Interview with Modaes.es on the Latest Trends of Apparel Sourcing and Trade

The original interview (in Spanish) is available HERE. Below is the translated version.

Question: Is there a reversal in the globalization of fashion?

Sheng Lu: The fashion industry is becoming more global AND regional — the making and selling of a garment “travel” through more and more countries. Just look at the label of a Gap sweatshirt: it is an American clothing brand, but the product is “Made in Vietnam,” and the label includes the size standards in six different countries. The business model of the fashion industry today is “making anywhere in the world and selling anywhere in the world.”

Q .: What do you mean the industry is becoming more “regional”?

Sheng Lu: The trade flows of textiles and apparel today are heavily influenced by regional free trade agreements (FTAs). For example, while China is known as the world’s largest apparel producer and exporter, nearly 50% of the clothing consumed by European consumers are still produced by EU countries themselves. Notably, consumers have different expectations for clothing: many are price-sensitive, but others prefer more trendy items, which requires “near sourcing”—this explains why fashion companies have to adopt a more balanced sourcing portfolio.

Q .: Is the price still the most important factor in fashion companies’ sourcing decisions?

Sheng Lu: Sourcing is far more than just about chasing for the lowest cost. Sourcing decisions today have to consider a mix of factors, ranging from flexibility, speed to market, sustainability, to compliance risks. In fact, few companies “put all eggs in one basket.” My recent studies show that both in the United States and the EU, fashion companies with more than 1,000 employees, typically sourced from more than twenty different countries—sometimes even exceed forty. Behind such a diversified sourcing practice is the necessity to strike a balance between so many different sourcing factors.

Q .: Is apparel sourcing becoming more diversified today than a decade ago?

Sheng Lu: From my observations, fashion companies are souring from more countries and regions than a decade ago, but not in terms of producers. Especially in the last two or three years, I see some large companies are consolidating their supplier base to build a closer relationship with key vendors. The reason is the same as mentioned earlier: a very competitive price is not enough for apparel sourcing today.

Q .: How has the tariff war between the United States and China affected apparel sourcing?

Sheng Lu: The trade war between the United States and China is having big impacts on apparel sourcing that go beyond the two countries. Notably, American fashion brands and retailers are moving sourcing orders from China to other Asian countries such as Vietnam and Bangladesh. However, finding China’s alternatives is anything but easy. Despite the tariff war, China remains a competitive player in apparel sourcing. The unparalleled production capacity that can fulfill orders nearly for any products in any quantity, and the ability to comply with complex sustainability and social responsibility regulations are among China’s unique competitive advantages. Understandably, companies are not giving up sourcing from China, as there are few other “balanced” sourcing destinations in the world. That being said, it is important to recognize that the big landscape of apparel sourcing is evolving. Even in Europe, which is not having a trade war with China, apparel “Made in China” is seeing a notable decline in its market share.

Q .: How is China adapting?

Sheng Lu: The textile and apparel industry in China is undergoing a structural change. Partially caused by the tariff war, apparel producers in China are increasingly moving their factories to nearby Asian countries (especially for big-volume and/or relatively low value-added product categories). Meanwhile, China itself is changing from an apparel producer to become a leading textile supplier for other apparel-exporting countries in Asia. This is NOT a temporary move, but a permanent transition, which has happened in many industrialized economies in history. Somehow, the tariff war has accelerated the adjustment process, however.

Q .: Will Africa be the next hub for apparel sourcing in the near future?

Sheng Lu: As textile and clothing trade is turning more regional-based, Africa is facing significant challenges to become an attractive tier-1 sourcing base for Western fashion brands and apparel retailers.

Q .: Why is that?

Sheng Lu: In general, there are three primary apparel import markets in the world: the United States, the European Union, and Japan—as of 2018, these three regions altogether still accounted for as many as 70% of the world apparel imports. Surely, Asian countries are important apparel suppliers for all these three regions. However, each of these three markets also has its respective regional suppliers—Mexico and Central & South American countries for the United States, China, and a few Southeast Asian countries for Japan and Eastern European countries for the EU market. Other than geographic proximity, often, these regional suppliers also enjoy preferential market access to the US, EU, and Japan provided by regional free trade agreements.

Africa, on the other hand, is not close to any of these three major apparel import markets geographically. Why would fashion companies in the United States, Japan, or the EU have to source from Africa when there are so many other options available?

Q .: For price?

Sheng Lu: Several trade preference programs currently offer apparel exporters in African countries preferential or duty-free market access to the United States, the EU, and Japan (such as the African Growth Opportunity Act and the EU and Japan Generalized System of Preferences programs). However, sourcing from Africa will entail other extra costs—for example, the raw material cost will be higher as yarns and fabrics have to be imported from Asia first, and the transportation bill could be costly due to the poor infrastructure. Further, not like their counterpart in Asia, the apparel industry is not regarded as a development priority in many African countries, which continue to rely heavily on the export of raw materials instead. Manufacturing for the local market is also complicated—apparel producers in Africa are struggling with both the cheap clothing imported from Asia and the mounting used clothing sent from the West.

Q .: It is said that fashion might be the most regulated sector in international trade other than agriculture. How to explain this?

Sheng Lu:  I think we need some changes here. For example, in 2018, textiles and apparel accounted for only 5% of the total U.S. merchandise imports but contributed nearly 40% of the tariff revenue collected. This phenomenon, which makes no sense economically, is the result of the industry lobby—trying to protect domestic manufacturers from import competition.

As another example, around 15%-17% of Mexico’s clothing exports to the United States do not claim the duty-free benefits provided by the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), as the NAFTA rules of origin strictly require the using of regional yarns and fabrics for qualified apparel items. In the end, companies prefer bigger savings on the raw material cost than claiming the NAFTA duty-saving benefits. We should think about how to modernize these trade rules and make them more supply-chain friendly in the 21st century.

Meanwhile, policymakers are developing new regulations to address some emerging areas in international trade, such as E-commerce, labor standards and environmental protection. Increasingly, trade policy is moving from “measures at the border” to “measures behind the borders.”

Top Ten Most-read Blog Posts on Shenglufashion in 2019

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#1 WTO reports world textile and apparel trade in 2018

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

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

#4 Timeline of trade policy in the Trump administration

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

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

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

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

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

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

Happy Holidays!

New Analysis: UK’s Apparel Sourcing Patterns under the Shadow of Brexit

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The full article is available HERE

Key findings:

First, mirroring the trend of aggregate market demand, the value of UK’s apparel imports has only grown marginally over the past decade. Specifically, between 2010 and 2018, the compound annual growth rate of UK’s apparel imports was close to zero, which was notably lower than 1.4% of the world average, the United States (1.9%), Japan (1.5%) and even the European Union as a whole (1.1%).

Second, UK’s fashion brands and retailers are gradually reducing imports from China and diversifying their sourcing base. Similar to other leading apparel import markets in the world, China was the largest apparel-sourcing destination for UK fashion companies, followed by Bangladesh, which enjoys duty-free access to the UK under EU’s Everything But Arms (EBA) program. Because of geographic proximity and the duty-free benefits under the Customs Union with the EU, Turkey was the third-largest apparel supplier to the UK.

Affected by a mix of factors ranging from the increasing cost pressures, intensified competition to serve the needs of speed-to-market better, the market shares of “Made in China” in the UK apparel import market had dropped significantly from its peak of 37.2% in 2010 to a record low of 21.4% in 2018. However, no single country has emerged to become the “next China” in the UK market. Notably, while China’s market shares decreased by 6.3 percentage points between 2015 and 2018, the next top 4 suppliers altogether were only able to gain 0.7 percentage points of additional market shares over the same period.

Third, despite Brexit, the trade and business ties between the UK and the rest of the EU for textile and apparel products are strengthening. Thanks to the regional supply chain, EU countries as a whole remain a critical source of apparel imports for UK fashion brands and apparel retailers. More than 33% of the UK’s apparel imports came from the EU region in 2018, a record high since 2010. On the other hand, the EU region also is the single largest export market for UK fashion companies.

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Fourth, the potential impacts of no-deal Brexit on UK fashion companies’ sourcing cost seem to be modest:

  • For products currently sourced from countries without a free trade agreement with the EU (such as China) and those Generalized System of Preferences (GSP) beneficiaries that enjoy non-zero preferential duty rates, the tariff rate in the no-deal Brexit scenario will be lower than the current level, as round 44% of tariff lines will be duty-free.
  • For products currently sourced from countries that enjoy duty-free benefits under the GSP program (such as EBA beneficiary countries), their duty-free market access to the UK will remain unchanged according to the temporary tariff regime.
  • Products currently sourced from EU countries and Turkey will lose the duty-free benefits and be subject to the MFN tariff rate. However, because around 44% of tariff lines will be duty-free, the magnitude of tariff increase should be modest.
  • Likewise, products currently sourced from countries that enjoy duty-free benefits under an EU free trade agreement could lose the duty-free treatment and be subject to the MFN tariff rate. However, as around 44% of tariff lines will be duty-free and the UK has signed several continuity trade agreements with some of these countries, the magnitude of tariff increase should be modest overall too. Additionally, these countries are minor sourcing bases for UK fashion companies.

 About the authors: Victoria Langro is an Honors student at the University of Delaware; and Dr. Sheng Lu is an Associate Professor in Fashion and Apparel Studies at the University of Delaware.

USTR Factsheet: Textiles and Apparel and the US-Mexico-Canada Free Trade Agreement (USMCA)

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The factsheet is available in PDF

Background

On December 10, 2019, the United States, Mexico and Canada reached an updated U.S.-Mexico-Canada Free Trade Agreement (USMCA). Compared with the version signed in September 2018, the new USMCA includes even higher labor and environmental standards and stronger enforcement mechanisms for these rules. According to the released protocol of amendment, no change has been made to the Textiles Chapter, however.

Before taking into effect, the renegotiated USMCA needs to be ratified by U.S. Congress, which hopefully could happen either in 2019 or 2020. Meanwhile, Canada and Mexico have to go through their ratification process again for the new USMCA too.

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Textiles and Apparel and USMCA

First, in general, USMCA still adopts the so-called “yarn-forward” rules of origin. This means that fibers may be produced anywhere, but each component starting with the yarn used to make the garments must be formed within the free trade area – that is, by USMCA members.

Second, other than the source of yarns and fabrics, USMCA now requires that some specific parts of an apparel item (such as pocket bag fabric) need to use inputs made in the USMCA region so that the finished apparel item can qualify for the import duty-free treatment.

Third, USMCA allows a relatively more generous De minimis than NAFTA 1.0.

Fourth, USMCA seems to be a “balanced deal” that has accommodated the arguments from all sides regarding the tariff preference level (TPL) mechanism:

  • Compared with NAFTA, USMCA will cut the TPL level, but only to those product categories with a low TPL utilization rate;
  • Compared with NAFTA, USMCA will expand the TPL level for a few product categories with a high TPL utilization rate.

Fifth, USMCA will make no change to the Commercial availability/short supply list mechanism in NAFTA 1.0.

Sixth, it 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 TPL level for U.S. cotton/man-made fiber apparel exports to Canada (currently with a 100 percent utilization rate), these apparel products are NOT required to use U.S.-made yarns and fabrics. The utilization rate of USMCA will also be important to watch in the future.

(Additional reading: Apparel-specific rules of origin in USMCA)

Economic Impacts of USMCA on the Textile and Apparel Sector

According to an independent assessment by the U.S. International Trade Commission (USITC) released on April 19, 2019:

First, USMCA overall is a balanced deal for the textile and apparel sector, particularly regarding the rules of origin (RoO) debate. As USITC noted, USMCA eases the requirements for duty-free treatment for certain textile and apparel products, but tighten the requirements for other products.

Second, the USMCA changes to the Tariff Preference Level (TPLs) would not have much effect on related trade flows. As USITC noted in its report, where USMCA would cut the TPL level on particular U.S. imports from Canada or Mexico, the quantitative limit for these product categories was not fully utilized in the past.  Meanwhile, the TPL level for product categories typically fully used would remain unchanged under USMCA. The only trade flow that might enjoy a notable increase is the U.S. cotton and man-made fiber (MMF) apparel exports to Canada—the TPL is increased to 20million SME annually under USMCA from 9 million under NAFTA.

Third, USITC suggested that in aggregate, the changes under USMCA for the textile and apparel sector will more or less balance each other out and USMCA would NOT affect the overall utilization of USMCA’s duty-free provisions significantly. Notably, the under-utilization of free trade agreements (FTAs) by U.S. companies in apparel sourcing has been a long-time issue. Data from the Office of Textiles and Apparel (OTEXA) shows that of the total $4,292.8 million U.S. apparel imports from the NAFTA region in 2018, only $3,756.1 million (or 87.5%) claimed the preferential duty benefits under the agreement. As noted in the U.S. Fashion Industry Benchmarking Study, some U.S. fashion companies do not claim the duty savings largely because of the restrictive RoO and the onerous documentation requirements.

How Has the Tariff War Affected the Competitiveness of China’s Textile and Apparel Exports to the U.S.? (December 2019)

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

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

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

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

Four findings are of note:

First, the U.S.-China trade tension has affected China’s T&A exports to the U.S. negatively. Even though Section 301 tariffs on the majority of apparel products didn’t start until September 2019, China’s T&A exports to the U.S. had suffered a significant drop. This result, however, was at odds with the overall trend of China’s T&A exports to the U.S. in recent years. Notably, except apparel, China’s yarns, fabrics and made-up textile exports to the U.S. all enjoyed a steady and positive growth between 2016 and 2018. The impact of the tariff war is real.

Second, the increased U.S. import demand has partially mitigated the negative impact of trade tension on China’s T&A exports to the U.S. market. Results of the CMS model indicate that expanded total U.S. import demand for T&A driven by the booming U.S. economy had avoided an even worse decline of U.S. T&A imports from China. In other words, without such a market growth, China’s T&A exports to the U.S. would have been $2,065 million less in 2018 (including $528 million for apparel) and $878 million less (including $613 million for apparel) in the first ten months of 2019 than their current level.

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

Fourth, China is adjusting its T&A export structure to mitigate the negative impact of the tariff war. As estimated, through targeting those product categories with higher growth in import demand, China was able to achieve an additional $36.7 million apparel export to the U.S. in the first ten months of 2019.  Likewise, the commodity structural effect also favored China’s made-up textile exports to the U.S. market in 2019, resulting in $148.7 million more exports than otherwise.

By Sheng Lu

What Do You Take Away from FASH455?

I encourage everyone to watch the video above, which provides an excellent wrap-up for FASH455 and reminds us of the meaning and significance of our course. BTW, the names of several experts featured in the video should sound familiar to you, such as David Spooner (former U.S. Chief Textile Negotiator and Assistant Secretary of Commerce), Julia Hughes (president of the US Fashion Industry Association, USFIA) and Auggie Tantillo (president of the National Council of TextileOrganizations, NCTO).

First of all, I hope students can take away essential knowledge about textile and apparel (T&A) trade & sourcing from FASH455. As you may recall from the video, in FASH455, we’ve examined the phenomenon of globalization and its profound social, economic and political implications. We also discussed various trade theories and the general evolution pattern of a country’s T&A industry and its close relationship with that country’s overall industrialization process. We further explored three primary T&A supply chains in the world (namely the Western-Hemisphere supply chain, the flying geese model in Asia and the phenomenon of intra-region T&A trade in Europe). Last but not least, we looked at unique and critical trade policies that matter significantly to the T&A sector (e.g., U.S.-China tariff war, and the yarn-forward rules of origin) as well as the complicated factors behind the making of these trade policies. No matter your dream job is to be a fashion designer, buyer, merchandiser, sourcing specialist or marketing analyst, understanding how trade and sourcing work will be highly relevant and beneficial to your future career given the global nature of today’s fashion industry.

Second, I hope FASH455 helps students shape a big-picture vision of the T&A industry in the 21st-century world economy and provides students a fresh new way of looking at the world. Throughout the semester, we’ve examined many critical, timely and pressing global agendas that are highly relevant to the T&A industry, from apparel companies’ social responsibility practices, the debate on the textile and apparel provisions in the U.S.-Mexico-Canada Free Trade Agreement (USMCA or NAFTA2.0) and Trump Administration’s trade policy agenda to the controversy of used clothing trade. It is critical to keep in mind that we wear more than clothes: We also wear the global economy, international business, public policy and trade politics that make affordable, fashionable, and safe clothes possible and available for hardworking families. This is also the message from many of our distinguished guest speakers this semester, and I do hope you find these special learning events enlightening and inspiring.

Likewise, I hopeFASH455 can put students into thinking about the meaning of being a FASH major/minor(as well as a college graduate) and how to contribute to the world we are living in today positively. A popular misconception is that T&A is just about “sewing,” “fashion magazine,” “shopping” and “Project Runway.” In fact, as one of the largest and most economically influential sectors in the world today, T&A industry plays a critical and unique role in creating jobs, promoting economic development, enhancing human development and reducing poverty. As we mentioned in the class, globally over 120 million people remain directly employed in the T&A industry and a good proportion of them are females living in poor rural areas. For most developing countries, T&A typically accounts for 70%–90% of their total merchandise exports and provides one of the very few opportunities for these countries to participate in globalization. Indeed, T&A is such an impactful sector, and we are as important as any other majors on the UD campus!

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

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

These questions have no good answers yet. But they are waiting for you, the young professional and the new generation of leaders, to write the history, based on your knowledge, wisdom, responsibility, courage, and creativity!

So what do you take away from FASH455? Please feel free to share your thoughts and comments.

Dr. Sheng Lu