Patterns of U.S. Textile and Apparel Imports (updated February 2020)

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The value of U.S. textile imports totaled $27,461 million in 2019, down 2.3 percent from 2018. This is the first time since 2016 that U.S. textile imports incurred a negative growth, which could be related to the slowed U.S. domestic textile and apparel production. Meanwhile, the value of U.S. apparel imports reached $83,822 million in 2019, up 1.2 percent from a year earlier but was substantially lower than a 3.4% growth between 2017 and 2018. Despite the trade uncertainties, the U.S. apparel imports overall still mirror the trend of apparel retail sales in the U.S. market.

Looking ahead, while the reaching of the “phase one” U.S.-China trade deal was a relief to U.S. fashion companies, the unexpected outbreak of the coronavirus in China since January and its fast spread had cast a new shadow on the outlook of the world economy. U.S. Fed Chairman Jerome Powell recently cited the prospect of a hit to tourism, exports and financial markets as ways the coronavirus could dent U.S. economic growth. As a consequence, the value of U.S. textile and apparel imports in 2020 could grow at a more modest rate than previously expected.

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Because the United States is no longer a major apparel manufacturer but one of the largest apparel consumption markets in the world, apparel products accounted for 75.3 percent of total U.S. textile and apparel imports in 2019, followed by made-up textiles (17.9 percent), fabrics (5.6 percent) and yarns (1.2 percent). This structure has remained quite stable over the past decade.

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The U.S. imported apparel from more than 150 countries in 2019. Meanwhile, the Herfindahl index declined from 0.269 in 2010 to 0.253 in 2019, suggesting that overall the U.S. apparel import market is becoming less concentrated. This result is consistent with some recent studies, which show that U.S. fashion brands and retailers continue to diversify their sourcing bases gradually. Reducing the dependence on sourcing from China, catering to the increasing demand for speed to market and fulfilling the market expansion needs were among the top-cited reasons for companies’ sourcing diversification strategy.

Specifically, all top apparel suppliers to the United States in 2019 (by value) were developing countries and most of them were located in Asia, including China (29.7%, down from 33.0% in 2018), Vietnam (16.2%, up from 14.7% in 2018), Bangladesh (7.1%, up from 6.5%), Indonesia (5.3%, down from 5.4% in 2018), India (4.8%, up from 4.6% in 2018) and Mexico (3.7%, down from 4.0% in 2018).

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Except for China, the average unit price of U.S. apparel imports from other major sources all went up in 2019, including Vietnam (up 4.6%), Bangladesh (up 5.6%), Indonesia (up 2.1%), India (up 3.1%), Cambodia (up 7.5%) and CAFTA-DR members (up 4.4%). The results suggest that U.S. fashion brands and retailers had to pay a higher price when they move their sourcing orders from China to other alternatives, due to much smaller production capacity and more costly raw material supply there.

Additional reading: US apparel Sourcing Patterns are Changing. Here is How (by Sheng Lu, on just-style). Key findings:

  • Consumption demand remains the most significant factor in shaping the volume of U.S. apparel imports. Between 2010 and 2019, the value of U.S. apparel retail sales always stayed at around three times as much as the value of U.S. apparel imports. Over the same period, the amount of U.S. apparel retail sales and apparel imports also changed in the same direction, and both enjoyed a roughly 3.0% annual growth on average. Such a synchronized move reminds us about the buyer-driven nature of the apparel business today and explains why this industry is so sensitive towards the health of the national economy.
  • The U.S.-China tariff war had resulted in a change of the seasonal patterns for apparel sourcing and shipment. While July to October used to be the busiest time for U.S. fashion brands and retailers to receive their sourcing orders from China, in 2019 the peak season started earlier in June and ended in September–mostly because U.S. fashion companies tried to avoid the hit of the proposed 15% Section 301 punitive tariffs on Tranche 4A products, which covered most apparel items. For the same reason, U.S. apparel imports from China in November and December 2019 were much lighter than usual.
  • U.S. fashion brands and retailers continue to diversify their sourcing base, yet the options available remain limited. The lack of qualified alternatives to “Made in China” is one big challenge. Despite the hundreds of apparel exporting countries in the world, only nine of them met the following two criteria: 1) enjoyed a 5% or higher growth of their apparel exports to the U.S. for two consecutive years since 2017; 2) achieved a minimum 1% market share as of 2019. Of these nine countries, only Vietnam, Bangladesh, and Cambodia ranked the top 10 apparel suppliers for the U.S. market in 2019.
  • U.S. fashion brands and apparel retailers increasingly source both from Asia and the Western Hemisphere, but for different purposes. Notably, the value of export similarity index (ESI) between China and the Western Hemisphere was as low as 40.8 in 2015 and went down further to only 39.6 in 2019, suggesting their export product structure had turned even more heterogeneous. In contrast, between 2015 and 2019, China, ASEAN (whose members include leading apparel exporting countries such as Vietnam, Indonesia, Cambodia, Malaysia, and Thailand) and Bangladesh appear to export increasingly similar products to the United States. This explained why Asian suppliers rather than NAFTA and CAFTA-DR members saw their apparel exports to the United States increased in 2019 as a result of the U.S.-China tariff war.

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

(You may also download this post in PDF)

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Appendix: Links for the Product List (updated January 15, 2020)

by Sheng Lu

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!

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

U.S.-Japan Trade Agreement (Updated: September 2019)

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On 16 September 2019, the Trump administration notified U.S. Congress of its intent to enter into a trade agreement on “tariff barriers” with Japan as well as an “executive agreement” on digital trade. According to the announcement, the Trump administration plans to utilize Section 103(a) of the 2015 Trade Promotion Authority law, which allows the president to modify tariffs WITHOUT congressional approval. While details of the tariff agreement are not yet available, U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer in August said the deal with Japan would focus on beef, pork, wheat, dairy products, wine, and ethanol, as well as on industrial goods.

The 16 September notification also says the Trump administration will “further negotiations with Japan to achieve a comprehensive trade agreement that results in more fair and reciprocal trade between the United States and Japan.” Such a more comprehensive trade agreement, however, will require congressional approval.

On December 21, 2018, Office of the U.S. Trade Representative (USTR) released negotiating objectives of the proposed U.S.-Japan Free Trade Agreement (USJTA). Overall, USJTA aims to address both tariff and non-tariff barriers to achieve fairer and more balanced trade between the two countries. Regarding the textiles and apparel sector, USTR says it will “secure duty-free access for U.S. textile and apparel products and seek to improve competitive opportunities for exports of U.S. textile and apparel products while taking into account U.S. import sensitivities” during the negotiation. USJTA also will “establish origin procedures for the certification and verification of rules of origin that promote strong enforcement, including with respect to textiles.”

Should the newly announced U.S.-Japan trade deal remove the tariffs for textiles and apparel traded between the two countries, the overall economic impact on related trade flows could be modest. Data from the UNComtrade shows that in 2018 U.S. imported $656 million textiles (SITC 26 and 65) and $88 million apparel (SITC 84) from Japan, accounting for 2.1% and 0.1% of total U.S. textile and apparel imports respectively. Meanwhile, in 2018 Japan imported around $353 million textiles and $121 million apparel from the U.S., accounting for 3.7% and 0.4% of Japan’s total textile and apparel imports that year respectively.

In comparison, over 70% of U.S. textile and apparel exports went to the Western-Hemisphere and U.S. imported textiles and apparel mostly from NAFTA & CAFTA-DR members and other Asian countries (such as China and Vietnam). Likewise, Japan also has a much closer trade tie with other Asian countries because of the regional textile and apparel trade patterns (or commonly known as “factory Asia”).

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On the other hand, the elimination of tariffs and potentially non-tariff barriers under the U.S.-Japan trade deal could expand the bilateral trade flows for technical textiles. Notably, the top categories of U.S. textile and apparel exports to Japan in 2018 were mostly technical textiles such as specialty and industrial fabrics, filament yarns, and non-woven textiles. Likewise, the top categories of Japan’s textile and apparel exports to the U.S. in 2018 also include special-purpose fabric, non-woven fabric, and synthetic filament fabrics.

Additionally, the textiles and apparel-specific rules of origin (RoO) is likely to remain a heated debate in the US-Japan trade negotiation. To protect the interests of the U.S. textile industry and the Western-Hemisphere regional textile and apparel supply chain, most free trade agreements enacted in the United States adopt the so-called “yarn-forward” RoO. Even though the U.S.-Japan trade agreement may not be a too big deal economically, the U.S. textile industry is unlikely to give up the RoO fight. However, most free trade agreements enacted in Japan adopt more liberal fabric-forward rules of origin (or commonly called “double transformation”). As textile and apparel production in Japan is increasingly integrated with other Asian countries, the strict “yarn-forward” RoO could prevent Japanese textile and apparel exporters from enjoying the preferential duty benefits under the U.S.-Japan trade agreement fully.

WTO Reports World Textile and Apparel Trade in 2018

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

I. Textile export

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

II. Apparel export

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

III. Textile import

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

IV. Apparel import

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

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Additional reading: Latest trends in world textile and apparel trade