U.S.-China Tariff War Escalates–Impact on Apparel and Footwear

Background: In response to China’s decision to impose 5%–10% retaliatory tariffs on $75 billion U.S. products, on August 23, 2019, the Trump administration announced to raise the Section 301 tariffs from 25% to 30% for around $250 billion Chinese products (tranche 1, 2 and 3), effective October 1, 2019. The scheduled Section 301 tariffs on $300 billion Chinese products (tranche 4) to take into effect on September 1, 2019 and December 15, 2019 will also be increased from 10% to 15%.

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Trump lashes out at China, sending markets reeling

U.S. fashion brands and retailers are deeply concerned about the negative impacts of the tariff war on their businesses. According to the 2019 U.S. Fashion Industry Benchmarking Study released by the U.S. Fashion Industry Association, even without considering the upcoming 10-15% tariffs to be imposed on around $35.7 billion Chinese textiles and apparel covered by tranche 4:

  • The trade diversion effect of Section 301 has accelerated U.S. fashion companies’ pace of reducing sourcing from China. About 83 percent of respondents expect to decrease sourcing from China over the next two years, up further from 67 percent in 2018.
  • The Section 301 action is pushing up the price of U.S. apparel imports across the board, making “increasing production and sourcing cost” the top business challenge for respondents in 2019. As much as 63 percent of respondents explicitly say the U.S. Section 301 tariff action against China “increased my companies’ sourcing cost” in 2019. As companies are moving sourcing orders to Bangladesh, Vietnam, and India, the average price of U.S. apparel imports from these countries – the main alternatives to China — have all gone up very quickly.
  • No evidence shows that Section 301 has benefited near-sourcing from the Western Hemisphere and reshoring from the United States significantly. Instead, respondents say Section 301 has increased the production costs of textiles and apparel “Made in the USA.”
  • Respondents say they are reluctant but may have to increase their retail prices, should the U.S.-China tariff war escalate further.

Related reading:

When ‘Made in Vietnam’ Products Are Actually From China

As described in the video, transshipment is one form of illegal import activities and occurs when false country-of-origin information is provided for imported goods in order to evade U.S. customs duties. Transshipment was a major issue in textile and apparel trade back in days when the quota system was still in place.

According to the media, because of the escalating U.S.-China tariff war, customs fraud such as transshipment is thriving again. Some fashion companies are also using tariff engineering to avoid paying the punitive tariffs in a legal way. Indeed, how to label “Made in ___” can be much more complicated, technical and subtle than we realize.

Related reading:

WTO Reports World Textile and Apparel Trade in 2018

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According to the World Trade Statistical Review 2019 newly released by the World Trade Organization (WTO), the current dollar value of world textiles (SITC 65) and apparel (SITC 84) exports totaled $315 billion and $505 billion in 2018 respectively, increased by 6.4% and 11.1% from a year earlier. This has been the fastest growth of world textile and apparel trade since 2012. Specifically: 

I. Textile export

China, European Union (EU28), and India remained the world’s top three exporters of textiles in 2018. Altogether, these top three accounted for 66.9% of world textile exports in 2018, a new record high since 2011. Notably, China and EU (28) also enjoyed a faster-than-world-average export growth in 2018, up 7.9% and 6.9% respectively. The United States remained the world’s fourth top textile exporter in 2018, accounting for 4.4% of the shares, down slightly from 4.6% in 2017.

II. Apparel export

China, the European Union (EU28), Bangladesh, and Vietnam unshakably remained the world’s top four largest exporters in 2018. Altogether, these top four accounted for as much as 72.3% of world market shares in 2018, which, however, was lower than 75.8% in 2017 and 74.3% in 2016—primarily due to China’s declining market shares. Notably, even though apparel exports from Vietnam (up 13.4%) and Bangladesh (up 11.1%) enjoyed a fast growth in absolute terms in 2018, their gains in market shares were quite limited (up 0.3 percentage point from 5.9% to 6.2% for Vietnam and up 0.1 percentage point from 6.4% to 6.5% for Bangladesh). This result once again suggests that due to capacity limits, no single country has emerged to become the “Next China.” Instead, China’s lost market shares in apparel exports were fulfilled by a group of countries, a phenomenon which can be linked with fashion brands and retailers’ sourcing diversification strategy.

III. Textile import

The European Union (EU28), the United States, and China were the top three largest importers of textiles in 2018, accounting for 37.5% of the world’s total textile imports that year. Although the market shares of the top three in 2018 were close to 37.7% a year earlier, it nevertheless was much lower than over 50% back in the 2000s. The increasing diversification of textile import market is associated with the shifting pattern of world apparel manufacturing and export closely.

IV. Apparel import

Affected by consumers’ purchasing power (often measured by GDP per capita) and size of the population, the European Union, the United States, and Japan remained the world’s top three importers of apparel in 2018. Altogether, these top three absorbed 61.5% of world apparel in 2018, which, however, was lower than 62.3% in 2017 and a significant drop from 84% back in 2005. Behind the result, it is not the case that consumers in the EU, U.S., and Japan are importing less clothing. Instead, several emerging economies (such as China) are becoming fast-growing apparel consumption markets and starting to import more. As consumers’ purchasing power in these emerging economies continues to improve, we could expect a more diversified world apparel import market in the years ahead.

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Additional reading: Latest trends in world textile and apparel trade

Challenges facing Sub-Saharan Africa (SSA) as an Apparel Sourcing Base

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Sub-Saharan Africa (SSA) is widely regarded as a growing apparel-souring destination. Particularly, U.S. Congress established the African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA), a non-reciprocal trade preference program, in 2000, to help developing SSA countries grow their economy through expanded exports to the United States. Because apparel production plays a dominant role in many SSA countries’ economic development, apparel has become one of the top exports for many SSA countries under AGOA. Notably, the “third-country fabric provision” under AGOA allows US apparel imports from certain SSA countries to be qualified for duty-free treatment even if the apparel items use yarns and fabrics produced by non-AGOA members, such as China, South Korea, and Taiwan. This special rule is deemed as critical as most SSA countries still have no capacity in producing capital and technology-intensive textile products.

That being said, to play a bigger role as an apparel sourcing base, SSA is not without significant challenges:

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Challenge 1: limited industry upgrading and local textile production capacity

Theoretically, as a country’s economy advances, it should gradually be producing and exporting more capital and technology-intensive textiles versus labor-intensive apparel products. This is the notable trends in many Asian countries (such as China and Vietnam), where the textile/apparel export ratio has been rising steadily between 2005 and 2017. However, as a reflection of the stagnant industry upgrading, the textile/apparel export ratio remains fairly low in SSA, including in Lesotho, Kenya, and Mauritius, the top three largest apparel exporters in the SSA region.

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Challenge 2: Slow and no progress in export diversification

Ideally, as the economy becomes more sophisticated, textiles and apparel (T&A) should account for a declining share in a country’s total merchandise exports. Countries such as China, Vietnam, and ASEAN demonstrate perfect examples. However, in some SSA countries (e.g., Lesotho), T&A has stably accounted for over 80% of their total merchandise exports over the past 17 years, a sign of slow or no progress in export diversification. In other SSA countries, T&A accounted for less than 10% of their total merchandise exports, suggesting the sector is not a priority to the local economy.

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Challenge 3: Intense competition both in key export markets and domestic market

As of 2017, over 96% of SSA countries’ T&A exports went to three markets: the United States, the EU, and other SSA members. However, because of the intense competition, except for the regional SSA market, SSA countries account for merely 1.4% and 0.2% of total U.S. and EU textile and apparel imports in 2017 respectively.

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Even more concerning, the T&A industry in SSA countries is facing growing competition in the domestic market with cheap imports, mostly from Asia. Notably, SSA countries import MORE apparel than they export, a phenomenon rarely seen among developing countries in a similar stage of economic development.

Challenge 4: U.S. companies remain low interest in investing in the region directly

According to several recent studies, leading U.S. fashion brands and retailers remain low interest in investing in the SSA region directly, even though companies admit more investments in areas such as infrastructure are critical to the success of SSA countries serving as competitive apparel sourcing bases. Some argue that the “temporary” nature of AGOA make companies hesitant to build factories in SSA. However, should AGOA become a permanent free trade agreement, which follows the principle of reciprocity, SSA countries would have to lower their trade barriers to U.S. products, including eliminating the tariffs and non-tariff barriers, in exchange for the reciprocal market access benefits from the United States. It doesn’t seem most AGOA members are ready for that stage yet.

by Sheng Lu

Further reading: Challenges for sub-Saharan Africa as an apparel sourcing hub

2019 U.S. Fashion Industry Benchmarking Study Released

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The full report is available HERE

Key findings of this year’s report:

Impact of the U.S.-China tariff war on sourcing:  

  • The trade diversion effect of Section 301 has accelerated U.S. fashion companies’ pace of reducing sourcing from China. About 83 percent of respondents expect to decrease sourcing from China over the next two years, up further from 67 percent in 2018.
  • The Section 301 action is pushing up the price of U.S. apparel imports across the board, making “increasing production and sourcing cost” the top business challenge for respondents in 2019. As much as 63 percent of respondents explicitly say the U.S. Section 301 tariff action against China “increased my companies’ sourcing cost” in 2019. As companies are moving sourcing orders to Bangladesh, Vietnam, and India, the average price of U.S. apparel imports from these countries – the main alternatives to China — have all gone up by more than 20 percent in 2019 (January-May) year on year.
  • No evidence shows that Section 301 has benefited near-sourcing from the Western Hemisphere and reshoring from the United States significantly. Instead, respondents say Section 301 has increased the production costs of textiles and apparel “Made in the USA.”
  • Respondents say they are reluctant but may have to increase their retail prices, should the U.S.-China tariff war escalate further.

U.S. fashion companies’ latest sourcing strategy:

  • Most respondents maintain a relatively diverse sourcing base, with 57 percent currently sourcing from 10+ different countries or regions in 2019. Around 83 percent of respondents say they plan to source from the same number or more countries over the next two years. Asia as a whole continues to take the lead as the dominant sourcing base for U.S. fashion companies.
  • China plus Vietnam plus Many” is still the most popular sourcing model among respondents. However, its details are evolving. However, different from the past, China is no longer always the top supplier for U.S. fashion companies. Around 25 percent of respondents indicate that they source MORE from Vietnam than from China in 2019, an emerging trend important to watch.
  • This year, Vietnam remains the #2 sourcing destination among respondents, with a 86 percent usage rate. However, just around 7 percent of respondents plan to substantially increase apparel sourcing from Vietnam over the next two years, which reflects concerns about Vietnam’s limited production capacity and the increasing cost of sourcing from the country.
  • Bangladesh is the #6 top sourcing destination, with 60 percent usage among respondents. A record high percentage of respondents (80 percent) express interest in expanding sourcing from the country in the next two years. Despite the price advantages, however, respondents still see Bangladesh not as attractive as many of its competitors regarding speed to market, flexibility & agility, and risk of compliance.

Outlook for sourcing from China:

  • Despite the lingering tariff war, China will remain a dominant textile and apparel supplier for the U.S. market in the near future. Only 6.7 percent expect to decrease sourcing from the country significantly in the next two years.
  • China does not have a near competitor in terms of the variety of product it can make.
  • Considering speed to market, sourcing cost, flexibility & agility and compliance risk, China is also one of the few “balanced” sourcing destinations that U.S. fashion companies can choose from.
  • Around 50 percent of respondents further say their Chinese vendors “lowered their price to keep sourcing orders” in response to the trade tensions.

Reshoring and apparel “Made in the USA”:

  • This year, the United States ranked #10 top sourcing base with 43 percent usage, the same as in 2018.
  • “Made in the USA” apparel overall are treated as a niche product in U.S. fashion brands and retailers’ sourcing portfolio. The advantage of proximity to the market, which makes speedy replenishment for in-season items possible, is an important factor behind the more successful control of markdowns for “Made in the USA” products.
  • Respondents also list a few disadvantages and challenges that prevent them from sourcing more “Made in the USA” products in the next five years, ranging from the high price, limitations in the fabric options to a shortage of skilled labor.
  • Further, respondents say more information about U.S. based textile and apparel mills will be helpful to promote “Made in the USA” sourcing.

U.S.-Mexico-Canada Free Trade Agreement (USMCA):

  • The majority of respondents (65.5 percent) want the U.S. Congress to pass USMCA; More than half of respondents explicitly say NAFTA is important to their business and they want a seamless transition from NAFTA to USMCA.
  • S. fashion companies currently sourcing from the NAFTA region are more likely to use USMCA and vice versa.
  • However, a good proportion of respondents (around 20 percent) admit they do not fully understand the rule changes in USMCA for textiles and apparel.
  • Helping companies better understand the technical details of USMCA and reducing the uncertainty about its ratification will be essential to the future success of the agreement.

The US Fashion Industry Benchmarking Study from 2014 to 2018 can be downloaded HERE

Explore the Competitiveness of China’s Textile and Apparel Exports to the U.S.

This study intends to explore how the U.S.-China trade tension since 2017 has affected the competitiveness of China’s textile and apparel (T&A) exports to the U.S. market. Findings of the study will shed new lights on the mega-trend of T&A sourcing from China in the medium term, and support T&A companies’ sourcing decision making in the current uncertain business environment.

Data for the analysis were collected from the Office of Textiles and Apparel (OTEXA) under the U.S. Department of Commerce, including the value of U.S. imports from China between 2016 (i.e., the year before the U.S. launched the section 301 investigation against China) and March 2019 (the latest data available) for a total of 167 categories of T&A products.

Specifically, based on the constant market share (CMS) model, a commonly adopted international trade analysis tool, this study decomposed the value of U.S. T&A imports from China into the following four factors:

  • Market growth effect: changes in China’s T&A exports to the U.S. due to the growth of total U.S. import demand for T&A
  • Commodity structural effect: changes in China’s T&A exports to the U.S. due to the shifting product structure of China’s T&A exports
  • General competitive effect: changes in China’s T&A exports to the U.S. due to the shifting competitiveness of Chinese T&A products in the U.S. market (measured by China’s market shares)
  • Product competitive effect: changes in China’s T&A exports to the U.S. due to the joint effect of the product structure of China’s T&A exports and the shifting competitiveness of Chinese T&A products in the U.S. market (measured by China’s market shares)

Four findings are of note:

First, the U.S.-China trade tension has affected China’s T&A exports to the U.S. negatively. Even though the majority of T&A products have not been subject to the U.S. Section 301 punitive tariff yet, China’s T&A exports to the U.S. suffered a significant drop, particularly since 2019. This result, however, was at odds with the overall trend of China’s T&A exports to the U.S. in recent years. Notably, except apparel, China’s yarns, fabrics and made-up textile exports to the U.S. all enjoyed a steady and positive growth between 2016 and 2018. Overall, it seems U.S. T&A importers are shifting sourcing orders away from China mainly because of concerns over trade tensions rather than their usual business considerations.

Second, the increased U.S. import demand has partially mitigated the negative impact of trade tension on China’s T&A exports to the U.S. market. Results of the CMS model indicate that expanded total U.S. import demand for T&A driven by the booming U.S. economy had avoided an even worse decline of U.S. T&A imports from China. In other words, without such a market growth, China’s T&A exports to the U.S. would have been $2,065 million less in 2018 (including $528 million for apparel) and $388 million less (including $368 million for apparel) in the first quarter of 2019 than their current level.

Third, China’s export competitiveness is shifting from apparel to textiles. Results of the CMS model show that even before the tariff war, the competitiveness of China’s apparel exports has been weakening, which was the most significant contributing factor to the decline of $530 million U.S. apparel imports from China between 2016 and 2018. In comparison, China is exporting more yarns and fabrics to the U.S. in recent years. Data from OTEXA shows that between 2016 and 2018, China’s yarn and fabric exports to the U.S. enjoyed a 13.1% and 2.6% compound annual growth respectively, compared with a 0.6% decline of apparel. The CMS model further suggests that China’s improved export competitiveness can explain the majority of these increased exports.

Fourth, the results show that the changing product structure of China’s T&A exports to the U.S. also has an impact on trade flows. For example, as estimated, China lost around $20.4 million apparel exports to the U.S. in the first quarter of 2019 because the sourcing orders shifted towards those product categories with relatively lower market growth. In comparison, the commodity structural effect has favored China’s made-up textile exports to the U.S. market, resulting in $21.9 million more exports in the first quarter of 2019 than otherwise.

by Sheng Lu

U.S. Apparel Retailers’ Shifting Sourcing Strategy for “Made in China” under the Shadow of the Tariff War

The full article is available HERE

Key findings:

First, U.S. fashion brands and retailers are sourcing less from China, particularly in quantity. Notably, the number of “Made in China” apparel newly launched to the market had significantly dropped from 26,758 SKUs in the first quarter of 2018 to only 8,352 SKUs in the first quarter of 2019 . Nevertheless, consistent with the macro-level trade statistics, China remains the single largest apparel supplier to the U.S. retail market.

Second, apparel “Made in China” are becoming more expensive in the U.S. retail market, yet remain price-competitive overall. Notably, apparel “Made in Vietnam” is becoming more expensive in the U.S. retail market too—an indication that as more production is moving from China to Vietnam, apparel producers and exporters in Vietnam are facing growing cost pressures.

Third, U.S. fashion retailers are shifting what apparel products they source from China. U.S. apparel retailers have been sourcing less lower value-added basic fashion items (such as tops, and underwear), but more sophisticated and higher value-added apparel categories (such as dresses and outerwear) from China since 2018. The shifting product structure could also be a factor that contributed to the rising average retail price of “Made in China” in the U.S. market.

On the other hand, U.S. retailers adopt a very different product assortment strategy for apparel sourced from China versus other regions of the world. There seems to be much fewer alternative sourcing destinations for more sophisticated product categories, such as accessories and outerwear. Somehow ironically, moving to source more sophisticated and higher value-added products from China could make U.S. fashion brands and retailers even MORE vulnerable to the tariff war because of fewer alternative sourcing destinations.

In conclusion, the results imply that China will remain a critical sourcing destination for U.S. fashion brands and retailers in the near future, regardless of the scenario of the U.S.-China tariff war. Meanwhile, we should expect U.S. fashion companies continue to adjust their sourcing strategy for apparel “Made in China” in response to the escalation of the tariff war.

Related reading: Trade war to hit high-end US fashion brands dependent on specialized Chinese manufacturing