The full paper is HERE. Below are the key findings:
Over the past decade, U.S. fashion brands and retailers have seen Central America as a critical emerging apparel-sourcing destination. Especially since implementing the Dominican-Republic Central America Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA-DR) in 2006, a trade deal among the United States, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, the Dominican Republic (joined in 2007), and Costa Rica (joined in 2009), apparel sourcing from the region gained consistent interest among U.S. companies.
Nevertheless, U.S. apparel sourcing from CAFTA-DR members is NOT without significant challenges. For example, CAFTA-DR countries’ market shares in the U.S. apparel import market fell from 11.8% in 2005 before the trade agreement entered into force to only 10.6% in 2022, measured by value. Trade data also indicated that U.S. apparel sourcing from CAFTA-DR members concentrated on simple and low-value items, such as T-shirts, and lacked product diversification with no improvement over the years.
Given the high stakes of improving the status quo, this study quantitatively evaluated the impact of textile raw material access on CAFTA-DR’s apparel exports to the United States. Specifically, this study assumed that CAFTA-DR members cut their textile import tariff rates to improve garment producers’ textile raw material access (i.e., to reduce the cost of sourcing textiles from anywhere in the world and beyond the U.S. supply). The computable general equilibrium (CGE) model estimation based on the GTAP9 database shows mixed results:
On the one hand, cutting CAFTA-DR members’ textile import tariffs to improve their garment producers’ textile raw material access would significantly improve CAFTA-DR members’ price competitiveness of their apparel exports to the United States and increase the export volume.
However, cutting CAFTA-DR members’ textile import tariffs to improve their garment producers’ textile raw material access would significantly expand their textile imports from non-U.S. sources. This means that CAFTA-DR members’ dependence on the U.S. textile raw material supply may decline further.
Overall, the study’s findings remind us that the debate on expanding U.S. apparel sourcing from CAFTA-DR members should go beyond CAFTA-DR members’ garment production. Instead, more efforts could be made to enhance CAFTA-DR garment producers’ textile raw material access as an effective way to expand the region’s apparel exports to the United States.
Meanwhile, several leading CAFTA-DR apparel exporting countries, including Honduras and Nicaragua, have been engaged in negotiations for free trade agreements with China, Taiwan, and other Asian economies. As the study’s findings indicate, these new trade deals could incentivize CAFTA-DR apparel manufacturers to increase their textile sourcing from Asia. In other words, inaction on the U.S. side and maintaining the status quo still could have significant implications for the future stability of the Western Hemisphere textile and apparel supply chain.
The Asia-Pacific region includes several mega free trade agreements:
ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) is a regional intergovernmental organization comprising ten countries in Southeast Asia (Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, and Vietnam). In 2021, ASEAN members have a combined GDP of $3.11 trillion and a population of 673 million.
CPTPP (Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership) is a free trade agreement signed by 11 countries in the Asia-Pacific region, including Japan, Malaysia, Vietnam, Australia, Singapore, Brunei, New Zealand, Canada, Mexico, Peru, and Chile. The CPTPP covers a market of 495 million people with a combined GDP of $13.5 trillion in 2021. The United States was originally a participant in the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) negotiations, but in January 2017, former US President Trump withdrew the US from the agreement. The Biden administration has indicated no interest in rejoining CPTPP. Additionally, China is actively seeking to join CPTPP.
RCEP (Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership) is a free trade agreement signed by 15 countries in the Asia-Pacific region, including China, Japan, South Korea, Australia, New Zealand, Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, Vietnam. In 2021, RCEP members collectively represented a market of 2.3 billion people with a combined GDP of $26.3 trillion. India was an RCEP member but withdrew from the agreement due to concerns about import competition with China.
IPEF (Indo-Pacific Economic Framework for Prosperity) is a US-led economic cooperation framework that aims to “link major economies and emerging ones to tackle 21st-century challenges and promote fair and resilient trade for years to come.” IPEF is NOT a traditional free trade agreement, and it does not address market access issues like tariff cuts. Instead, IPEF includes four pillars: trade, supply chains, clean economy, and fair economy. IPEF members in the Asia-Pacific region include the United States, Japan, Australia, New Zealand, South Korea, India, Fiji, Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, and Vietnam. The IPEF is designed to be flexible, meaning that IPEF partners are not required to join all four pillars. For example, India chooses not to join the trade pillar of the framework. In 2021, IPEF countries collectively represented a market of 2.1 billion people with a combined GDP of $23.3 trillion. The potential economic impact of IPEF remains too early to tell.
Notably, ASEAN, CPTPP, RCEP, and IPEF members play significant roles in the world textile and apparel trade. Specifically:
ASEAN and RCEP members have established a highly integrated regional textile and apparel supply chain. For example, a substantial portion of ASEAN and RECP members’ textile imports came from within the region.
ASEAN and RCEP members’ supply chain connection with China has substantially strengthened over the past decade. In contrast, the US barely participated in Asia-based textile and apparel supply chains. For example, other than CPTPP, the US accounted for less than 2% of ASEAN, RCEP, and IPEF members’ textile imports in 2021.
ASEAN and RCEP members also hold significant market shares in the world textile and apparel export (over 50%). Meanwhile, the US and EU are indispensable export markets for ASEAN and RCEP members.
Because of the United States, IPEF represented one of the world’s largest apparel import markets (i.e., 33.7% in 2021, measured in value). Similarly, in 2022, about 26% of US apparel imports came from current IPEF members. Should IPEF address market access issues, it could potentially offer significant duty-saving opportunities for textile and apparel products.
Additionally, UK’s membership in CPTPP may have a limited direct impact on the textile and apparel sector, at least in short to medium terms. For example, current CPTPP members only accounted for about 6% of UK’s apparel imports in 2021.
Trend 1: US fashion companies continue to diversify their sourcing base in 2022
Numerous studies suggest that US fashion companies leverage sourcing diversification and sourcing from countries with large-scale production capacity in response to the shifting business environment. For example, according to the 2022 fashion industry benchmarking study from the US Fashion Industry Association (USFIA), more than half of surveyed US fashion brands and retailers (53%) reported sourcing apparel from over ten countries in 2022, compared with only 37% in 2021. Nearly 40% of respondents plan to source from even more countries and work with more suppliers over the next two years, up from only 17% in 2021.
Trade data confirms the trend. For example, the Herfindahl–Hirschman index (HHI), a commonly-used measurement of market concentration, went down from 0.110 in 2021 to 0.105 in 2022, suggesting that US apparel imports came from even more diverse sources.
Trend 2: Asia as a whole will remain the dominant source of imports
Measured in value, about 73.5% of US apparel imports came from Asia in 2022, up from 72.8% in 2021. Likewise, the CR5 index, measuring the total market shares of the top five suppliers—all Asia-based, i.e., China, Vietnam, Bangladesh, Indonesia, and India, went up from 60.6% in 2021 to 61.1% in 2022. Notably, the CR5 index without China (i.e., the total market shares of Vietnam, Bangladesh, Indonesia, India, and Cambodia) enjoyed even faster growth, from 40.7% in 2021 to 43.7% in 2022.
Additionally, facing growing market uncertainties and weakened consumer demand amid high inflation pressure, US fashion companies may continue to prioritize costs and flexibility in their vendor selection. Studies consistently show that Asia countries still enjoy notable advantages in both areas thanks to their highly integrated regional supply chain, production scale, and efficiency. Thus, US fashion companies are unlikely to reduce their exposure to Asia in the short to medium term despite some worries about the rising geopolitical risks.
Trend 3: US fashion companies’ China sourcing strategy continues to evolve
Several factors affected US apparel sourcing from China negatively in 2022:
One was China’s stringent zero-COVID policy, which led to severe supply chain disruptions, particularly during the fall. As a result, China’s market shares from September to November 2022 declined by 7-9 percentage points compared to the previous year over the same period.
The second factor was the implementation of the Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act (UFLPA) in June 2022, which discouraged US fashion companies from sourcing cotton products from China. For example, only about 10% of US cotton apparel came from China in the fourth quarter of 2022, down from 17% at the beginning of the year and much lower than nearly 27% back in 2018.
The third contributing factor was the US-China trade tensions, including the continuation of Section 301 punitive tariffs. Industry sources indicate that US fashion companies increasingly source from China for relatively higher-value-added items targeting the premium or luxury market segments to offset the additional sourcing costs.
Further, three trends are worth watching regarding China’s future as an apparel sourcing base for US fashion companies:
One is the emergence of the “Made in China for China” strategy, particularly for those companies that view China as a lucrative sales market. Recent studies show that many US fashion companies aim to tailor their product offerings further to meet Chinese consumers’ needs and preferences.
Second is Chinese textile and apparel companies’ growing efforts to invest and build factories overseas. As a result, more and more clothing labeled “Made in Bangladesh” and “Made in Vietnam” could be produced by factories owned by Chinese investors.
Third, China could accelerate its transition from exporting apparel to providing more textile raw materials to other apparel-exporting countries in Asia. Notably, over the past decade, most Asian apparel-exporting countries have become increasingly dependent on China’s textile raw material supply, from yarns and fabrics to various accessories. Moreover, recent regional trade agreements, particularly the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), provide new opportunities for supply chain integration in Asia.
Trend 4: US fashion companies demonstrate a new interest in expanding sourcing from the Western Hemisphere, but key bottlenecks need to be solved
Trade data suggests a mixed picture of near-shoring in 2022. For example, members of the Dominican Republic-Central America Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA-DR) and US-Mexico-Canada Trade Agreement (USMCA) accounted for a declining share of US apparel imports in 2022, measured in quantity and value. While CAFTA-DR and USMCA members showed an increase in their market share of US apparel imports in the fourth quarter of 2022, reaching 10.7% and 3.1%, respectively, this growth was not accompanied by an increase in trade volume. Instead, US apparel imports from these countries decreased by 11% and 15%, respectively, compared to the previous year. CAFTA-DR and USMCA members’ gain in market share was mainly due to a sharper decline in US apparel imports from the rest of the world (i.e., decreased by over 25% in the fourth quarter of 2022).
Trade data also suggests two other bottlenecks preventing more US apparel sourcing from CAFTA-DR and USMCA members. One is the lack of product diversity. For example, the product diversification index consistently shows that US apparel imports from CAFTA-DR members and Mexico concentrated on only a limited category of products, and the problem worsened in 2022. The result explained why US fashion companies often couldn’t move souring orders from Asia to CAFTA-DR and USMCA members.
Another problem is the underutilization of the trade agreement. For example, CAFTA-DR’s utilization rate for US apparel imports consistently went down from its peak of 87% in 2011 to only 74% in 2021. The utilization rate fell to 66.6% in 2022, the lowest since CAFTA-DR fully came into force in 2007. This means that as much as one-third of US apparel imports from CAFTA-DR did NOT claim the agreement’s preferential duty benefits. Thus, regarding how to practically grow US fashion companies’ near-shoring, we could expect more public discussions and debates in the new year.
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:
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
Discussion question: As we approach the middle of the year, why do you agree or disagree with any predictions in the outlook? Please share your thoughts.
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.
Patrick Fox, Senior Director, Customs and Trade Strategy, VF Corporation
Cen Williams, Hub Leader for Africa and Middle East region, PVH
Greg Poole, Chief Sourcing Officer, The Children’s Place
Trade preference programs provide duty-free US market access to selected exports of eligible developing countries. Unlike free trade agreements, all preference programs are unilateral, meaning they do not require reciprocal trade concessions.
There are five major trade preference programs enacted in the United States, including:
Four trade preference programs that target specific regions, including the Andean Trade Preference Act (APTA), the Caribbean Basin Economic Recovery Act (CBERA), the Caribbean Basin Trade Partnership Act (CBTPA), the African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA), and the Haitian Opportunity through Partnership Encouragement (HOPE) Act. In 2021, about 2% of US apparel imports came from trade preference partners.
US trade preferences reflect both economic development and foreign policy goals. In addition to the economic benefits, eligibility criteria create incentives for beneficiary countries to support objectives such as adopting and enforcing internationally recognized worker rights, reducing barriers to investment, and enforcing intellectual property rights.
However, the trade preference program is not without controversies. For example, it is debatable whether the trade preference program effectively enhances the genuine export competitiveness of developing countries. Also, despite preferential duty benefits, US fashion companies often hesitate to source more from trade preference partners due to concerns about a lack of critical infrastructure, limited production capacity, and political instability.
This study offers valuable input and practical policy recommendations from U.S. apparel companies’ perspectives regarding expanding U.S. apparel sourcing from CAFTA-DR members. For the study, we consulted executives at 27 leading U.S.-based apparel companies (note: 85% report having annual revenues exceeding $500 million; over 95% have been sourcing apparel from the CAFTA-DR region for more than ten years).
The results confirm that expanding U.S. apparel sourcing from CAFTA-DR could be the best chance to effectively create more jobs in Central America and solve the root causes of migration there. To achieve this goal, we need to focus on four areas:
First, improve CAFTA-DR’s apparel production capacity and diversify its product offers.
As many as 92 percent of respondents report currently sourcing apparel from CAFTA-DR members.
Highly consistent with the macro trade statistics, the vast majority of respondents (i.e., 60 percent) place less than 10 percent of their company’s total sourcing orders with CAFTA-DR members.
Whereas respondents rate CAFTA-DR members overall competitive in terms of “speed to market,” they express concerns about CAFTA-DR countries’ limited production capacity in making various products. As a result, U.S. companies primarily source basic fashion items like T-shirts and sweaters from the region. These products also face growing price competition with many alternative sourcing destinations.
Improving CAFTA-DR’s production capacity and diversifying product offers would encourage U.S. apparel companies to move more sourcing orders from Asia to the region permanently.
Second, practically solve the bottleneck of limited textile raw material supply within CAFTA-DR and do NOT worsen the problem.
The limited textile raw material supply within CAFTA-DR is a primary contributing factor behind the region’s stagnated apparel export volume and a lack of product diversification.
Notably, respondents say for their apparel imports from CAFTA-DR members, only 42.9% of fabrics, 40.0% of sewing threads, and 23.8% of accessories (such as trims and labels) can be sourced from within the CAFTA-DR area (including the United States). CAFTA-DR’s textile raw material supply problem could worsen as the U.S. textile industry switches to making more technical textiles and less so for apparel-related fabrics and textile accessories.
Maintaining the status quo or simply calling for making the CAFTA-DR apparel supply chain more “vertical” will NOT automatically increase the sourcing volume. Instead, allowing CAFTA-DR garment producers to access needed textile raw materials at a competitive price will be essential to encourage more U.S. apparel sourcing from the region.
Third, encourage more utilization of CAFTA-DR for apparel sourcing.
CAFTA-DR plays a critical role in promoting U.S. apparel sourcing from the region. Nearly 90 percent of respondents say the duty-free benefits provided by CAFTA-DR encourage their apparel sourcing from the region.
The limited textile supply within CAFTA-DR, especially fabrics and textile accessories, often makes it impossible for U.S. companies to source apparel from the region while fully complying with the strict “yarn-forward” rules of origin. As a result, consistent with the official trade statistics, around 31 percent of respondents say they sometimes have to forgo the CAFTA-DR duty-free benefits when sourcing from the region.
Respondents say the exceptions to the “yarn-forward” rules of origin, including “short supply,” “cumulation,” and “cut and assemble” rules, provide necessary flexibilities supporting respondents’ apparel sourcing from CAFTA-DR members. Around one-third of respondents utilize at least one of these three exceptions when sourcing from CAFTA-DR members when the products are short of meeting the strict “yarn-forward” rules of origin. It is misleading to call these exceptions “loopholes.”
Fourth, leverage expanded apparel sourcing to incentivize more investments in the CAFTA-DR region’s production and infrastructure.
U.S. apparel companies are interested in investing in CAFTA-DR to strengthen the region’s sourcing and production capacity. Nearly half of respondents explicitly say they will make investments, including “building factories or expanding sourcing or manufacturing capacities” in the CAFTA-DR region through 2026.
CAFTA-DR will be better positioned to attract long-term investments in its textile and apparel industry with a sound and expanded apparel sourcing volume.
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.
The event is hosted by the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Secretariat.
About the webinar: This webinar seeks to understand the opportunities offered by the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) Agreement for the garment and textile industry in the region. Considering that the garment and textile industry involves a large number of MSMEs in its supply chain, it would be important to understand how MSMEs can utilise the RCEP Agreement to grow their business and further integrate themselves into the global supply chain, noting that RCEP members are critical apparel-sourcing country for many big global players in the industry.
The first part of the event includes three presentations. 1) textile and apparel trade patterns in the RCEP region and how to read RCEP’s detailed tariff phaseout schedule. 2) RCEP rules of origin for textiles and apparel; and 3) customs procedure
In the second half, three companies from Cambodia, Thailand, and Indonesia shared their perspectives about the potential impact of RCEP on their businesses.
Kekeli Ahiableis a private sector development Advisor with the Tony Blair Institute’s Industrialisation Practice. Working with industry leaders over the past 10 years, she has facilitated business and job creation opportunities in the trade infrastructure, supply chain, and manufacturing sectors across four continents.
In her current technical support role at TBI, she manages the Institute’s regional textile and apparel (T&A) project which aims to support the development of a best in class, sustainable, and circular cotton-to-apparel manufacturing hub across five West African countries.
She holds a Master of Public Policy (MPP) from the University of Oxford, with a focus on trade policy and economic development.
Sheng: Thank you so much for speaking with us, Kekeli. First of all, would you please tell us a little about the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change (TBI) and your involvement with the textile and apparel (T&A) industry in West Africa?
Kekeli: Sure! The Tony Blair Institute for Global Change (TBI) is a not-for-profit organization that offers strategic advice and practical support to political leaders and governments so they can deliver reforms that raise standards and transform lives. Our work includes advising on a range of sectors including industrialization, energy, and technology. We currently work in 17 African countries.
Since 2019, we have been working with several governments in West Africa – specifically Cote d’Ivoire, Ghana, and Togo – to support the development of a best-in-class and sustainable textile and apparel sector that meets the needs of British, European, and North American retailers and consumers.
Our role has centered around supporting our partner governments to:
prepare for doing business; work with them to develop relevant sector strategy & review policy, etc.
design attractive investment incentives
attract interest in the region from relevant fashion trade actors
For instance, we facilitated a week-long investor roadshow to the three countries in 2019, with participation from three of the largest global apparel brands together with their mills and manufacturers (with a combined turnover of over US$ 70 billion). This was co-sponsored under the banner of Amcham Hongkong.
Covid-19 naturally impacted our physical scoping events and so we moved the conversations to virtual roundtable forums. Last December, eight of the UK’s biggest retailers, plus several European retailers, attended a session we organized, led by Rt Hon. Tony Blair. Representatives from the three main governments and other non-governmental groups involved in developing textiles and apparel in the region were also present to engage in discussion with the investors. We have also worked with the American Apparel and Footwear Association (AAFA) and the United States Fashion Industry Association (USFIA) to update US brands and retailers on West Africa’s potential as a nearshore sourcing destination for the North American market.
In summary, TBI is very much to help create top-of-mind awareness about West Africa’s suitability to grow a viable T&A sourcing hub and ultimately facilitate investment into the priority countries.
Sheng: What is the current state of the textile and apparel (T&A) industry in West Africa? What are the key development trends? How about the impact of COVID?
Kekeli: West Africa’s T&A market is rapidly expanding. Although considered nascent when compared to Asia’s more developed markets, its many greenfield opportunities also mean there are fewer legacy challenges to contend with. This offers a ripe opportunity for investors and manufacturers to start from an almost clean slate, which is crucial as the apparel industry makes strides toward a more environmentally sustainable footprint.
The region also has numerous natural and competitive advantages for textiles and apparel manufacturing and has seen increased interest from global actors, brands, manufacturers, infrastructure developers, development finance institutions, etc., over the last few years.
Key development trends
Recognizing shifting patterns in global T&A trade and the immense value in domestic processing of abundantly available raw materials, West African governments are demonstrating an ambition to harness their competitive advantages and expand their T&A sectors.
The governments of Cote d’Ivoire, Ghana, and Togo especially, are walking the talk. Togo’s agile government closed a ground-breaking €200 million investment deal with Arise IIP, in August 2020. The deal included building a 400-hectare eco-industrial park dedicated to textiles and apparel manufacturing. Apart from the park, the Arise group is investing into vertically integrated (fiber to fashion) knit apparel units which will start commercial operations in mid-2023.
Ghana has the most advanced industrial base of the three highlighted countries and hosts DTRT Apparel, which has been running its operation in Ghana for the past 7 years and is currently the largest apparel exporter from West Africa. As a further boost towards vertical integration, in March, they partnered on a co-creation deal with the International Finance Corporation (IFC) to jointly develop setting up a synthetic fabric mill in the region. Meanwhile, Northshore Apparel, another garment actor, recently began constructing a 10,000-worker garment factory in Ghana. To attract more foreign direct investment (FDI), the government is drafting a new T&A sector policy and incentive framework under the UK’s Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office (FCDO) funded £16 million-pound JET Programme.
In a similar vein, Cote d’Ivoire, Africa’s second-largest cotton seed grower, is carrying out sector reforms and strategy development aimed at facilitating the domestic transformation of at least 50% of their annual cotton output.
Altogether, it is an exciting time to be developing the T&A sector in West Africa. We are excited to contribute towards this vision to create a best in class, vertical and sustainable manufacturing hub in the region, and help to create 500k direct and indirect jobs.
Impact of COVID
Most existing garment manufacturers pivoted to producing PPE for both domestic and international markets. For instance, DTRT is making this a permanent feature of their production, although orders have resumed from their traditional apparel buyers.
We have also witnessed a stronger resolve from governments to support their domestic T&A manufacturing sectors’ growth. The Togo deal, for instance, happened at the height of covid lockdowns. Some countries also offered waivers on value-add tax for their textile and apparel manufacturers and used the time to restructure their labor codes to meet international standards.
Sheng: How to understand West African countries’ competitiveness as an apparel-sourcing base for western fashion companies?
Kekeli: First, there is an immense opportunity to vertically integrate the T&A manufacturing value chain. The region produces around 1.5 million metric tons of cotton annually, which represents about 60% of Africa’s total output and 15% of global exports. The vast majority of this is exported unprocessed. Farming methods feature rain-fed irrigation with harvest done by handpicking, leading to 80% being labeled as preferred, sustainable cotton under Better Cotton Initiative (BCI) and Cotton made in Africa (CmiA) standards.
Secondly, its geographical location means it offers a natural nearshore market to Europe and US markets – literally less than two weeks away from Europe by sea.
Other benefits include an abundant trainable labor force, cost savings to manufacturers under favorable trade instruments like African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA), EU’s Economic Partnership Agreement (EPA)/Everything But Arms (EBA) program, etc., as well as consolidated political stability in all three countries. Moreover, there is strong potential for developing a circular textile economy facilitated by green manufacturing and initiatives like our West Africa Regeneration Zone (WARZ) initiative, on which TBI is collaborating with key brands and figures from the industry.
Apart from the main retail regions, there is a growing online retail market in Africa – estimated to increase to $75 billion by 2025 with projected $3.4 trillion aggregate GDP under African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA). As we have seen with recent moves to the continent by Twitter, Google, and others, there is large scope for fashion retailers to use manufacturing in West Africa as a launchpad into this growing continental market, with free movement of goods and services under AfCFTA.
These are attractive propositions for buyers and manufacturers looking to diversify their supply chains and leave a greener carbon footprint in the process.
Sheng: It is of concern that used clothing exports from developed countries to Africa hurt the local textile and apparel industry. What is your assessment?
Kekeli: That is correct. The reality is that there is strong consumer demand for second-hand clothing, due to the cheap prices and readily available clothing for re-use. This is the main reason why the supply chains are routing the bales to other markets, including Africa. Most consumers in Africa rely heavily on the second-hand clothing markets. In this configuration, it is difficult for local players to compete and attract the same consumers’ appetites.
Moreover, this is quite complex, especially in an era of global value chains and [free] trade pacts that enjoin countries to offer some levels of reciprocity in their trade relations. Governments wishing to partake in international trade cannot simply ban imports of goods to protect their local industries. It is, therefore, crucial to explore practical win-win solutions.
For instance, there is a fast-growing global market for fabrics made from recycled materials as brands and manufacturers are taking steps to make their footprint greener. Receiver countries of second clothes could develop other business opportunities from the materials that arrive, with funding from relevant partners. Take Ghana as an example – its Kantamanto market, arguably the world’s largest reuse, repair, and upcycle market, process hundreds of tons of clothing each week. A large percentage of what comes to the market however ends up as landfilled waste due to various reasons.
One remedy is recycling, which ploughs back the many unsold and non-reusable clothes into the textile manufacturing economy. This not only reduces the need for virgin fibers but with the scale envisioned for the West Africa T&A manufacturing project, it increases the fabric feedstock available for domestic Cut, Make, Trim (CMT) manufacturers thus supporting to differentiate the region as a destination for circular apparel sourcing. Managed properly, we envision this would have positive spillover effects on the domestic market. At TBI, we published a piece on tackling Ghana’s textile waste which can be read here for a deeper dive into the subject.
Sheng: How does the textile and apparel industry in West Africa embrace sustainability?
Kekeli: The strongest aspect is from an environmental perspective. With rain-fed irrigation, around 80% of the region’s cotton is labeled as preferred cotton. Vertically integrating the cotton value chain by processing within one geographical area supports a lower carbon footprint of each final product.
West Africa’s geographical proximity to main buyer markets also increases its environmental sustainability credentials as a nearshore market.
Moreover, circularity is part of the culture in this part of the world – people reuse and pass on clothes to other family relations after use, with very little going to waste. We see an opportunity to scale this with the West Africa regeneration (WARZ) initiative. The WARZ initiative aims to support the development of a sustainable and circular textile and apparel supply base in West Africa where post-consumer textile waste is recycled at scale and becomes feedstock for making new apparel. This would be underpinned by disruptive recycling and traceability technology.
In our role as non-vested convenors and facilitators, we have convened a consortium of international and domestic stakeholders to develop a pilot project in Ghana, which is the world’s number two importer of second-hand clothing. Preliminary scoping puts the entire project size at over US$500 million with the potential to generate over 60K jobs along the value chain over the next 5-10 years. The following image depicts the initial concept for the regeneration zone project:
Sheng: How important are trade preference programs like the African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA) to the development of the textile and apparel industry in West Africa? Do you think AGOA should be extended after 2025? Should the agreement keep the liberal “third-country fabric” rules of origin? Why or why not?
Kekeli: Trade preference programs are extremely important to facilitate the growth of Africa’s manufacturing and export capacity. As fundamentals like infrastructure tend to be less developed on the continent, preferential regimes like AGOA serve as a key enabler for manufacturing FDI. The T&A industries in countries like Kenya, Lesotho, and Madagascar have grown tremendously in the past few years thanks to AGOA’s tariff-free concessions. West Africa’s T&A industry is now in the beginning stages of development and needs an extension of AGOA to grow.
I believe in the short-medium term, maintaining third-country fabric rules is also crucial (note: Third-country fabric rules allow for apparel made with fabrics sourced from outside the AfCFTA/Sub-Saharan Africa region to qualify for duty-free access). The simple reason is that West Africa’s cotton value chain needs support to develop. While countries have ambitions for vertical integration by processing cotton within the region, these backward linkages will take time to develop.
A phase-out period may be negotiated to further incentivize accelerating the move towards domestic production of fibers that qualify to be used by CMT manufacturers in the [sub]-region.
Sheng: What does the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA) mean for the textile and apparel industry in West Africa?
Kekeli: The AfCFTA pact aims to form the world’s largest free trade area by connecting almost 1.3bn people across 54 African countries. The goal is to create a single market for goods and services to deepen the economic integration of Africa, with a combined GDP of around $3.4 trillion.
Historically, the most developed world regions have been those that have figured out and developed strong regional value chains. The EU, which is the world’s largest regional trade agreement (RTA) by value has over 64% of trade taking place within the regional block. Similar cases pertain in the US-Mexico-Canada (USMCA) and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) free trade areas.
Intra-Africa trade on the contrary is currently under 20%, with strong potential for growth. Trade figures show that when African countries trade with each other, it is mostly intermediate or finished goods, which naturally have more value. The goal is to encourage more of this.
Textiles and apparel development in West Africa has strong potential to become a flagship example of what AfCFTA implementation could practically look like. In the next couple of years, I envision fabrics from Cote d’Ivoire, Benin, being exported to Ghana duty-free to feed apparel factories, designers from Cote d’Ivoire offering their expertise across the sub-region with no restrictions on their movement, textiles from Ghana being traded in Nigeria, etc. The possibilities are truly endless.
Japan has one of the world’s largest apparel consumption markets, with retail sales totaling USD$100bn in 2021, only after the United States (USD$476bn) and China (USD$411bn). Meanwhile, like many other developed economies, most apparel consumed in Japan are imported, making the country a considerable sourcing and market access opportunity for fashion companies and sourcing agents around the globe.
Japanese fashion companies primarily source apparel from Asia. Data shows that Japanese fashion brands and retailers consistently imported more than 90% of clothing from the Asia region, much higher than their peers in the US (about 75%), the EU (50%), and the UK (about 60%). This pattern reflects Japan’s deep involvement in the Asia-based textile and apparel supply chain.
Notably, Japan’s apparel imports from Asia often contain textile raw materials “made in Japan.” Data shows that in 2021, about 65% of Japan’s yarn exports, 75% of woven fabric exports, and 90% of knit fabric exports went to the Asia region, particularly China and ASEAN members. Understandably, in Japan’s apparel retail stores, it is not rare to find clothing labeled “made in China” or “Made in Vietnam” but include phrases like “high-quality luster unique to Japanese fabrics” and “with Japanese yarns” in the product description.
The Global value chain analysis further shows that of Japan’s $5.32 billion gross textile exports in 2017, around 34% (or $1.79 billion) contributed to export production in other economies, mainly China ($496 million), Vietnam ($288 million), South Korea ($98 million), and Taiwan ($92 million).
China remains Japan’s top apparel supplier at the country level. However, Japanese fashion brands and retailers have been diversifying their sourcing base. Since the elimination of the quota system in 2005, China, for a long time, was the single largest apparel supplier for Japan, with an unparalleled market share of more than 80% measured by value. However, as “Made in China” became more expensive, among other factors, China’s market share dropped to 56.4% in 2021. Japanese fashion brands and retailers actively seek China’s alternatives like their US and EU counterparts. Notably, Japan’s apparel imports from Vietnam, Bangladesh, and Indonesia have grown particularly fast, even though their production capacity and market shares are still far behind China’s.
As Japanese fashion companies source from more places, the total market shares of the top 5 apparel suppliers, not surprisingly, had dropped from over 94% back in 2010 to only 82.3% in 2021, measured by value. Similarly, the Herfindahl-Hirschman Index (HHI), commonly used to calculate market concentration, dropped from 0.64 in 2011 to 0.35 in 2021 for Japan’s apparel imports. In other words, Japanese fashion companies’ apparel sourcing bases became ever more diverse.
We can observe the same pattern at the company level. For example, the Fast Retailing Group, the largest Japanese apparel retailer which owns Uniqlo, used to source nearly 100% of its products from China. However, as of 2021, the Fast Retailing Group sourced finished apparel from over 550 factories in more than 20 countries. While about half of these factories were in China, the Fast Retailing Group had strategically developed production capacity in Vietnam, Bangladesh, Indonesia, and India. On the other hand, in April 2021, the Fast Retailing Group opened a 3D-knit factory in Shinonome, allowing the company to re-shoring some production back to Japan.
Additionally, Japan is a member of the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), the world’s most economically influential free trade agreement. Notably, Japan commits to reducing its apparel import tariffs to zero for RCEP members following a 21-year phaseout schedule. However, as Table 8 shows, Japan’s tariff cut for apparel products is more generous toward ASEAN members and less for China and South Korea due to competition concerns. For example, by 2026, Japan’s average tariff rate will be reduced from 9.1% today to only 1.9% for apparel imports from ASEAN members but will remain above 6% for imports from China. Given the tariff difference, it can be highly expected that ASEAN members such as Vietnam could become more attractive sourcing destinations for Japanese fashion companies.
The full study is available here(need Just-Style subscription)
By leveraging production and trade statistics from government databases, we examined the critical trends of US textile manufacturing and supply. Particularly, we try to understand the strengths and weaknesses of the United States as a textile raw material supplier for domestic garment manufacturers and those in the Western Hemisphere. Below are the key findings:
First, fiber, yarn, and thread manufacturing is a long-time strength in the US, whereas fabric production is much smaller in scale. Specifically, fiber, yarn, and thread (NAICS 31311) accounted for nearly 18% of US textile mills’ total output in 2019. In comparison, less than 13% of the production went to woven fabrics (NAICS 31321) and only about 5% for knit fabrics (NAICS 31324).
Second, the US textile industry shifts to make more technical textiles and less apparel-related yarns, fabrics, and other raw materials. Data shows that from 2015 to 2019, the value of US fiber, yarn, and thread manufacturing (NAICS code 31311) dropped by as much as 16.8 percent. Likewise, US broadwoven fabric manufacturing (NAICS code 31321) and knit fabric (NAICS code 31324) decreased by 2.0 percent and 2.7 percent over the same period. Labor cost, material cost, and capital expenditure are critical factors behind the structural shift of US textile manufacturing.
Third, the structural change of US textile manufacturing directly affects the role of the US serving as a textile supplier for domestic apparel producers and those in the Western Hemisphere.
On the one hand, the US remains a critical yarns and threads supplier in the Western Hemisphere. For example, from 2010 to 2019, the value of US fibers, yarn and threads exports (NAICS31311) increased by 25%, much higher than other textile categories. Likewise, in 2021, fibers, yarns, and threads accounted for about 23.3% of US textile exports, higher than 21.0% in 2010. Additionally, nearly 40% of Mexico and CAFTA-DR members’ yarn imports in 2021 (SITC 651) still came from the US, the single largest source. This trend has stayed stable over the past decade.
On the other hand, the US couldn’t sufficiently supply fabrics and other textile accessories for garment producers in the Western Hemisphere, and the problem seems to worsen. Corresponding to the decline in manufacturing, US broadwoven fabric (NAICS 31321) and knit fabric (NAICS 31324) exports decreased substantially.
The US also plays a declining role as a fabric and textile accessories supplier for garment factories in the Western Hemisphere. Garment producers in Mexico and CAFTA-DR members had to source 60%-80% of woven fabrics and 75-82% of knit fabrics from non-US sources in 2021. Likewise, only 40% and 14.6% of Mexico and CAFTA-DR members’ textile accessories, such as labels and trims, came from the US in 2021.
Likewise, the limited US fabric supply affects the raw material sourcing of domestic apparel manufacturers. For example, according to the “Made in the USA” database managed by the Office of Textiles and Apparel (OTEXA), around 36% of US-based apparel mills explicitly say they use “imported material,” primarily fabrics.
The study’s findings echo some previous studies suggesting that textile raw material supply, especially fabrics and textile accessories, could be the single most significant bottleneck preventing more apparel “Made in the USA” and near-sourcing from the Western Hemisphere.
Meanwhile, how to overcome the bottleneck could trigger heated public policy debate. For example, US policymakers could encourage an expansion of domestic fabric and textile accessories manufacturing as one option. However, to make it happen takes time and requires substantial new investments. Also, economic factors may continue to favor technical textiles production over apparel-related fabrics in the US.
(About the authors: Dr Sheng Lu is an associate professor in fashion and apparel studies at the University of Delaware; Anna Matteson is a research assistant in fashion and apparel studies at the University of Delaware).
As US fashion companies diversify their sourcing from Asia, near-sourcing from the Western Hemisphere, particularly members of the Dominican Republic-Central America Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA-DR) seems to benefit. According to the latest trade data from the Office of Textiles and Apparel (OTEXA), US apparel companies placed relatively more sourcing orders with suppliers in the Western Hemisphere in 2021. For example, CAFTA-DR members’ market shares increased by 0.31 percentage points in quantity and nearly one percentage point in value compared with a year ago.
However, it is concerning to see the utilization rate of CAFTA-DR for apparel sourcing fall to a new record low of only 73.7% in 2021. This means that as much as 26.3% of US apparel imports from CAFTA-DR members did NOT claim the duty-free benefits.
The lower free trade agreement (FTA) utilization rate became a problem, particularly among CAFTA-DR members with fast export growth to the US market in 2021. For example, whereas US apparel imports from Honduras enjoyed an impressive 45.6% growth in 2021, only 72.6% of these imports claimed the CAFTA-DR duty benefits, down from 82.3% a year ago. We can observe a similar pattern in El Salvador, Nicaragua, and the Dominican Republic.
The phenomenon is far from surprising, however. For years, US fashion companies have expressed concerns about the limited textile supply within CAFTA-DR, especially fabrics and textile accessories. The lack of textile supply plus the restrictive “yarn-forward” rules of origin in the agreement often creates a dilemma for US fashion companies: either source from Asia entirely or source from CAFTA-DR but forgo the duty-saving benefits.
Likewise, because of a lack of sufficient textile supply within the region, US apparel imports from CAFTA-DR members become increasingly concentrated on basic fashion items, typically facing intense competition with many alternative sourcing destinations. For example, measured in value, over 80% of US apparel imports from CAFTA-DR members in 2021 were shirts, trousers, and underwear. However, US companies import the vast majority (70%-88%) from non-CAFTA-DR sources for these product categories.
Understandably, it will be unlikely to substantially expand US apparel sourcing from CAFTA-DR members without solving the textile supply shortage problem facing the region.
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.
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.
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).
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.
Data shows that 15.2% of US apparel imports came from USMCA and CAFTA-DR members YTD in 2021 (January-August), higher than 13.7% in 2020 and about 14.7% before the pandemic (2018-2019). Notably, CAFTA-DR members’ market shares increased to 11% in 2021 (January to Aug) from 9.6% in 2020. The value of US apparel imports from CAFTA-DR also enjoyed a 54% growth in 2021 (January—Aug) from a year ago, faster than 25% of the world’s average.
#2 Sourcing apparel from USCMA and CAFTA-DR members helps US fashion brands and retailers save around $1.6-1.7 billion tariff duties annually. (note: the estimation considers the value of US apparel imports from USMCA and CAFTA-DR members at the 6-digit HTS code level and the applied MFN tariff rates for these products; we didn’t consider the additional Section 301 tariffs US companies paid for imports from China). Official trade statistics also show that measured by value, about 73% of US apparel imports under free trade agreements came through USMCA (25%) and CAFTA-DR (48%) from 2019 to 2020.
#3 US apparel imports from USMCA and CAFTA-DR members do NOT necessarily focus on items subject to a high tariff rate. Measured at the 6-digit HS code level, apparel items subject to a high tariff rate (i.e., applied MFN tariff rate >17%) only accounted for about 8-9% of US apparel imports from USMCA members and 7-8% imports from CAFTA-DR members. In comparison, even having to pay a significant amount of import duties, around 17% of US apparel imports from Vietnam and 10% of imports from China were subject to a high tariff rate (see table below).
The phenomenon suggests that USCMA and CAFTA-DR members still have limited production capacity for many man-made fibers(MMF) clothing categories (such as jackets, swimwear, dresses, and suits), typically facing a higher tariff rate. This result also implies that expanding production capacity and diversifying the export product structure could make USMCA and CAFTA-DR more attractive sourcing destinations.
#4 US apparel imports from USMCA and CAFTA-DR members tend to focus on large-volume items subject to a medium tariff rate. Specifically, from 2017 to 2021 (Jan-Aug), ten products (at the 6-digit HTS code level) typically contributed around half of the US tariff revenues collected from apparel items (HS chapters 61-62). However, the average applied MFN tariff rates for these items were only about 13%. Meanwhile, these top tariff-revenue-contributing apparel items accounted for about 50% of US apparel imports from USMCA members and nearly 64%-69% of imports from CAFTA-DR members.
Likewise, the top ten products (at the 6-digit HTS code level) typically accounted for 65%-68% of US apparel imports from USMCA members and nearly 73-75% of US apparel imports from CAFTA-DR members. These products also had a medium average applied MFN rate at 11-12% for USMCA and 12-13% in the case of CAFTA-DR.
Given the duty-saving incentives, expanding “near-sourcing” from USMCA and CAFTA-DR members could prioritize these large-volume apparel items with a medium tariff rate in short to medium terms. However, in the long run, a shortcoming of this strategy is that many such items are basic fashion clothing that primarily competes on price (such as T-shirts and trousers) and cannot leverage the unique competitive edge of near-sourcing (such as speed to market). When the US reaches new free trade agreements, particularly those involving leading apparel-producing countries in Asia, it could offset the tariff advantages enjoyed by USMCA and CAFTA-DR members and quickly result in trade diversion.
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.
#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.
First, free trade agreements enacted in the U.S. have had a small but positive effect on the U.S. economy and trade. As of January 1, 2021, the United States has 14 free trade agreements (FTAs) with 20 countries in force. In the year 2017 (the base year), they led to an estimated increase in U.S. real Gross Domestic Product (GDP) of $88.8 billion (0.5 percent), and in aggregate U.S. employment of 485,000 full-time equivalent (FTE) jobs (0.3 percent). Real wages increased by 0.3 percent. Further, U.S. exports increased by $37.4 billion (1.6 percent), and imports increased by $95.2 billion (3.4 percent) because of these FTAs.
Second, USITC estimates that U.S.-free trade agreements have expanded the U.S. textile industry but hurt U.S. domestic apparel production. Thanks to the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA, now the U.S.-Mexico-Canada Trade Agreement, USMCA) and the Dominican Republic-Central America Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA-DR), the Western Hemisphere has become the single largest export market for U.S. textile producers. However, U.S. apparel manufacturers have to face intensified import competition.
Third, the textile and apparel-specific rules in U.S. free trade agreements are complicated and often hinder the usage of the trade agreements. As noted by USITC, the U.S. duty on imported textile and, especially, apparel goods are among the highest of all product categories. Despite the duty-saving incentives, only 12.1% of U.S. textile and apparel imports came in under FTAs in 2020, even lower than 16.7% in 2007 when fewer FTAs were in force.
The complexity of the textile and apparel-specific rules of origins (ROOs) is a significant cause of the low FTA utilization rate. As USITC noted, “No two FTAs using the tariff shift model contain the same ROOs for apparel goods…for some importers, the strict preference rules of origins (ROOs), along with the record-keeping and documentation requirements the rules entail, make the cost of compliance too great to take full advantage of the duty-free opportunities.” According to the annual USFIA fashion industry benchmarking study, the surveyed U.S. fashion companies consistently expressed the same concerns about the too restrictive ROOs in U.S. FTAs.
Related, the USITC report noted, “some U.S. domestic textile industry representatives state that the existing FTA rules follow a simple template designed to benefit upstream manufacturers in the textile and apparel supply chain.” Having to use more expensive domestic-made fibers and yarns reduces the price competitiveness of U.S. fabrics and home textiles in the export market.
Further, the USITC report explains the history of the “Short supply” and “Tariff-preference level, TPL” mechanisms in U.S. free trade agreements. However, the report does not provide an assessment of their trade impacts.
Trade statistics show that these exceptions to the restrictive “yarn-forward” rules of origin are critical for U.S. apparel sourcing from certain FTA partners. For example, more than 60% of U.S. apparel imports from Canada claimed duty-free benefits by using the TPL mechanism rather than complying with the USMCA/NAFTA “yarn-forward” rules in 2020. Around 8% of U.S. apparel imports from Mexico did the same. Likewise, in 2020, approximately 4% of U.S. apparel imports from CAFTA-DR members used the “short supply” mechanism, and the other 4% used the “cumulation” mechanism.
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.
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.
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?
#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)
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.
U.S. apparel imports continue to rebound, but uncertainty remains
Asia will remain the dominant apparel sourcing base
U.S. fashion companies are NOT giving up China as one of their essential apparel-sourcing bases, although companies continue to reduce their “China exposure” overall. Meanwhile, do NOT underestimate the impact of non-economic factors on sourcing.
No clear evidence suggests near sourcing from the Western Hemisphere is happening in a large scale
Watch Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) and Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP). These two mega-free trade agreements could shape new textile and apparel supply chains in the Asia-Pacific region.
Beth Hughes – Vice President, Trade & Customs Policy, American Apparel and Footwear Association
Dr. Sheng Lu (Moderator), Associate Professor, Department of Fashion & Apparel Studies, University of Delaware
About the session
The Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), signed in November 2020, is the world’s largest free trade agreement. Nearly half of the world’s textile and apparel exports currently come from the fifteen RCEP members. How will the new “rules of the game” in RCEP shape the future landscape of the textile and apparel supply chain in Asia? Who are the winners and losers of the agreement? Why US fashion brands and retailers also need to care about RCEP? The panel will interpret the key textile and apparel provisions in RCEP and share insights about the agreement’s broad implications on the textile and apparel sector.
What do you see as the biggest challenges – and opportunities – facing the apparel industry in 2021?
I see COVID-19 and market uncertainties caused by the contentious US-China relations as the two most significant challenges facing the apparel industry in 2021.
The difficulties imposed by COVID-19 on fashion businesses are twofold. First, with the resurgence of COVID cases worldwide, when and how quickly apparel consumption can rebound to the pre-COVID level remain hard to tell, particularly in leading consumption markets, including the United States and Europe. As the apparel business is buyer-driven, the industry’s full recovery is impossible without a strong return of consumers’ demand. Numerous studies also show that switching to making and selling PPE won’t be sufficient to make up for losses from regular businesses for most fashion companies.
Second, COVID-19 will also continue to post tremendous pressures on the supply side. In the 2020 Fashion Industry Benchmarking Study, which I conducted in collaboration with the US Fashion Industry Association (USFIA), the surveyed sourcing executives reported severe supply chain disruption during the pandemic. These disruptions come from multiple aspects, ranging from a labor shortage, a lack of textile raw materials, and a substantial cost increase in shipping and logistics. Even more concerning, many small and medium-sized (SME) vendors, particularly in the developing countries, are near the tipping point of bankruptcy after months of struggle with the order cancellation, mandatory lockdown measures, and a lack of financial support. The post-covid recovery of the apparel business relies on a capable, stable, and efficient textile and apparel supply chain, in which these SME vendors play a critical role.
In 2021, fashion companies also have to continue to deal with the ramifications of contentious US-China relations. On the one hand, the chance is slim that the punitive tariffs imposed on Chinese products, which affect most textiles and apparel, will soon go away. On the other hand, we cannot rule out the possibility that the US-China commercial relationship will deteriorate further in 2021, as more sensitive, complicated, and structural issues began to get involved, such as national security, forced labor, and human rights. Compared with President Trump’s unilateral trade actions, the new Biden administration may adopt a multilateral approach to pressure China. However, it also means more countries could be “dragged into” the US-China trade tensions, making it even more challenging for fashion companies to mitigate the trade war’s supply chain impacts.
Meanwhile, I see digitalization as a big opportunity for the apparel industry, not only in 2021 but also in the years to come. Fashion brands and retailers will increasingly find digitalization ubiquitous to their businesses—like air and electricity. In 2021, I expect fashion companies will make more efforts to creatively use digital technologies to interact with consumers, make transactions, develop products, and improve consumers’ online shopping experiences. Thanks to the adoption of digital tools, apparel companies may also find new opportunities to improve sustainability, better understand their customers through leveraging data science, and develop a more agile and nimble supply chain.
What’s happening with supply chains? How is the sourcing landscape likely to shift in 2021, and what can apparel firms and their suppliers do to stay ahead, remain competitive and build resilience for the future?
Apparel companies’ sourcing and supply chain strategies will continue to evolve in response to consumers’ shifting demand, COVID-19, and the new policy environment. Several trends are worth watching in 2021:
First, fashion companies’ sourcing bases at the country level will stay relatively stable in 2021 overall. For example, although it sounds a little contradictory, fashion companies will continue to treat China as an essential sourcing base and reduce their “China exposure” further, a process that has started years before the tariff war. Most apparel sourcing orders left China will go to China’s competitors in Asia, such as Vietnam, Bangladesh, and Cambodia. This also means that Asia, as a whole, will remain the single largest source of apparel imports, particularly for US and Asia-based fashion companies. In comparison, still, “near-sourcing” is NOT likely to happen on a large scale, mainly because “near-sourcing” requires enormous new investments to rebuild the supply chain, and most fashion companies do not have the resources to do so during the pandemic.
Second, sourcing diversification is slowing down at the firm level, and more apparel companies are switching to consolidate their existing sourcing base. For example, as the 2020 USFIA benchmarking study found, close to half of the respondents say they plan to “source from the same number of countries, but work with fewer vendors” through 2022. Another 20 percent of respondents say they would “source from fewer countries and work with fewer vendors.” The results are understandable– competition in the apparel industry is becoming supply chain-based. Building a strategic partnership with high-quality vendors will play an ever more critical role in supporting fashion brands and retailers’ efforts to achieve speed to market, flexibility and agility, sourcing cost control, and low compliance risk. Thus, apparel companies find it more urgent and rewarding to consolidate the existing sourcing base and resources and strengthen their key vendors’ relations.
Third, apparel sourcing executives still need to keep a close watch on trade policy in 2021. However, we may see fewer news headlines about trade and more “behind the door” advocacy and diplomacy. Specifically:
US Section 301 actions: While the punitive tariffs on Chinese goods may not go away anytime soon, there could be a fight over whether the new Biden administration should continue granting certain companies exclusions from those tariffs. Further, in October 2020, the Trump Administration launched two new Section 301 investigations on Vietnam regarding its import and use of timber and reported “undervaluation currency.” The case is pending, but the stakes are high for fashion companies —Vietnam is often treated as the best alternative to sourcing from China and already accounting for nearly 20% of total US apparel imports.
CPTPP and RCEP: With the reaching of the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) in November 2020, there are growing calls for the new Biden administration to consider rejoining the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) in some format to showcase the US presence in the Asia-Pacific region. To make the situation even more complicated, China has openly expressed its interest in joining the Comprehensive Progressive Agreement of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP), commonly known as “the TPP without the US.” 2021 will be a critical time window for all stakeholders, including the apparel sector, to debate various trade policy options that could shape the future trade architecture in the Asia-Pacific region.
Brexit: Brexit will enter a new phase in 2021 as the transition period ends on 31 December 2020. On the positive side, we have a playbook to follow—the UK has announced its new tariff schedules for various scenarios, which provide critical market predictability. We might also see the reaching of a new US-UK free trade agreement in the first half of the year, which will be exciting news for the apparel sector, particularly those in the luxury segment. However, as the US Trade Promotion Authority (TPA) is set to expire in July 2021, when and how soon such an agreement will enter into force will be another story. By no means trade policy in 2021 will go boring.
The surveyed U.S. fashion companies demonstrate more readiness and interest in using the US-Mexico-Canada Trade Agreement (USMCA) for apparel sourcing purposes in 2020 than a year ago:
For companies that were already using NAFTA for sourcing, the vast majority (77.8 percent) say they are “ready to achieve any USMCA benefits immediately,” up more than 31 percent from 2019.
Even for respondents who were not using NAFTA or sourcing from the region, about half of them this year say they may “consider North American sourcing in the future” and explore the USMCA benefits.
Nevertheless, when asked about the potential impact of USMCA on companies’ apparel sourcing practices, some respondents expressed concerns about the rules of origin changes. These worries seem to concentrate on denim products in particular. For example, one respondent says, “USMCA changes negatively affects our denim jeans sourcing particularly with the new pocketing rules of origin.” Another adds, “Denim pocketing ROO change is a concern but manageable.”
It also remains to be seen whether USMCA will boost “Made in the USA” fibers, yarns, and fabrics by limiting the use of non-USMCA textile inputs. For example, while the new agreement expands the Tariff Preference Level (TPL) for U.S. cotton/man-made fiber apparel exports to Canada (typically with a 100 percent utilization rate), these apparel products are NOT required to use U.S.-made yarns and fabrics.