The apparel sourcing formula is getting ever more sophisticated today. US fashion brands and retailers consider a wide range of factors when deciding where to source their products. The long list of sourcing factors includes #1 Capacity, #2 Price & tariff, #3 Stability, #4 Sustainability, and #5 Quality (see the table below).
When evaluating the world’s top 27 largest apparel supplying countries’ performance, no souring destination appears to be perfect. In general, fashion brands and retailers have many choices for sourcing destinations that can meet their demand for production capacity, price point, and quality. However, fashion companies face much more limited options when seeking an apparel sourcing destination with a stable financial and political environment and a strong sustainability record.
When we compare the trade volume and the performance against the five primary sourcing factors:
Apparel sourcing today is no longer a “winner takes all” game. Notably, the factor “Capacity” is suggested to have limited impacts on the value of apparel imports from a particular sourcing destination.
Apparel sourcing is not merely about “competing on price” either--the impact of the factor “Price & tariff” on the pattern of apparel imports statistically is not significant.
Improving financial and political stability as well as product quality can help a country enhance its attractiveness as an apparel sourcing base. In particular, American and Asia-based fashion companies seem to give substantial weight to the factors of “Stability” and “Product quality” in their sourcing decisions.
Fashion companies’ current sourcing model does not always provide strong financial rewards for sustainability. Interestingly, the result indicates that a higher score for the factor “sustainability” does NOT result in more sourcing orders at the country level. Behind the result, fashion companies today likely consider sustainability and compliance at the vendor level rather than at the country level in their sourcing decisions. It is also likely that sustainability and compliance are treated more as pre-requisite or “bottom-line” criteria instead of a factor to determine the volume of the sourcing orders.
In conclusion, fashion companies’ sourcing decisions seem to be more complicated and subtle than what is often described in public.
While textile and apparel is well-known as a global sector, the latest statistics show that world textile and apparel trade patterns remain largely regional-based. Three particular regional textile and apparel trade flows are critical to watch:
First, Asian countries are increasingly sourcing textile raw material from within the region. As much as 85% of Asian countries’ textile imports came from other Asian countries in 2019, a substantial increase from only 70% in the 2000s. This result reflects the formation of an ever more integrated regional textile and apparel supply chain in Asia. However, as Asian countries become more economically integrated, textile and apparel producers in other parts of the world could find it more challenging to get involved in the region. With the recent reaching of several mega free trade agreements among countries in the Asia-Pacific region, such as the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), the pattern of “Made in Asia for Asia” is likely to strengthen further.
Second, the EU intra-region trade pattern for textile and apparel stays relatively strong and stable. Intra-region trade refers to trade flows between EU members. Statistics show that 54.6% of EU(27) members’ textile imports and 37.4% of their apparel imports came from within the EU(27) region in 2019. This pattern only slightly changed over the past decade. In other words, despite the reported increasing competition from Asian suppliers, many of which even enjoy duty-free market access to the EU market (such as through the EU Everything But Arms program), a substantial share of apparel sold in the EU markets are still locally made.
EU consumers’ preferences for “slow fashion” (i.e., purchasing less but for more durable products with higher quality) may contribute to the stable EU intra-region trade pattern. Many EU consumers also see textile and apparel as cultural products and do NOT shop simply for the price. This explains why Western EU countries such as Italy, Germany, and France rank the top apparel producers and exporters in the EU region despite their high wage and production costs.
Third, the Western Hemisphere (WH) supply chain faces significant challenges despite the seemingly growing popularity of “near-sourcing.” On the one hand, textile and apparel exporters in the Western-Hemisphere still rely heavily on the regional market. In 2019, respectively, as much as 79% of textiles and 86% of apparel exports from countries in the Western Hemisphere went to the same region.
However, on the other hand, the Western-Hemisphere supply chain is facing increasing competition from Asian suppliers. For example, in 2019, only 22% of North, South, and Central American countries’ textile imports and 15% of their apparel imports came from within the Western Hemisphere, a new record low in ten years. Similarly, in the first eleven months of 2020, only 15.7% of US apparel imports came from the Western Hemisphere, down from 17.1% in 2019 before the pandemic. The limited local textile production capacity and the high production cost are the two notable factors that discourage US fashion brands and retailers from committing to more “near-sourcing” from the Western Hemisphere.
In comparison, Asian countries supplied a new record high of 62.2% of textiles and 75% apparel to countries in the Western Hemisphere in 2019, up from 49.1% and 71.1% ten years ago. This trend suggests that as the competitiveness of “Factory Asia” continues to improve, even regional trade agreements (such as USMCA and CAFTA-DR) and their restrictive “yarn-forward” rules of origin have limits to protect the Western Hemisphere supply chain.
In comparison, Asian countries supplied a new record high of 62.2% of textiles and 75% apparel to countries in the Western Hemisphere in 2019, up from 49.1% and 71.1% ten years ago. This trend suggests that as the competitiveness of “Factory Asia” continues to improve, even regional trade agreements (such as USMCA and CAFTA-DR) and their restrictive “yarn-forward” rules of origin have limits to protect the Western Hemisphere supply chain.
Additionally, many say that the reaching of RCEP creates new pressure for the new Biden administration to consider joining the CPTPP and strengthening economic ties with countries in the Asia-Pacific region. Notably, several USMCA and CAFTA-DR members, such as Mexico, also have RCEP or CPTPP membership. Apparel producers in these Western Hemisphere countries may find it more rewarding to access the cheaper textile raw material from Asia through CPTPP or RCEP rather than claiming the duty-saving benefits for finished garments under USMCA or CAFTA-DR. Like it or not, the Biden administration’s inaction will also have consequences.
“Hugo Boss’s sourcing strategies are relatively different from fashion brands and retailers in the US. Hugo Boss’s self-owned production facilities are all located in Europe, and they follow the general trend of Eastern Europe being responsible for mass production items and Western Europe being responsible for more of the fine craftsmanship/made-to-measure items. Hugo Boss’s production distribution, which is 53% in Europe, 40% occurs in Asia, 6% in Africa, and 1% in the Americas, is much more diverse than the production distribution of the United States’ T&A industry, which heavily relies on Asian suppliers. It is indicative of a strong regional supply chain in Europe, and because the regional supply chain in the Americas is not as strong due to complicated trade agreements and lack of production capacity, many fashion brands and retailers heavily depend on overseas production from Asian countries. “
“I think that EU’s sourcing strategies are different from the U.S.’s sourcing strategy in the sense that it is kept within Europe. In the U.S., they are currently trying to bring the sourcing supply chain back to the Western Hemisphere, but it is very difficult for fashion brands to concede when sourcing is cheaper in Asia, and there is not enough labor who are trained for the work that they need. Over at the EU, with everything kept within the organization, it is a lot easier to find factories within different countries without reducing GDP since it is kept within the organization.”
“I think that one of the biggest differences between EU and US fashion brand’s sourcing strategies is the fact that there is a much higher luxury or high-end apparel market in the EU. Since they produce mostly luxury apparel products, they naturally place a lot more emphasis on the quality of their products being made rather than the quantity and speed of production. Since the US is more fast-fashion heavy, we do a lot more outsourcing of production so retailer’s are able to produce as many clothes as possible within a short period of time at a very low cost which is simply not achievable in many US clothing factories.”
“Hugo Boss pays close attention to where they are sourcing from and where each of their products should be made within their 4 production facilities. This stuck out to me because I don’t know how many US fashion brands have their own production facilities. I know a lot of brands outsource to countries like China and Bangladesh to factories who are also making clothing for many different brands.”
“EU has developed countries as well as developing countries, unlike the US. Western EU countries like Italy, France, UK and Germany are developed and focus more so on textile production. Whereas developing countries in the EU like Poland and Hungary focus more heavily on apparel manufacturing. In addition, unlike the US, the developed countries in EU also produce apparel exports, of high level, luxury goods.”
“It seems that in the EU the main focus is quality and social standards for these fashion brands and production. In the US, promoting local economic growth seems to be more of the focus of the free trade agreements. Sourcing for HUGO BOSS at least has strategically chosen factories where they can ensure quality checks and know how to conditions are. In the US, outside of the region, it seems that there are a lot of brands who do not know their secondary producers…”
“As the EU is more focused on production in high end markets than is the US, they (EU fashion companies) source more high-end quality fabrics. Progress has been made through technological advances, as the HUGO BOSS group developed the “smart factory” to further improve the quality of their fabrics and recognize any potential flaws before production. This stood out to me as a major difference, considering the US focuses on producing more fast-fashion goods and prioritizes high productivity overall quality garments. Also, they are more careful in their selection of suppliers and strive to build more long-term relationships with their suppliers. In comparision, most US fashion companies just try to produce as cheap and fast as possible through a short-term transctional-based importer-vendor relationship.”
“I think the sourcing strategies are similar to the U.S. in the fact that they source from various countries, creating this sense of “Made in the World.” However, there are differences as well. HUGO BOSS uses their own production facilities in addition to sourcing from other countries which is something we do not see often in the US. In fact, most brands and retailers in the US do not have their own production facilities or vertical supply chain, but instead source from overseas. Additionally, HUGO BOSS carefully selects their suppliers and immediately focus on social responsibility. US sourcing strategies seem to emphsis more on finding a factory with the lowest labor costs. EU brands and retailers, on the other hand, test their suppliers with test orders before selecting them as a supplier for the brand, and immediately develop social responsibility practices, such as trainings and building relationships. In the US, brands and retailers tend to focus on social responsibility in response to bad press and typically do so by a top-down approach.”
“The sourcing strategy in the Europe cares more about social impact. Retailers and brands there promote and educate their suppliers to be sustainable and take over their social responsibility. Another one is the European fashion retailers and brands are more likely to locate their product facilities within the Europe. Since the Europe does have a relatively stable and complete supply chain, the retailers and brands are able to saving transportation cost and expand the lead time. Third, the technology becomes an important factors for retailers and brands to consider. They are attempting to utilize technology to enhance the performance and their production process. “
“Hugo Boss strives to be the most desirable fashion and lifestyle brand in the premium sector. This shows in their emphasis on design, comfort, fit, and durability, as well as being mindful of their social and environmental impacts. They maintain long term relationships with a careful selection of suppliers, demand social compliance, and stay up to date with their “smart factory” aka AIs to speed up production and quality. They also source heavily from Asia, but also developed countries such as Italy and Germany. These values and practices are manifested in American brands, however, I believe we aren’t as extensive with sourcing from developed countries (such as Italy). From what I have learned thus far, it seems we source from countries close by and/or developing, but not so much mingling with luxury known countries, such as France or Italy (and if we do, the prices are expensive, and American customers don’t want to pay higher prices). We (US), too, source heavily from Asia, because it is cheap, and still focus internally on our own country when it comes to being more competitive in technological advancements. American and EU consumers alike value transparency in the clothing brands they buy from, and American brands are mindful of this, too. I would say we are more alike than different.”
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Over the past decade, the US and UK bilateral trade in apparel enjoyed steady growth, reflecting ever closer business ties of fashion companies in the two countries. While US apparel exports still predominantly go to geographically nearby countries such as Mexico and Canada, the UK has emerged to become the single largest export market for “Made in the USA” apparel outside the Western Hemisphere. Similarly, the United States has always been the UK’s single largest export market outside the EU region.
On the other hand, the apparel products that the US and the UK export to each other target different segments of the market. Industry sources indicate that the clothing exported from the US to the UK primarily focuses on the premium market. Garments “Made in the USA” in the UK are mostly carried by premium brands and retailers such as Free People, J. Crew, and Moda Operandi. However, due to a lack of brand power, clothing “Made in the USA” is typically priced 30%-50% lower than similar products locally made in the UK or elsewhere in Western EU, such as France and Italy.
In comparison, approximately 70% of apparel exported from the UK to the US are luxury goods. With a relatively clear-cut market position, luxury and high-end designer UK brands, such as Burberry, Roland Mouret, and Victoria Beckham, can effectively reach out to their target markets.
How Might the US-UK FTA Affect the Bilateral Apparel Trade
According to the released negotiation objectives, both the US and the UK seem to be willing to consider a substantial cut or even a full elimination of the apparel tariff rate as part of the trade deal. Should this happen, fashion companies across the Atlantic could benefit from a proportional reduction of their sourcing cost, resulting in a considerable expansion of the US-UK bilateral apparel trade flows.
On the other hand, to enjoy the preferential duty benefit under a free trade agreement, rules of origin will always be a requirement. Notably, most US trade agreements currently adopt the so-called “yarn-forward” rules of origin. In contrast, most EU-based trade deals adopt a more liberal “fabric-forward” rule.
While it is hard to predict which specific rules of origin the proposed US-UK trade agreement will adopt, it seems the result will have a more significant impact on the US apparel exports to the UK than the other way around. Restrained by the limited domestic supply and high cost, a substantial proportion of US apparel exports contain imported textile raw materials. This means US apparel producers may have to either switch to use more expensive domestic textile inputs or forgo the FTA duty-saving benefits should restrictive rules of origin are adopted. Meanwhile, the UK apparel exports to the US will be less sensitive to the rules of origin in the proposed FTA, as most of these luxury items are already 100% “Made in the UK” to meet customers’ expectations.
Uncertainties associated with the US-UK FTA
The US-UK trade negotiations have to deal with an evolving Brexit. Given the EU’s economic cloud, understandably, some argue that the UK may have to reach a comprehensive trade agreement with the EU before it can consider a trade deal with the US. Additionally, several US domestic politics and policy factors may further slow down the progress of the US-UK trade negotiation, from the US presidential election to the upcoming expiration of the trade promotion authority (TPA).
First, the volume of world textiles and apparel trade reduced in 2019 due to weakened demand and the negative impacts of trade tensions. According to the WTO, the value of the world textiles (SITC 65) and apparel (SITC 84) exports totaled $305bn and $492bn in 2019, respectively, decreased by 2.4% and 0.4% from a year ago. The world merchandise trade also fell by nearly 3% measured by value and 0.1% measured by volume 2018-2019, in contrast with a positive 2.8% growth 2017-2018. Put these numbers in context, the year 2019 was the first time that world merchandise trade fell since the 2008 global financial crisis, and the decline happened even before the pandemic. As noted by the WTO, the economic slowdown and the escalating trade tensions, particularly the tariff war between the United States and China, were among the major contributing factors for the contraction of trade flows.
Second, the pattern of world textile exports overall stays stable in 2019; Meanwhile, China and Vietnam continue to gain momentum. China, European Union (EU28), and India remained the world’s top three exporters of textiles in 2019. Altogether, these top three accounted for 66.9% of the value of world textile exports in 2019, almost no change from two years ago. Notably, despite the headwinds, China and Vietnam stilled enjoy the positive growth of their textile exports in 2019, up 0.9%, and 8.3%, respectively. In particular, Vietnam exceeded Taiwan and ranked the world’s seventh-largest textile exporter in 2019 ($8.8bn of exports, up 8.3% from a year earlier), the first time in history. The change also reflects Vietnam’s efforts to continuously upgrade its textile and apparel industry and strengthen the local textile production capacity are paying off.
Third, the pattern of world apparel exports reflects fashion companies’ shifting strategies to reduce sourcing from China. China, the European Union (EU28), Bangladesh, and Vietnam unshakably remained the world’s top four exporters of apparel in 2019. Altogether, these top four accounted for as much as 71.4% of world market shares in 2019, which, however, was lower than 74% from 2016 to 2018—primarily due to China’s reduced market shares.
China is exporting less apparel and more textiles to the world. Notably, China’s market shares in world apparel exports fell from its peak of 38.8% in 2014 to a record low of 30.8% in 2019 (was 31.3% in 2018). Meanwhile, China accounted for 39.2% of world textile exports in 2019, which was a new record high. It is important to recognize that China is playing an increasingly critical role as a textile supplier for many apparel-exporting countries in Asia.
On the other hand, even though apparel exports from Vietnam (up 7.7%) and Bangladesh (up 2.1%) enjoyed fast growth in absolute terms in 2019, their gains in market shares were quite limited (i.e., no change for Vietnam and marginally up 0.3 percentage point from 6.8% to 6.5% for Bangladesh). This result indicates that due to capacity limits, no single country has yet emerged to become the “Next China.” Instead, China’s lost market shares in apparel exports were fulfilled by a group of Asian countries altogether.
Fourth, associated with the shifting pattern of world apparel production, the world textile import is increasingly driven by apparel-exporting countries in the developing world. Notably, 2019 marks the first time that Vietnam emerged to become one of the world’s top three largest importers of textiles, primarily due to its expanded apparel production and heavy dependence on imported textile raw materials. In comparison, although the US and the EU remain the world’s top two largest textile importers, their total market shares had declined from nearly 40% in 2010 to only 31.2% in 2019, the lowest in the past ten years. Furthermore, both the US and the EU have been importing more finished textile products (such as home furnishings and carpets) as well as highly specialized technical textiles, rather than conventional yarns and fabrics for apparel production purposes. The weakening import demand for intermediary textile raw materials also suggests that reshoring (i.e., making apparel locally rather than sourcing from overseas) has NOT become a mainstream industry practice in the developed economies like the US and the EU.
Fifth, the world apparel import market is becoming ever more diversified as import demand is increasingly coming from emerging economies with a booming middle class. Affected by consumers’ purchasing power (often measured by GDP per capita) and size of the population, the European Union (EU28), US, and Japan remained the world’s top three importers of apparel in 2019. This pattern has lasted for decades. Altogether, these top three absorbed 58.1% of world apparel in 2019, which, however, was a new historic low (was 84% back in 2005). Behind the numbers, it is not the case that consumers in the EU, US, and Japan are necessarily purchasing less clothing. Instead, several emerging economies are becoming fast-growing apparel consumption markets and starting to import more. For example, China’s apparel imports totaled $8.9bn in 2019, up 8.1% from a year earlier. From 2010 to 2019, China’s apparel imports enjoyed a nearly 15% annual growth, compared with only 1.9% of the traditional top three.
1. The garment industry matters significantly to Cambodia, both economically, and socially. As of 2019, as much as 70% of Cambodia’s merchandise exports were apparel items. Likewise, around one-third of Cambodia’s manufacturing output currently comes from the garment sector alone. Further, as of 2016, the garment industry in Cambodia employed nearly 928,600 workers (almost 79% were female), an increase of 239% from 2007.
2. Cambodia’s apparel exports have enjoyed steady growth in recent decades, reaching US$7.83 billion in 2018 – a jump of 256% from US$2.2 billion in 2005. Yet, it faces several major challenges:
Due to limited production techniques and capital availability, apparel producers in Cambodia are still mostly engaged in cut-make-trim (CMT) activities, meaning they rely heavily on imported textile raw material and are only able to make a marginal profit based on low-value-added sewing work.
Cambodia’s apparel exports are highly concentrated on the EU and the US markets, which together accounted for 73.4% of the country’s total garment exports in 2019.
Cambodia is facing intense competition in its main apparel export markets—there has been little growth in Cambodia’s share of EU and US apparel imports over the past two decades, remaining as low as 3% as of 2019.
3. Cambodia has benefited significantly from the EU Everything But Arms (EBA) program. Established in 2001, the EBA trade initiative provides least developed countries (LDCs), such as Cambodia, with duty-free and quota-free access to the vast EU market for all products except weapons and ammunition. Like other EBA beneficiary countries, the majority (around 95%) of Cambodia’s apparel exports to the EU currently claim the duty- and quota-free EBA benefits.
4. Out of concerns over Cambodia’s “serious and systematic violations of the human rights principles enshrined in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights,” the European Commission on 12 February 2020 formally announced the withdrawal of part of the tariff preferences granted to Cambodia under the EBA program. Starting from 12 August 2020, a select group of Cambodia’s apparel exports to the EU, together with all travel goods, sugar, and some footwear will be subject to the EU’s Most-Favored-Nation (MFN) tariff rat, which were at the rate of 11.5% on average for apparel items in 2019.
5. Even the partial suspension of Cambodia’s EBA eligibility could result in significant and lasting negative impacts on its apparel exports to the EU:
The apparel items directly affected by the EBA suspension accounted for around 15% of the value of Cambodia’s total apparel exports to the EU in 2019. For those apparel categories directly targeted by the EBA suspension, EU fashion brands and retailers may quickly shift sourcing orders from Cambodia to other supplying countries to avoid paying the additional tariffs.
Social responsibility is being given more weight in fashion companies’ sourcing decisions. This means even those apparel items not directly targeted by the EU EBA suspension could face widespread order cancellations as sourcing from Cambodia is deemed to involve higher social compliance risks. In a worse but possible scenario, Cambodia’s apparel exports to the whole world could be under threat as many EU fashion brands and retailers operate globally and adopt a unified ethical standard and code of conduct for apparel sourcing across different markets.
Additionally, the timing cannot be worse: Due to the devastating hit by Covid-19, as of April 2020, Cambodia had reported nearly 130 garment factory closures and more than 100,000 workers laid off. These numbers may increase further as the effect of the pandemic continue to unfold.
EVFTA will eliminate nearly all tariffs (over 99%) between the EU and Vietnam. However, textile and apparel (T&A) are among a few exceptions that will not be able to enjoy duty-free treatment on day one. Specifically:
The EU will eliminate duties with more extended staging periods (up to 7 years) for some sensitive products in the textile apparel and footwear sectors (see the graphs above).
By adopting the fabric-forward rules of origin (or the so-called “double transformation”) for apparel items, EVFTA intends to prevent products from a third party (such as China) from flooding the EU market. Specifically, to benefit from preferential access, garments will need to use fabrics produced in Vietnam or the EU. However, through the EVFTA cumulation provision, fabrics originating in South Korea or other ASEAN countries with which the EU has a free trade agreement in force will be considered as originating in Vietnam. (Note: South Korea is a free trade agreement partner of the EU). While China remains the top textile supplier for Vietnam, the EVFTA apparel-specific rules of origin will provide more incentives for Vietnam to reduce its China dependence and restructure its textile and apparel supply chain. On the other hand, the totality of EU textile fabric exports to Vietnam will be liberalized immediately when the agreement enters into force.
Statistics show that Vietnam was EU’s sixth-largest extra-region apparel supplier in 2019 (after China, Bangladesh, Turkey, India, and Cambodia), accounting for 4.3% in value (or US$4.3 billion). Many of Vietnam’s primary competitors already enjoyed duty-free market access to the EU, such as Turkey (through the Customs Union), Bangladesh, and Cambodia (through the EU Everything But Arms program). EVFTA will provide a level playing field for Vietnam, which is expected to see a continuous robust growth of its apparel exports to the EU and gain additional market shares in the years to come. Meanwhile, not eligible for any EU preferential duty benefit, apparel exports from China are likely to face intensified competition in the EU market after the implementation of EVFTA.
The EU region as a whole remains one of the world’s leading producers of textile and apparel (T&A). The value of EU’s T&A production totaled EUR146.2bn in 2018, marginally up 2% from a year ago (Note: Statistical Classification of Economic Activities or NACE, sectors C13, and C14). The value of EU’s T&A output was divided almost equally between textile manufacturing (EUR77.4bn) and apparel manufacturing (EUR70.0bn).
Regarding textile production, Southern and Western EU, where most developed EU members are located such as Germany, France, and Italy, accounted for nearly 73.7% of EU’s textile manufacturing in 2018. Further, of EU countries’ total textile output, the share of non-woven and other technical textile products (NACE sectors C1395 and C1396) has increased from 19.2% in 2011 to 23.0% in 2017, which reflects the on-going structural change of the sector.
Apparel manufacturing in the EU includes two primary categories: one is the medium-priced products for consumption in the mass market, which are produced primarily by developing countries in Eastern and Southern Europe, such as Poland, Hungary, and Romania, where cheap labor is relatively abundant. The other category is the high-end luxury apparel produced by developed Western EU countries, such as Italy, UK, France, and Germany.
It is also interesting to note that in Western EU countries, labor only accounted for 21.7% of the total apparel production cost in 2017, which was substantially lower than 30.1% back in 2006. This change suggests that apparel manufacturing is becoming capital and technology-intensive in some developed Western EU countries—as companies are actively adopting automation technology in garment production.
Because of their relatively high GDP per capita and size of the population, Germany, Italy, UK, France, and Spain accounted for 61.1% of total apparel retail sales in the EU in 2018. Such a market structure has stayed stable over the past decade.
Data source: UNcomtrade (2020)
Intra-region trade is an important feature of the EU’s textile and apparel industry. Despite the increasing pressure from cost-competitive Asian suppliers, statistics from the World Trade Organization (WTO) show that of the EU region’s total US$73.7bn textile imports in 2018, as much as 57.1% were in the category of intra-region trade. Similarly, of EU countries’ total US$205.0bn apparel imports in 2018, as much as 48.0% also came from other EU members. In comparison, close to 97% of apparel consumed in the United States are imported in 2018, of which more than 80% came from Asia (Eurostat, 2020; WTO, 2020).
The EU textile and apparel industry is not immune to COVID-19. According to the European Apparel and Textile Federation (Euratex), the outbreak of COVID-19 may cause a 50% drop in sales and production for the EU textile and apparel sector in 2020. A recent survey of EU-based T&A companies shows that almost 9 out of 10 respondents reported facing serious constraints on their financial situation and 80% of companies had temporarily laid-off workers. Around 25% of surveyed companies were considering closing down their businesses. Further, EU T&A companies were concerned about EU’s tightened border controls, which have “increased sharply, leading to delays in supplies but also cancelling of orders, thus aggravating the economic impact.”
First, mirroring the trend of aggregate market demand, the value of UK’s apparel imports has only grown marginally over the past decade. Specifically, between 2010 and 2018, the compound annual growth rate of UK’s apparel imports was close to zero, which was notably lower than 1.4% of the world average, the United States (1.9%), Japan (1.5%) and even the European Union as a whole (1.1%).
Second, UK’s fashion brands and retailers are gradually reducing imports from China and diversifying their sourcing base. Similar to other leading apparel import markets in the world, China was the largest apparel-sourcing destination for UK fashion companies, followed by Bangladesh, which enjoys duty-free access to the UK under EU’s Everything But Arms (EBA) program. Because of geographic proximity and the duty-free benefits under the Customs Union with the EU, Turkey was the third-largest apparel supplier to the UK.
Affected by a mix of factors ranging from the increasing cost pressures, intensified competition to serve the needs of speed-to-market better, the market shares of “Made in China” in the UK apparel import market had dropped significantly from its peak of 37.2% in 2010 to a record low of 21.4% in 2018. However, no single country has emerged to become the “next China” in the UK market. Notably, while China’s market shares decreased by 6.3 percentage points between 2015 and 2018, the next top 4 suppliers altogether were only able to gain 0.7 percentage points of additional market shares over the same period.
Third, despite Brexit, the trade and business ties between the UK and the rest of the EU for textile and apparel products are strengthening. Thanks to the regional supply chain, EU countries as a whole remain a critical source of apparel imports for UK fashion brands and apparel retailers. More than 33% of the UK’s apparel imports came from the EU region in 2018, a record high since 2010. On the other hand, the EU region also is the single largest export market for UK fashion companies.
Fourth, the potential impacts of no-deal Brexit on UK fashion companies’ sourcing cost seem to be modest:
For products currently sourced from countries without a free trade agreement with the EU (such as China) and those Generalized System of Preferences (GSP) beneficiaries that enjoy non-zero preferential duty rates, the tariff rate in the no-deal Brexit scenario will be lower than the current level, as round 44% of tariff lines will be duty-free.
For products currently sourced from countries that enjoy duty-free benefits under the GSP program (such as EBA beneficiary countries), their duty-free market access to the UK will remain unchanged according to the temporary tariff regime.
Products currently sourced from EU countries and Turkey will lose the duty-free benefits and be subject to the MFN tariff rate. However, because around 44% of tariff lines will be duty-free, the magnitude of tariff increase should be modest.
Likewise, products currently sourced from countries that enjoy duty-free benefits under an EU free trade agreement could lose the duty-free treatment and be subject to the MFN tariff rate. However, as around 44% of tariff lines will be duty-free and the UK has signed several continuity trade agreements with some of these countries, the magnitude of tariff increase should be modest overall too. Additionally, these countries are minor sourcing bases for UK fashion companies.
About the authors: Victoria Langro is an Honors student at the University of Delaware; and Dr. Sheng Lu is an Associate Professor in Fashion and Apparel Studies at the University of Delaware.
The UK government on March 13, 2019 released the temporary
rates of customs duty on imports if the country leaves the European Union
with no deal. In the case of no-deal Brexit, these tariff rates will take
effect on March 29, 2019 for up to 12
According to the announced plan, around 87% of UK’s imports by value would be eligible for zero-tariff in the no-deal Brexit scenario.
Specifically for apparel products, 113 out of the total 148 tariff lines (8-digit HS code) in Chapter 61 (Knitted apparel) and 145 out of the total 194 tariff lines (8-digit HS code) in Chapter 62 (Woven apparel) will be duty-free. However, other apparel products will be subject to a Most-Favored-Nation (MFN) tariff rate ranging from 6.5% to 12%.
Meanwhile, the UK will offer preferential tariff duty rates for apparel exports from a few countries/programs, including Chile (zero tariff), EAS countries (zero tariff), Faroe Islands (zero tariff), GSP scheme (reduced tariff rate), Israel (zero tariff), Least Developed Countries (LDC) (zero tariff), Palestinian Authority (zero tariff), and Switzerland (zero tariff).
On the other hand, the EU Commission said it would apply the Most-Favored-Nation (MFN) tariff rates on UK’s products in the no-deal Brexit scenario rather than reciprocate.
October 16, 2018, the Trump
Administration notified U.S. Congress its intention to negotiate the
U.S.-EU Free Trade Agreement. Between
2013 and 2016, the United States and EU were also engaged in the negotiation of
a comprehensive free trade agreement– Trans-Atlantic Trade and Investment Partnership
(T-TIP) with the goal to unlock market access opportunities for
businesses on both sides of the Atlantic through the ambitious elimination of
trade and investment barriers as well as enhanced regulatory coherence. The T-TIP
negotiation was stalled since 2017, although
the Trump Administration has never officially announced to withdraw from the
II. Negotiating Objectives
January 11, 2019, the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative (USTR) released
objectives of the proposed U.S.-EU Free Trade Agreement after
seeking inputs from the public. Overall, the proposed agreement aims to address
both tariff and non-tariff barriers and to “achieve fairer, more balanced trade”
between the two sides.
Regarding textiles and apparel, USTR says it will secure duty-free access for U.S. textile and
apparel products and seek to improve competitive opportunities for exports of
U.S. textile and apparel products while taking into account U.S. import
sensitivities” during the negotiation. The proposed U.S.-EU free trade
agreement also will “establish origin procedures for the certification and
verification of rules of origin that promote strong enforcement, including with respect to textiles.” T-TIP
had adopted similar negotiating objectives for the textile and apparel sector.
III. Industry viewpoints on the agreement
January 2019, leading trade associations
representing the U.S. apparel industry and the EU textile and apparel industries
have expressed support for the proposed U.S.-EU Free Trade Agreement. In general,
these industry associations recommend the agreement to achieve the following
First, eliminate import duties. For example:
Apparel and Footwear Association (AAFA): “We
support the immediate and reciprocal elimination of the high duties that both
countries maintain on textiles, travel goods, footwear, and apparel.”…” We also
support the immediate elimination of any retaliatory duties imposed by the
E.U., as well as any duties imposed by the U.S. (that led to that retaliation).
The duties impose costs on activities, including manufacturing activities in
the U.S., and undermine markets for U.S. exporters in Europe.”
Apparel and Textile Confederation (Euratex):“The
European Textile and Clothing sector faces high tariffs while exporting to the
US market from 11% to up to 32% for some products, namely sewing thread of
man-made filaments, suits, woven fabrics of cotton, trousers and t-shirts. Zero
customs duties while ensuring modern rules of origin will allow EU companies to
boost exports and offer more choice to American consumers and professional
Second, promote regulatory coherence (Harmonization). For example:
AAFA: “The E.U. and the
United States both maintain an extensive array of product safety, chemical management,
and labeling requirements regarding apparel (including legwear), footwear,
textiles, and travel goods.”…” Yet they often contain different requirements,
such as testing or certification, that greatly add compliance costs.”…” We
believe the U.S.‐E.U. trade agreement presents an important opportunity to achieve
harmonization or alignment for these regulations.”
Euratex: “Maintaining high
level of standards while eliminating unnecessary burdens, removing additional
requirements and facilitating customs procedures that impede business are top
priorities. Mutual recognition of the EU and US standards will preserve high
level of consumer protection on both sides of the Atlantic. Convergence on labelling (fibre
names, care symbols and wool labelling),
consumer safety on children products and flammability standards is key for the
T&C sector.” “EURATEX believes the EU and US standardization bodies should
cooperate on setting standards for Smart Textiles taking into account the
industry views for facilitating development and trade of such products of the
Third, adopt flexible/modern rules of origin. For example:
AAFA: “We should also support higher usage of the agreement by making sure the rules of origin reflect the realities of the industry today…”the yarn forward” rules, although theoretically promote usage of trade partner inputs, in practice they operate as significant barriers that restrict the ability of companies to use a trade agreement in many cases”…” We need to incorporate sufficient flexibilities into the rules of origin so that different supply chains –and the U.S. jobs they support – can take advantage of the agreement.”
Euratex: “Zero customs
duties while ensuring modern rules of
origin will allow EU companies to boost exports and offer more choice to
American consumers and professional buyers.”
The National Council of Textile Organizations (NCTO), which represents the U.S. textile industry, hasn’t publically stated its position on the proposed U.S.-EU Free Trade Agreement. However, NCTO had strongly urged U.S. trade negotiators to adopt a yarn-forward rule of origin in T-TIP. NCTO also opposed opening the U.S. government procurement market protected by the Berry Amendment to EU companies.
IV. Patterns of U.S.-EU textile and apparel trade
United States and the EU are mutually important textile and apparel (T&A)
trading partners. For example, the United States is EU’s largest extra-region
export market for textiles, and EU’s fifth largest extra-region supplier of
textiles in 2017 (Euratex, 2018).
the EU is one of the leading export markets for U.S.-made technical textiles as
well as an important source of high-end apparel products for U.S. consumers (OTEXA,
2018). Specifically, in 2017, U.S. T&A exports to the European Union
totaled $2,572 million, of which 73.2% were textile products, such as specialty
& industrial fabrics, felts & other non-woven fabrics and filament
yarns. In comparison, EU’s T&A exports to the United States totaled $4,163
million in 2017, among which textiles and apparel evenly accounted for 48.7%
and 51.3% respectively.
V. Potential economic impact of the agreement
By adopting the Global Trade Analysis Project (GTAP) model, Lu (2017) quantitatively evaluated the potential impact of a free trade agreement between the U.S. and EU on the textile and apparel sector. According to the study:
the trade creation effect of the agreement will expand the EU-U.S.
intra-industry trade for textiles. Meanwhile, the agreement is likely to
significantly expand EU’s apparel exports to the United States.
the trade diversion effect of the U.S.-EU Free Trade Agreement will affect other
T&A exporters negatively, including Asia’s T&A exports to the U.S. market
and EU and Turkey’s T&A exports to the EU market.
Third, the U.S.-EU Textile and Apparel Trade might affect the intra-region T&A trade in the EU region negatively but in a limited way.
Overall, the study suggests that the EU T&A industry will benefit from the additional market access opportunities created by the U.S.-EU Free Trade Agreement.One important factor is that the U.S. and EU T&A industries do not constitute a major competing relationship. For example, the United States is no longer a major apparel producer, and EU’s apparel exports to the United States fulfill U.S. consumers’ demand for high-end luxury products. The U.S.-EU Free Trade Agreement is also likely to create additional export opportunities for EU textile companies in the U.S. market, especially in the technical textiles area, which accounted for approximately 40% of EU’s total textile exports to the United States in 2017 measured in value. Compared with traditional yarns and fabrics for apparel making purposes, technical textiles are with a greater variety in usage, which allows EU companies to be able to differentiate products and find their niche in the U.S. market.
Further, the study suggests that we shall pay more attention to the details of non-tariff barrier removal under the U.S.-EU Free Trade Agreement, which could result in bigger economic impacts than tariff elimination.