make New Clothes From Used Apparel in Hong Kong

Discussion questions:

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

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

Modaes (Spain) Exclusive Interview about the Latest Global Apparel Trade and Sourcing Trends (October 2022)

The full interview, conducted by Modaes’ Editor-in-Chief, Iria P. Gestal, is available HERE (in Spanish). Below is an abridged translation.

Question: Fashion brands have reduced their exposure to China markedly in recent years. What has been the turning point?

Sheng: We could interpret fashion companies’ decisions in the context of their overall sourcing diversification strategy. Many companies want to diversify their sourcing base because of the ever-uncertain business environment, ranging from the continuation of the supply chain disruptions, and the Russia-Ukraine war, to the rising geopolitical tensions. As China is one of the largest sourcing bases for many fashion companies, reducing “China exposure” is unavoidable.

 Question: Isn’t there a specific concern about sourcing from China?

Sheng: Definitely! The Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act (UFLPA), officially implemented in the summer of 2022, is a big deal. For example, back in 2017, around 30% of US cotton apparel came from China. However, because of the new law and concerns about the risk of forced labor, China’s market shares fell to only 10% as of August 2022. One well-known US brand selling jean products cut their sourcing from China to just 1% of the total.

Question: Is it possible that the apparel sector as a whole reaches that point?

Sheng: Whether we like it or not, it is still unlikely to get rid of China from the supply chain entirely in the short to medium terms. Notably, China continues to play a significant role as a supplier of raw textile materials, particularly for leading apparel-exporting countries in Asia like Vietnam, Bangladesh, and Cambodia. Diversifying textile raw materials sourcing will be a longer and more complicated process.

Question: Is the “China Plus One” strategy no longer enough?

Sheng: The “China Plus One” strategy does not necessarily mean companies only source from “two” countries. Instead, the phrase refers to companies’ sourcing diversification strategy, trying to avoid “putting all eggs in one basket.” However, neither is the case that fashion companies blindly source from more countries today. Notably, many companies attempt to leverage a stronger relationship with key vendors to mitigate sourcing risks and achieve more sourcing flexibility and agility. For example, fashion companies increasingly tend to work with the so-called “super vendors,” i.e., those with multiple country presence and vertical manufacturing capabilities.

Question: Some politicians have said that the war in Russia has been the “geopolitical awakening” of Europe. Has the same thing happened in fashion?

Sheng: Indeed! We say fashion is a “global sector” because companies “produce anywhere in the world and SELL anywhere in the world.” However, many fashion brands and retailers have had to leave Russia due to the war and geopolitics. The same could apply to China—for example, China’s zero-COVID policy has posed a dilemma for western fashion companies operating there—whether to stay or leave the country, which used to be regarded as one of the fastest-growing emerging consumer markets. Likewise, more and more fashion companies have chosen to develop “dual supply chains” in response to the geopolitical tensions between China and the West—“made in China for China” and “made elsewhere for the rest of the world/Western market.” However, we must admit that this is not an ideal way to optimize the global supply chain.

Question: Has the apparel sector been “naïve” until now, ignoring these risks?

Sheng: I do not think so. In fact, most fashion companies and their leaders closely watch world affairs. As I recall, some visionary companies started evaluating geopolitics’ supply chain implications last year. Indeed, a peaceful world with few trade barriers is an ideal business environment for fashion companies. Unfortunately, there are too many “black swans” to worry about these days. As another example, “friend-shoring,” meaning only trading with allies or “like-minded” countries, becomes increasingly popular today. This phenomenon is also the result of geopolitics. With the looming of a new cold war (or the winter is already here), fashion companies may need to use imagination and prepare for the “worst scenarios” to come.

Question: Is a textile and apparel supply without China a more expensive one?

Sheng: It depends on how to look at it. The most challenging part of “reducing China exposure” is the textile raw materials. But we could think outside the box. For example, my recent studies show that China is NOT the top supplier of clothing made from recycled textile materials. Instead, fashion companies are more likely to source such products locally from the US or EU, or Africa—like Jordan, Tunisia, and Morocco, because of the unique supply chain composition. In other words, sourcing more clothing made from recycled textile materials may help fashion companies achieve several long-awaited goals, such as diversifying sourcing base, expanding nearshoring, and reducing sourcing costs.

–END–

2022 USFIA Fashion Industry Benchmarking Study Released

Report release webinar (July 18, 2022)

The full report is available HERE

Key findings of this year’s report:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

US Apparel Imports Face Growing Market Uncertainties (Updated: June 2022)

(See updated analysis: Patterns of US Apparel Imports in the First Half of 2022 and Key Sourcing Trends)

The latest trade data shows that in the first four months of 2022, US apparel imports increased by 40.6% in value and 25.9% in quantity from a year ago. However, the seemingly robust import expansion is shadowed by the rising market uncertainties.

Uncertainty 1: US economy. As the US economic growth slows down, consumers have turned more cautious about discretionary spending on clothing to prioritize other necessities. Notably, in the first quarter of 2022, clothing accounted for only 3.9% of US consumers’ total expenditure, down from 4.3% in 2019 before the pandemic. Likewise, according to the Conference Board, US consumers’ confidence index (CCI) dropped to 106.4 (1985=100) in May 2022 from 113.8 in January 2022, confirming consumers’ increasing anxiety about their household’s financial outlook.

Removing the seasonal factor, US apparel imports in April 2022 went up 2.8% in quantity and 3.0% in value from March 2022, much lower than 9.3% and 11.9% a month ago (i.e., March 2022 vs. February 2022). The notable slowed import growth reflects the negative impact of inflation on US consumers’ clothing spending. According to the Census, the value of US clothing store sales marginally went up by 0.8% in April 2022 from a month ago, also the lowest so far in 2022.

Apparel import price index

Uncertainty 2: Worldwide inflation. Data from the Bureau of Economic Analysis shows that the price index of US apparel imports reached 103.1 in May 2022 (May 2020=100), up from 100.3 one year ago (i.e., a 2.8% price increase). At the product level (i.e., 6-digit HS Code, HS Chapters 61-62), over 60% of US apparel imports from leading sources such as China, Vietnam, Bangladesh, and CAFTA-DR experienced a price increase in the first quarter of 2022 compared with a year ago. The price surge of nearly 40% of products exceeded 10 percent. As almost everything, from shipping, textile raw materials, and labor to energy, continues to soar, the rising sourcing costs facing US fashion companies are not likely to ease anytime soon.

The deteriorating inflation also heats up the debate on whether to continue the US Section 301 tariff action against imports from China. Since implementing the punitive tariffs, US fashion companies have to pay around $1 billion in extra import duties every year, resulting in the average applied import tariff rate for dutiable apparel items reaching almost 19%. Although some e-commerce businesses took advantage of the so-called “de minimis” rule (i.e., imports valued at $800 or less by one person on a day are not required to pay tariffs), over 99.8% of dutiable US apparel imports still pay duties.

Uncertainty 3: “Made in China.” US apparel imports from China in April 2022 significantly dropped by 26.7% in quantity and 24.6% in value from March 2022 (seasonally adjusted). China’s market shares also fell to a new record low of 26.3% in quantity and 16.8% in value in April 2022. The zero-COVID policy and new lockdown undoubtedly was a critical factor contributing to the decline. Fashion companies’ concerns about the trajectory of the US-China relations and the upcoming implementation of the new Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act (UFLPA) are also relevant factors. For example, only 10.5% of US cotton apparel imports came from China in April 2022, a further decline from about 15% at the beginning of the year. Given the expected challenges of meeting the rebuttable presumption requirements in UFLPA and the high compliance costs, it is not unlikely that US fashion companies may continue to reduce their China exposure.

As US fashion companies source less from China, they primarily move their sourcing orders to China’s competitors in Asia. Measured in value, about 74.8% of US apparel imports came from Asia so far in 2022 (January-April), up from 72.8% a year ago. In comparison, there is no clear sign that more sourcing orders have been permanently moved to the Western Hemisphere. For example, in April 2022, CAFTA-DR members accounted for 9.3% of US apparel imports in quantity (was 10.8% in April 2021) and 10.2% in value (was 11.4% in April 2021).

Uncertainty 4: Shipping delays. Data suggests we are not out of the woods yet for shipping delays and supply chain disruptions. For example, as Table 2 shows, the seasonable pattern of US apparel imports in March 2022 is similar to January before the pandemic (2017-2020). In other words, many US fashion companies still face about 1.5-2 months of shipping delays. Additionally, several of China’s major ports were under strict COVID lockdowns starting in late March, including Shanghai, the world’s largest. Thus, the worsened supply chain disruptions could negatively affect the US apparel import volumes in the coming months.

by Sheng Lu

Further reading: Lu, S. (2022). Myanmar loses appeal for US apparel imports. Just-Style.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

by Sheng Lu

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Outlook 2022– Key Issues to Shape Apparel Sourcing and Trade

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

What next for apparel sourcing?

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

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

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

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

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

Apparel industry challenges and opportunities

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

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

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

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

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

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

by Sheng Lu

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

What is RCEP?

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

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

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

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

Why RCEP matters to the textile and apparel industry?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

By Sheng Lu

Further reading

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

The full interview is available HERE

Selected interview questions

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Speakers:

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

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

Panelists

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

China’s Membership in CPTPP and the US Textile Industry

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

by Sheng Lu

Related readings:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

by Sheng Lu

What Does Vietnam’s Lockdown Mean for US Footwear Sourcing?

According to the media, US footwear retailers face a new round of supply chain disruptions as Vietnam, one of the leading supplying countries, is under COVID lockdown. Industry sources say the country-wide lockdown measures in Vietnam could last until mid-September. So, what does Vietnam’s lockdown mean for US footwear sourcing?

First, footwear sourcing is much less diversified than apparel. As manufacturing footwear both requires specialized machines and can be labor-intensive, over 80% of US footwear imports came from three countries only, namely China, Vietnam, and Indonesia. This sourcing pattern is very different from apparel products, for which US companies have far more choices. Other than the top three, US also imports some high-end footwear products from Italy.

Second, while China remains No.1, Vietnam has quickly become the second-largest footwear supplier for the US market. Vietnam’s market shares (by value) reached a new record high of 32.9% in the first six months of 2021, up from 20% in 2017. Especially since the US Section 301 action began to affect footwear imports from China, US retailers have increasingly moved sourcing orders from China to Vietnam to mitigate trade war’s negative impacts [Note: most footwear products are covered by Tranche 4A].

As of June 2021, top US retailers that carry footwear “Made in Vietnam” include Puma, Nike, UGG, Vans, and New Balance.

Nike, “Made in Vietnam”, retail price =$100
Nike, “Made in China”, retail price =$150

Third, US retailers source from Vietnam primarily for volume items targeting the mass market. Industry sources show that from Aug 2020 to Aug 2021, sneakers/trainer shoes “Made in Vietnam” on average were priced 30%+ cheaper than those “Made in China” in the US retail market.

Meanwhile, Vietnam still lags far behind China in terms of the variety of products it makes. For example, industry sources show that from Aug 2020 to Aug 2021, US retailers imported around 110K different types of footwear (at the SKU level) from China, but only 13K from Vietnam.

Overall, Vietnam’s COVID lockdown will primarily affect medium to lower-priced volume products carried by US footwear retailers. However, the lockdown’s impacts on retailers’ sourcing portfolio and product availability in the market could be modest. In other words, US consumers may still find many footwear products to choose from in the store but with a higher price tag. Notably, from June 2020 to July 2021, the US retail price for footwear went up by over 7.4% already.

Related reading: Delta Variant Outbreaks in Sparsely Vaccinated Asian Countries Disrupt Production (WSJ)

WTO Reports World Textiles and Apparel Trade in 2020

New data available: WTO Reports World Textiles and Clothing Trade in 2021

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

By Sheng Lu

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

Appendix

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

By Sheng Lu

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

2021 USFIA Fashion Industry Benchmarking Study Released

The 2022 USFIA Fashion Industry Benchmarking Study is now available

The full report is available HERE

Key findings of this year’s report:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

#6 Sourcing from the Western Hemisphere is gaining new momentum

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

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

Primark’s Global Sourcing for Apparel

About Primark

Primark is one of the largest fashion retailers in Europe, offering something for everyone with a wide selection of products available across womenswear, menswear, kidswear, home, health & beauty, and gifting. It has 384 stores and employs over 70,000 people in the Republic of Ireland, the UK, Spain, Portugal, Germany, the Netherlands, Belgium, Austria, France, Italy, Slovenia, Poland, and the US.

As of May 2021, Primark sources from 28 countries working with around 928 contracted factories. Of these factories, 86 percent are Asia-based. Another 10 percent and 4 percent are located in Eastern EU and Western EU countries, respectively. Primark does not own any of these factories, however.

Measured by the number of workers, Primark’s Asian factories are larger than their counterparts in other parts of the world. For example, while Primark’s factories in Pakistan and Bangladesh typically have more than 2,500+ workers, its factories in Western EU countries like the UK, Germany, Italy, and France, on average, only have 64-200 workers. This pattern suggests that Primark mainly uses Asian factories to fulfill volume sourcing orders and its EU factories mostly produce replenishment or more time-sensitive fashionable items. 

Further, reflecting the unique role of the garment industry in creating economic opportunities for women, females account for more than half of the workforce in most garment factories that make products for Primark. The percentage is exceptionally high in developing countries like Myanmar (89%), Sri Lanka (78%), Vietnam (77%), and Cambodia (75%).

Regarding Primark’s China sourcing strategy, on the one hand, Primark sources from as many as 475 suppliers located in China, far more than any other Asian country. However, most of Primark’s China factories are small and medium-sized, and fewer than 1% report having 1,000+ workers. In comparison, more than 75% of Primark’s factories in Bangladesh, Pakistan, and Myanmar have 1,000+ workers. This pattern suggests that China plays a more sophisticated role in Primark’s textile and apparel supply chain and is often used to balancing flexibility and agility.

Primark’s Ethical Trade and Environmental Sustainability team comprises over 120 specialists based in key sourcing countries. The team visits and reviews every supplier factory at least once a year to ensure the factories’ standards align with Primark’s products Code of Conduct.

Every factory that manufactures products for Primark has to meet internationally recognized standards before the first order is placed and throughout the time they work with Primark.

Further reading:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

by Sheng Lu

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

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

Key findings

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

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

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

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

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

By Emma Davis and Dr. Sheng Lu

What Do You Take Away from FASH455?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dr. Sheng Lu

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

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

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

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

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

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

by Sheng Lu

Relate readings:

ModCloth Sourcing and Supply Chain Strategies during the Pandemic

Credit: Apparel and Textile Sourcing Tradeshow

Speaker: Linda Ollmann, Director – Sourcing Operations, ModCloth

Event summary

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

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

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

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

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

Summarized by Lexi Dembo (FASH455 spring 2021)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Key findings:

compiled by Victoria Langro and Sheng Lu (2021)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

US-China Tariff War During COVID-19—Discussion Questions from Students in FASH455

Steve Lamar, President & CEO, American Apparel and Footwear Association

#1 Studies show that the Section 301 punitive tariff on imports from China hurts both US fashion retailers and ordinary consumers. But why doesn’t President Biden announce to remove the tariffs and stop the trade war?

#2 It doesn’t seem the tariff war with China has brought more apparel manufacturing back to the US. Is this result expected or surprising? How does the outcome of the trade war support or challenge the trade theories we learned in the class (e.g., mercantilism, absolute advantage, comparative advantage, and factor proportion theories)?

#3 The U.S.-China tariff war continues during the pandemic, resulting in higher sourcing costs for US fashion brands and retailers, which have been struggling hard financially. In such a case, if you were the CEO of a leading US fashion brand, why or why not would you pass the tariff burden to consumers, i.e., ask consumers to pay a higher price?

#4 Why or why not do you think the tariff war with China has fundamentally shifted US fashion companies’ sourcing strategy?

#5 What’s your take on “tariff engineering” adopted by fashion companies? A smart idea? Loophole? Controversial? Need to be encouraged/discouraged? And Why?

#6 Any reflections on the video discussion (above) regarding the US apparel industry’s view on the impact of the tariff war during the pandemic?

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

[Discussion is closed]

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