Outlook 2019: Apparel Industry Issues in the Year Ahead

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Two things are at the top of my watchlist:

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

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

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

Textile and Apparel and the Proposed U.S.-EU Free Trade Agreement

I. Background

On 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 agreement.   

II. Negotiating Objectives

On January 11, 2019, the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative (USTR) released the negotiating 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

As of 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 goals:

First, eliminate import duties. For example:

American 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.”

European 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 buyers.”

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 future.”

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

The 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).

Meanwhile, 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:

First, 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.

Second, 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. 

Recommended reading:
Lu, S. (2017). Trans-Atlantic Trade and Investment Partnership: An Opportunity or a Threat to the EU Textile and Apparel Industry? Journal of the Textile Institute, 109 (7), 933-941.

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

The full article is available HERE

Key findings:

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

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

Asia: within this regional supply chain, more economically advanced Asian countries (such asJapan, South Korea, and China) supply textile raw material to the less economically developed countries in the region (such as Bangladesh, Cambodia, and Vietnam). Based on relatively lower wages, the less developed countries typically undertake the most labor-intensive processes of apparel manufacturing and then export finished apparel to major consumption markets around the world.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What Do You Take Away from FASH455?

I encourage everyone to watch the video above, which provides an excellent wrap-up for FASH455 and reminds us of the meaning and significance of our course. The names of several experts featured in the video should sound familiar to you, including 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 (president of the National Council of TextileOrganizations, 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’ve 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 or “factory Asia” and the phenomenon of intra-region T&A trade in Europe). Last but not least, we looked at trade policies that are unique to the T&A sector (e.g.,: the quota system, and the yarn-forward rules of origin) as well as the complicated factors behind the making of these trade policies. No matter 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 apparel companies’ social responsibility practices, the debate on the renegotiation of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and Trump Administration’s trade policy agenda to the controversy of second-hand clothing trade. It is critical to keep in mind that we wear more than just 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 hopeFASH455 can put students into thinking the meaning of being a FASH major/minor(as well as a college graduate) and how to contribute to the world we are living today positively. A popular misconception is that T&A 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, T&A 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, globally over 120 million people remain directly employed in the T&A industry, a good proportion of whom are females living in poor rural areas. For most developing countries, T&Ausually accounts for 70%–90% of their total merchandise exports and provide one of the very few opportunities for these countries to participate in globalization. Indeed, T&A is such an impactful sector, and we are as important as any other majors on the campus!

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

  • How to make the growth of global textile and apparel trade more inclusive and equal?
  • How to make sure tragedies like the Rana Plaza building collapse will never happen again?
  • How will automation in apparel manufacturing change the future landscape of apparel sourcing?
  • How to use trade policy as a tool to solve some tough global issues such as labor practices and environmental standard?
  • Is inequality a problem caused by global trade? If global trade is the problem, what is the alternative?

These questions have no good answers yet. But 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.

U.S. and Mexico Reached a Deal to Replace NAFTA

us-mexico-trade-agreement

The Office of U.S. Trade Representative (USTR) announced that the United States and Mexico have “reached a preliminary agreement in principle” to update the 24-year old North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). According to USTR, compared with the existing NAFTA, the new deal will

  • strengthen the labor and environmental protection provisions
  • provide stronger and more effective protection and enforcement of intellectual property right protection
  • reduce various non-tariff barriers facing U.S. agriculture exports
  • include new rules of origin and origin procedures for autos (including requiring 75 percent of auto content be made in the United States and Mexico AND 40-45 percent of auto content be made by workers earning at least $16 per hour.)
  • include new chapters dealing with digital trade and textiles
  • include a 16-year “sunset period” with a review every six years, at which time the parties can renew the deal for another 16 years.

Specifically for the textile and apparel sector, USTR said that “The new provisions on textiles incentivize greater United States and Mexican production in textiles and apparel trade, strengthen customs enforcement, and facilitate broader consultation and cooperation among the Parties on issues related to textiles and apparel trade.” More specifically, the new textile chapter in renegotiated NAFTA will:

1) Promote greater use of Made-in-the-USA fibers, yarns, and fabrics by limiting rules that allow for some use of non-NAFTA inputs in textile and apparel trade; and requiring that sewing thread, pocketing fabric, narrow elastic bands, and coated fabric, when incorporated in apparel and other finished products, be made in the region for those finished products to qualify for trade benefits. “

2) Include textile-specific verification and customs cooperation provisions that provide new tools for strengthening customs enforcement and preventing fraud and circumvention.

Based on USTR’s statement, it is likely, although not confirmed, that the US-Mexico deal will allow more limited tariff preference level (TPL) than the existing NAFTA.

USTR’s statement also said that the new deal would be subject to “finalization and implementation,” and its relationship with NAFTA remain unclear. The statement did not mention anything about Canada, another NAFTA member, either. Interesting enough, when announcing the US-Mexico deal in front of the press, President Trump said I will terminate the existing deal (NAFTA).  When that happens, I can’t quite tell you; it depends on what the timetable is with Congress.  But I’ll be terminating the existing deal and going into this deal.  We’ll start negotiating with Canada relatively soon.”

In a statement released on the same day, the American Apparel and Footwear Association (AAFA) said it welcomed the conclusion of bilateral talks with Mexico on NAFTA and emphasized the need for Canada to be a part of any final agreement: “The conclusion of talks between the U.S. and Mexico is a positive step in the NAFTA negotiations, however, it is essential that the updated agreement remain trilateral. At the same time, we encourage the administration to share the details of the agreement so the business community can inspect the impact on North American supply chains and share feedback with the administration and Congress…Any update to the agreement must continue to support these American jobs, promote trade linkages, and be seamlessly implemented to be considered a success. It is with this in mind that we are deeply concerned to hear any mention of withdrawal or termination of the existing agreement at this late stage.”

According to Inside U.S. Trade, the National Council of Textile Organizations (NCTO) which represents the U.S. textile industry says it is “encouraged by the information released by USTR with respect to strengthening the rules of origin for textiles and apparel in the announced agreement with Mexico. U.S. talks with Canada are still ongoing, however, and NCTO will wait to review the text of any final agreement before issuing a more detailed statement on the negotiation outcome.”

2018 U.S. Fashion Industry Benchmarking Study Released

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The report can be downloaded from HERE

Key findings of this year’s study:

Business challenges facing U.S. fashion companies: Protectionism is the top challenge for the U.S. fashion industry in 2018. More companies worry about increases in production or sourcing cost, too. For the second year in a row, “protectionist trade policy agenda in the United States” ranks the top challenge for U.S. fashion companies in 2018.

Industry outlook: Despite concerns about trade policy and cost, executives are more confident about the five-year outlook for the U.S. fashion industry in 2018 than they were a year ago, although confidence has not fully recovered to the level seen in 2015 and 2016. In addition, 100 percent of respondents say they plan to hire more employees in the next five years, compared with 80-85 percent in previous studies; market analysts, data scientists, sustainability/compliance related specialists or managers, and supply chain specialists are expected to be the most in-demand.

U.S. fashion companies’ sourcing strategy: When it comes to sourcing, diversification is key for many companies.

  • Most respondents continue to maintain a diverse sourcing base, with 60.7 percent currently sourcing from 10+ different countries or regions, up from 57.6 percent in 2017.
  • Larger companies, in general, continue to be more diversified than smaller companies.
  • Reflecting the U.S. fashion industry’s growing global reach, respondents report sourcing from as many as 51 countries or regions in 2018, the same as in 2017. Asia as a whole continues to take the lead as the dominant sourcing region. Meanwhile, with the growing importance of speed-to-market and flexibility, the Western Hemisphere is becoming an indispensable sourcing base.
  • Keeping a relatively diverse sourcing base will remain a key element of U.S. fashion companies’ sourcing strategy. Nearly 80 percent of respondents plan to source from the same number of countries, or more countries, in the next two years. However, respondents are equally divided on whether to increase or decrease the number of suppliers they will work with.
  • China plus Vietnam plus Many” has become an ever more popular sourcing model among respondents. And this model is evolving as companies further diversify their China production. In particular, China now typically accounts for only 11-30 percent of companies’ total sourcing value or volume, compared with 30-50 percent in the past.
  • Although China’s position as the top sourcing destination is unshakable, companies are actively seeking alternatives to “Made in China.” This does not seem to be due to concerns about cost, but rather the worries about the escalating U.S.-China trade tensions.
  • Benefiting from the diversification away from China, Vietnam and Bangladesh are expected to play a bigger role as apparel suppliers for the U.S. market in the near future.

Rules of origin and the utilization of trade agreements for sourcing: Rules of origin, and exceptions to the rules of origin, significantly impact whether companies use free trade agreements (FTAs) and trade preference programs for sourcing.

  • While FTAs and trade preference programs remain largely underutilized by U.S. fashion companies, more companies are using NAFTA (65 percent), CAFTA-DR (58 percent) and AGOA (50 percent) than in the past two years.
  • Still, it’s concerning that companies often do not claim the duty-free benefits when sourcing from countries with FTAs or preference programs. Companies say this is primarily due to the strict rules of origin.
  • Exceptions to the “yarn-forward” rules of origin, including tariff preference levels (TPLs), commercial availability/short supply lists, and cumulation, are priorities for respondents; 48 percent say they currently use these mechanisms for sourcing. These exceptions provide critical flexibilities that make companies more likely to use FTAs and source from FTA regions.

NAFTA: U.S. fashion companies call for a further reduction of trade barriers and urge trade negotiators to “do no harm” to NAFTA, the most-utilized free trade agreement by respondents.

  • Respondents predominantly support initiatives to eliminate trade barriers of all kinds, from high tariffs to overcomplicated documentation requirements, to restrictive rules of origin in NAFTA and future free trade agreements.
  • More than half of respondents explicitly say NAFTA is important to their business—and they have grave concerns about the uncertain future of the agreement.

Sourcing in sustainable and socially compliant ways: Overall, U.S. fashion companies are making more commitments to sustainability and social responsibility.

  • 85 percent of respondents plan to allocate more resources for sustainability and social compliance in the next two years, in areas including providing training to suppliers and internal employees, adding more employees, and working more closely with third-party certification programs on sustainability and social compliance. However, the availability of operational budget remains the primary hurdle for companies that want to do more.
  • 100 percent of respondents map their supply chains (i.e., keep records of name, location, and function of suppliers), up from 90 percent in 2017. Over 80 percent of respondents track not only Tier 1 suppliers (i.e., factory where the final product is assembled), but also Tier 2 suppliers (i.e., subcontractors or major component suppliers, such as fabrics). However, it’s less common for companies to map Tier 3 (i.e., yarn spinners, finding and trimming suppliers) and Tier 4 suppliers (i.e., raw materials suppliers, such as cattle/pig hides, rubber, cotton, wool, goose down, minerals/metals and chemicals).
  • 100 percent of respondents audit their suppliers for issues including building safety, fire safety, and treatment of workers. The vast majority of respondents (96 percent) currently use third-party certification programs to audit, with both announced and unannounced audits.

The US Fashion Industry Benchmarking Study from 2014 to 2017 can be downloaded from HERE

USITC Report: AGOA and the Third-country Fabric Provisions Critical for U.S. Apparel Sourcing from sub-Saharan Africa

usitc AGOA

A newly released report by the U.S. International Trade Commission (USITC) suggests that the African Growth Opportunity Act (AGOA) and the third-country fabric provision are critical for U.S. Apparel Sourcing from sub-Saharan Africa (SSA). Specifically:

U.S. apparel imports from SSA grew faster than the world average. During 2010–16, U.S. apparel imports from SSA enjoyed a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 4.5 percent (compared with 2.1 percent CAGR of all countries), from $795.2 million in 2010 to over $1.0 billion in 2016. However, SSA overall remained a small apparel supplier to the U.S. market, accounting for only 1.2 percent of the market shares in 2016 (lower than 2.7 percent in 2004, but higher than 1.1 percent in 2010).

U.S. apparel imports from SSA remain uneven across countries. Kenya, Lesotho, Mauritius, and Madagascar accounted for over 90 percent of all apparel imports from SSA in 2016. Ethiopia and Tanzania experienced the fastest growth rates during the period—63.8 percent and 33.3 percent, respectively

The duty-free preferences awarded under AGOA and the liberal rules of origin available for apparel under the “third-country fabric provision”* are the key competitive advantages of SSA serving as apparel sourcing destination for U.S. companies. Due to limited yarn and fabric production in SSA, the third-country fabric provision remained critical for SSA exports of apparel to receive duty-free entrance to the United States. Notably, nearly all (97.3 percent) U.S. imports of apparel from SSA countries entered under AGOA, and of these imports, virtually all (96 percent) used the third-country fabric provision in 2016.

Further, the USITC report used Madagascar as an example to illustrate the significance of AGOA and the third-country fabric provision in particular to SSA countries’ apparel exports to the United States. As noted by USITC:

  • Madagascar were evidenced by the sharp decline in its apparel exports to the U.S. after the country lost its AGOA eligibility in 2009. Without duty-free access to the United States, the average duty rate for U.S. imports of apparel from Madagascar rose to 19.6 percent, and apparel exports to the United States from Madagascar fell from over $211 million in 2009 to only $40 million in 2011.
  • Madagascar’s AGOA benefits were reinstated in 2014, and in 2016, U.S. apparel imports from Madagascar bounced back to one-half of the 2009 level.

The USITC report also argues that the long-term renewal of AGOA and the third-country fabric provision was critical to instilling confidence in U.S. firms deciding to invest in or source from SSA countries. The report says that “because apparel production lead times are generally 6 to 9 months, U.S. apparel companies that source from the region import basic cut-and-sew garments that can be ordered months in advance and have steady U.S. demand, such as five-pocket denim jeans, uniform tops and bottoms, and T-shirts. This long lead time on orders makes long-term AGOA renewal particularly important to the apparel industry.”

Additionally, the USITC report believes that China’s declining competitiveness as an apparel producer (caused by its increasing labor cost) benefited the second- and third-largest suppliers to the United States, Vietnam and Bangladesh, but also helped smaller suppliers in SSA.

Last but not the least, the USITC report suggests that Kenya, Madagascar, and Ethiopia may have the most potential for apparel export growth in the future. However, the report doesn’t think apparel exports from South Africa will grow much because the country does not qualify for third-country fabric provisions under AGOA. Similarly, USITC believes that should SSA countries like Tanzania lose their AGOA benefits, due largely to its recent import ban on used clothing, the United States will likely see significant decreases in apparel imports from these countries too.

*About the African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA)

The African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA) is a non-reciprocal trade agreement enacted in 2000 that provides duty-free treatment to US imports of certain products from eligible sub-Saharan African (SSA) countries. AGOA intends to promote market-led economic growth and development in SSA and deepen US trade and investment ties with the region.

Because apparel production plays a dominant role in many SSA countries’ economic development, apparel has become one of the top exports for many SSA countries under AGOA. Particularly, the “third country fabric provision” under AGOA allows US apparel imports from certain SSA countries to be qualified for duty free treatment even if the apparel use yarns and fabrics produced by non-AGOA countries/regions (such as China, South Korea and Taiwan). This special rule is deemed as critical because most SSA countries still have no capacity in producing capital and technology intensive textile products.

On 29 June 2015, the Obama Administration signed a new bill to extend the AGOA (including the third country fabric provision) for another ten years (until 30 September 2025). The new law simplifies the AGOA rules of origin; gives the president the ability to withdraw, suspend or limit benefits (rather than just terminate eligibility) if designated AGOA countries do not comply with the eligibility criteria; adds notification and reporting requirements; and improves transparency and participation in the AGOA review process.

In 2016, US apparel imports from the AGOA region totaled US$260m, of which US$255m were under the agreement (or 98% utilisation rate).

About the “Third-Country Fabric” provision under AGOA

This is a “Special Rule” for lesser-developed SSA countries (LDCs) under AGOA. According to the rule, these SSA LDCs can enjoy duty-free and quota-free access to the U.S. market for apparel made from fabric originating anywhere in the world. In comparison, the regular AGOA rules of origin more restrictively require that apparel qualify for duty-free treatment must meet one of the following conditions:

  • apparel made of U.S. yarns and fabrics;
  • apparel made of SSA (regional) yarns and fabrics, subject to a cap;
  • apparel made in a designated lesser-developed country of third-country yarns and fabrics (also subject to a cap);
  • apparel made of yarns and fabrics not produced in commercial quantities in the United States;
  • textile or textile articles originating entirely in one or more lesser-developed beneficiary SSA countries;
  • certain cashmere and merino wool sweaters; and
  • hand-loomed/handmade/or folklore articles and ethnic printed fabrics