US Apparel Sourcing from USMCA and CAFTA-DR: How Much Import Duties Were Saved and For Which Products?

The following findings were based on an analysis of trade volume and tariff data at the 6-digit HTS code level.

#1 Amid COVID-19, shipping crisis, and US-China tariff war, US fashion brands and retailers demonstrate a new round of interest in expanding “near-sourcing” from member countries of the US-Mexico-Canada Trade Agreement (USMCA, previously NAFTA) and Dominican Republic-Central America Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA-DR).

Data shows that 15.2% of US apparel imports came from USMCA and CAFTA-DR members YTD in 2021 (January-August), higher than 13.7% in 2020 and about 14.7% before the pandemic (2018-2019). Notably, CAFTA-DR members’ market shares increased to 11% in 2021 (January to Aug) from 9.6% in 2020. The value of US apparel imports from CAFTA-DR also enjoyed a 54% growth in 2021 (January—Aug) from a year ago, faster than 25% of the world’s average.

#2 Sourcing apparel from USCMA and CAFTA-DR members helps US fashion brands and retailers save around $1.6-1.7 billion tariff duties annually. (note: the estimation considers the value of US apparel imports from USMCA and CAFTA-DR members at the 6-digit HTS code level and the applied MFN tariff rates for these products; we didn’t consider the additional Section 301 tariffs US companies paid for imports from China). Official trade statistics also show that measured by value, about 73% of US apparel imports under free trade agreements came through USMCA (25%) and CAFTA-DR (48%) from 2019 to 2020.

#3 US apparel imports from USMCA and CAFTA-DR members do NOT necessarily focus on items subject to a high tariff rate. Measured at the 6-digit HS code level, apparel items subject to a high tariff rate (i.e., applied MFN tariff rate >17%) only accounted for about 8-9% of US apparel imports from USMCA members and 7-8% imports from CAFTA-DR members. In comparison, even having to pay a significant amount of import duties, around 17% of US apparel imports from Vietnam and 10% of imports from China were subject to a high tariff rate (see table below).

The phenomenon suggests that USCMA and CAFTA-DR members still have limited production capacity for many man-made fibers (MMF) clothing categories (such as jackets, swimwear, dresses, and suits), typically facing a higher tariff rate. This result also implies that expanding production capacity and diversifying the export product structure could make USMCA and CAFTA-DR more attractive sourcing destinations.

#4 US apparel imports from USMCA and CAFTA-DR members tend to focus on large-volume items subject to a medium tariff rate. Specifically, from 2017 to 2021 (Jan-Aug), ten products (at the 6-digit HTS code level) typically contributed around half of the US tariff revenues collected from apparel items (HS chapters 61-62). However, the average applied MFN tariff rates for these items were only about 13%. Meanwhile, these top tariff-revenue-contributing apparel items accounted for about 50% of US apparel imports from USMCA members and nearly 64%-69% of imports from CAFTA-DR members.

Likewise, the top ten products (at the 6-digit HTS code level) typically accounted for 65%-68% of US apparel imports from USMCA members and nearly 73-75% of US apparel imports from CAFTA-DR members. These products also had a medium average applied MFN rate at 11-12% for USMCA and 12-13% in the case of CAFTA-DR.

Given the duty-saving incentives, expanding “near-sourcing” from USMCA and CAFTA-DR members could prioritize these large-volume apparel items with a medium tariff rate in short to medium terms. However, in the long run, a shortcoming of this strategy is that many such items are basic fashion clothing that primarily competes on price (such as T-shirts and trousers) and cannot leverage the unique competitive edge of near-sourcing (such as speed to market). When the US reaches new free trade agreements, particularly those involving leading apparel-producing countries in Asia, it could offset the tariff advantages enjoyed by USMCA and CAFTA-DR members and quickly result in trade diversion.

by Sheng Lu

State of U.S. Textile and Apparel Manufacturing: Output, Employment, and Trade (Updated October 2021)

Textile and apparel manufacturing in the U.S. has significantly shrunk in size over the past decades due to multiple factors ranging from automation, import competition to the shifting U.S. comparative advantages for related products. However, U.S. textile manufacturing is gradually coming back. The output of U.S. textile manufacturing (measured by value added) totaled $18.79 billion in 2019, up 23.8% from 2009. In comparison, U.S. apparel manufacturing dropped to $9.5 billion in 2019, 4.4% lower than ten years ago (Bureau of Economic Analysis, 2021).

Meanwhile, like many other sectors, U.S. textile and apparel production was hit hard by COVID-19 in the first half of 2020 but started to recover since the 3rd quarter. Notably, as of June 2021, U.S. textile production had resumed about 98.8% of its production capacity at the pre-COVID level.

On the other hand, as the U.S. economy is turning more mature and sophisticated, the share of U.S. textile and apparel manufacturing in the U.S. Gross Domestic Product (GDP) dropped to only 0.12% in 2020 from 0.57% in 1998 (Bureau of Economic Analysis, 2021).

The U.S. textile and apparel manufacturing is changing in nature. For example, textile products had accounted for over 66% of the total output of the U.S. textile and apparel industry as of 2019, up from only 58% in 1998 (Bureau of Economic Analysis, 2020). Textiles and apparel “Made in the USA” are growing particularly fast in some product categories that are high-tech driven, such as medical textiles, protective clothing, specialty and industrial fabrics, and non-woven. These products are also becoming the new growth engine of U.S. textile exports. Notably, “special fabrics and yarns” had accounted for more than 34% of U.S. textile exports in 2019, up from only 20% in 2010 (Data source: UNComtrade, 2021).

Compatible with the production patterns, employment in the U.S. textile industry (NAICS 313 and 314) and apparel industry (NAICS 315) fell to the bottom in April-May 2020 due to COVID-19 but started to recover steadily since June 2020. From January 2021 to August 2021, the total employment in the two sectors increased by 1.5% and 1.4%, respectively. However, the employment level remains much lower than the pre-COVID level (benchmark: August 2019).

To be noted, as production turns more automated and thanks to improved productivity (i.e., the value of output per worker), U.S. textile and apparel factories have been hiring fewer workers even before the pandemic. The downward trend in employment is not changing for the U.S. textile and apparel manufacturing sector.  Related, how to attract the new generation of workforce to the factory floor remains a crucial challenge facing the future of textile and apparel “Made in the USA.”

International trade supports textiles and apparel “Made in the USA.” Notably, nearly 42% of textiles “Made in the USA” (NAICS 313 and 314) were sold overseas in 2019, up from only 15% in 2000. A recent study further shows that product category and the size of the firm were both statistically significant factors that affected the U.S. textile and apparel manufacturer’s likelihood of engaged in exports.

from Nordstrom Rack

It is not rare to find clothing labeled “made in the USA with imported fabric” or “made in the USA with imported material” in the stores. Statistical analysis shows a strong correlation between the value of U.S. apparel output and U.S. yarn and fabric imports from 1998 to 2019.

Like many other developed economies whose textile and apparel industries had reached the stage of post-maturity, the United States today is a net textile exporter and net apparel importer. COVID-19 has affected U.S. textile and apparel trade in several important ways:

  • Trade volume cut: Both affected by the shrinkage of import demand and supply chain disruptions, the value of U.S. textile and apparel imports dropped by as much as 19.3% in 2020 from a year ago, particularly apparel items (down 23.5%). Likewise, the value of U.S. textile and apparel exports in 2020 decreased by 15.6%, including an unprecedented 26% decrease in yarn exports.
  • Trade balance shifted: Before the pandemic, U.S. was a net exporter of fabrics. However, as the import demand for non-woven fabrics (for making PPE purposes) surged during the pandemic, U.S. ran a trade deficit of $502 million for fabrics in 2020. Meanwhile, as retail sales slowed and imports dropped during the pandemic, the U.S. trade deficit in apparel shrank by 19% in 2020 compared with 2019.However, the shrinkage of the trade deficit did not boost clothing “Made in the USA” in 2020, reminding us that the trade balance often is not an adequate indicator to measure the economic impact of trade.
  • No change in export market: Close to 70% of U.S. textile and apparel export went to the Western Hemisphere in 2020, a pattern that has stayed stable over the past decades (OTEXA, 2021). More can be done to strengthen the Western Hemisphere supply chain and textile and apparel production in the region by leveraging regional trade agreements like CAFTA-DR and USMCA.

By Sheng Lu

China’s Membership in CPTPP Could Threaten the Survival of the US Textile Industry

As one breaking news, on 16 September 2021, China officially presented its application to join the 11-member Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP). While the approval of China’s membership in CPTPP remains a long shot and won’t happen anytime soon, the debate on the potential impact of China’s accession to the trade agreement already starts to heat up.

Like many other sectors, textile and apparel companies are on the alert. Notably, China plus current CPTPP members accounted for nearly half of the world’s textile and apparel exports in 2020. Many non-CPTPP countries are also critical stakeholders of China’s membership in the agreement. In particular, the Western Hemisphere textile and apparel supply chain, which involves the US textile industry, could face unrepresented challenges once China joins CPTPP. 

First, once China joins CPTPP, the tariff cut could provide strong financial incentives for Mexico and Canada to use more Chinese textiles. China is already a leading textile supplier for many CPTPP members. In 2019, as much as 47.7% of CPTPP countries’ textile imports (i.e., yarns, fabrics, and accessories) came from China, far more than the United States (12.1%), the other leading textile exporter in the region. 

Notably, thanks to the Western Hemisphere supply chain and the US-Mexico-Canada Trade Agreement (USMCA, previously NAFTA), the United States remains the largest textile supplier for Mexico (48.2%) and Canada (37.2%). Mexico and Canada also serve as the largest export market for US textile producers, accounting for as many as 46.4% of total US yarn and fabric exports in 2020.

However, US textile exporters face growing competition from China, offering more choices of textile products at a more competitive price (e.g., knitted fabrics and man-made fiber woven fabrics). From 2005 to 2019, US textile suppliers lost nearly 20 percentage points of market shares in Mexico and Canada, equivalent to what China gained in these two markets over the same period.

Further, China’s membership in CPTPP means its textile exports to Mexico and Canada could eventually enjoy duty-free market access. The significant tariff cut (e.g., from 9.8% to zero in Mexico) could make Chinese textiles even more price-competitive and less so for US products. This also means the US textile industry could lose its most critical export market in Mexico and Canada even if the Biden administration stays away from the agreement.

Second, if both China and the US become CPTPP members, the situation would be even worse for the US textile industry. In such a case, even the most restrictive rules of origin would NOT prevent Mexico and Canada from using more textiles from China and then export the finished garments to the US duty-free. Considering its heavy reliance on exporting to Mexico and Canada, this will be a devastating scenario for the US textile industry.

Even worse, the US textile exports to CAFTA-DR members, another critical export market, would drop significantly when China and the US became CPTPP members. Under the so-called Western-Hemisphere textile and apparel supply chain, how much textiles (i.e., yarns and fabrics) US exports to CAFTA-DR countries depends on how much garments CAFTA-DR members can export to the US. In comparison, US apparel imports from Asia mostly use Asian-made textiles. For example, as a developing country, Vietnam relies on imported yarns and fabrics for its apparel production. However, over 97% of Vietnam’s textile imports come from Asian countries, led by China (57.1%), South Korea, Taiwan, and Japan (about 25%), as opposed to less than 1% from the United States.

The US textile industry also deeply worries about Vietnam becoming a more competitive apparel exporter with the help of China under CPTPP. Notably, among the CPTPP members, Vietnam is already the second-largest apparel exporter to the United States, next only to China. Despite the high tariff rate, the value of US apparel imports from Vietnam increased by 131% between 2010 and 2020, much higher than 17% of the world average. Vietnam’s US apparel import market shares quickly increased from only 7.6% in 2010 to 16.6% in 2020 (and reached 19.3% in the first half of 2021). The lowered non-tariff and investment barriers provided by CPTPP could encourage more Chinese investments to come to Vietnam and further strengthen Vietnam’s competitiveness in apparel exports.  

Understandably, when apparel exports from China and Vietnam became more price-competitive thanks to their CPTPP memberships, more sourcing orders could be moved away from CAFTA-DR countries, resulting in their declined demand for US textiles. Notably, a substantial portion of US apparel imports from CAFTA-DR countries focuses on relatively simple products like T-shirts, polo shirts, and trousers, which primarily compete on price. Losing both the USMCA and CAFTA-DR export markets, which currently account for nearly 70% of total US yarns and fabrics exports, could directly threaten the survival of the US textile industry.

by Sheng Lu

Related readings:

What Does Vietnam’s Lockdown Mean for US Footwear Sourcing?

According to the media, US footwear retailers face a new round of supply chain disruptions as Vietnam, one of the leading supplying countries, is under COVID lockdown. Industry sources say the country-wide lockdown measures in Vietnam could last until mid-September. So, what does Vietnam’s lockdown mean for US footwear sourcing?

First, footwear sourcing is much less diversified than apparel. As manufacturing footwear both requires specialized machines and can be labor-intensive, over 80% of US footwear imports came from three countries only, namely China, Vietnam, and Indonesia. This sourcing pattern is very different from apparel products, for which US companies have far more choices. Other than the top three, US also imports some high-end footwear products from Italy.

Second, while China remains No.1, Vietnam has quickly become the second-largest footwear supplier for the US market. Vietnam’s market shares (by value) reached a new record high of 32.9% in the first six months of 2021, up from 20% in 2017. Especially since the US Section 301 action began to affect footwear imports from China, US retailers have increasingly moved sourcing orders from China to Vietnam to mitigate trade war’s negative impacts [Note: most footwear products are covered by Tranche 4A].

As of June 2021, top US retailers that carry footwear “Made in Vietnam” include Puma, Nike, UGG, Vans, and New Balance.

Nike, “Made in Vietnam”, retail price =$100
Nike, “Made in China”, retail price =$150

Third, US retailers source from Vietnam primarily for volume items targeting the mass market. Industry sources show that from Aug 2020 to Aug 2021, sneakers/trainer shoes “Made in Vietnam” on average were priced 30%+ cheaper than those “Made in China” in the US retail market.

Meanwhile, Vietnam still lags far behind China in terms of the variety of products it makes. For example, industry sources show that from Aug 2020 to Aug 2021, US retailers imported around 110K different types of footwear (at the SKU level) from China, but only 13K from Vietnam.

Overall, Vietnam’s COVID lockdown will primarily affect medium to lower-priced volume products carried by US footwear retailers. However, the lockdown’s impacts on retailers’ sourcing portfolio and product availability in the market could be modest. In other words, US consumers may still find many footwear products to choose from in the store but with a higher price tag. Notably, from June 2020 to July 2021, the US retail price for footwear went up by over 7.4% already.

Related reading: Delta Variant Outbreaks in Sparsely Vaccinated Asian Countries Disrupt Production (WSJ)

Military Coup Hurts Myanmar’s Prospect as an Apparel Sourcing Destination (updated August 2021)

The textile and apparel industry plays a significant role in Myanmar’s economy, particularly the export sector. Data from UNComtrade shows that textile and apparel accounted for nearly 69% of Myanmar’s total exports of manufactured goods in 2020, a substantial increase from only 27% in 2011. Data from the International Labor Organization (ILO) also indicates that the textile and industry (ISIC 17 & 18) employed more than 1.1 million workers in Myanmar in 2019, up from 0.69 million in 2015. Most garment workers in Myanmar are women today (around 87%).

Since the United States lifted the import ban on Myanmar and the EU reinstated the Everything But Arms (EBA) trade preferences in 2013, Myanmar was one of the most popular emerging apparel sourcing bases among fashion companies. From 2020 to July 2021, some of the top fashion brands that carry “Made in Myanmar” apparel items include United Colors of Benetton, Next, Only, H&M, Guess, and Jack & Jones.

Thanks to foreign investment (note: 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. Here is an example). This is different from many other apparel-exporting countries like Bangladesh, Vietnam, and Cambodia, mostly exporting low-cost tops and bottoms.

However, the latest trade data shows that Myanmar’s military coup that broke out in early 2021 had hurt the country’s apparel exports significantly. According to the US International Trade Commission (USITC), even though the total US apparel imports enjoyed a robust recovery in the first half of 2021 (up nearly 27%), the value of US apparel (HTS chapters 61 and 62) imports from Myanmar dropped by 0.4%. Almost ALL Myanmar’s top apparel exports to the US suffered a substantial decline or much slower growth in 2021 than the trend BEFORE the military coup (see the Table above). As US fashion companies switch sourcing orders from Myanmar to other suppliers, Myanmar’s market shares fell from 0.5% in 2020 to only 0.3% in the first half of 2021.

Highly consistent with the trade data, according to the 2021 Fashion Industry Benchmarking Study, many surveyed US fashion companies expressed concerns about the military coup in Myanmar and the rising labor and social compliance risks when sourcing from the country.  Some respondents explicitly say they are leaving because of the current situation. “(We) have terminated sourcing from Myanmar due to instability.” says one respondent. Another adds, “We had orders in Myanmar that have already been moved to Cambodia. We are unlikely to place orders until the current situation is resolved.”

In another recent 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 today. In other words, the reputation risks matter for sourcing.

Unfortunately, the situation could get worse. The international community, including the US and the EU, is considering new sanctions against Myanmar, including suspending Myanmmar’s trade-preference program eligibility.

Designated as a “least developed country” (LDC) by the World Trade Organization, Myanmar’s apparel exports enjoy duty-free market access in the EU, Japan, and South Korea. These countries also, in general, offer very liberal “single transformation” (or commonly known as cut and sew) rules of origin for qualifying apparel made in Myanmar. This explains why Myanmar’s apparel exports mostly go to the EU (56%), Japan, and South Korea (around 30%).

The United States is another important export market for Myanmar, accounting for 7% of the country’s total apparel exports in 2020. As a beneficiary of the US Generalized System of Preferences (GSP) program, Myanmar’s luggage exports enjoy duty-free benefits in the US market. However, the US GSP program excludes textile and apparel products, meaning Myanmar’s apparel exports to the US still are subject to the regular Most-Favored-Nation (MFN) tariff rate at around 14.3% on average in 2020.

The Office of the US Trade Representative (USTR) already hinted that even if US Congress renews the GSP program, which expired on 31 December 2020, the US government likely will suspend Myanmar’s GSP eligibility because of the military coup in the country. Likewise, in February 2021, the European Union suspended its support for development projects in Myanmar to avoid providing financial assistance to the military after the coup. Should Myanmar lose the EU’s Everything But Arms (EBA) program eligibility, its export-oriented garment sector and millions of garment workers could be among the biggest losers.

Further, given Myanmar’s highly concentrated apparel export markets and the pandemic, it will be challenging for Myanmar’s garment producers to find alternative apparel export markets in a relatively short period. For example, although China is recognized as one of the world’s largest and fastest-growing emerging import markets, only 1.4% of Myanmar’s apparel exports went to China in 2020.

by Sheng Lu

Further reading: Lu, Sheng (2021). A snapshot of the Myanmar apparel and exports industry in 2021. Just-Style.

WTO Reports World Textiles and Apparel Trade in 2020

According to the World Trade Statistical Review 2021 report released by the World Trade Organization (WTO), the textiles and apparel trade patterns in 2020 include both continuities and new trends affected by the pandemic and companies’ evolving production and sourcing strategies in response to the shifting business environment.

Pattern #1: COVID-19 significantly affected the world textile and apparel trade volumes, resulting in substantial growth of textile exports and a declined demand for apparel. 

Driven by increased personal protective equipment (PPE) production, global textile exports grew by 16.1% in 2020, reaching $353bn. In comparison, affected by lockdown measures, worsened economy, and consumers’ tighter budget for discretionary spending, global apparel export decreased by nearly 9% in 2020, totaling $448bn, the worst performance in decades. The apparel sector is not alone.  The world merchandise trade in 2020 also suffered an unprecedented 8% drop from a year ago, with COVID-19 to blame.

Notably, as economic activities returned in the second half of 2020, the world clothing export quickly rebounded to around 95% of the pre-covid level by the end of 2020. That being said, the unexpected resurgence of COVID cases in summer 2021, especially the delta variant, caused new market uncertainties. Overall, the world textile and apparel trade recovery process from COVID-19 will differ from our experiences during the 2008 global financial crisis.  

Pattern #2: COVID-19 did NOT shift the competitive landscape of the world textile exports; Meanwhile, textile exports from China and Vietnam gained new momentum during the pandemic.

China, the European Union (EU), and India remained the world’s three largest textile exporters in 2020. Together, these top three accounted for 65.8% of the world’s textile exports in 2020, similar to 66.9% before the pandemic (2018-2019).

Notably, China and Vietnam enjoyed a substantial increase in their textile exports in 2020, up 28.9% and 10.7% from a year ago, respectively. The complete textile and apparel supply chain and considerable production capability allow these two countries to switch clothing production to PPE manufacturing quickly. In particular, Vietnam exceeded South Korea and ranked the world’s sixth-largest textile exporter in 2020 ($10 bn of exports), the first time in history.

The United States dropped one place and ranked the world’s fifth-largest textile exporter in 2020 (was 4th from 2015 to 2019), accounting for 3.2% of the shares (was 4.4% in 2019). Production disruptions at the beginning of the pandemic and the shift toward PPE production for domestic consumption were the two primary contributing factors behind the decline in U.S. textile exports. Due to the regional trade patterns, around 67% of U.S. textile exports went to the Western Hemisphere in 2020, including 46% for members of the U.S.-Mexico-Canada Trade Agreement (USMCA) and another 17.2% for members of the Dominican Republic-Central America Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA-DR).

Pattern #3: Fashion companies’ efforts to diversify apparel sourcing from China somehow slowed during the pandemic. 

China, the European Union, Vietnam, and Bangladesh unshakably remained the world’s four largest apparel exporters in 2020. Altogether, these top four accounted for 72.2% of the world market shares in 2020, higher than 71.4% in 2019.

Notably, while China steadily accounted for declining shares in the world’s total apparel exports since 2015, its market shares rebounded to 31.6% in 2020 from 30.7% in 2019.  We can observe a similar pattern in Canada (up from 36.2% to 41.2%) and the EU (31.2% to 31.3%), two of the world’s leading apparel import markets. Even in the U.S. market, where Chinese goods face adverse impacts of the tariff war, the market shares of “Made in China” only marginally decreased from 30.8% in 2019 to 29.8% in 2020, compared with a more significant drop before the pandemic (i.e., fell from 34.4% 2018 to 30.8% in 2019).

Several factors could explain the resilience of China’s apparel exports: 1) fashion brands and retailers’ particular sourcing criteria match China’s competitiveness during the pandemic (e.g., flexibility, agility, and total landed sourcing cost). 2) China has one of the world’s most complete textile and apparel supply chains, allowing garment factories to access textile raw material and accessories locally. 3) Compared with many other apparel exporting countries, China suffered a shorter COVID lockdown period and resumed apparel production earlier and more quickly. Most Chinese textile and apparel factories started to reopen in April 2020, and they resumed an overall 90%-95% operational capacity rate by July 2020.

Nonetheless, fashion companies are NOT reversing their long-term strategies to reduce “China exposure” for apparel sourcing. On the contrary, non-economic factors, particularly the concerns about forced labor in China’s Xinjiang region, push most western fashion brands and retailers to develop apparel sourcing capacities beyond China. Meanwhile, no single country has yet and will likely become the “Next China” because of capacity limits. Instead, from 2015 to 2020, China’s lost market shares in the world apparel exports (around 7.8 percentage points) were picked up jointly by its competitors in Asia, including ASEAN members (up 4.4 percentage points), Bangladesh (up 1.3 percentage points), and Pakistan (up 0.3 percentage point). Such a trend is most likely to continue in the post-COVID world.

Pattern #4: Developed economies led textile PPE imports during the pandemic, whereas the developing countries imported fewer textiles as their apparel exports dropped.

On the one hand, the value of textile imports by developed economies, including EU members, the United States, Japan, and Canada, surged by more than 30 percent in 2020, driven mainly by their demand for PPE. The result also reveals the significant contribution of international trade in supporting the supply and distribution of textile PPE globally. On the other hand, the developing countries engaged in apparel production and export drove the import demand for textile raw materials like yarns and fabrics. However, most of these developing countries’ textile imports fell in 2020, corresponding to their decreased apparel exports during the pandemic.

Pattern #5: Despite COVID-19, the world apparel import market continues to diversify. The import demand increasingly comes from emerging economies with a booming middle class.  

Affected by consumers’ purchasing power (often measured by GDP per capita) and the size of the population, the European Union, the United States, and Japan remained the world’s three largest apparel importers in 2020, a stable pattern that has lasted for decades. While these top three still absorbed 56.2% of the world’s apparel imports in 2020, it was a new record low in the past ten years (was 58.1% in 2019 and 61.5% in 2018), and much lower than 84% back in 2005.

Behind the numbers, it is not the case that consumers in the EU, the United States, and Japan necessarily purchase less clothing over the years. Instead, several emerging economies have become fast-growing apparel-consuming markets with robust import demand. For example, despite COVID-19, China’s apparel imports totaled $9.5bn in 2020, up 6.5% from 2019. From 2010 to 2020, China’s apparel imports enjoyed a nearly 15% annual growth, compared with only 0.56% of the traditional top three. Around 30% of China’s apparel imports today are luxury items made in the EU.

By Sheng Lu

Further reading: Lu, S. (2021). World textiles and apparel trade amidst a pandemic – statistical review 2021. Just-Style.

Appendix

Understand Fashion Companies’ Merchandising and Marketing Strategies for Clothing Made from Recycled Materials

Abstract

With consumers’ increasing awareness of sustainability and building a circular economy, more and more fashion retailers carry clothing made from recycled materials. This study aims to explore U.S. fashion retailers’ detailed merchandising and pricing strategies for clothing made from recycled material to provide more business insights into this fast-growing market.

By leveraging StyleSage, a big data tool for the fashion industry, we checked millions of clothing items (at the Stock Keeping Unit, SKU level) made from recycled materials available in the U.S. retail market from June 2018 to June 2021. The results show that:

  • First, top U.S. sellers of clothing made with recycled materials include BOTH sustainability-based brands and fast-fashion brands.
  • Second, the most utilized recycled textile fibers include Polyester, Nylon, and Cotton.
  • Third, U.S. retailers adopt unique product assortment strategies for clothing made from recycled material. Recycled clothing, in general, carry more “Shorts” and “outerwear, coats, and jackets,” and fewer “Sleepwear” and “dresses.”
  • Fourth, U.S. retailers adopt unique color strategies for clothing made from recycled materials, using “black” more often but using “Neutral color” much less.
  • Fifth, U.S. retailers typically price clothing using recycled materials at least 50% lower than regular new clothing. The price difference for “Bridal”, “Suits”, “Causal jackets and blazers” and “Outerwear, coats, and jackets” was particularly notable.

The study’s findings confirm that clothing made from recycled materials is a critical market to watch with growing business opportunities. The findings also suggest that U.S. fashion retailers adopt unique merchandising and pricing strategies for recycled clothing, affected by the product supply and consumers’ preferences. Additionally, the study’s findings call for more exploration of leveraging recycled clothing to achieve sustainability and lower sourcing costs.

By Ally Botwinick (2021 UD Summer Scholar, Fashion merchandising and Management Major); Faculty advisor: Dr. Sheng Lu

Full article: Ally Botwinick & Sheng Lu (2021). Market promising for clothing made from recycled materials. Just-Style

This research was presented at the 2021 University of Delaware Undergraduate Research Symposium on August 12, 2021.

Why Sourcing from China? A Case Study on VF Corporation’s Textile and Apparel Sourcing and Supply Chain Strategy

The prospect of China as a textile and apparel sourcing base for US fashion companies is becoming ever more intriguing. While China remains the top textile and apparel supplier to the US market, US fashion companies have been actively seeking China’s alternatives due to concerns ranging from rising wages, trade wars to perceived supply chain risks.

Recently, VF Corporation, one of the most historical and largest US apparel corporations, released the entire supply chain of its 20 popular apparel items, such as Authentic Chino Stretch, Men’s Merino Long Sleeve Crewe, and Women’s Down Sierra Parka. VF Corporation used 326 factories worldwide to make these apparel items and related textile raw materials. We conducted a statistical analysis of these factories, focusing on exploring their geographic locations, production features, and related factors. The results help us gain new insights into VF Corporation’s supply chain strategy and offer a unique firm-level perspective to understand China’s outlook as a textile and apparel sourcing base for US fashion companies. Specifically:

First, China remains the single largest sourcing base across VF Corporation’s entire textile and apparel supply chain. Specifically, as many as 113 (or 35%) of the total 326 factories used by VF Corporation are China-based, far exceeding any other country or region. Besides China, VF Corporation sourced products from the US (42), Taiwan (31), South Korea (16), Mexico (13), Honduras (12), Vietnam (11), Indonesia (8), as well as a few EU countries, such as Germany, Czech Republic, and France.

Notably, thanks to its unparalleled production capacity, China also offered the most variety of textiles and apparel among all suppliers. Chinese factories supplied products ranging from chemicals, yarns, fibers, trims, threads, labels, packing materials to finished garments. In comparison, most other countries or regions serve a narrower role in VF Corporation’s supply chain. For example, 65% of US-based factories supplied yarns, threads, trims, and fabrics; 80% of Taiwan-based factories supplied trims, fabrics, and zippers; and VF Corporation used most factories from Vietnam, Mexico, Honduras, and Indonesia to cut and sew garments only.

Second, VF Corporation is more likely to source from China when a higher percentage of the production processes across the apparel supply chain happens in Asia. For example, VF did not use any Chinese textile and apparel factory for its Williamson Dickies’s Original 874® Work Pant. Instead, Williamson Dickies’s supply chain was primarily based in the Western Hemisphere, involving the US (yarns, trims, and fabric suppliers), Mexico (fabric suppliers and garment manufacturers), Honduras (garment manufacturers), and Nicaragua (garment manufacturers).

In comparison, VF used China-made textiles for Napapijri’s Parka Coat Celsius. Nearly 83% of this product’s production processes also happened in the Asia region, such as Taiwan (fabrics, zippers, plastic suppliers), Hong Kong (trim suppliers), and Vietnam (garment manufacturers). This pattern reflects China’s deep involvement and central role in the Asia-based regional textile and apparel production network. We may also expect such an Asia-based regional supply chain to become more economically integrated and efficient after implementing the Regional Comprehensive and Economic Partnership (RCEP) and other regional trade facilitation initiatives in the next few years.

Third, reflecting the evolving nature of China’s textile and apparel industry, the result shows that VF Corporation is more likely to use China as a supplier of textile intermediaries than the finished garment. Due to various reasons, from the US Section 301 tariffs to the wage increases, China already plays a less significant role as a garment supplier for VF Corporation, accounting for just around 10% of the company’s tier 1 suppliers. This result is highly consistent with the official trade statistics—measured by value, only 23.7% of US apparel imports came from China in 2020, a new record low over the past decade.

Fourth, interesting enough, the results indicate that when an apparel item involves more production stages or needs a greater variety of inputs, it will reduce VF Corporation’s likelihood of sourcing from China. For example, the supply chain of Icebreaker’s Men’s Merino 200 Oasis Long Sleeve Crewe included five different processes (e.g., wool fiber, wool yarn, and finished garments). VF Corporation used around 21 various factories and facilities across the supply chain, of which 57.1% were China-based. In comparison, North Face’s Women’s Denali 2 Jacket included around 21 different processes (e.g., polyester yarn, nylon yarn, tape, zipper, trim, polyester interlining, thread, eyelet, label, and finished products). The supply chain included around 24 various factories and facilities, of which only 16.7% were China-based. One possible contributing factor behind this phenomenon is the cost of moving intermediaries across China’s borders. Sourcing from China seems to be disadvantaged by the relatively high trade barriers and a lack of free trade agreements with key trading partners, especially when some components in the supply chain need to come from outside the Asia region, such as the Western Hemisphere and the EU.

Additionally, NO clear evidence suggests that pricing and environmental and social compliance significantly affect VF Corporation’s decision to source from China. For example, the apparel items using either China-made textile raw material or cut and sew in China had a wide price range in the retail market, from as little as $26 to as much as $740. The retail price of those apparel cut and sew in China ranged from $56 to $86, which was neither exceptionally high nor low (i.e., no particular pattern).

Meanwhile, according to VF Corporation, around 61.9% of its China-based factories across the apparel supply chain had received at least one type of “environmental & chemical management certification.” This record was on par with non-Chinese factories (64.8%). Likewise, around 29.0% of China-based tier 1 & tier 2 factories had received one type of “Health, Safety and Social Responsibility Certification(s),” similar to 22.5% of non-Chinese factories. Overall, how US fashion companies like VF Corporation factored in pricing, environmental, and social compliance in their sourcing decisions need to be explored further.

By Sheng Lu

The study will be presented at the 2021 ITAA-KSCT Joint Symposium in November 2021

2021 USFIA Fashion Industry Benchmarking Study Released

The full report is available HERE

Key findings of this year’s report:

#1 COVID-19 continues to substantially affect U.S. fashion companies’ sourcing and business operations in 2021

  • Recovery is happening: Most respondents expect their business to grow in 2021. Around 76 percent foresee their sourcing value or volume to increase from 2020. Around 60 percent of respondents expect a full recovery of their sourcing value or volume to the pre-COVID level by 2022.
  • Uncertainties remain: Still, 27 percent find it hard to tell when a full recovery will happen. About 20 percent of respondents still expect 2021 to be a very challenging year financially.
  • U.S. fashion companies’ worries about COVID still concentrate on the supply side, including driving up production and sourcing costs and causing shipping delays and supply chain disruptions. U.S. fashion companies’ COVID response strategies include strengthening relationships with key vendors, emphasizing sourcing agility and flexibility, and leveraging digital technologies. In comparison, few respondents canceled sourcing orders this year.

#2 The surging sourcing costs are a significant concern to U.S. fashion companies in 2021.

  • As many as 97 percent of respondents anticipate the sourcing cost to increase further this year, including 37 percent expect a “substantial increase” from 2020.
  • Respondents say almost EVERYTHING becomes more expensive in 2021. Notably, more than 70 percent of respondents expect the “shipping and logistics cost,” “cost of textile raw material (e.g., yarns and fabrics),” “cost of sourcing as a result of currency value and exchange rate changes,” and “labor cost” to go up.

#3 U.S. fashion companies’ sourcing strategies continue to envovle in response to the shifting business environment.

  • Asia’s position as the dominant apparel sourcing base for U.S. fashion companies remains unshakeable.
  • China plus Vietnam plus Many” remains the most popular sourcing model among respondents. However, the two countries combined now typically account for 20-40 percent of a U.S. fashion company’s total sourcing value or volume, down from 40-60 percent in the past few years.
  • Asia is U.S. fashion companies’ dominant sourcing base for textile intermediaries. “China plus at least 1-2 additional Asian countries” is the most popular textile raw material sourcing practice among respondents.
  • As U.S. fashion companies prioritize strengthening their relationship with key vendors during the pandemic, respondents report an overall less diversified sourcing base than in the past few years.

#4 U.S. fashion companies continue to reduce their China exposure. However, the debate on China’s future as a textile and apparel sourcing base heats up.

  • Most U.S. fashion companies still plan to source from China in short to medium terms. While 63 percent of respondents plan to decrease sourcing from China further over the next two years, it is a notable decrease from 70 percent in 2020 and 83 percent in 2019.
  • Most respondents still see China as a competitive and balanced sourcing base from a business perspective. Few other sourcing countries can match China’s flexibility and agility, production capacity, speed to market, and sourcing cost. As China’s role in the textile and apparel supply chain goes far beyond garment production and continues to expand, it becomes ever more challenging to find China’s alternatives.
  • Non-economic factors, particularly the allegations of forced labor in China’s Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region (XUAR), significantly hurt China’s long-term prospect as a preferred sourcing base by U.S. fashion companies. China also suffered the most significant drop in its labor and compliance rating this year.

#5 With an improved industry look and the continued interest in reducing “China exposure,” U.S. fashion companies actively explore new sourcing opportunities.

  • Vietnam remains a hot sourcing destination. However, respondents turn more conservative this year about Vietnam’s growth potential due to rising cost concerns and trade uncertainties caused by the Section 301 investigation.
  • U.S. fashion companies are interested in sourcing more from Bangladesh over the next two years. Respondents say apparel “Made in Bangladesh” enjoys a prominent price advantage over many other Asian suppliers. However, the competition among Bangladeshi suppliers could intensify as U.S. fashion companies plan to “work with fewer vendors in the country.”
  • Respondents are also interested in sourcing more from Sub-Saharan Africa by leveraging the African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA). Respondents also demonstrate a growing interest in investing more in AGOA members directly. “Replace AGOA with a permanent free trade agreement that requires reciprocal tariff cuts and continues to allow the “third-country fabric provision” is respondents’ most preferred policy option after AGOA expires in 2025.

#6 Sourcing from the Western Hemisphere is gaining new momentum

  • Overall, U.S. fashion companies’ growing interest in the Western Hemisphere is more about diversifying sourcing away from China and Asia than moving the production back to the region (i.e., reshoring or near-shoring).
  • Respondents say CAFTA-DR’s “short supply” and “cumulation” mechanisms provide critical flexibility that allow U.S. fashion companies to continue to source from its members. However, despite the “yarn-forward” rules of origin, only 15 percent of respondents sourcing apparel from CAFTA-DR members say they “purposefully use U.S.-made fabrics” to enjoy the agreement’s duty-free benefits.
  • Respondents suggest that encouraging more apparel sourcing from the Western Hemisphere requires three significant improvements: 1) make the products more price competitive; 2) strengthen the region’s fabric and textile raw material production capacity; 3) make rules of origin less restrictive in relevant U.S. trade agreements.

This year’s benchmarking study was based on a survey of executives at 31 leading U.S. fashion companies from April to June 2021. The study incorporates a balanced mix of respondents representing various types of businesses in the U.S. fashion industry. Approximately 54 percent of respondents are self-identified retailers, 46 percent self-identified brands, 69 percent self-identified importers/wholesalers. Around 65 percent of respondents report having more than 1,000 employees. Another 27 percent of respondents represent medium-sized companies with 101-999 employees.

Primark’s Global Sourcing for Apparel

About Primark

Primark is one of the largest fashion retailers in Europe, offering something for everyone with a wide selection of products available across womenswear, menswear, kidswear, home, health & beauty, and gifting. It has 384 stores and employs over 70,000 people in the Republic of Ireland, the UK, Spain, Portugal, Germany, the Netherlands, Belgium, Austria, France, Italy, Slovenia, Poland, and the US.

As of May 2021, Primark sources from 28 countries working with around 928 contracted factories. Of these factories, 86 percent are Asia-based. Another 10 percent and 4 percent are located in Eastern EU and Western EU countries, respectively. Primark does not own any of these factories, however.

Measured by the number of workers, Primark’s Asian factories are larger than their counterparts in other parts of the world. For example, while Primark’s factories in Pakistan and Bangladesh typically have more than 2,500+ workers, its factories in Western EU countries like the UK, Germany, Italy, and France, on average, only have 64-200 workers. This pattern suggests that Primark mainly uses Asian factories to fulfill volume sourcing orders and its EU factories mostly produce replenishment or more time-sensitive fashionable items. 

Further, reflecting the unique role of the garment industry in creating economic opportunities for women, females account for more than half of the workforce in most garment factories that make products for Primark. The percentage is exceptionally high in developing countries like Myanmar (89%), Sri Lanka (78%), Vietnam (77%), and Cambodia (75%).

Regarding Primark’s China sourcing strategy, on the one hand, Primark sources from as many as 475 suppliers located in China, far more than any other Asian country. However, most of Primark’s China factories are small and medium-sized, and fewer than 1% report having 1,000+ workers. In comparison, more than 75% of Primark’s factories in Bangladesh, Pakistan, and Myanmar have 1,000+ workers. This pattern suggests that China plays a more sophisticated role in Primark’s textile and apparel supply chain and is often used to balancing flexibility and agility.

Primark’s Ethical Trade and Environmental Sustainability team comprises over 120 specialists based in key sourcing countries. The team visits and reviews every supplier factory at least once a year to ensure the factories’ standards align with Primark’s products Code of Conduct.

Every factory that manufactures products for Primark has to meet internationally recognized standards before the first order is placed and throughout the time they work with Primark.

Further reading:

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

First, thanks to consumers’ resumed demand and a more optimistic outlook for the U.S. economy, U.S. apparel imports continue to rebound. However, uncertainties remain. On the one hand, mirroring retail sales patterns, the value of U.S. apparel imports in April 2021 went up by 66% from a year ago, a new record high since the pandemic. The absolute value of U.S. apparel imports so far in 2021 (January –April) also recovered to around 88% of the pre-Covid level (i.e., January to April 2019). However, the value of U.S. apparel imports in April 2021 was 11.2% lower than in March 2021 (seasonally adjusted), suggesting that the market environment is far from stable yet as the COVID situation in the U.S. and other parts of the world continue to evolve.

Second, data indicates that Asia as a whole remains the single largest sourcing base for U.S. fashion companies, stably accounting for around 72-75% of the import value. Studies show that two factors, in particular, contribute to Asia’s competitiveness as a preferred apparel sourcing base—price and flexibility & agility.  Asia’s highly integrated regional supply chains and its vast production capacity shape its competitiveness in these two aspects.

However, the recent surge of COVID cases in India and its neighboring Southeast Asian countries has raised new worries about the potential sourcing risks and supply chain disruptions for U.S. fashion companies currently sourcing from there.  

Third, as the direction of the US-China relations becomes ever more concerning, U.S. fashion companies seem to accelerate diversifying sourcing from China. Even China remains the top apparel supplier for the U.S. market, from January to April 2021, China’s market shares fell to 32.1% in quantity (was 36.6% in 2020) and 20.2% in value (was 23.7% in 2020).  Also, the HHI index and market concentration ratios (CR3 and CR5) suggest that US fashion companies are increasingly moving their apparel sourcing orders from China to other Asian countries. For example, according to a leading U.S. fashion corporation in its latest annual report, “in response to the recent tariffs imposed by the current US administration, the Company has reduced the amount of goods being produced in China.”

Further, the latest data suggests that the concerns about the alleged forced labor in Xinjiang hurt China’s prospect as an apparel sourcing destination, BOTH for cotton and non-cotton items. Measured by value, only 11.9% of U.S. cotton apparel came from China in April 2021, a new record low since implementing the CBP WROs, which impose a regional ban on any cotton and cotton apparel made in the Xinjiang region. The latest data also suggests that China is quickly losing market shares for non-cotton textile and apparel items.

Fourth, U.S. apparel sourcing from CAFTA-DR members gains new momentum, reflecting the strong interest in sourcing more from the region from the business community and policymakers. For example, 17.5% of U.S. apparel imports came from the Western Hemisphere in 2021 (Jan-Apr), higher than 16.1% in 2020 and 17.1% before the pandemic. Notably, CAFTA-DR members’ market shares increased to 10.8% in 2021 (Jan-Apr) from 9.6% in 2020. The value of U.S. apparel imports from CAFTA-DR also enjoyed a 25.8% growth in 2021 (Jan-Apr) from a year ago, one of the highest among all sourcing destinations. The imports from El Salvador (up 29.2%), Honduras (up 28.0%), and Guatemala (27.0%) had grown particularly fast in 2021.

Meanwhile, U.S. apparel imports from USMCA members stayed stable overall. CAFTA-DR and USMCA members currently account for around 60% and 25% of U.S. apparel imports from the Western Hemisphere. They are also the single largest export market for U.S. textile products (around 70%). The Biden administration has signaled its strong interest in strengthening the western hemisphere textile and apparel supply chain by leveraging CAFTA-DR along with other trade policy tools.

by Sheng Lu

How COVID-19 has shifted US apparel companies’ sourcing strategies?

The article is available HERE (need Just-Style subscription)

Key findings

First, more US apparel companies prioritize consolidating their existing sourcing base than diversification during the pandemic. Nearly half of the top 30 US apparel companies we examined explicitly say they either sourced from fewer countries or worked with fewer vendors in 2020 than 2017-2019 before the pandemic. In comparison, only about one-third of respondents say they were sourcing from more countries in 2020 than two years.

Second, the desire to form a closer relationship with key vendors and ensure social and environmental compliance are the two primary factors behind US apparel companies’ consolidation strategy. In a time of uncertainty like the pandemic, apparel companies are leaning more heavily on suppliers that have proven reliable, capable, and flexible. Working closely with the suppliers and building an efficient and trust-based supply chain also play a central role in US fashion companies’ COVID-mitigation strategies. Meanwhile, with social and environmental compliance becoming increasingly crucial in apparel sourcing today, companies are cutting ties with vendors that are not adhering to government mandates and proprietary codes of conduct. Notably, US apparel companies’ higher expectations for sustainability as well as social and environmental compliance may have resulted in a smaller pool of qualified suppliers.

Third, the desire to steer away from China and reduce sourcing risks are the two main drivers behind US fashion companies’ recent sourcing diversification strategy. US apparel companies mostly moved their sourcing orders from China to China’s competitors in Asia instead of expanding “near-sourcing. On the other hand, it is not uncommon to see US apparel companies keep a relatively diverse sourcing base to control various sourcing risks in the current business setting.

Fourth, the content analysis further reveals that US fashion brands and retailers commit to sourcing and supply chain innovation in response to COVID-19 and the new business environment. Some specific sourcing strategies are noteworthy:

  • Work with “super vendors,” i.e., vertically integrated suppliers that can execute multiple steps in the supply chain or those with production facilities in numerous countries.
  • Optimize supply chain process to improve speed to market.
  • Adjust fabric and textile raw material sourcing base, although the specific strategies vary from company to company.

By Emma Davis and Dr. Sheng Lu

The State of Apparel Supply Chain Transparency: A Case Study on VF Corporation

With the public’s increasing demand, fashion companies are making more significant efforts to improve their apparel supply chains’ transparency, i.e., mapping where the product is made and knowing suppliers’ compliance with social and environmental regulations.

Recently, VF Corporation, one of the most historical and largest US apparel corporations, released the entire supply chain of its 20 popular apparel items, such as Authentic Chino Stretch, Men’s Merino Long Sleeve Crewe, and Women’s Down Sierra Parka. VF Corporation used more than 300 factories worldwide to make these apparel items and related textile raw materials.

We conducted a statistical analysis (Multivariate analysis of variance, MANOVA) of these factories, aiming to evaluate the state of VF Corporation’s apparel supply chain transparency, including its strengths and areas that can be improved further. The findings of this study will fulfill a critical research gap and significantly enhance our understanding of the nature of today’s apparel supply chain and the opportunities and challenges to improve its transparency.

The results show that VF Corporation’s suppliers in different segments of the apparel supply chain had different transparency performances overall:

  • While more than 92% of tier 1 & 2 suppliers shared their environmental or social compliance information with VF Corporation, less than 60% of VF Corporation’s tier 3 & 4 suppliers did so (note: statistically significant).
  • A higher percentage of VF Corporation’s tier 2 & 3 suppliers (i.e., mills making fabrics, yarns, or accessories) received environmental compliance-related certification than tier 1 suppliers (i.e., garment factories) (note: statistically significant).
  • Meanwhile, VF Corporation’s tier 1 suppliers were more active in pursuing social compliance-related certification than suppliers in other levels (note: statistically significant)
  • However, no evidence suggests that whether from a developed or developing country will statistically affect a vendor’s transparency performance.

The study’s findings have several important implications:

  • First, more work can be done to strengthen fashion companies’ transparency of tier 3 & 4 suppliers (i.e., textile mills making yarns and fibers). Despite the significant efforts to know their garment factories (i.e., tier 1 suppliers), fashion companies like VF Corporation still have limited knowledge about vendors upper in the supply chain. Notably, even VF Corporation doesn’t have much leverage to request environmental and social compliance-related information from these vendors. According to VF Corporation, often “Supplier was unresponsive to VF’s request for information.”
  • Second, the results suggest that vendors at different supply chain levels have their respective transparency priorities. However, it is debatable whether tier 1 & 2 suppliers also need to care about environmental and sustainability-related compliance, and if tier 3 & 4 suppliers should be more transparent about their social compliance record. The growing concerns about forced labor involved in cotton production (i.e., tier 4 suppliers) make the debate even more relevant.
  • Additionally, different from the public perception and previous studies, the findings call for equal treatment of suppliers from developed and developing countries when vetting their environmental and social compliance-related transparency.

Because this case study looked at VF Corporation only, future research can continue to investigate other fashion companies’ supply chain transparency based on data availability. It will also be meaningful to hear directly from tier 3 & 4 suppliers to understand their perception about improving the apparel supply chain’s transparency and related opportunities and challenges.

by Sheng Lu and Lora Merryman

Note: The study will be presented at the 2021 International Textile and Apparel Association (ITAA) Annual Conference in November.

What Affects the Patterns of Used Clothing Exports?

Used clothing trade patterns (data source: UNComtrade (2021)

This study intends to explore the key factors that affect the volume of a country’s used clothing exports. Notably, the world’s used clothing exports (defined as the Harmonized System code 6309) substantially increased from only $2.5 billion in 2009 to over $4.2 billion in 2019, or up 63.4% (UNComtrade, 2021). While numerous studies have explored the patterns of used clothing imports and their social-economic impacts on the importing countries, what drives a country’s used clothing exports remains largely unknown.

In the study, we conducted a regression analysis of 37 countries’ used clothing exports in 2019 (or over 90% of the value of the world’s used clothing exports that year) (UNComtrade, 2021). The explanatory factors we considered include new clothing sales (2018-2019), new clothing retail price (2018-2019), population (2019), and country classification (developed or developing in 2019). The results show that:

  • First, there is a strong positive relationship between a country’s new clothing sales and its used clothing exports. On average, a 1% increase in new clothing sales would result in a 0.85% increase in used clothing exports when holding other factors constant.
  • Second, as new clothing gets cheaper in the retail market, a country would export more used clothing and vice versa. Specifically, when the retail price for new clothing decreases by 1%, the value of used clothing export could increase by 1.2% on average when holding other factors constant.
  • Third, when holding other factors constant, used clothing exports from developed countries were 56% higher than in developing economies. Lower-income levels and various other social-economic factors (such as the awareness of sustainability and used clothing collection mechanism) could be the factors behind the phenomenon.
  • Fourth, the size of the population has NO significant impact on a country’s used clothing exports. This explains why a developed economy with a relatively small population (such as the Netherlands and Canada) exported far more used clothing than a populous developing one (such as India and Indonesia) in 2019 (Uncomtrade, 2021).

The study’s findings create new knowledge about the primary factors affecting the patterns of used clothing exports and have several important implications. First, the results suggest that we can do more on the supply side to curb the surge of used clothing exports, given the rising concerns about its controversial impacts on the developing world and the environment. Particularly, encouraging consumers to purchase fewer new clothing and shop more “slowly” can be among the most effective ways to reduce the supply of used clothing. Second, echoing the finding of existing studies, the results confirm the significant price impact on the generation of used clothing exports. Notably, the result reminds us about the enormous social-economic and environmental “cost” of selling new clothing too cheaply. Additionally, the findings suggest that developed countries have a crucial role in addressing the used clothing export problem, even those with a relatively small population.

By Aline Gomes Siqueira and Dr. Sheng Lu

Note: The study will be presented at the 2021 International Textile and Apparel Association (ITAA) Annual Conference in November.

Is the Western Hemisphere Textile and Apparel Supply Chain in Trouble?

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

WH countries still form a close supply chain partnership in textile and apparel production. For example, close to 70% of US textile exports went to WH members in 2020, a pattern that has stayed stable over the past decades (OTEXA, 2021). Meanwhile, the United States serves as the single largest export market for most apparel exporting countries in the WH For example, in 2019, close to 89% of apparel exports from CAFTA-DR and USMCA (NAFTA) members went to the US.

However, the WH textile and apparel supply chain is not without significant challenges. For example, CAFTA-DR and Mexico are increasingly using textiles inputs from outside the WH region, which weakens the US role as a dominant textile supplier. Notably, most of the market shares lost by US textile suppliers are fulfilled by Asian countries, including China and other members of the RCEP (Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership). Theoretically, using cheaper textile inputs from Asia may help apparel producing countries in the WH improve the price competitiveness of their finished garments and diversify their export markets beyond the US.

Meanwhile, despite the apparent popularity of “near-sourcing”, no evidence suggests that US fashion brands and retailers are sourcing more from WH countries, including CAFTA-DR and USMCA (NAFTA) members. Neither the US-China trade war nor COVID-19 seems to have shifted the trends. Instead, close to 75%-80% of US apparel imports still come from Asian countries (OTEXA, 2021). Studies further show that a vast majority of US apparel imports from WH concentrate on a limited category of products, such as tops and bottoms, which is far from sufficient to meet retailers’ sourcing needs.

On the other hand, technical textiles and industrial textiles account for a growing share in the total US textile exports, and Asia is a particularly fast-growing market. However, there is few US free trade agreement with Asian countries, making it a disadvantage to promote “Made in the USA” products in these markets. It is debatable what should be the priority for the US textile and apparel trade policy: to continue to protect the exports of yarn and fabrics to the WH or open new export markets for technical and industrial textiles outside the WH region?

by Sheng Lu

Relate readings:

EU Textile and Apparel Industry and Trade Patterns (Updated April 2021)

1

The EU region as a whole remains one of the world’s leading producers of textile and apparel (T&A). The value of EU’s T&A production totaled EUR137.3 bn in 2019, down around 2% from a year ago (Note: Statistical Classification of Economic Activities or NACE, sectors C13, and C14). The value of EU’s T&A output was divided almost equally between textile manufacturing (EUR68.7bn) and apparel manufacturing (EUR68.6bn).

Regarding textile production, Southern and Western EU, where most developed EU members are located such as Germany, France, and Italy, accounted for nearly 75% of EU’s textile manufacturing in 2019. Further, of EU countries’ total textile output, the share of non-woven and other technical textile products (NACE sectors C1395 and C1396) has increased from 19.2% in 2011 to 23.0% in 2017, which reflects the on-going structural change of the sector.

Apparel manufacturing in the EU includes two primary categories: one is the medium-priced products for consumption in the mass market, which are produced primarily by developing countries in Eastern and Southern Europe, such as Poland, Hungary, and Romania, where cheap labor is relatively abundant. The other category is the high-end luxury apparel produced by developed Western EU countries, such as Italy, UK, France, and Germany.

9

It is also interesting to note that in Western EU countries, labor only accounted for 21.7% of the total apparel production cost in 2017, which was substantially lower than 30.1% back in 2006. This change suggests that apparel manufacturing is becoming capital and technology-intensive in some developed Western EU countries—as companies are actively adopting automation technology in garment production.

Because of their relatively high GDP per capita and size of the population, Germany, Italy, UK, France, and Spain accounted for nearly 60% of total apparel retail sales in the EU in 2020. Such a market structure has stayed stable over the past decade.

Data source: UNcomtrade (2021)

Intra-region trade is an important feature of the EU’s textile and apparel industry. Despite the increasing pressure from cost-competitive Asian suppliers, statistics from UNComtrade show that of the EU region’s total US$73.8bn textile imports in 2019, as much as 54.6% were in the category of intra-region trade. Similarly, of EU countries’ total US$204.0bn apparel imports in 2019, as much as 37.4% also came from other EU members. In comparison, close to 98% of apparel consumed in the United States are imported in 2019, of which more than 75% came from Asia (Eurostat, 2021; UNComtrade, 2021).

Regarding EU countries’ textile and apparel trade with non-EU members (i.e., extra-region trade), the United States remained one of the EU’s top export markets and a vital textile supplier (mainly for technical and industrial textiles). Meanwhile, Asian countries served as the dominant apparel sourcing base outside the EU region for EU fashion brands and retailers.  

The EU textile and apparel industry is not immune to COVID-19. According to the European Apparel and Textile Federation (Euratex), the EU textile and apparel production feel 9.3% and 17.7% respectively in 2020 from a year ago.

2021 hopefully will be a year of recovery and growth for the EU textile and apparel industry. According to Euratex, the EU Business Confidence indicator of March 2021 gained momentum, with a confirmed upward trend in the textile industry (+3.8 points), and a modest recovery in the clothing industry (+1.6 points). However, Euratex also noted that EU textile and apparel companies still face daunting challenges and uncertainties in 2021, ranging from the rising raw material price, increasing transportation cost, to political instability in some key sourcing destinations (such as China and Myanmar).

by Sheng Lu

How Has COVID-19 Affected Apparel Exports from China, Vietnam, and Bangladesh?

Key findings:

compiled by Victoria Langro and Sheng Lu (2021)

During the pandemic, three factors are most relevant to a country’s apparel export performance: government lockdown measures, textile raw material access, and comprehensive export competitiveness. Against these three factors, apparel producers and exporters in China, Vietnam, and Bangladesh face common but differentiated business challenges and opportunities during the pandemic (see the table above).

China, Vietnam, and Bangladesh all suffered an unprecedented (nearly 30% year over year) drop in their apparel exports to the world in 2020 (Q1-Q3) due to COVID-19. This result mirrored the reduced import demand in the world’s major apparel consumer markets, where the local economies were also hit hard by the pandemic, including the US (down 2.3%), the EU (down 4.3%), and Japan (down 4.8%).

However, the three countries’ export performance is most different in the US market—China’s apparel exports dropped by 31.6%, much steeper than Vietnam (down 6.9%) and Bangladesh (down 12.6%). It seems that even though COVID-19 may favor China as an apparel sourcing base from an economic perspective, US fashion companies have given more weight to non-economic factors, such as the outlook of the trade war, in their sourcing decisions involving China.

COVID-19 had disrupted apparel exporters’ regular production and export schedule in 2020. The lockdown measures in these three countries seem to affect their export seasonal pattern most significantly. For example, as the first country hit by COVID-19, China’s apparel exports were at the bottom from February to April 2020; however, China’s apparel exports recovered quickly since May 2020 when factories resumed production. In comparison, apparel exports from Vietnam and Bangladesh were at their lowest level from April to May and May to June 2020, respectively, when their factories had to close.

Additionally, Bangladesh’s apparel export seasonality had experienced a more dramatic change in 2020 than in China and Vietnam. A possible reason behind the phenomenon is the export product structure. Notably, China and Vietnam export a more diverse range of products, whereas apparel exports from Bangladesh concentrate on basic fashion items.

Industry sources also indicate that between February 2020 and February 2021, US apparel imports from China and Vietnam see a significant structural change—they include more COVID-popular items such as sweaters, smock dresses, and sweatpants, and fewer dresses, shirts, and suits. However, over the same period, the product structure of US apparel imports from Bangladesh barely changed, and they also included few COVID-popular categories mentioned above. In other words, despite order cancellations, garment factories in China and Vietnam seem more likely to receive new sourcing orders than their counterparts in Bangladesh because of advantages in production flexibility and agility.

Further, China, Vietnam, and Bangladesh all turned less diversified in their apparel export market during the pandemic. Notably, the US, EU, and Japan have become more critical export markets ever. Compared with fashion companies’ efforts in sourcing diversification, it could be more challenging for garment-producing countries to diversify their export market during the pandemic.

Further reading: Victoria Langro and Sheng Lu (2021). Sourcing’s new order – Covid’s impact on world’s top three apparel exporters. Just-Style.

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

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