Which Apparel Sourcing Factors Matter?

Key findings:

The apparel sourcing formula is getting ever more sophisticated today. US fashion brands and retailers consider a wide range of factors when deciding where to source their products. The long list of sourcing factors includes #1 Capacity, #2 Price & tariff, #3 Stability, #4 Sustainability, and #5 Quality (see the table below).

When evaluating the world’s top 27 largest apparel supplying countries’ performance,  no souring destination appears to be perfect. In general, fashion brands and retailers have many choices for sourcing destinations that can meet their demand for production capacity, price point, and quality. However, fashion companies face much more limited options when seeking an apparel sourcing destination with a stable financial and political environment and a strong sustainability record.

When we compare the trade volume and the performance against the five primary sourcing factors:

  • Apparel sourcing today is no longer a “winner takes all” game. Notably, the factor “Capacity” is suggested to have limited impacts on the value of apparel imports from a particular sourcing destination.
  • Apparel sourcing is not merely about “competing on price” either--the impact of the factor “Price & tariff” on the pattern of apparel imports statistically is not significant.
  • Improving financial and political stability as well as product quality can help a country enhance its attractiveness as an apparel sourcing base. In particular, American and Asia-based fashion companies seem to give substantial weight to the factors of “Stability” and “Product quality” in their sourcing decisions.
  • Fashion companies’ current sourcing model does not always provide strong financial rewards for sustainability. Interestingly, the result indicates that a higher score for the factor “sustainability” does NOT result in more sourcing orders at the country level. Behind the result, fashion companies today likely consider sustainability and compliance at the vendor level rather than at the country level in their sourcing decisions. It is also likely that sustainability and compliance are treated more as pre-requisite or “bottom-line” criteria instead of a factor to determine the volume of the sourcing orders. 

In conclusion, fashion companies’ sourcing decisions seem to be more complicated and subtle than what is often described in public.

By Emma Davis and Sheng Lu

Further reading: Emma Davis & Sheng Lu (2021). Which apparel sourcing factors matter the most?. Just-Style.

Regional Supply Chain Remains a Key Feature of World Textile and Apparel Trade

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. 

by Sheng Lu

Further reading: Lu, Sheng. (2021). Regional supply chains still shape textile and apparel trade. Just-Style

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

First, affected by the surge of COVID cases and consumers’ slowed spending, the value of U.S. apparel imports decreased by 15.7% in December 2020, the worst performance since September 2020. Specifically, the value of U.S. apparel imports in December 2020 shrank by 6.4% from November 2020 (seasonally adjusted), compared with an 8.8% growth from Aug to September, a 4.6% growth from September to October (seasonally adjusted), and a slight 0.3% decline from October to November (seasonally adjusted).

The substantial drop of U.S. apparel imports in December 2020 also altered the recovery trajectory. Overall, the outlook of US apparel imports in 2021 is hopeful but remains far from uncertain.

Second, supporting the findings of some recent studies, data suggests that U.S. fashion brands and retailers continue to reduce their “China exposure” in 2020. For example, both the HHI index and market concentration ratios (CR3 and CR5) suggest that apparel sourcing orders are gradually moving from China to other Asian countries. Measured by value, only 23.7% of U.S. apparel imports came from China in 2020, a new record low in the past ten years (was 29.7% in 2019 and 33% in 2018).

However, China’s apparel exports to the US lost more market shares from 2018-2019 than 2019-2020–it seems the impact of the trade war is more significant than the COVID.

The latest data confirms the concerns that some non-economic factors negatively affect China’s prospect as an apparel sourcing destination. For example, the reported forced labor issue related to Xinjiang, China, and a series of actions taken by the U.S. government (such as the CBP withhold release orders) have significantly affected U.S. cotton apparel imports from China. Measured by value, only 15.4% of U.S. cotton apparel came from China in 2020, compared with 22.2% in 2019 and 28% back in 2017. While China’s total textile and apparel exports to the US dropped by 30.7% in 2020, China’s cotton textiles and cotton apparel exports to the US went down more sharply by nearly 40%.

Third, despite Covid-19, Asia as a whole remains the single largest source of apparel for the U.S. market. Other than China, Vietnam (19.6% in 2020 vs. 16.2% in 2019), ASEAN (32.3% in 2020 and vs. 27.4% in 2019), Bangladesh (8.2% in 2020 vs.7.1% in 2019), and Cambodia (4.4% in 2020 vs. 3.2% in 2019) all gain additional market shares in 2020 from a year ago.

Fourth, due to seasonal factors, around 21% of U.S. apparel imports came from the Western Hemisphere in December 2020. Notably, to fulfill consumers’ last-minute holiday orders, which require faster speed to market, U.S. fashion companies typically do relatively more near-sourcing from September to December. In comparison, U.S. fashion companies place more sourcing orders with Asian suppliers from June to late September/early October.

However, no clear evidence suggests that U.S. fashion brands and retailers have been giving more apparel sourcing orders to suppliers from the Western Hemisphere because of COVID-19 and the U.S.-China tariff war. In 2020, 9.6% of U.S. apparel imports came from CAFTA-DR members (down from 10.3% in 2019) and 4.1% from USMCA members (down from 4.5% in 2019).

by Sheng Lu

A Snapshot of Myanmar’s Apparel Industry and Export

First, the textile and apparel industry plays a significant role in Myanmar’s economy, particularly the export sector. Data from the UNComtrade shows that textile and apparel accounted for nearly 30% of Myanmar’s total merchandise exports in 2019, followed by footwear and luggage. Industry data also indicates that the textile, apparel, and footwear industry employed more than 1.1 million workers in Myanmar in 2018, up from only 0.3 million in 2016.

On the other hand, as a developing country, Myanmar highly depends on the imported textile raw material. As of 2019, nearly 83% of Myanmar’s textile imports came from China.

Second, since the United States lifted the import ban on Myanmar and the EU reinstated the Everything But Arms (EBA) trade preferences for the country in 2013, Myanmar has been one of the most popular emerging apparel sourcing bases among fashion companies.  From 2015 to 2019, Myanmar’s apparel exports to the world enjoyed an impressive 57% annual growth. Myanmar’s apparel exports to the EU (97% annual growth) and the United States (78% annual growth) have been growing particularly fast.

From 2019 to 2020, some of the top fashion brands that carry apparel items “Made in Myanmar” include United Colors of Benetton, Next, Only, Guess, Jack & Jones, and Mango.

Second, the reasons why fashion companies source apparel from Myanmar are multiple:

  • Thanks to foreign investment (e.g., nearly half of Myanmar’s garment factories are foreign-owned), Myanmar specializes in making relatively higher-quality functional/technical clothing (i.e., outwear like jackets and coats). This is different from many other apparel exporting countries like Bangladesh, Vietnam, and Cambodia, mostly exporting low-cost tops and bottoms.
  • Myanmar’s apparel exports were able to enjoy duty-free market access in the EU, Japan, and South Korea. Myanmar was also a beneficiary of the US Generalized System of Preferences (GSP) program. This explains why Myanmar’s apparel exports mostly go to the EU (56%), Japan and South Korea (30%), and the US (5.5%).
  • Relatively low production cost—garment workers earn around $85/month in 2019.

However, Myanmar still accounts for a tiny share in fashion companies’ total sourcing portfolio because of the size effect. For example, as of 2019, less than 0.1% of US and EU countries’ apparel imports came from Myanmar.

Third, western fashion brands could reevaluate their sourcing strategy from Myanmar because of its recent coup. Notably, in a new study, we find that apparel sourcing is not merely about “competing on price.” Instead, fashion companies give substantial weight to the factors of “political stability” and “financial stability” in their sourcing decisions—reputation risk matters. The country’s latest political instability will hurt Myanmar’s attractiveness as an apparel sourcing base, given many other alternatives out there.

Further, the international community, including the US and the EU, is considering new sanctions against Myanmar. Should Myanmar lose its EU’s EBA eligibility or no longer enjoy duty-free access to its key apparel export markets, the country’s apparel exports could be among the biggest losers. Notably, it could be challenging for Myanmar to find an alternative apparel export market during the pandemic. (for example, only 1.3% of Myanmar’s apparel exports went to China in 2019).

By Sheng Lu

Further reading:

Outlook 2021– Key Issues to Shape Apparel Sourcing

In January 2021, Just-Style consulted a panel of industry leaders and scholars in its Outlook 2021–Key Issues to Shape Apparel Sourcing Management Briefing. Below is my contribution to the report. All comments and suggestions are more than welcome!

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.
  • The US-China relationship: We all know the relationship is at its low-point, but the fact is many US fashion companies still treat China as one of their most promising markets to explore. China continues to expand its role in the Asia-based textile and apparel supply chain also. In a nutshell, more than ever, apparel executives need to care about what is going on in geopolitics. Hopefully, “tough times can breed positive outcomes.”
  • 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.

by Sheng Lu

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

First, U.S. apparel imports continue to rebound thanks to consumers’ robust demand. However, the speed of recovery slowed. Specifically, The value of U.S. apparel imports in November 2020 marginally went down by 0.3% from October 2020 (seasonally adjusted), compared with an 8.8% growth from Aug to September and a 4.6% growth from September to October (seasonally adjusted).

As of November 2020, the volume of U.S. apparel imports has recovered to around 85-90% of the pre-coronavirus level.  This result echoes the trend of U.S. apparel retail sales (NAICS 4481), which also indicates a “V-shape” rebound since May 2020.

Data further shows that compared with the 2008 world financial crisis, Covid-19 has caused a more significant drop in the value of U.S. apparel imports. However, it seems the post-Covid recovery process has been more robust than the 2009 financial crisis. The Auto Regressive Integrated Moving Average (ARIMA) model forecasts that at the current speed of recovery, the value of U.S. apparel imports (seasonally adjusted) could start to enjoy a positive year over year (YoY) growth by February 2021 (or around 11 months after the outbreak of Covid-19 in March 2020). In comparison, when recovering from the 2008 world financial crisis, it took almost 15 months to turn the YoY growth rate from negative to positive).

With the new lockdown measures taken in response to the resurgence of the Covid cases, the outlook of US apparel imports remains uncertain. It should also be noted that the period from December to April usually is the light season for apparel imports.

Second, supporting the findings of some recent studies, data suggests that U.S. fashion brands and retailers continue to reduce their “China exposure” in 2020. For example, both the HHI index and market concentration ratios (CR3 and CR5) suggest that apparel sourcing orders are gradually moving from China to other Asian countries.  Related, since August 2020, China’s market shares in total U.S. apparel imports have been sliding both in quantity and in value.

We should NOT ignore the impact of non-economic factors on China’s prospect as an apparel sourcing destination. For example, the reported forced labor issue related to Xinjiang, China, and a series of actions taken by the U.S. government (such as the CBP withhold release orders) have significantly affected U.S. cotton apparel imports from China. Measured by value, from January to November 2020, only 15.4% of U.S. cotton apparel came from China, compared with 22.2% in 2019 and 28% back in 2017. While China’s total textile and apparel exports to the US dropped by 32% in 2020 (Jan to Nov), China’s cotton textiles and cotton apparel exports to the US went down more sharply by 41.1% and 47.2%, respectively.

Third, despite Covid-19, Asia as a whole remains the single largest source of apparel for the U.S. market. Other than China, Vietnam (19.8% YTD in 2020 vs. 16.2% in 2019), ASEAN (32.6% YTD in 2020 and vs. 27.4% in 2019), Bangladesh (8.2% YTD in 2020 vs.7.1% in 2019), and Cambodia (4.4% YTD in 2020 vs. 3.2% in 2019) all gain additional market shares in 2020 (Jan to Nov) from a year ago.

Fourth, still, no clear evidence suggests that U.S. fashion brands and retailers have been giving more apparel sourcing orders to suppliers from the Western Hemisphere because of COVID-19 and the U.S.-China tariff war. In the first eleven months of 2020, 9.4% of U.S. apparel imports came from CAFTA-DR members (down from 10.3% in 2019) and 4.4% from USMCA members (down from 4.5% in 2019). The limited local textile production capacity and the high production cost are the two notable disadvantages of sourcing from the region.

by Sheng Lu

Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) and Textiles and Apparel

What is RCEP?

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

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

Hopefully, RCEP will enter into force as early as late 2021 or early 2022. Officially, RCEP will enter into force 60 days after at least six members approved the agreement through their respective domestic legislature; However, these six members must include 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. Many also say RCEP may create new pressure for the new Biden administration to strengthen the US economic ties with countries in the Asia-Pacific region, such as joining the CPTPP or negotiating new bilateral trade agreements. 

By Sheng Lu

Further reading

Textile and Apparel Products Covered by the U.S.-China Tariff War Reference List (updated December 2020)

This blog post is also available in PDF

Suggested citation: Lu, Sheng. (2020). Textile and Apparel Products Covered by the U.S.-China Tariff War Reference List (updated December 2020). Retrieved from http://www.shenglufashion.com

by Sheng Lu

Minimum Wage Level for Garment Workers in the World (Updated in December 2020)

The latest data collected from industry sources show that the monthly minimum wages for garment workers vary significantly in the world, ranging from as low as USD $26 in Ethiopia to USD $1,764 in Belgium in 2019. The world average stood at USD $470/month that year.

These figures echo the findings of a 2017 study by Public Radio International, which also shows a significant variation of the minimum wage level among garment workers worldwide. Meanwhile, there was no clear evidence that the minimum wage level in 2019 was notably higher than in 2017 in many countries we examined.

On the other hand, we need to interpret the minimum wage level in the context of the local living wage. According to the International Labor Organization (ILO), a living wage is defined as the theoretical income level that an individual must earn to pay for basic essentials such as shelter, food, and water in the country where a person resides. As shown in the figure above, a high minimum wage in absolute terms does not always guarantee a high standard of living and vice versa. For example, while the United States offers one of the world’s highest minimum wages for garment workers (USD $1,160/month),  that minimum wage level was only about 70% of the living wage (USD $1,660/month) 2018-2019. In comparison, garment workers in Indonesia earned a much lower nominal minimum wage of USD $181/month. That wage level, however, was much higher than the reported USD $103/month living wage over the same period.

Additionally, the results suggest that fashion companies’ sourcing decision today is far more than just about “chasing the lowest wage or price.” For example, while China and Vietnam are the two largest apparel suppliers for the U.S. market, the minimum wage level for garment workers in the two countries have exceeded most of their competitors in Asia.

By Emma Davis (Research Assistant, Fashion and Apparel Studies, University of Delaware) and Dr. Sheng Lu

FASH455 case study: Should the U.S. rejoin the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP)?

Background

  • The Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) was a proposed free trade agreement between the United States and eleven other countries in the Asia-Pacific region, including Malaysia, Peru, Australia, Vietnam, Mexico, Canada, Japan, Singapore, Brunei, Chile, and New Zealand.
  • Once TPP is implemented, tariffs for textiles and apparel traded between TPP members would be reduced to zero from their current rate (around 5%-10% for textiles and 10-30% for apparel). The tariff rate for trade between TPP members and non-TPP members (such as China) will remain unchanged. However, TPP would NOT provide additional import duty saving benefits for textile and apparel products traded between Mexico, Canada, and the United States because tariffs are already reduced to zero under the U.S.-Mexico-Canada Trade Agreement (USMCA or commonly called NAFTA 2.0).
  • TPP adopts the strict “yarn-forward” rules of origin for apparel items. This means that fibers may be produced anywhere, but each component starting with the yarn used to make the apparel garments must be formed within the TPP area so that the finished apparel can be qualified for the preferential duty-treatment provided by TPP.
  • Among the TPP members, Vietnam is already the second-largest apparel exporter to the United States. Despite the high tariff rate, the value of US apparel imports from Vietnam increased by 131% between 2010 and 2019, much higher than 17% of the world average. Vietnam’s shares in the US apparel import market also quickly increased from only 4.0% in 2005 to 16.8% in 2019 (and 20.2% from Jan to August 2020).
  • As a developing country, Vietnam relies on imported yarns and fabrics heavily for its apparel production. Over 97% of Vietnam’s textile imports come from Asian countries, including China, South Korea, Taiwan, and Japan. Less than 1% of Vietnam’s textile imports came from the United States in 2019. 
  • Meanwhile, thanks to foreign investments (mostly from Asia), Vietnam quickly builds its local textile manufacturing capacity. Notably, data from the World Trade Organization (WTO) shows that for the first time in history, Vietnam ranked the world’s seventh-largest textile exporter in 2019, climbing 8.3% from a year earlier to reach $8.8billion. If it can maintain this momentum, Vietnam will likely surpass South Korea and become the world’s sixth-largest textile exporter in just 1-2 years (around 2022-2023).  
  • President Trump announced to withdraw the United States from TPP in January 2017. However, the rest of the 11 members moved on and reached the agreement without the United States. The so-called Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP or TPP without the US) was signed in March 2018 and officially took effect in December 2018. Much of the original TPP provisions remain intact in CPTPP.
  • China, one of the world’s largest apparel exporters and textile exporters, is actively exploring the possibility of joining CPTPP. Meanwhile, China plays an increasingly important role as a textile supplier for apparel-exporting countries in Asia over the past decade. In 2019, China supplied 57% of Vietnam’s textile imports, up from 26% in 2010.
  • China is also a member of the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), 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).[Note: ASEAN members include Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, and Vietnam]. Studies suggest that RCEP will likely further strengthen China’s role as the primary textile suppliers for other RCEP members, including Vietnam.
  • Since CPTPP goes into effect, there have been growing calls for the new Biden administration to consider rejoining TPP (CPTPP). However, debates remain regarding the specific economic benefits and costs of doing so.  

Discussion question: from the perspective of the U.S. textile industry and U.S. fashion brands and retailers, why or why not the United States should rejoin TPP?

COVID-19 and U.S. Apparel Imports: Key Trends (Updated: November 2020)

First, U.S. apparel imports continue to rebound thanks to consumers’ robust demand. The value of U.S. apparel imports in September 2020 went up by 8.8% from August 2020 (seasonally adjusted), a new record high since March 2020 when COVID-19 broke out in the States. As of September 2020, the volume of U.S. apparel imports has recovered to around 84-85% of the pre-coronavirus level.  This result echoes the trend of U.S. apparel retail sales (NAICS 4481), which also indicates a “V-shape” rebound since May 2020. As fashion brands and retailers typically build their inventory for holiday sales (such as back to school, Thanksgiving, and Christmas) from July to October, the upward trend of U.S. apparel imports hopefully will last for another 1-2 months.

Data also shows that compared with the 2008 world financial crisis, Covid-19 has caused a more significant drop in the value of U.S. apparel imports. However, it seems the post-Covid recovery process has been more robust than the 2008 financial crisis. Notably, the Auto Regressive Integrated Moving Average (ARIMA) model forecasts that at the current speed of recovery, the value of U.S. apparel imports (seasonally adjusted) could start to enjoy a positive year over year (YoY) growth by February 2021 (or around 11 months after the outbreak of Covid-19 in March 2020). In comparison, when recovering from the 2008 world financial crisis, it took almost 15 months to turn the YoY growth rate from negative to positive.

Second, still, no evidence suggests that U.S. fashion companies are giving up China as one of their essential apparel-sourcing bases. Notably, since May 2020, China had quickly regained its position as the top apparel supplier to the U.S. market. From June to September 2020, China’s market shares have stably stayed at around 27-28% in value and 40-42% in quantity.

According to the media, some sourcing orders are returning to China as China’s competitors in Asia are struggling with more limited production capacity, shortage of raw material and supply chain disruption caused by Covid-19.

CR5 (exclude China) includes Vietnam, Bangladesh, Indonesia, India and Cambodia

That being said, trade data suggests that U.S. fashion companies continue to reduce their “China exposure” overall. For example, both the HHI index and the market concentration ratios (CR3–total market shares of top 3 suppliers and CR5–total market shares of top 5 suppliers) indicate that apparel sourcing orders are gradually moving from China to other Asian countries–it is interesting to see HHI, CR3 and CR5 all suggest a more diversified apparel sourcing base in 2020 (Jan-Sep) than in 2018 and 2019; however, the value of CR5 (exclude China) reached a new record high in 2020 (Jan-Sep).

Third, related to the point above, despite Covid-19, Asia as a whole remains the single largest source of apparel for the U.S. market. Other than China, Vietnam (20.0% YTD in 2020 vs. 16.2% in 2019), ASEAN (33.1% YTD in 2020 and vs. 27.4% in 2019), Bangladesh (8.4% YTD in 2020 vs.7.1% in 2019), and Cambodia (4.4% YTD in 2020 vs. 3.2% in 2019) all gain additional market shares in 2020 from a year ago.

Fourth, still, no clear evidence suggests that U.S. fashion brands and retailers have been giving more apparel sourcing orders to suppliers from the Western Hemisphere because of COVID-19 and the trade war. In the first nine months of 2020, only 9.1% of U.S. apparel imports came from CAFTA-DR members (down from 10.3% in 2019) and 4.4% from USMCA members (down from 4.5% in 2019). Confirming the trend, in the first nine months of 2020, the value of U.S. yarns and fabrics exports to USMCA and CAFTA-DR members also suffered a 26% decline from a year ago. The heavy reliance on textile supply from the U.S. (implying more vulnerability to the Covid-19 supply chain disruptions) and the price disadvantage could be among the major contributing factors.

Just an anecdote–according to some industry insiders, the booming of E-commerce during the pandemic may also possibly explain why “near sourcing” is not reflected in trade data despite its reported growing popularity. Specifically, US fashion retailers would:1) import products from Asia and stock them in the bonded warehouses in Mexico (note: bonded warehouse means dutiable goods may be stored, manipulated, or undergo manufacturing operations without payment of duty). 2) When US consumers place orders, the retailer will ship products directly from these bonded warehouses in Mexico to the final destination. Most importantly, retailers could take advantage of the US de minimis rule (i.e., goods valued at $800 or less could enter the U.S. duty-free one person one day) and avoid paying tariffs– even though these products are counted as imports from Asian countries that do not have a free trade agreement with the United States. In other words, these products are not officially treated as imports from Mexico even though they are shipped from bonded warehouse in Mexico.

by Sheng Lu

USMCA: Changes for the Textile and Wearing Apparel Industries

Video credit: U.S. Customs and Border Protection

From findings of the 2020 USFIA Fashion Industry Benchmarking Study :

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.

Related readings:

COVID-19 and U.S. Apparel Imports: Key Trends (Updated: October 2020)

First, U.S. apparel imports continue to rebound thanks to consumers’ robust demand. The value of U.S. apparel imports in August 2020 went up by 7.6% from July 2020 (seasonally adjusted), a new record high since March 2020 when COVID-19 broke out in the States. As of August 2020, the volume of U.S. apparel imports has recovered to around 80% of the pre-coronavirus level.  This result echoes the trend of U.S. apparel retail sales (NAICS 448), which also indicates a “V-shape” rebound since May 2020. As fashion brands and retailers typically build their inventory for holiday sales (such as back to school, Thanksgiving, and Christmas) from July to October, the upward trend of U.S. apparel imports hopefully will last for another 1-2 months.

Nevertheless, between January and August 2020, the value of U.S. apparel imports decreased by almost 30% year over year, which has been MUCH worse than the performance during the 2008-2009 global financial crisis (down 11.8%).

Second, no evidence suggests that U.S. fashion companies are giving up China as one of their essential apparel-sourcing bases. Notably, since May 2020, China had quickly regained its position as the top apparel supplier to the U.S. market. From June to August 2020, China’s market shares have stably stayed at around 27-28% in value and 40-42% in quantity.

Some industry sources show that “Made in China” enjoys two notable advantages that other apparel supplying countries cannot catch up in the short term. 1) unparalleled production capacity, meaning importers can source almost all products in any quantity from China vs. more limited production capacity (both in terms of variety and volume) in other alternative sourcing destinations. 2) China can mostly produce textile raw material locally vs. many apparel exporting countries still rely heavily on imported yarns and fabrics (supplied by China).

However, non-economic factors, particularly the reported Xinjiang forced labor issue, are complicating fashion companies’ sourcing decisions. Notably, US cotton apparel imports from China year-to-date (YTD) in 2020 (Jan to August) significantly decreased by 54% from a year ago, much higher than the 22% drop in US imports from the rest of the world.  As a result, China’s market share in the US cotton apparel import market sharply declined from 22% in 2019 to only 15.1% in 2020 (Jan-Aug), a record low in the past ten years. This unusual trade pattern suggests that the concerns about social compliance risk are holding US fashion companies back from sourcing cotton apparel products from China. As the forced labor issue continues to evolve and become ever more sensitive and high profile, it is not unlikely that US fashion companies may substantially cut their China sourcing further, even if it is not a preferred choice economically.

Third, despite Covid-19, Asia as a whole remains the single largest source of apparel for the U.S. market. Other than China, Vietnam (20.2% YTD in 2020 vs. 16.2% in 2019), ASEAN (33.6% YTD in 2020 and vs. 27.4% in 2019), Bangladesh (8.6% YTD in 2020 vs.7.1% in 2019), and Cambodia (4.5% YTD in 2020 vs. 3.2% in 2019) all gain additional market shares in 2020 from a year ago.

Likewise, thanks to a highly integrated regional textile and apparel supply chain, Asian countries all together were able to maintain fairly stable market shares on the world stage over the past decade despite all market disruptions, from the financial crisis, trade war to the wage increase.

Fourth, still, no clear evidence suggests that U.S. fashion brands and retailers have been giving more apparel sourcing orders to suppliers from the Western Hemisphere because of COVID-19 and the trade war. In the first seven months of 2020, only 8.9% of U.S. apparel imports came from CAFTA-DR members (down from 10.3% in 2019) and 4.1% from USMCA members (down from 4.5% in 2019). Confirming the trend, in the first eight months of 2020, the value of U.S. yarns and fabrics exports to USMCA and CAFTA-DR members also suffered a 28.0% decline from a year ago. The heavy reliance on textile supply from the U.S. (implying more vulnerability to the Covid-19 supply chain disruptions) and the price disadvantage could be among the contributing factors.

Further, industry sources show that the apparel products U.S. fashion companies import from members of USMCA and CAFTA-DR predominantly are tops and bottoms. The lack of production capacity for other product categories significantly limits the growth potential of these countries playing the role as a leading sourcing base.

by Sheng Lu

COVID-19 and U.S. Apparel Imports (Updated: September 2020)

The latest statistics from the Office of Textiles and Apparel (OTEXA) show that the patterns of U.S. apparel imports continue to involve because of COVID-19 and the escalating US-China tensions. Meanwhile, there appeared to be more potent signs of gradual economic recovery in the U.S. driven by consumers’ robust demand. Specifically:

While the value of U.S. apparel imports decreased by 32.0% in July 2020 from a year ago, the speed of the decline has significantly slowed (was down 60% and 42.8% year over year in May and June 2020, respectively). This result echoes the trend of U.S. apparel retail sales (NAICS 448), which indicates a “V-shape” rebound since May 2020. As fashion brands and retailers typically build their inventory for holiday sales (such as back to school, Thanksgiving, and Christmas) from July to October, the upward trend of U.S. apparel imports could continue in the next two to three months.

Nevertheless, between January and July 2020, the value of U.S. apparel imports decreased by 30.7% year over year, which has been much worse than the performance during the 2008-2009 global financial crisis (down 11.8%).

The latest trade statistics suggest that based on economic factors, U.S. fashion companies would like to continue to treat China as an essential apparel-sourcing base. As the first country hit by COVID-19, China’s apparel exports to the U.S. dropped by as much as 49.3% from January to July 2020 year over year. In February 2020, China’s market shares slipped to only 11%, and both in March and April 2020, U.S. fashion companies imported more apparel from Vietnam than from China. However, China had quickly regained its position as the top apparel supplier to the U.S., with a 26.3% market share in value and a 38.8% share in quantity in July 2020.

Different from the impact of the trade war, COVID-19 could benefit China as an apparel sourcing base as fashion companies have to “do more with fewer resources.” In general, China still enjoyed two notable advantages that other apparel supplying countries are unable to catch up in the short term. 1) unparalleled production capacity, meaning importers can source almost all products in any quantity from China vs. more limited production capacity (both in terms of variety and volume) in other alternative sourcing destinations. 2) China can mostly produce textile raw material locally vs. many apparel exporting countries still rely heavily on imported yarns and fabrics (supplied by China).

Contrary to common perceptions, apparel “Made in China” apparently are also becoming more price-competitive–the unit price slipped from $2.25/Square meters equivalent (SME) in 2019 to $1.88/SME in 2020 (January to July), or down more than 16.7% (compared with a 5.6% price drop of the world average). As of July 2020, the unit price of U.S. apparel import from China was only 65.7% of the world average, and around 25—35 percent lower than those imported from other Asian countries.

That being said, non-economic factors, from the deteriorating US-China relations to the reported Xinjiang forced labor issue, are increasingly complicating fashion companies’ sourcing decisions. Somehow as a warning sign, China’s market shares in the U.S. apparel import market slipped in both quantity and value terms in July 2020 compared with a month ago.

Despite Covid-19, Asia as a whole remains the single largest source of apparel for the U.S. market. Other than China, Vietnam (20.5% YTD in 2020 vs. 16.2% in 2019), ASEAN (34.3% YTD in 2020 and vs. 27.4% in 2019), Bangladesh (8.6% YTD in 2020 vs.7.1% in 2019), and Cambodia (4.5% YTD in 2020 vs. 3.2% in 2019) all gain additional market shares in 2020 from a year ago.

However, still, no clear evidence suggests that U.S. fashion brands and retailers have been giving more apparel sourcing orders to suppliers from the Western Hemisphere because of COVID-19 and the trade war. In the first seven months of 2020, only 8.8% of U.S. apparel imports came from CAFTA-DR members (down from 10.3% in 2019) and 4.1% from USMCA members (down from 4.5% in 2019). Confirming the trend, in the first seven months of 2020, the value of U.S. yarns and fabrics exports to USMCA and CAFTA-DR members also suffered a 28.9% decline from a year ago. The heavy reliance on textile supply from the U.S. (implying more vulnerability to the Covid-19 supply chain disruptions) and the price disadvantage could be among the contributing factors why near sourcing has been stagnant.

As a reflection of weak demand, the unit price of U.S. apparel imports was lower in the first six months of 2020. The price index declined from 104.7 in 2019 to 99.0 YTD (Jan to Jul) in 2020 (Year 2010 =100). The imports from Mexico (price index =86.4 YTD in 2020 vs. 112.1 in 2019) and China (price index = 69.7 YTD in 2020 vs. 83.5 in 2019) have seen the most notable price decrease so far.

by Sheng Lu

US-UK Free Trade Agreement: What Does it Mean for the Apparel Industry?

By Victoria Langro (2020 UD Summer Scholar) and Dr. Sheng Lu (advisor)

Key findings:

US-UK bilateral apparel trade

Over the past decade, the US and UK bilateral trade in apparel enjoyed steady growth, reflecting ever closer business ties of fashion companies in the two countries. While US apparel exports still predominantly go to geographically nearby countries such as Mexico and Canada, the UK has emerged to become the single largest export market for “Made in the USA” apparel outside the Western Hemisphere. Similarly, the United States has always been the UK’s single largest export market outside the EU region.

On the other hand, the apparel products that the US and the UK export to each other target different segments of the market. Industry sources indicate that the clothing exported from the US to the UK primarily focuses on the premium market. Garments “Made in the USA” in the UK are mostly carried by premium brands and retailers such as Free People, J. Crew, and Moda Operandi. However, due to a lack of brand power, clothing “Made in the USA” is typically priced 30%-50% lower than similar products locally made in the UK or elsewhere in Western EU, such as France and Italy.

In comparison, approximately 70% of apparel exported from the UK to the US are luxury goods. With a relatively clear-cut market position, luxury and high-end designer UK brands, such as Burberry, Roland Mouret, and Victoria Beckham, can effectively reach out to their target markets.

How Might the US-UK FTA Affect the Bilateral Apparel Trade

According to the released negotiation objectives, both the US and the UK seem to be willing to consider a substantial cut or even a full elimination of the apparel tariff rate as part of the trade deal. Should this happen, fashion companies across the Atlantic could benefit from a proportional reduction of their sourcing cost, resulting in a considerable expansion of the US-UK bilateral apparel trade flows.

On the other hand, to enjoy the preferential duty benefit under a free trade agreement, rules of origin will always be a requirement. Notably, most US trade agreements currently adopt the so-called “yarn-forward” rules of origin. In contrast, most EU-based trade deals adopt a more liberal “fabric-forward” rule.

While it is hard to predict which specific rules of origin the proposed US-UK trade agreement will adopt, it seems the result will have a more significant impact on the US apparel exports to the UK than the other way around. Restrained by the limited domestic supply and high cost, a substantial proportion of US apparel exports contain imported textile raw materials. This means US apparel producers may have to either switch to use more expensive domestic textile inputs or forgo the FTA duty-saving benefits should restrictive rules of origin are adopted. Meanwhile, the UK apparel exports to the US will be less sensitive to the rules of origin in the proposed FTA, as most of these luxury items are already 100% “Made in the UK” to meet customers’ expectations.

Uncertainties associated with the US-UK FTA

The US-UK trade negotiations have to deal with an evolving Brexit. Given the EU’s economic cloud, understandably, some argue that the UK may have to reach a comprehensive trade agreement with the EU before it can consider a trade deal with the US. Additionally, several US domestic politics and policy factors may further slow down the progress of the US-UK trade negotiation, from the US presidential election to the upcoming expiration of the trade promotion authority (TPA).

Further reading: Langro, V., & Lu, S. (2020). US-UK Free Trade Agreement: What Does it Mean for the Apparel Industry? Just-Style.

2020 USFIA Fashion Industry Benchmarking Study Released

The full report is available HERE

Key findings of this year’s report:

Impact of COVID19 on Fashion Companies’ Businesses

The overwhelming majority of respondents report “economic and business impacts of the coronavirus (COVID-19)” as their top business challenge in 2020. The business difficulties caused by COVID-19 will not go away anytime soon, and U.S. fashion companies have to prepare for a medium to the long-term impact of the pandemic.

COVID-19 has caused severe supply chain disruptions to U.S. fashion companies. The disruptions come from multiple aspects, ranging from a labor shortage, shortages of textile raw materials, and a substantial cost increase in shipping and logistics.

COVID-19 has resulted in a widespread sales decline and order cancellation among U.S. fashion companies. Almost all respondents (96 percent) expect their companies’ sales revenue to decrease in 2020.

As sales drop and business operations are significantly disrupted, not surprisingly, all respondents (100 percent) say they more or less have postponed or canceled sourcing orders. Nearly half of self-identified retailers say the sourcing orders they canceled or postponed go beyond the 2nd quarter of 2020. Another 40 percent expect order cancellation and postponement could extend further to the fourth quarter of 2020 or even beyond. The order cancellation or postponement has affected vendors in China, Bangladesh, and India the most.

Impact of COVID-19 and US-China Trade War on Fashion Companies’ Sourcing

As high as 90 percent of respondents explicitly say, the U.S. Section 301 action against China has increased their company’s sourcing cost in 2020, up from 63 percent last year.

COVID-19 and the trade war are pushing U.S. fashion companies to reduce their “China exposure” further. While “China plus Vietnam plus Many” remains the most popular sourcing model among respondents, around 29 percent of respondents indicate that they source MORE from Vietnam than from China in 2020, up further from 25 percent in 2019.

As U.S. fashion companies are sourcing relatively less from China, they are moving orders mostly to China’s competitors in Asia. All respondents (100 percent) say they have “moved some sourcing orders from China to other Asian suppliers” this year, up from 77 percent in 2019.

However, no clear evidence suggests that U.S. fashion companies are sourcing more from the Western Hemisphere because of COVID-19 and the U.S.-China trade war.

Emerging Sourcing Trends

Sourcing diversification is slowing down, and more U.S. fashion companies are switching to consolidate their existing sourcing base. Close to half of the respondents say they plan to “source from the same number of countries, but work with fewer vendors,” up from 40 percent in last year’s survey.

China most likely will remain a critical sourcing base for U.S. fashion companies. However, non-economic factors could complicate companies’ sourcing decisions. Benefiting from U.S. fashion companies’ reduced sourcing from China, Vietnam and Bangladesh are expected to play a more significant role as primary apparel suppliers for the U.S. market.

Given the supply chain disruptions experienced during the pandemic, U.S. fashion companies are more actively exploring “Made in the USA” sourcing opportunities to improve agility and flexibility and reduce sourcing risks. Around 25 percent of respondents expect to somewhat increase sourcing locally from the U.S. in the next two years, which is the highest level since 2016.

US-Mexico-Canada Trade Agreement (USMCA)

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. Some respondents expressed concerns about the rules of origin changes. These worries seem to concentrate on denim products in particular.

African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA)

Close to 37 percent of respondents say they have been sourcing MORE textile and apparel from sub-Saharan Africa (SSA) since the latest AGOA renewal in 2015, a substantial increase from 27 percent in the 2019 survey. More than 40 percent of respondents say AGOA and its “third-country fabric provision” are critical for their sourcing from the SSA region. More than 40 percent of respondents say AGOA and its “third-country fabric provision” are critical for their sourcing from the SSA region.

However, respondents still demonstrate a low level of interest in investing in the SSA region directly. Around 27 percent of respondents say the temporary nature of AGOA and the uncertainty associated with the future of the agreement have discouraged them.

With AGOA’s expiration date quickly approaching, the discussions on the future of the agreement and the prospect of sourcing from SSA begin to intensify. Among the various policy options to consider, “Renew AGOA for another ten years with no major change of its current provisions” and “Replace AGOA with a permanent free trade agreement that requires reciprocal tariff cut and continues to allow the third-country fabric provision” are the most preferred by respondents.

COVID-19 and U.S. Apparel Imports (Updated: August 2020)

The latest statistics from the Office of Textiles and Apparel (OTEXA) show that while the negative impacts of COVID-19 on U.S. apparel imports continued in June 2020, there appeared to be early signs of economic recovery. Specifically:

While the value of U.S. apparel imports decreased by 42.8% in June 2020 from a year ago, the speed of the decline has slowed (was down 60% year over year in May 2020). Nevertheless, between January and June 2020, the value of U.S. apparel imports decreased by 30.4% year over year, which has been much worse than the performance during the 2008-2009 global financial crisis (down 11.8%).

The latest trade statistics support the view that U.S. fashion companies continue to treat China as an essential apparel-sourcing base, despite COVID-19, the trade war, and companies’ sourcing diversification strategy. As the first country hit by COVID-19, China’s apparel exports to the U.S. dropped by as much as 49.0% from January to June 2020 year over year. In February 2020, China’s market shares slipped to only 11%, and both in March and April 2020, U.S. fashion companies imported more apparel from Vietnam than from China. However, China’s apparel exports to the U.S. are experiencing a “V-shape” recovery: as of June 2020, China had quickly regained its position as the top apparel supplier to the U.S., with a 29.1% market share in value and 43.4% share in quantity.

Moreover, U.S. apparel imports from China are also becoming more price-competitive—the unit price slipped from $2.25/Square meters equivalent (SME) in 2019 to $1.88/SME in 2020 (January to June), or down more than 16% (compared with a 4.6% price drop of the world average). As of June 2020, the unit price of U.S. apparel import from China was only 65% of the world average, and around 25—35 percent lower than those imported from other Asian countries. On the other hand, the official Chinese statistics report a 19.4% drop in China’s apparel exports to the world in the first half of 2020.

Despite Covid-19, Asia as a whole remains the single largest source of apparel for the U.S. market. Other than China, Vietnam (20.3% YTD in 2020 vs. 16.2% in 2019), ASEAN (34.4% YTD in 2020 and vs. 27.4% in 2019), Bangladesh (8.9% YTD in 2020 vs.7.1% in 2019), and Cambodia (4.5% YTD in 2020 vs. 3.2% in 2019) all gain additional market shares in 2020 from a year ago.

However, still, no clear evidence suggests that U.S. fashion brands and retailers have been giving more apparel sourcing orders to suppliers from the Western Hemisphere because of COVID-19 and the trade war. In the first six months of 2020, only 8.8% of U.S. apparel imports came from CAFTA-DR members (down from 10.3% in 2019) and 4.2% from NAFTA members (down from 4.5% in 2019).

Notably, U.S. fashion companies source products from Asia (including China) and the Western Hemisphere for different purposes. In general, US companies tend to source either price-sensitive or more sophisticated items from Asia, where factories overall have higher productivity and more advanced production techniques. Meanwhile, the Western Hemisphere is typically used to source products that require faster speed-to-market or more frequent replenishments during the selling season. Some studies further show that there is more divergence in the products imported into the United States from Asian countries and the Western Hemisphere from 2015 to 2019. In contrast, over the same period, China, ASEAN, and Bangladesh appear to be exporting increasingly similar products to the United States.

That being said, as USMCA enters into force on July 1, 2020, a more stable trading environment could encourage more U.S. apparel sourcing from Mexico down the road (assuming garment factories there can gradually resume production and no further COVID-19 related shutdown).

As a reflection of weak demand, the unit price of U.S. apparel imports dropped in the first six months of 2020 (price index =100, meaning the same nominal price as in 2010). The price index was 104.7 in 2019. The imports from Mexico (price index =87.1 YTD in 2020 vs. 112.1 in 2019) and China (price index = 69.9 YTD in 2020 vs. 83.5 in 2019) have seen the most notable price decrease so far.

by Sheng Lu

WTO Reports World Textiles and Apparel Trade in 2019

According to the World Trade Statistical Review 2020 newly released by the World Trade Organization (WTO):

First, the volume of world textiles and apparel trade reduced in 2019 due to weakened demand and the negative impacts of trade tensions. According to the WTO, the value of the world textiles (SITC 65) and apparel (SITC 84) exports totaled $305bn and $492bn in 2019, respectively, decreased by 2.4% and 0.4% from a year ago. The world merchandise trade also fell by nearly 3% measured by value and 0.1% measured by volume 2018-2019, in contrast with a positive 2.8% growth 2017-2018. Put these numbers in context, the year 2019 was the first time that world merchandise trade fell since the 2008 global financial crisis, and the decline happened even before the pandemic. As noted by the WTO, the economic slowdown and the escalating trade tensions, particularly the tariff war between the United States and China, were among the major contributing factors for the contraction of trade flows. 

Second, the pattern of world textile exports overall stays stable in 2019; Meanwhile, China and Vietnam continue to gain momentum. China, European Union (EU28), and India remained the world’s top three exporters of textiles in 2019. Altogether, these top three accounted for 66.9% of the value of world textile exports in 2019, almost no change from two years ago. Notably, despite the headwinds, China and Vietnam stilled enjoy the positive growth of their textile exports in 2019, up 0.9%, and 8.3%, respectively. In particular, Vietnam exceeded Taiwan and ranked the world’s seventh-largest textile exporter in 2019 ($8.8bn of exports, up 8.3% from a year earlier), the first time in history. The change also reflects Vietnam’s efforts to continuously upgrade its textile and apparel industry and strengthen the local textile production capacity are paying off.

Third, the pattern of world apparel exports reflects fashion companies’ shifting strategies to reduce sourcing from China. China, the European Union (EU28), Bangladesh, and Vietnam unshakably remained the world’s top four exporters of apparel in 2019. Altogether, these top four accounted for as much as 71.4% of world market shares in 2019, which, however, was lower than 74% from 2016 to 2018—primarily due to China’s reduced market shares.

China is exporting less apparel and more textiles to the world. Notably, China’s market shares in world apparel exports fell from its peak of 38.8% in 2014 to a record low of 30.8% in 2019 (was 31.3% in 2018). Meanwhile, China accounted for 39.2% of world textile exports in 2019, which was a new record high. It is important to recognize that China is playing an increasingly critical role as a textile supplier for many apparel-exporting countries in Asia.

On the other hand, even though apparel exports from Vietnam (up 7.7%) and Bangladesh (up 2.1%) enjoyed fast growth in absolute terms in 2019, their gains in market shares were quite limited (i.e., no change for Vietnam and marginally up 0.3 percentage point from 6.8% to 6.5% for Bangladesh). This result indicates that due to capacity limits, no single country has yet emerged to become the “Next China.” Instead, China’s lost market shares in apparel exports were fulfilled by a group of Asian countries altogether.

Fourth, associated with the shifting pattern of world apparel production, the world textile import is increasingly driven by apparel-exporting countries in the developing world. Notably, 2019 marks the first time that Vietnam emerged to become one of the world’s top three largest importers of textiles, primarily due to its expanded apparel production and heavy dependence on imported textile raw materials. In comparison, although the US and the EU remain the world’s top two largest textile importers, their total market shares had declined from nearly 40% in 2010 to only 31.2% in 2019, the lowest in the past ten years. Furthermore, both the US and the EU have been importing more finished textile products (such as home furnishings and carpets) as well as highly specialized technical textiles, rather than conventional yarns and fabrics for apparel production purposes. The weakening import demand for intermediary textile raw materials also suggests that reshoring (i.e., making apparel locally rather than sourcing from overseas) has NOT become a mainstream industry practice in the developed economies like the US and the EU.

Fifth, the world apparel import market is becoming ever more diversified as import demand is increasingly coming from emerging economies with a booming middle class. Affected by consumers’ purchasing power (often measured by GDP per capita) and size of the population, the European Union (EU28), US, and Japan remained the world’s top three importers of apparel in 2019. This pattern has lasted for decades. Altogether, these top three absorbed 58.1% of world apparel in 2019, which, however, was a new historic low (was 84% back in 2005). Behind the numbers, it is not the case that consumers in the EU, US, and Japan are necessarily purchasing less clothing. Instead, several emerging economies are becoming fast-growing apparel consumption markets and starting to import more. For example, China’s apparel imports totaled $8.9bn in 2019, up 8.1% from a year earlier. From 2010 to 2019, China’s apparel imports enjoyed a nearly 15% annual growth, compared with only 1.9% of the traditional top three.

by Sheng Lu

Additional reading: Lu, S. (2020). Five ways world textile and apparel trade is changing. Just-Style.

Appendix:

COVID-19 and U.S. Apparel Imports (Updated: July 2020)

The latest statistics from the Office of Textiles and Apparel (OTEXA) show that COVID-19 continued to enlarge its negative impact on U.S. apparel imports in May 2020, and the path to recovery will NOT be straightforward and quick. Specifically:

The value of U.S. apparel imports decreased by more than 60% in May 2020 from a year ago, setting a new record of single-month loss in trade volumes. Between January and May 2020, the value of U.S. apparel imports decreased by 27.8% year over year, which has been much worse than the performance during the 2008-2009 global financial crisis (down 11.8%).

As the first country hit by Covid-19, China’s apparel exports to the U.S. dropped by 60.2% in May 2020 from a year ago, close to its performance in April 2020 (down 59% YoY). While the figure itself is far from exciting, it suggests the sinking of China’s apparel exports could have hit bottom. As an important sign, China regained its position as the largest apparel supplier to the U.S. in May 2020, with 27.2% market shares in value and 41.4% market shares in quantity. Notably, this is a significant rebound from only 11% market shares back in February 2020. Overall, it seems U.S. fashion brands and retailers continue to treat China as an essential and probably indispensable apparel sourcing base, despite a new low of U.S.-China relations and companies’ sourcing diversification strategy. Meanwhile, the official Chinese statistics report a 20.3% drop in China’s apparel exports in the first five months of 2020.

Despite Covid-19, Asia as a whole remains the single largest source of apparel for the U.S. market. Other than China, Vietnam (20.1% YTD in 2020 vs. 16.2% in 2019), ASEAN (34.6% YTD in 2020 and vs. 27.4% in 2019) and Bangladesh (9.4% YTD in 2020 vs.7.1% in 2019) all gain additional market shares in 2020 from a year ago.

However, no clear evidence has suggested that U.S. fashion brands and retailers are giving more apparel sourcing orders to suppliers from the Western Hemisphere. In the first five months of 2020, still, only 9.1% of U.S. apparel imports came from CAFTA-DR members (down from 10.3% in 2019) and 4.0% from NAFTA members (down from 4.5% in 2019). Two factors might explain the pattern: 1) Due to factory lock-down, the production capacity in the Western Hemisphere is affected negatively; 2) With an unrepresented high level of unemployment, U.S. consumers are becoming ever more price sensitive.  However, apparel produced in the Western Hemisphere, in general, are less price competitive than those made in Asia.

As a reflection of weak demand, the unit price of U.S. apparel imports was lower in the first five months of 2020 (price index =101.5) compared with 2019 (price index =104.7).  Imports from China have seen the most notable price decrease so far (price index =71.0 YTD in 2020 vs. 83.5 in 2019).

by Sheng Lu

How will EU Trade Curb Affect Cambodia’s Apparel Industry?

Key findings:

1. The garment industry matters significantly to Cambodia, both economically, and socially. As of 2019, as much as 70% of Cambodia’s merchandise exports were apparel items. Likewise, around one-third of Cambodia’s manufacturing output currently comes from the garment sector alone. Further, as of 2016, the garment industry in Cambodia employed nearly 928,600 workers (almost 79% were female), an increase of 239% from 2007.

2. Cambodia’s apparel exports have enjoyed steady growth in recent decades,  reaching US$7.83 billion in 2018 – a jump of 256% from US$2.2 billion in 2005. Yet, it faces several major challenges:

  • Due to limited production techniques and capital availability, apparel producers in Cambodia are still mostly engaged in cut-make-trim (CMT) activities, meaning they rely heavily on imported textile raw material and are only able to make a marginal profit based on low-value-added sewing work.
  • Cambodia’s apparel exports are highly concentrated on the EU and the US markets, which together accounted for 73.4% of the country’s total garment exports in 2019.
  • Cambodia is facing intense competition in its main apparel export markets—there has been little growth in Cambodia’s share of EU and US apparel imports over the past two decades, remaining as low as 3% as of 2019.

3. Cambodia has benefited significantly from the EU Everything But Arms (EBA) program. Established in 2001, the EBA trade initiative provides least developed countries (LDCs), such as Cambodia, with duty-free and quota-free access to the vast EU market for all products except weapons and ammunition. Like other EBA beneficiary countries, the majority (around 95%) of Cambodia’s apparel exports to the EU currently claim the duty- and quota-free EBA benefits.  

4. Out of concerns over Cambodia’s “serious and systematic violations of the human rights principles enshrined in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights,” the European Commission on 12 February 2020 formally announced the withdrawal of part of the tariff preferences granted to Cambodia under the EBA program. Starting from 12 August 2020, a select group of Cambodia’s apparel exports to the EU, together with all travel goods, sugar, and some footwear will be subject to the EU’s Most-Favored-Nation (MFN) tariff rat, which were at the rate of 11.5% on average for apparel items in 2019

5. Even the partial suspension of Cambodia’s EBA eligibility could result in significant and lasting negative impacts on its apparel exports to the EU:

  • The apparel items directly affected by the EBA suspension accounted for around 15% of the value of Cambodia’s total apparel exports to the EU in 2019. For those apparel categories directly targeted by the EBA suspension, EU fashion brands and retailers may quickly shift sourcing orders from Cambodia to other supplying countries to avoid paying the additional tariffs.
  • Social responsibility is being given more weight in fashion companies’ sourcing decisions. This means even those apparel items not directly targeted by the EU EBA suspension could face widespread order cancellations as sourcing from Cambodia is deemed to involve higher social compliance risks. In a worse but possible scenario, Cambodia’s apparel exports to the whole world could be under threat as many EU fashion brands and retailers operate globally and adopt a unified ethical standard and code of conduct for apparel sourcing across different markets.
  • Additionally, the timing cannot be worse: Due to the devastating hit by Covid-19, as of April 2020, Cambodia had reported nearly 130 garment factory closures and more than 100,000 workers laid off. These numbers may increase further as the effect of the pandemic continue to unfold.

Further reading: Abby Edge and Sheng Lu (2020). How will EU trade curb affect Cambodia’s apparel industry? Just-Style.

Discussion questions:

  1. What you would suggest to the Cambodian government or garment factories there to mitigate the negative impacts of the EU EBA suspension?
  2. Why or why not the EU should reconsider its decision to partially suspend Cambodia’s EBA eligibility because of Covid-19?
  3. If you were fashion brands and retailers that source from Cambodia, what would you do?

EU-Vietnam Free Trade Agreement and Outlook of Vietnam’s Apparel Export

Vietnam’s National Assembly officially approved the EU-Vietnam Free Trade Agreement (EVFTA) on 8 June 2020, which is expected to take into effect as early as in August 2020.

EVFTA will eliminate nearly all tariffs (over 99%) between the EU and Vietnam. However, textile and apparel (T&A) are among a few exceptions that will not be able to enjoy duty-free treatment on day one. Specifically:

Created by Dr. Sheng Lu based on the EVFTA text
  • The EU will eliminate duties with more extended staging periods (up to 7 years) for some sensitive products in the textile apparel and footwear sectors (see the graphs above).
  • By adopting the fabric-forward rules of origin (or the so-called “double transformation”) for apparel items, EVFTA intends to prevent products from a third party (such as China) from flooding the EU market. Specifically, to benefit from preferential access, garments will need to use fabrics produced in Vietnam or the EU. However, through the EVFTA cumulation provision, fabrics originating in South Korea or other ASEAN countries with which the EU has a free trade agreement in force will be considered as originating in Vietnam. (Note: South Korea is a free trade agreement partner of the EU).  While China remains the top textile supplier for Vietnam, the EVFTA apparel-specific rules of origin will provide more incentives for Vietnam to reduce its China dependence and restructure its textile and apparel supply chain. On the other hand, the totality of EU textile fabric exports to Vietnam will be liberalized immediately when the agreement enters into force.
  • Statistics show that Vietnam was EU’s sixth-largest extra-region apparel supplier in 2019 (after China, Bangladesh, Turkey, India, and Cambodia), accounting for 4.3% in value (or US$4.3 billion). Many of Vietnam’s primary competitors already enjoyed duty-free market access to the EU, such as Turkey (through the Customs Union), Bangladesh, and Cambodia (through the EU Everything But Arms program). EVFTA will provide a level playing field for Vietnam, which is expected to see a continuous robust growth of its apparel exports to the EU and gain additional market shares in the years to come. Meanwhile, not eligible for any EU preferential duty benefit, apparel exports from China are likely to face intensified competition in the EU market after the implementation of EVFTA.

COVID-19 and U.S. Apparel Imports (Updated: June 2020)

The latest statistics from the Office of Textiles and Apparel (OTEXA) show that the negative impact of COVID-19 on U.S. apparel imports deepened further in April 2020. Specifically:

  1. Unusually but not surprisingly, the value of U.S. apparel imports sharply decreased by 44.5% in April 2020 from a year ago. Between January and April 2020, the value of U.S. apparel imports decreased by 19.6% year over year, which has been much worse than the performance during the 2008-2009 global financial crisis (down 11.8%).

2. As the first country took a hit by COVID-19, China’s apparel exports to the United States continue to deteriorate—its value decreased by a new record of 59.0% in April 2020 compared with a year ago (and -46.4% drop year to date). This result is also worse than the official Chinese statistics, which reported an overall 22% drop in China’s apparel exports in the first four months of 2020).

3. For the second month in a row, Vietnam surpassed China and ranked the top apparel supplier to the U.S. market in April 2020. China’s market shares in the U.S. apparel import market remained as low as 18.2% in April 2020 (was 30% in 2019), although it slightly recovered from only 11% in March 2020. With U.S.-China relations at a new low, there have been more intensified discussions on how to move the entire textile and apparel supply chain out of China and diversify apparel sourcing from the Asia region as a whole. However, as China itself has grown into one of the world’s largest apparel consumption markets, there is little doubt that China will remain a critical player for apparel sourcing, especially for the “China for China” business model.

4. Continuing the trend emerged in recent years, China’s lost market shares have been picked up mostly by other Asian suppliers, particularly Vietnam (19.7% YTD in 2020 vs. 16.2% in 2019) and Bangladesh (9.8% YTD in 2020 vs.7.1% in 2019). However, no clear evidence has suggested that U.S. fashion brands and retailers are giving more apparel sourcing orders to suppliers from the Western Hemisphere. In the first four months of 2020, still only 9.4% of U.S. apparel imports came from CAFTA-DR members (down from 10.3% in 2019) and 4.1% from NAFTA members (down from 4.5% in 2019).

5. As a reflection of weak demand, the unit price of U.S. apparel imports was lower in the first four months of 2020 (price index =102.1) compared with 2019 (price index =104.7).  Imports from China have seen the most notable price decrease so far (price index =71.5 YTD in 2020 vs. 83.5 in 2019).

by Dr. Sheng Lu

USTR Releases Negotiating Objectives of the Proposed U.S.-Kenya Free Trade Agreement

On May 22, 2020, Office of the U.S. Trade Representative (USTR) released the specific negotiating objectives of the proposed U.S.-Kenya Free Trade Agreement. Overall, the proposed free trade agreement (FTA) intends to “builds on the objectives of the African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA) and serve as an enduring foundation to expand U.S.-Africa trade and investment across the continent.” USTR also visions to conclude an agreement with Kenya that “can serve as a model for additional agreements in Africa, leading to a network of agreements that contribute to Africa’s regional integration objectives.”

Regarding the textiles and apparel (T&A) sector, USTR says it will “Secure duty-free access for U.S. textile and apparel products and seek to improve competitive opportunities for exports of U.S. textile and apparel products while taking into account U.S. import sensitivities.” The proposed agreement also will “Establish origin procedures that streamline the certification and verification of rules of origin and that promote strong enforcement, including with respect to textiles.” The same/very similar language is used in the proposed U.S.-Japan Free Trade Agreement and U.S.-EU trade negotiation.

Of the total $667million U.S. merchandise imports from Kenya in 2019, nearly 70% were apparel items, making the sector the single largest stakeholder of the proposed FTA. While still being a relatively minor supplier, Kenya’s apparel exports to the U.S. reached a record high of $453million in 2019, which was an increase of 132% from ten years ago. For many U.S. fashion companies, Kenya is also its single largest apparel-sourcing base in Sub-saharan Africa (SSA), accounting for one-third of the region’s total apparel exports to the U.S. in 2019.

However, how to design the textile and apparel chapter in the proposed U.S.-Kenya FTA is anything but easy. A preliminary content analysis of the 133 public comments submitted to the U.S. International Trade Commission (USITC) as of May 2020 shows that various stakeholders have proposed competing views on several complicated issues, ranging from the rules of origin to the tariff elimination schedule. Specifically:

First, the fashion apparel industry has expressed strong unanimous support for the proposed U.S.-Kenya FTA. Notably, Kenya is widely regarded as a growing sourcing destination for U.S. fashion brands and retailers. As noted by the U.S. Fashion Industry Association (USFIA) in its comment “there is a tremendous opportunity to expand trade between the United States and Kenya” through the elimination of both tariff and non-tariff barriers under the FTA.

Second, the fashion apparel industry calls for the proposed U.S.-Kenya FTA to “do no harm” to the existing supply chain established based on AGOA and ensure a seamless transition between the two trade programs. For example, PVH, one of the largest U.S. fashion corporations, says in its comment, “no change should be made with respect to market access and dutyfree treatment for apparel made in Kenya effective from the date of entry into force of the agreement.” Likewise, USFIA calls for the new FTA to “Preserve the commercial opportunities developed through AGOA benefits.” The American Apparel and Footwear Association (AAFA) further proposes to extend AGOA for another ten years after 2025, regardless of the status of the U.S.-Kenya FTA.

Third, despite the overall support for the agreement, industry stakeholders hold different views on how liberal the apparel-specific rules of origin should be in the U.S.-Kenya FTA and how long to keep it. Data shows, between 2015 and 2019, 99.7% of U.S. apparel imports from Kenya claimed the AGOA benefits. Of these imports, almost 100% took advantage of the so-called “third-country” fabric provision, which allows lesser-developed SSA countries like Kenya to enjoy duty-free access to the U.S. market for apparel made from yarns and fabrics originating from anywhere in the world (also known as the “cut and sew” or “single transformation” rules of origin).

On the one hand, some argue that without AGOA-like liberal rules of origin, Kenya won’t survive as an apparel sourcing destination for U.S. fashion companies because of the lack of local textile manufacturing capacity. For example, according to the African Coalition for Trade representing businesses in several SSA countries, “Africa does not currently have the capacity to produce the volume and variety of yarn and fabric necessary to support its apparel industry. Any tightening of the third-country fabric rule of origin in the post-AOGA model FTA would decimate the African apparel industry and lead to the loss of hundreds of thousands of jobs.”

However, some other industry stakeholders suggest that U.S.-Kenya FTA should gradually adopt the more restrictive “yarn-forward” rules of origin to encourage the development of the local textile industry in Kenya and the broader SSA region. Should U.S.-Kenya FTA adopt the “yarn-forward” rules of origin, garment factories in Kenya would have to either import yarns and fabrics from the United States, an option that is commercially infeasible given the long-distance, or use textile inputs locally-made. PVH, in its comment, explains the rationale behind the proposal, “we should move to a yarn forward rule of origin in phases…to allow the orderly verticalization of the apparel industry (in Kenya).” AAFA further adds, “A strong, vertical supply chain for the apparel and footwear industry in Kenya will reduce costs, minimize disruption and improve efficiency.”

Notably, the National Council of Textile Organizations (NCTO), which represents the voice of the U.S. textile industry, has not commented on U.S.-Kenya FTA yet but may potentially join the rules of origin debate. For years, NCTO insists that all U.S. free trade agreements should adopt the strict “yarn-forward” rules of origin. NCTO is most likely to hold the same position for the proposed U.S.-Kenya FTA because of two reasons: 1) avoid setting a “bad precedent” that may have implications for future U.S. FTA negotiations; 2) prevent the case when U.S. apparel imports from Kenya substantially increase and negatively affect apparel suppliers in the Western Hemisphere (such as Mexico and countries in Central America).

Furthermore, the debate on rules of origin is connected with the discussion on how to promote a regional textile and apparel supply chain in SSA and enhance regional economic integration. Several stakeholders, including AAFA, urge that U.S.-Kenya FTA should support regional supply chain collaboration rather than intensify the competition between Kenya and other AGOA members in the U.S. apparel market. The Atlantic Council, a well-known think tank also argues, “the bilateral (FTA) approach should not undercut the US’ longstanding support for regional integration in African markets and the progress that has been made in the East African Community (EAC) and the African continental free trade agreement area (AfCFTA).” Mauritius embassy echoes and suggests that the U.S.-Kenya FTA “could be made conductive to regional integration in Africa by allowing cumulation provisions in the agreement that would allow the use of materials sourced from other African partners to achieve the rules of origin requirements.

Fourth, industry stakeholders also suggest that U.S.-Kenya FTA could include modern trade agendas to make the agreement more relevant to the needs of the fashion apparel industry in the 21st-century world economy. The most commonly mentioned issues include: 1) Sustainability, labor, and environmental standard; 2) E-commerce, digital trade, and data protection; 3) Strengthened intellectual property rights (IP) protection; 4) Transparency and trade facilitation. The released USTR negotiation objectives have covered most of these topics.

Additionally, how to deal with Kenya’s secondhand clothing import restriction could be another thorny issue relevant to fashion apparel in the U.S.-Kenya FTA negotiation. In its submitted comment, the Secondary Materials and Recycled Textiles Association (SMART), whose members export 8-10 million kilograms of used clothing each year, urged the proposed U.S.-Kenya FTA to “prohibit the imposition of any import ban on secondhand clothing” and “phase-in duty eliminations on secondhand clothing.” However, SMART’s position could be at odds with apparel manufacturers in Kenya, along with U.S. fashion brands and retailers interested in expanding apparel sourcing from the country.

Further readings:

  1. Lu, S. (2019). Challenges for sub-Saharan Africa as an apparel sourcing hubJust-Style.
  2. Kendall Keough and Sheng Lu. (2020). U.S.-Kenya Free Trade Agreement: Comments from the Fashion Apparel Industry. Just-Style.

COVID-19 and U.S. Apparel Imports (Updated: May 2020)

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The latest statistics from the Office of Textiles and Apparel (OTEXA) show that the negative impact of COVID-19 on U.S. apparel imports deepened in March 2020. Specifically:

  • The value of U.S. apparel imports sharply decreased by 14.8% in March 2020 from a year ago. Between January and March 2020, the value of U.S. apparel imports decreased by 12.1% year over year, which has been worse than the performance during the 2008-2009 global financial crisis (down 11.8%).
  • As the first country took a hit by COVID-19, China’s apparel exports to the United States continue to deteriorate—its value decreased by as much as 52.4% in March 2020 compared with a year ago (and -43.1% drop year to date in 2020). This result is also worse than the official Chinese statistics, which reported an overall 20.6% drop in China’s apparel exports in the first quarter of 2020.

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  • For the first time in history, Vietnam surpassed China and became the top apparel supplier to the U.S. market in March 2020. Notably, China’s market shares in the U.S. apparel import market dropped to only 11% in March 2020 (and 18.3% year to date in 2020), a new record low in history (was 30% in 2019). However, it should be noted that long before COVID-19, U.S. fashion brands and retailers have begun to reduce their exposure to sourcing from China, especially since October 2019 due to concerns about the US-China tariff war.

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  • China’s lost market shares have been picked up mostly by other Asian suppliers, particularly Vietnam (18.9% YTD in 2020 vs. 16.2% in 2019) and Bangladesh (9.4% YTD in 2020 vs.7.1% in 2019). However, no clear evidence has suggested that U.S. fashion brands and retailers are giving more apparel sourcing orders to suppliers from the Western Hemisphere. In the first three months of 2020, still, only 10.3% of U.S. apparel imports came from CAFTA-DR members (no change from 2019) and 4.4% from NAFTA members (down from 4.5% in 2019).

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  • The unit price of U.S. apparel imports remains relatively stable. The price index (2010=100) in the first three months of 2020 was 103 compared with 104.7 in 2019. However, as a reflection of weak demand, the price index of U.S. apparel imports from China substantially dropped to 72.2 Year to Date in 2020 compared with 83.5 in 2019.

The discussion is closed for this post.

COVID-19 and U.S. Apparel Imports (Updated: April 2020)

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The spread of the coronavirus (COVID-19) has already resulted in a plummet of U.S. apparel imports that we have never seen in history. According to latest statistics from the Office of Textiles and Apparel (OTEXA) under the U.S. Department of Commerce, as of February 2020:

  • The value of U.S. apparel imports sharply decreased by 11.2% in February 2020 from a year earlier. Between January and February 2020, the amount of U.S. apparel imports decreased by 10.9% year over year, which is nearly the same loss as in the 2008-2009 global financial crisis.

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  • As the first country took a hit by COVID-19, China’s apparel exports to the United States nearly collapsed in February 2020–down as much as 46.1% compared with a year ago (and -40.6% drop YTD). This result is also worse than the official Chinese statistics, which reported an overall 20% drop in China’s apparel exports in the first two months of 2020).

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  • China’s market shares in the U.S. apparel import market dropped to 21.3% in February 2020, a new record low in history (was 30% in 2019 and 23.9% in January 2020). However, it is important to note that such a downward trend started in October 2019, as U.S. fashion brands and retailers were eager to reduce their exposure to sourcing from China.
  • China’s lost market shares have been picked up mostly by other Asian suppliers, particularly Vietnam (18.8% YTD in 2020 vs. 16.2% in 2019) and Bangladesh (9.1% YTD in 2020 vs.7.1% in 2019). However, there is no clear evidence suggesting that U.S. fashion brands and retailers are giving more apparel sourcing orders to suppliers from the Western Hemisphere. In the first two months of 2020, only 9.5% of U.S. apparel imports came from CAFTA-DR members (down from 10.3% in 2019) and 4.2% from NAFTA members (down from 4.5% in 2019).

How Might Covid-19 Affect Apparel Sourcing and Trade

The top challenge facing apparel sourcing and trade in the shadow of Covid-19 has quickly shifted from a lack of textile raw material to order cancellation. In major apparel consumption markets such as the EU and US, clothing stores are locked down, making retailers have no choice but to postpone or even cancel sourcing orders.

Based on the Global Trade Analysis Project Recursive Dynamic (GTAP-RD) Model and its latest database, we estimated the trade impact of Covid-19 in three possible scenarios, as summarized in the table below. All these three scenarios are pretty bad but likely situations we may have to face this year. (Note: Because China, US, and EU are the epic-centers of Covid-19, in the study, we assume these three countries/regions’ economies will be hit harder than the rest of the world.)

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There are four preliminary findings:

First, the volume of the world apparel trade will be hit hard by Covid-19. As clothing stores are forced to shut down and consumers are losing jobs and struggling financially, the demand for apparel consumption in the EU and US, the world’s top two apparel consumption markets, is expected to drop sharply. As shown in the figures below, every 1% decline in the US and EU Gross Domestic Product (GDP) in 2020 could lead to at least a 2-3% drop in the value of their apparel imports.  Notably, during the 2008 financial crisis, the value of world apparel imports also decreased by as much as 11.5% when the EU and US GDP suffered a 2.5-3% negative growth.

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Second, with a sharp decline in U.S. and EU apparel imports this year, China could be hit the hardest. In all the three scenarios we estimated, China will suffer the most significant drop in its apparel exports to the US and EU markets. The reasons are threefold: The first factor is the size effect—as the largest source of US and EU apparel imports and with its unparalleled production capacity, China is often used to fulfill large-volume sourcing orders. In the current situation, however, retailers are most likely to cancel these large-quantity orders, resulting in a disproportional loss of China’s apparel exports. Secondly, the US and EU apparel imports from China currently cover almost all major categories, which also makes China the most exposed to order cancellation. Furthermore, jointly affected by last year’s US-China trade war and the outbreak of Covid-19 in China earlier this year, many US and EU fashion brands and retailers have been shifting sourcing orders from China to other Asian countries, such as Bangladesh and Vietnam. To prioritize their limited resources, US and EU retailers are most likely to accelerate this process in the current difficult time.

Other than China, apparel factories in Bangladesh also could suffer severe export decline. Similar to the case of China, Bangladesh serves as a leading apparel supplier for BOTH the EU and US markets, making it more exposed to order cancellation than other countries. Notably, as a beneficiary of the EU Everything But Arms (EBA) program, around 60% of Bangladesh’s apparel currently go to the EU. In comparison, with a more diversified export market, apparel factories in Vietnam are in a better position and have more flexibility to mitigate the impact of a declined import demand from the EU and the US. In 2018, around 40% of Vietnam’s apparel exports went to other markets in the world.

Third, the decreased US and EU apparel imports will have a notable impact on employment in many apparel exporting countries. In history, a 10% change in the value of apparel exports typically results in a 4%-9% change in garment employment. This means, should the US and EU apparel imports drop by 10% in 2020, leading apparel exporting countries such as Bangladesh, Vietnam, Cambodia and India may have to cut 4%-9% of their jobs in the garment sector accordingly.  Notably, in developing countries such as Bangladesh and Cambodia, the apparel sector remains the single largest job creator for the local economy, especially for women. The social and economic impact of job losses in the apparel sector due to Covid-19 is very concerning.

Fourth, the economic performance in the US, EU, and China will largely shape the pattern of apparel trade this year. The results in scenarios 1 and 2 overall are pretty close, suggesting the economic cloud of these three countries and regions altogether far exceed the rest of the world.

Last but not least, the global apparel supply chain could continue to face a turbulent time in the next 1-2 years, even if Covid-19 gradually gets under control in the second half of 2020. In history, affected by the 2008 global financial crisis, the value of world apparel exports dropped by 12.8% in 2009. However, the growth rate quickly rebounded to 11.5% the following year. Likewise, should the EU and US apparel imports were able to recover to its normal level in 2021, both importers and garment factories may have to deal with a new round of labor shortage, the price increase of raw material and a lack of production capacity.

by Sheng Lu

Additional reading:

Top Ten Most-read Blog Posts on Shenglufashion in 2019

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#1 WTO reports world textile and apparel trade in 2018

#2 Wage level for garment workers in the world (updated in 2017)

#3 China’s changing role in the world textile and apparel supply chain

#4 Timeline of trade policy in the Trump administration

#5 State of the EU textile and apparel industry (updated April 2019)

#6  2019 U.S. fashion industry benchmarking study released

#7 U.S. textile and apparel industry is NOT immune to the U.S.-China tariff war

#8 U.S. apparel retailers’ shifting sourcing strategy for “Made in China” under the shadow of the tariff war

#9 Demystify the “Made in the USA” apparel sourcing strategy

#10 U.S. textile and apparel industry assesses the impacts of USMCA (NAFTA2.0)

Happy Holidays!

Japan’s Apparel Sourcing Patterns

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(The full article is available HERE)

Key findings:

First, the total value of Japan’s apparel imports has been growing steadily in line with consumption patterns. Between 2010 and 2018, the value of Japan’s apparel imports enjoyed a 2.7% compound annual growth rate, which was lower than the US (3.4%), but higher than the EU (1.9%) and the world average (1.3%) over the same period.

Second, while China remains the top supplier, Japanese fashion brands and retailers are also diversifying their sourcing bases. Similar to their counterparts in the US and EU, Japanese fashion brands and retailers are actively seeking alternatives. Imports from Vietnam, Bangladesh, and Indonesia have been growing particularly fast, even though their production capacity and market shares are still far behind China.

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Third, Japanese fashion companies are increasingly sourcing from Asia. As of 2018, only 7.5% of Japan’s apparel imports came from non-Asian countries (mostly western EU countries), a notable drop from 11.4% back in 2000. A good proportion of Japan’s apparel imports from Asia actually contain fibers and yarns originally made in Japan. For example, it is not difficult to find clothing labeled ‘Made in China’ or ‘Made in Vietnam’ that also includes phrases such as ‘Using soft, slow-spun Japanese fabric’ and ‘With Japanese yarns’ in the detailed product description.

Fourth, overall, Japan sets a lower tariff barrier for apparel than other leading import countries. As of September 2019, there were around 15 FTAs and TPAs in force in Japan, whose members include several 1st tier apparel supplying countries in Asia, such as Vietnam, Bangladesh, India, Indonesia, and Cambodia. Most of these trade programs adopt the so-called “fabric-forward” rules of origin (also known as “double-transformation” rules of origin). Additionally, Japan is actively engaged in negotiations on a trilateral free trade agreement with China and South Korea, and the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), which involves Japan, South Korea, China and members of the Association of Southeast Asian (ASEAN) countries. Once reached and implemented, these trade agreements will provide new exciting duty-saving sourcing opportunities, including from China, the top apparel exporter in the world.

15% and 25% Section 301 Punitive Tariffs on Apparel Imports from China: Retail Price Impact Assessment

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The Trump administration has imposed 15% Section 301 punitive tariffs on $300 billion Chinese products (tranche 4) effective September 1, 2019, which includes almost 80% of U.S. apparel imports from China. As illustrated above, 15% punitive tariffs mean:

  • If the retailer keeps the retail price unchanged, its gross margin% could drop around 2.9-3 percentage points.
  • If the retailer tries to maintain a gross margin% of 40%, it may have to increase the retail price by around 11.5-12%.

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Likewise, should the punitive tariffs reach 25%, it means:

  • If the retailer keeps the retail price unchanged, its gross margin% could drop around 4.9-5.0 percentage points.
  • If the retailer tries to maintain a gross margin% of 40%, it may have to increase the retail price by around 19.4-20%.

(Welcome for any comments and suggestions)

by Sheng Lu

WTO Reports World Textile and Apparel Trade in 2018

Updated data in 2019 is now available: WTO Reports World Textiles and Apparel Trade in 2019
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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