Over the past decade, the US and UK bilateral trade in apparel enjoyed steady growth, reflecting ever closer business ties of fashion companies in the two countries. While US apparel exports still predominantly go to geographically nearby countries such as Mexico and Canada, the UK has emerged to become the single largest export market for “Made in the USA” apparel outside the Western Hemisphere. Similarly, the United States has always been the UK’s single largest export market outside the EU region.
On the other hand, the apparel products that the US and the UK export to each other target different segments of the market. Industry sources indicate that the clothing exported from the US to the UK primarily focuses on the premium market. Garments “Made in the USA” in the UK are mostly carried by premium brands and retailers such as Free People, J. Crew, and Moda Operandi. However, due to a lack of brand power, clothing “Made in the USA” is typically priced 30%-50% lower than similar products locally made in the UK or elsewhere in Western EU, such as France and Italy.
In comparison, approximately 70% of apparel exported from the UK to the US are luxury goods. With a relatively clear-cut market position, luxury and high-end designer UK brands, such as Burberry, Roland Mouret, and Victoria Beckham, can effectively reach out to their target markets.
How Might the US-UK FTA Affect the Bilateral Apparel Trade
According to the released negotiation objectives, both the US and the UK seem to be willing to consider a substantial cut or even a full elimination of the apparel tariff rate as part of the trade deal. Should this happen, fashion companies across the Atlantic could benefit from a proportional reduction of their sourcing cost, resulting in a considerable expansion of the US-UK bilateral apparel trade flows.
On the other hand, to enjoy the preferential duty benefit under a free trade agreement, rules of origin will always be a requirement. Notably, most US trade agreements currently adopt the so-called “yarn-forward” rules of origin. In contrast, most EU-based trade deals adopt a more liberal “fabric-forward” rule.
While it is hard to predict which specific rules of origin the proposed US-UK trade agreement will adopt, it seems the result will have a more significant impact on the US apparel exports to the UK than the other way around. Restrained by the limited domestic supply and high cost, a substantial proportion of US apparel exports contain imported textile raw materials. This means US apparel producers may have to either switch to use more expensive domestic textile inputs or forgo the FTA duty-saving benefits should restrictive rules of origin are adopted. Meanwhile, the UK apparel exports to the US will be less sensitive to the rules of origin in the proposed FTA, as most of these luxury items are already 100% “Made in the UK” to meet customers’ expectations.
Uncertainties associated with the US-UK FTA
The US-UK trade negotiations have to deal with an evolving Brexit. Given the EU’s economic cloud, understandably, some argue that the UK may have to reach a comprehensive trade agreement with the EU before it can consider a trade deal with the US. Additionally, several US domestic politics and policy factors may further slow down the progress of the US-UK trade negotiation, from the US presidential election to the upcoming expiration of the trade promotion authority (TPA).
Further reading:Langro, V., & Lu, S. (2020, upcoming). US-UK Free Trade Agreement: What Does it Mean for the Apparel Industry? Just-Style.
Impact of COVID19 on Fashion Companies’ Businesses
The overwhelming majority of respondents report “economic and business impacts of the coronavirus (COVID-19)” as their top business challenge in 2020. The business difficulties caused by COVID-19 will not go away anytime soon, and U.S. fashion companies have to prepare for a medium to the long-term impact of the pandemic.
COVID-19 has caused severe supply chain disruptions to U.S. fashion companies. The disruptions come from multiple aspects, ranging from a labor shortage, shortages of textile raw materials, and a substantial cost increase in shipping and logistics.
COVID-19 has resulted in a widespread sales decline and order cancellation among U.S. fashion companies. Almost all respondents (96 percent) expect their companies’ sales revenue to decrease in 2020.
As sales drop and business operations are significantly disrupted, not surprisingly, all respondents (100 percent) say they more or less have postponed or canceled sourcing orders. Nearly half of self-identified retailers say the sourcing orders they canceled or postponed go beyond the 2nd quarter of 2020. Another 40 percent expect order cancellation and postponement could extend further to the fourth quarter of 2020 or even beyond. The order cancellation or postponement has affected vendors in China, Bangladesh, and India the most.
Impact of COVID-19 and US-China Trade War on Fashion Companies’ Sourcing
As high as 90 percent of respondents explicitly say, the U.S. Section 301 action against China has increased their company’s sourcing cost in 2020, up from 63 percent last year.
COVID-19 and the trade war are pushing U.S. fashion companies to reduce their “China exposure” further. While “China plus Vietnam plus Many” remains the most popular sourcing model among respondents, around 29 percent of respondents indicate that they source MORE from Vietnam than from China in 2020, up further from 25 percent in 2019.
As U.S. fashion companies are sourcing relatively less from China, they are moving orders mostly to China’s competitors in Asia. All respondents (100 percent) say they have “moved some sourcing orders from China to other Asian suppliers” this year, up from 77 percent in 2019.
However, no clear evidence suggests that U.S. fashion companies are sourcing more from the Western Hemisphere because of COVID-19 and the U.S.-China trade war.
Emerging Sourcing Trends
Sourcing diversification is slowing down, and more U.S. fashion companies are switching to consolidate their existing sourcing base. Close to half of the respondents say they plan to “source from the same number of countries, but work with fewer vendors,” up from 40 percent in last year’s survey.
China most likely will remain a critical sourcing base for U.S. fashion companies. However, non-economic factors could complicate companies’ sourcing decisions. Benefiting from U.S. fashion companies’ reduced sourcing from China, Vietnam and Bangladesh are expected to play a more significant role as primary apparel suppliers for the U.S. market.
Given the supply chain disruptions experienced during the pandemic, U.S. fashion companies are more actively exploring “Made in the USA” sourcing opportunities to improve agility and flexibility and reduce sourcing risks. Around 25 percent of respondents expect to somewhat increase sourcing locally from the U.S. in the next two years, which is the highest level since 2016.
US-Mexico-Canada Trade Agreement (USMCA)
For companies that were already using NAFTA for sourcing, the vast majority (77.8 percent) say they are “ready to achieve any USMCA benefits immediately,” up more than 31 percent from 2019. Even for respondents who were not using NAFTA or sourcing from the region, about half of them this year say they may “consider North American sourcing in the future” and explore the USMCA benefits. Some respondents expressed concerns about the rules of origin changes. These worries seem to concentrate on denim products in particular.
African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA)
Close to 37 percent of respondents say they have been sourcing MORE textile and apparel from sub-Saharan Africa (SSA) since the latest AGOA renewal in 2015, a substantial increase from 27 percent in the 2019 survey. More than 40 percent of respondents say AGOA and its “third-country fabric provision” are critical for their sourcing from the SSA region. More than 40 percent of respondents say AGOA and its “third-country fabric provision” are critical for their sourcing from the SSA region.
However, respondents still demonstrate a low level of interest in investing in the SSA region directly. Around 27 percent of respondents say the temporary nature of AGOA and the uncertainty associated with the future of the agreement have discouraged them.
With AGOA’s expiration date quickly approaching, the discussions on the future of the agreement and the prospect of sourcing from SSA begin to intensify. Among the various policy options to consider, “Renew AGOA for another ten years with no major change of its current provisions” and “Replace AGOA with a permanent free trade agreement that requires reciprocal tariff cut and continues to allow the third-country fabric provision” are the most preferred by respondents.
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.
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 $4,163 million U.S. apparel imports from the NAFTA region in 2019, around $3,742 million (or 89.9%) 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.
1. The garment industry matters significantly to Cambodia, both economically, and socially. As of 2019, as much as 70% of Cambodia’s merchandise exports were apparel items. Likewise, around one-third of Cambodia’s manufacturing output currently comes from the garment sector alone. Further, as of 2016, the garment industry in Cambodia employed nearly 928,600 workers (almost 79% were female), an increase of 239% from 2007.
2. Cambodia’s apparel exports have enjoyed steady growth in recent decades, reaching US$7.83 billion in 2018 – a jump of 256% from US$2.2 billion in 2005. Yet, it faces several major challenges:
Due to limited production techniques and capital availability, apparel producers in Cambodia are still mostly engaged in cut-make-trim (CMT) activities, meaning they rely heavily on imported textile raw material and are only able to make a marginal profit based on low-value-added sewing work.
Cambodia’s apparel exports are highly concentrated on the EU and the US markets, which together accounted for 73.4% of the country’s total garment exports in 2019.
Cambodia is facing intense competition in its main apparel export markets—there has been little growth in Cambodia’s share of EU and US apparel imports over the past two decades, remaining as low as 3% as of 2019.
3. Cambodia has benefited significantly from the EU Everything But Arms (EBA) program. Established in 2001, the EBA trade initiative provides least developed countries (LDCs), such as Cambodia, with duty-free and quota-free access to the vast EU market for all products except weapons and ammunition. Like other EBA beneficiary countries, the majority (around 95%) of Cambodia’s apparel exports to the EU currently claim the duty- and quota-free EBA benefits.
4. Out of concerns over Cambodia’s “serious and systematic violations of the human rights principles enshrined in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights,” the European Commission on 12 February 2020 formally announced the withdrawal of part of the tariff preferences granted to Cambodia under the EBA program. Starting from 12 August 2020, a select group of Cambodia’s apparel exports to the EU, together with all travel goods, sugar, and some footwear will be subject to the EU’s Most-Favored-Nation (MFN) tariff rat, which were at the rate of 11.5% on average for apparel items in 2019.
5. Even the partial suspension of Cambodia’s EBA eligibility could result in significant and lasting negative impacts on its apparel exports to the EU:
The apparel items directly affected by the EBA suspension accounted for around 15% of the value of Cambodia’s total apparel exports to the EU in 2019. For those apparel categories directly targeted by the EBA suspension, EU fashion brands and retailers may quickly shift sourcing orders from Cambodia to other supplying countries to avoid paying the additional tariffs.
Social responsibility is being given more weight in fashion companies’ sourcing decisions. This means even those apparel items not directly targeted by the EU EBA suspension could face widespread order cancellations as sourcing from Cambodia is deemed to involve higher social compliance risks. In a worse but possible scenario, Cambodia’s apparel exports to the whole world could be under threat as many EU fashion brands and retailers operate globally and adopt a unified ethical standard and code of conduct for apparel sourcing across different markets.
Additionally, the timing cannot be worse: Due to the devastating hit by Covid-19, as of April 2020, Cambodia had reported nearly 130 garment factory closures and more than 100,000 workers laid off. These numbers may increase further as the effect of the pandemic continue to unfold.
Textiles and apparel “Made in the USA” are gaining growing attention in recent years amid the escalating U.S.-China trade war, the rising cost of imports, and consumers’ increasing demand for “speed to market.” Statistics show that the value of U.S. textile and apparel (T&A) production totaled $US28.1bn in 2018, which was a record high since 2010. Meanwhile, different from the old days, more and more T&A “Made in the USA” are sold overseas today. According to the Office of Textiles and Apparel (OTEXA) under the U.S. Department of Commerce, the value of U.S. T&A exports reached US$22.9bn in 2019, up nearly 20% from ten years ago.
Despite the strong performance in production and export, however, U.S. T&A manufacturers do not seem to be “visible” enough. Given the information gap, we recently analyzed the 122 U.S. T&A manufacturers included in the OTEXA “Made in the USA” database. Information in the database is self-reported by companies and then verified by OTEXA. Our analysis intends to gain more insights into the state of U.S. T&A mills, including their demographics, production and supply chain strategies, as well as their export behaviors.
First, U.S. T&A manufacturers display a relatively high concentration of geographic locations. Notably, as much as 61% of self-reported yarn manufacturers are from North Carolina (NC), followed by South Carolina (SC), which accounts for another 11%. The concentration of yarn manufacturing in the south, in particular, can be attributed to the abundant cotton supply in that region. Meanwhile, California (CA) has one of the most complete T&A supply chains in the country, with the presence of manufacturers across all T&A sub-sectors.
Second, large-size textile mills are gradually emerging in the United States, whereas U.S. apparel manufacturers are predominantly small and medium-sized. U.S. textile mills, in general, have a high concentration of factories with over 100 employees, particularly those engaged in producing yarns (53%), fabrics (37%), and technical textiles (38%). In the past decade, many relatively small-sized U.S. textile mills had merged into larger ones to take advantage of the economies of scale and reduce production cost. In comparison, over half of the apparel mills in the OTEXA database reported having less than 50 employees. Notably, because of the significant disadvantage in labor cost, U.S. apparel mills are not trying to replace imports, but instead focusing on their “niche market.” For example, designer-based micro-factories are popular these days in U.S. fashion centers such as New York City and California. These factories typically provide customized services, ranging from proto-typing to sample production.
Third, “fabric + apparel” and “fabric + technical textiles” are the two most popular types of vertical integration among U.S. T&A mills. A relatively small proportion of T&A mills included in the OTEXA database had adopted the vertical integration business strategy. Notably, fabric mills seem to be most actively engaged in the vertical integration strategy–around one-third of them reported also making apparel, technical textiles, or home textiles. Additionally, 20% of technical textile manufacturers in the OTEXA database have incorporated an apparel component to their product portfolio. This is a significant trend to watch as more and more sportswear brands are developing technology-driven functional apparel. However, we find few U.S. T&A mills have created a vertical integration model that covers three or more different nature of products.
Fourth, U.S. T&A mills have shifted from only making products to also offering various value-added services. Notably, the majority of companies included in the OTEXA “Made in the USA” database reported having the in-house design capability, including apparel mills (86%), fabric mills (80%), yarn manufacturers (61%), home textiles manufacturers (71%) as well as those making technical textiles (91%). U.S. T&A mills also commonly describe themselves as “innovators” and “solutions providers” on their websites to highlight that the nature of their core business is to serve customers’ needs rather than just “making” physical products.
Fifth, exporting has become an important economic activity of U.S. T&A manufacturers today. Notably, of all the 122 U.S. T&A manufacturers in the OTEXA “Made in the USA” database, as many as 70.5% reported engaged in export, a trend which echoes the rising value of U.S. textile and apparel exports in recent years. Regarding the particular export behaviors of U.S. T&A mills, several patterns are interesting to note:
U.S. textile mills (76%) are more actively engaged in export than those that make apparel products only (37%).
Larger U.S. T&A mills overall had a higher percentage engaged in export than those manufacturers smaller in size.
The Western Hemisphere is the dominant export market for U.S. yarn, fabric, and home textile mills, whereas the export markets for U.S. apparel mills and technical textile producers are relatively more diverse.
Except for apparel producers, the export diversification strategy is commonly adopted by U.S. T&A mills. As many as 77% of yarn manufacturers included in the OTEXA database reported exporting to three or more different markets in the world. Likewise, around 40% of the fabric, home textiles, and technical textiles mills did the same.
Free trade agreements support U.S. T&A exports. A high percentage of U.S. T&A mills that reported exporting to the Western Hemisphere said they took advantage of NAFTA and CAFTA-DR, two primary U.S. free trade agreements with the region. The utilization of NAFTA and CAFTA-DR is particularly high among U.S. yarn producers (83.3%).
#1 Based on the readings, why or why not do you think Africa is on the right track to become the next hub for apparel sourcing for western fashion brands?
#2 Based on the readings, do you think that any of the countries/regions discussed can become the “next China?” If so, what are the challenges faced by these exporters that have been gaining market shares (such as Vietnam and Bangladesh)?
#3 Why is Asian companies investing the most into the apparel industry in Sub Saharan Africa (SSA) rather than U.S. or EU investors? Notably, the African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA) is a trade preference program between the U.S. and SSA countries.
#4 If the punitive tariffs on Chinese goods are removed next year, why or why do you think U.S. retailers will increase apparel sourcing from China again?
#5 To which extent do you think the comparative advantage theory can explain the evolving world textile and apparel trade patterns?
#6 What policies or strategies could the US government use to convince companies to invest in the Sub-Saharan African region instead of countries like China and Vietnam?
Debate on used clothing trade
#7 Did you feel that the United States really explored every and any possible solution before deciding to suspend Rwanda’s eligibility under the AGOA? If not, what more could they have done or done differently?
#8 The US-EAC trade dispute on used clothing import ban is a very multilayered matter, which can be broken down with the help of trade preference programs. How can we improve the effectiveness of these trade preference programs and revolutionize them to become more significant in today’s economy?
#9 EAC countries are having a difficult time developing their local textile and apparel industry due to the large amounts of used clothing being imported and even proposed a high tariff to lower the amount of clothing being imported. Do you believe the ban on used clothing is the only option they have left for economic growth? If not, what are some ideas of ways they can grow their economy?
#10 The EAC countries have shown their unwillingness to used clothing trade. However, the US has presented that they are indifferent to regulate the used clothing trade as they are one of the biggest used clothing exporters. Are there any solutions to achieve the win-win situation on used clothing trade?
#11 The used clothing ban is put in place in order to develop the apparel and textile industry, but there needs to be more education for countries on sustainability. There is a big stigma about used clothing that needs to be abolished as well. An alternative to this ban is allowing used clothing, but also creating new clothing more sustainably so apparel and textile companies can profit. What are some other sustainable alternatives that benefit both sides?
#12 Given the debate on used clothing trade and its impact on East African nations, will you continue to donate used clothing? Why or why not?
[For FASH455: 1) Please mention the question number in your comments; 2) Please address at least TWO questions in your comments]
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.”
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.
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.
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”).
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.
U.S. fashion brands and retailers are deeply concerned about the negative impacts of the tariff war on their businesses. According to the 2019 U.S. Fashion Industry Benchmarking Study released by the U.S. Fashion Industry Association, even without considering the upcoming 10-15% tariffs to be imposed on around $35.7 billion Chinese textiles and apparel covered by tranche 4:
The trade diversion effect of Section 301 has accelerated U.S. fashion companies’ pace of reducing sourcing from China. About 83 percent of respondents expect to decrease sourcing from China over the next two years, up further from 67 percent in 2018.
The Section 301 action is pushing up the price of U.S. apparel imports across the board, making “increasing production and sourcing cost” the top business challenge for respondents in 2019. As much as 63 percent of respondents explicitly say the U.S. Section 301 tariff action against China “increased my companies’ sourcing cost” in 2019. As companies are moving sourcing orders to Bangladesh, Vietnam, and India, the average price of U.S. apparel imports from these countries – the main alternatives to China — have all gone up very quickly.
No evidence shows that Section 301 has benefited near-sourcing from the Western Hemisphere and reshoring from the United States significantly. Instead, respondents say Section 301 has increased the production costs of textiles and apparel “Made in the USA.”
Respondents say they are reluctant but may have to increase their retail prices, should the U.S.-China tariff war escalate further.
This article tries to evaluate the potential impact of the U.S.-China tariff war on the U.S. textile and apparel (T&A) industry, including manufacturing and related trade activities.
The quantitative evaluation conducted is based on the Global Trade Analysis Project (GTAP) model. Data came from the latest GTAP9 database, which covers trade, employment and production in 57 sectors in 140 countries. In correspondence to the recent development of the U.S.-China tariff war, the analysis focuses on the following three scenarios:
Scenario 1: 10% punitive tariff + base year tariff rate in 2017 applied to products traded between the U.S. and China, except textiles and apparel
Scenario 2: 10% punitive tariff + base year tariff rate in 2017 applied to products traded between the U.S. and China, including textiles and apparel
Scenario 3: 25% punitive tariff + base year tariff rate in 2017 applied to products traded between the U.S. and China, including textiles and apparel
Three findings are of note:
First, the tariff war with China will increase the market price for T&A in the United States and consequentially incentivize more production of T&A “Made in the USA.” As shown in Figure 1, the annual U.S. T&A production will increase when the punitive tariff is imposed on textile and apparel imports from China. The most significant increase will happen in scenario 3 (textile output expands by US$8,829 million and apparel output expands by US$6,044 million) when a 25 percent punitive tariff is imposed and the market price of T&A in the U.S. also correspondingly goes up by nearly 1.5% compared with the base year level in 2017.
Second, the tariff war with China will hurt U.S. textile exports. The results show that the tariff war will increase the production cost of “Made in the USA,” and result in a decline of U.S. textile exports due to reduced price competitiveness. This is the case even in scenario 1 when the tariff war does not target T&A directly, but nevertheless, raises the price of intermediaries for producing textiles in the United States. The results further show that the annual U.S. textile exports will suffer the most significant decline in scenario 3 (down US$1,136 million), especially to China and other Asian countries where U.S. textile products are facing intense competition from local suppliers. In comparison, U.S. textile exports to the Western Hemisphere will suffer a loss as well in the tariff war, but to a much less extent due to the strong supply-chain relationship with the region.
Third, the trade diversion effect of the tariff war will bring in more apparel imports to the U.S. market from Asian suppliers other than China. As shown in the figure above, when the punitive tariff imposed on textile and apparel products, the value of U.S. apparel imports from China will decline ranging from US$4,573 million (10 percent punitive tariff imposed) to US$8,858 million (25 percent punitive tariff imposed) annually compared with the base year level in 2017. This result reflects U.S. apparel importers and retailers’ mounting concerns about sourcing cost in the setting of the tariff war. However, apparently, the tariff war will do little to help U.S. domestic apparel manufacturers reduce the competitive pressure with imports. Particularly, in scenario 3, U.S. apparel imports from suppliers other than China will increase as much as US$10,400 million, worsening the U.S. trade deficit in the apparel sector further.
Sub-Saharan Africa (SSA) is widely regarded as a growing apparel-souring destination. Particularly, U.S. Congress established theAfrican Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA), a non-reciprocal trade preference program, in 2000, to help developing SSA countries grow their economy through expanded exports to the United States. Because apparel production plays a dominant role in many SSA countries’ economic development, apparel has become one of the top exports for many SSA countries under AGOA. Notably, the “third-country fabric provision” under AGOA allows US apparel imports from certain SSA countries to be qualified for duty-free treatment even if the apparel items use yarns and fabrics produced by non-AGOA members, such as China, South Korea, and Taiwan. This special rule is deemed as critical as most SSA countries still have no capacity in producing capital and technology-intensive textile products.
That being said, to play a bigger role as an apparel sourcing base, SSA is not without significant challenges:
Challenge 1: limited industry upgrading and local textile production capacity
Theoretically, as a country’s economy advances, it should gradually be producing and exporting more capital and technology-intensive textiles versus labor-intensive apparel products. This is the notable trends in many Asian countries (such as China and Vietnam), where the textile/apparel export ratio has been rising steadily between 2005 and 2017. However, as a reflection of the stagnant industry upgrading, the textile/apparel export ratio remains fairly low in SSA, including in Lesotho, Kenya, and Mauritius, the top three largest apparel exporters in the SSA region.
Challenge 2: Slow and no progress in export diversification
Ideally, as the economy becomes more sophisticated, textiles and apparel (T&A) should account for a declining share in a country’s total merchandise exports. Countries such as China, Vietnam, and ASEAN demonstrate perfect examples. However, in some SSA countries (e.g., Lesotho), T&A has stably accounted for over 80% of their total merchandise exports over the past 17 years, a sign of slow or no progress in export diversification. In other SSA countries, T&A accounted for less than 10% of their total merchandise exports, suggesting the sector is not a priority to the local economy.
Challenge 3: Intense competition both in key export markets and domestic market
As of 2017, over 96% of SSA countries’ T&A exports went to three markets: the United States, the EU, and other SSA members. However, because of the intense competition, except for the regional SSA market, SSA countries account for merely 1.4% and 0.2% of total U.S. and EU textile and apparel imports in 2017 respectively.
Even more concerning, the T&A industry in SSA countries is facing growing competition in the domestic market with cheap imports, mostly from Asia. Notably, SSA countries import MORE apparel than they export, a phenomenon rarely seen among developing countries in a similar stage of economic development.
Challenge 4: U.S. companies remain low interest in investing in the region directly
According to several recent studies, leading U.S. fashion brands and retailers remain low interest in investing in the SSA region directly, even though companies admit more investments in areas such as infrastructure are critical to the success of SSA countries serving as competitive apparel sourcing bases. Some argue that the “temporary” nature of AGOA make companies hesitant to build factories in SSA. However, should AGOA become a permanent free trade agreement, which follows the principle of reciprocity, SSA countries would have to lower their trade barriers to U.S. products, including eliminating the tariffs and non-tariff barriers, in exchange for the reciprocal market access benefits from the United States. It doesn’t seem most AGOA members are ready for that stage yet.
On April 19, 2019, the U.S. International Trade
Commission (USITC) released
its independent assessment report on the likely economic impact of the
U.S.-Mexico-Canada Free Trade Agreement (USMCA or NAFTA2.0). Below are the key
findings of the report:
Impact of USMCA on
the U.S. economy
USITC found that because of the size of the U.S. economy
relative to the size of the Mexican and Canadian economies and the reduction in
tariff and nontariff barriers that has already taken place among the three countries
under the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), the overall impact of USMCA on the U.S. economy is likely to be
moderate. For example, USITC’s computable general equilibrium (CGE) model suggests
that compared to the base year level in 2017, USMCA could increase the U.S. GDP
by 0.35% (or $68.2 billion) and create 0.17 million new jobs when other factors
Impact of USMCA on
the textile and apparel sector
First, USITC found that the 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. For example, USMCA eliminates the NAFTA requirements that visible linings must be sourced from members of the agreement; however, USMCA adds more restrictive new requirements for narrow elastic fabrics, sewing thread, and pocket bag fabric.
Second, USITC found that 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.
However, interesting enough, the USITC report says little
about the potential impact of USMCA on U.S. textile and apparel manufacturing.
On 30 September 2018, the United States reached USMCA with Canada and Mexico. On 30 November 2018, USMCA was officially signed by Presidents of the three countries. According to the Bipartisan Congressional Trade Priorities and Accountability Act of 2015 (the picture above), after the release of the USITC economic assessment report on USMCA, the Trump Administration will need to work with U.S. Congress to develop legislation to approve and implement the agreement. However, there remains huge uncertainties over USMCA’s prospect.
While U.S. textile manufacturers and the apparel and retail
industries have expressed overall support for the newly reached
US-Mexico-Canada Free Trade Agreement (USMCA or NAFTA2.0), textile producers
and the apparel sector still hold divergent views on certain provisions:
Rule of Origin
USMCA vs. NAFTA1.0: The
USMCA will continue to adopt the “yarn-forward” rules of origin. The USMCA will
also newly require sewing thread, coated fabric, narrow elastic strips, and
pocketing fabric used in apparel and other finished products to be made in a
USMCA country to qualify for duty-free access to the United States.
U.S. textile industry: U.S.
textile manufacturers almost always support a strict “yarn-forward” rules of
origin in U.S free trade agreements and
they support eliminating exceptions to the “yarn forward” rule as well. The
National Council of Textile Organization (NCTO) estimates that a yearly USMCA
market for sewing thread and pocketing fabric of more than $300 million.
U.S. apparel and retail
industries: The U.S. apparel industry opposes “yarn forward” and argues
that apparel should be considered of
North American origin under a more flexible regional “cut and sew” standard,
which would provide maximum flexibility for sourcing, including the use of
foreign-made yarns and fabrics.
Levels (TPL) for Textiles and Apparel
USMCA vs. NAFTA1.0: With some adjustments, the USMCA would continue a program that allows duty-free access for limited quantities of wool, cotton, and man-made fiber apparel made with yarn or fabric produced or obtained from outside the NAFTA region, including yarns and fabrics from China and other Asian suppliers.
U.S. textile industry: The
textile industry contends China is a major
beneficiary of the current NAFTA TPL mechanism, and it strongly pushed for its
complete elimination in the USMCA.
U.S. apparel and retail
industries: U.S. imports of textiles and apparel covered by the tariff preference level mechanism supply 13% of
total U.S. textile and apparel imports from Canada and Mexico. Apparel
producers assert that these exceptions give regional producers flexibility to
use materials not widely produced in North America.
Viewpoints on other Provisions in USMCA
U.S. textile industry: The
U.S. textile industry also opposes the USMCA newly allows visible lining fabric
for tailored clothing could be sourced
from China or other foreign suppliers, and it would permit up to 10% of a
garment’s content, by weight, to come from outside the USMCA region (up from 7%
in NAFTA1.0). The U.S. textile industry also welcomes that the USMCA would add specific textile verification and
customs procedures aimed at preventing fraud and transshipment. Additionally, the U.S. textile industry is also pleased
that the USMCA would end the Kissell
Amendment. The Kissell Amendment is an exception in NAFTA that allows
manufacturers from Canada and Mexico to qualify as “American” sources when Department
of Homeland Security (DHS) buys textiles, clothing, and footwear using
appropriated funds (about $30 million markets
for textiles, clothing, and shoes altogether).
U.S. apparel and retail
industries: Apparel importers are of
concern that the USMCA continue to incorporate the existing NAFTA short
supply procedure, which is extremely difficult to get a new item approved and
added to the list, limiting their flexibility to source apparel with inputs
from outside North America.
Finally, the report argues that “Regardless of whether the USMCA takes effect, the global competitiveness of U.S. textile producers and U.S.-headquartered apparel firms may depend more on their ability to compete against Asian producers than on the USMCA trade rules.”
Last week in FASH455, we discussed the unique critical role played by textile and apparel trade in generating economic growth in many developing countries. The developed countries also use trade policy tools, such as trade preference programs, to encourage the least developed countries (LDCs) making and exporting more apparel. However, a debate on these trade programs is that they have done little to improve the genuine competitiveness of LDCs’ apparel exports in the world marketplace, but instead have made LDCs rely heavily on these trade programs to continue their apparel exports. Here is one more example:
With growing concerns about “the deterioration of democracy, respect for human rights and the rule of law in Cambodia”, in a statement made on February 12, 2019, the European Union says it has started the process that could lead to a temporary suspension of Cambodia’s eligibility for EU’s Everything But Arms (EBA) program. Specifically, the EU process will include the following three stages:
Stage 1: six
months of intensive monitoring and engagement with the Cambodian government;
Stage 2: another three months for the EU to produce a
report based on the findings in stage 1
Stage 3: after
a total of twelve months in stages 1
& 2, the EU Commission will conclude the procedure with a final decision on
whether or not to withdraw tariff preferences; it is also at this stage that
the Commission will decide the scope and duration of the withdrawal. Any
withdrawal would come into effect after a further six-month period.
However, the EU
Commission also stressed that launching the temporary withdrawal procedure does
not entail an immediate removal of Cambodia’s preferential access to the EU
market, which “would be the option of last resort.”
Developed in 2001, the EBA program establishes duty-free and quota-free
treatment for all Least Developed Countries (LDCs) in the EU market. EBA includes
almost all industries other than arms and armaments. As of February 2019, there
EBA beneficiary countries.
The EBA program has benefited the apparel sector in particular given clothing accounts for the lion’s share in many LDCs’ total merchandise exports. Because of the preferential duty benefits provided by EBA, many LDCs can compete with other competitive apparel powerhouses such as China. Notably, the EBA program also adopts the “cut and sew” rules of origin for apparel, which is more general than the “double transformation” rules of origin typically required by EU free trade agreement and trade preference programs. Under the “cut and sew” rule, Cambodia’s apparel exports to the EU can enjoy the import duty-free treatment while using yarns and fabrics sourced from anywhere in the world.
Cambodia is a major apparel supplier for the EU market, accounting for approximately 4% of EU’s
total apparel imports in 2017. Exporting
apparel to EU through the EBA program is also of particular importance to
Cambodia economically. In 2016, the apparel sector created over 500,000
jobs in Cambodia, of whom 86% were female, working in 556 registered factories.
According to Eurostat, of EU’s €4.9bn imports from Cambodia in 2017, around 74.9% were apparel (HS chapters 61 and
62). Meanwhile, of EU’s €3.7bn apparel imports from Cambodia in 2017, as high
as 96.6% claimed the EBA benefits. Understandably,
losing the EBA eligibility could hurt Cambodia’s apparel exports to the EU significantly.
#1 President Trump has been proposing many tariffs on imports from foreign countries such as China. Do you think that these high tariffs will actually drive more production into North American manufacturers and promote the US economy, or will it hurt the U.S. and inflate the costs of U.S. production? Why?
#2 In class we discussed that trade creates winners and
losers. So will President Trump’s high tariffs create winners and losers too?
Who are they? Also, why should or should not government use trade policy to pick
up winners and losers in international trade?
#3 What are some possible solutions to the trade deficit
between the United States and China other than high tariffs? Why or why not trade
deficit is a problem to worry about?
#4 If Trump is able to impose more tariffs and even the
playing field with China, will a new “China” arise from a rivaling country,
which can continue to pressure US manufacturers? Why?
#5 Why does Columbia refuse to bring production to the US,
as Trump would like?
#6 Columbia has been designing products to specifically get
around the tariffs set by President Trump which creates trade loopholes for
their company. Do you think that it is ethical for them to do this? Why or why
#7 If President Trump keeps raising tariffs and wants goods
to be made domestically, how will other countries respond to this with all of
their excess goods?
#8 Why would President Trump continue to advocate and push
for this tariff even if an overwhelming amount if businesses are hurt by it,
finding ways around it, or getting excused from its implications? Do the pros
outweigh the cons?
[For FASH455: 1)
Please mention the question number in your comments; 2) Please address at least
TWO questions in your comments]
1: What do you see as the biggest challenges – and opportunities – facing the apparel industry in 2019, and why?
In my view, uncertainty will remain the single biggest challenge facing the apparel industry in 2019, ranging from a more volatile global economy, the unpredictable outlook of the U.S.-China trade talks to the various possible scenarios of Brexit. While uncertainty creates exciting new research opportunities for scholars like me, it could be a big headache for companies seeking a foreseeable market environment to guide their future business plan and investments.
Meanwhile, the increasing digitalization of the apparel supply chain based on big-data tools and artificial intelligence (AI) technologies means a huge opportunity for fashion companies. Indeed, the apparel industry is quickly changing in nature—becoming ever more globalized, supply-chain based, technology-intensive and data-driven. Take talent recruitment as an example. In the 2018 US Fashion Industry Benchmarking Study, which I conducted in collaboration with the US Fashion Industry Association (USFIA), as much as 68 percent of surveyed leading U.S. fashion brands and apparel retailers say they plan to increase hiring of data scientists in the next five years. Googling “apparel industry” together with terms such as “big data” and “data science” also returns much more results than in the past. It is hopeful that the advancement of digital technologies and the smarter use of data will enable apparel companies to overcome market uncertainties better and improve many aspects of their businesses such as speed to market, operational efficiency and even sustainability.
2: What’s happening with sourcing? How is the sourcing landscape likely to shift in 2019, and what can apparel firms and their suppliers do to stay ahead?
Based on my research, I have three observations regarding apparel companies’ sourcing trends and the overall sourcing landscape in 2019:
First, apparel companies overall will continue to maintain a diverse sourcing base. For example, in a recent study, we examined the detailed sourcing portfolios of the 50 largest U.S.-based apparel companies ranked by the Apparel Magazine. Notably, on average these companies sourced from over 20 different countries or regions using more than 200 vendors in 2017. Similarly, in the 2018 US Fashion Industry Benchmarking Study, which I conducted in collaboration with the US Fashion Industry Association (USFIA), we also found companies with more than 1,000 employees typically source from more than ten different countries and regions. Since no sourcing destination is perfect, maintaining a relatively diverse sourcing base allows apparel companies to strike a balance among various sourcing factors ranging from cost, speed, flexibility, to risk management.
Second, while apparel companies are actively seeking new sourcing bases, many of them are reducing either the number of countries they source from or the number of vendors they work with. According to our study, some apparel companies have been strategically reducing the number of sourcing facilities with the purpose of ensuring closer collaborations with their suppliers on social and environmental compliance issues. Some other companies are consolidating their sourcing base within certain regions to improve efficiency and maximize productivity in the supply chain. Related to this trend, it is interesting to note that approximately half of the 50 largest U.S. apparel companies report allocating more sourcing orders to their largest vendor in 2017 than three years ago.
Third, nearshoring or onshoring will become more visible. Take “Made in the USA” apparel for example. According to the 2018 U.S. Fashion Industry Benchmarking Study, around 46 percent of surveyed U.S. fashion brands and apparel retailers report currently sourcing “Made in the USA” products, even though local sourcing typically only account for less than 10 percent of these companies’ total sourcing value or volume. In a recent study, we find that 94 out of the total 348 retailers (or 27 percent) sold “Made in the USA” apparel in the U.S. market between December 2017 and November 2018. These “Made in the USA” apparel items, in general, focus on fashion-oriented women’s wear, particularly in the categories of bottoms (such as skirts, jeans, and trousers), dresses, all-in-ones (such as playsuits and dungarees), swimwear and suits-sets. The advantage of proximity to the market, which makes speedy replenishment for in-season items possible, also allows retailers to price “Made in the USA” apparel substantially higher than imported ones and avoid offering deep discounts. Looking ahead, thanks to automation technology and consumers’ increasing demand for speed to market, I think nearshoring or onshoring, including ”Made in the USA” apparel, will continue to have its unique role to play in fashion brands and retailers’ merchandising and sourcing strategies.
3: What should apparel firms and their suppliers be doing now if they want to remain competitive further into the future? What will separate the winners from the losers?
2019 will be a year to test apparel companies’ resources, particularly in the sourcing area. For example, winners will be those companies that have built a sophisticated but nimble global sourcing network that can handle market uncertainties effectively. Likewise, companies that understand and leverage the evolving “rules of the game”, such as the apparel-specific rules of origin and tariff phase-out schedules of existing or newly-reached free trade agreements, will be able to control sourcing cost better and achieve higher profit margins. Given the heavy involvement of trade policy in apparel sourcing this year, companies with solid government relations should also enjoy unique competitive advantages.
On the other hand, as apparel business is changing in nature, to stay competitive, apparel companies need to start investing the future. This includes but not limited to exploring new sourcing destinations, studying the changing consumer demographics, recruiting new talents with expertise in emerging areas, and adopting new technologies fitting for the digital age.
4: What keeps you awake at night? Is there anything else you think the apparel industry should be keeping a close eye on in the year ahead? Do you expect 2019 to be better than 2018, and why?
Two things are at the top of my watchlist:
First, what is the future of China as an apparel sourcing base? While external factors such as the U.S.-China tariff war have attracted most of the public attention, the genuine evolution of China’s textile and apparel industry is something even more critical to watch in the long run. From my observation, China is playing an increasingly important role as a textile supplier for apparel-exporting countries in Asia. For example, measured by value, 47 percent of Bangladesh’s textile imports came from China in 2017, up from 39 percent in 2005. Similar trends are seen in Cambodia (up from 30 percent to 65 percent), Vietnam (up from 23 percent to 50 percent), Pakistan (up from 32 percent to 71 percent), Malaysia (up from 25 percent to 54 percent), Indonesia (up from 28 percent to 46 percent), Philippines (up from 19 percent to 41 percent) and Sri Lanka (up from 15 percent to 39 percent) over the same time frame. A key question in my mind is how quickly China’s textile and apparel industry will continue to evolve and upgrade by following the paths of most other advanced economies in history.
Second, how will the implementation of several newly-reached free trade agreements (FTAs) affect the big landscape of apparel sourcing and the existing regional apparel supply chains? For example:
The newly-reached U.S.-Mexico-Canada Free Trade Agreement (USMCA or commonly called NAFTA2.0) includes several interesting changes to the textile and apparel specific rules of origin provisions, such as the adjustment of the tariff-preference level (TPL) mechanism. Whether these changes will boost textile and apparel production in the Western-Hemisphere and attract more sourcing from the region will be something interesting to watch.
In 2017, close to 80% of Asian countries’ textile imports came from other Asian countries, up from around 70% in the 2000s. Similarly, in 2017, 85.6% of Asian countries’ apparel imports also came from within the region. The negotiation of the Regional Comprehensive and Economic Partnership (RCEP) is likely to conclude in 2019, whose membership includes member states of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and other six economies in the Asia-Pacific region (Australia, China, India, Japan, South Korea and New Zealand). Will RCEP result in an ever more integrated Asia-based textile and apparel supply chain and make the Asia region even more competitive as an apparel sourcing destination?
October 16, 2018, the Trump
Administration notified U.S. Congress its intention to negotiate the
U.S.-EU Free Trade Agreement. Between
2013 and 2016, the United States and EU were also engaged in the negotiation of
a comprehensive free trade agreement– Trans-Atlantic Trade and Investment Partnership
(T-TIP) with the goal to unlock market access opportunities for
businesses on both sides of the Atlantic through the ambitious elimination of
trade and investment barriers as well as enhanced regulatory coherence. The T-TIP
negotiation was stalled since 2017, although
the Trump Administration has never officially announced to withdraw from the
II. Negotiating Objectives
January 11, 2019, the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative (USTR) released
objectives of the proposed U.S.-EU Free Trade Agreement after
seeking inputs from the public. Overall, the proposed agreement aims to address
both tariff and non-tariff barriers and to “achieve fairer, more balanced trade”
between the two sides.
Regarding textiles and apparel, 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. The proposed U.S.-EU free trade
agreement also will “establish origin procedures for the certification and
verification of rules of origin that promote strong enforcement, including with respect to textiles.” T-TIP
had adopted similar negotiating objectives for the textile and apparel sector.
III. Industry viewpoints on the agreement
January 2019, leading trade associations
representing the U.S. apparel industry and the EU textile and apparel industries
have expressed support for the proposed U.S.-EU Free Trade Agreement. In general,
these industry associations recommend the agreement to achieve the following
First, eliminate import duties. For example:
Apparel and Footwear Association (AAFA): “We
support the immediate and reciprocal elimination of the high duties that both
countries maintain on textiles, travel goods, footwear, and apparel.”…” We also
support the immediate elimination of any retaliatory duties imposed by the
E.U., as well as any duties imposed by the U.S. (that led to that retaliation).
The duties impose costs on activities, including manufacturing activities in
the U.S., and undermine markets for U.S. exporters in Europe.”
Apparel and Textile Confederation (Euratex):“The
European Textile and Clothing sector faces high tariffs while exporting to the
US market from 11% to up to 32% for some products, namely sewing thread of
man-made filaments, suits, woven fabrics of cotton, trousers and t-shirts. Zero
customs duties while ensuring modern rules of origin will allow EU companies to
boost exports and offer more choice to American consumers and professional
Second, promote regulatory coherence (Harmonization). For example:
AAFA: “The E.U. and the
United States both maintain an extensive array of product safety, chemical management,
and labeling requirements regarding apparel (including legwear), footwear,
textiles, and travel goods.”…” Yet they often contain different requirements,
such as testing or certification, that greatly add compliance costs.”…” We
believe the U.S.‐E.U. trade agreement presents an important opportunity to achieve
harmonization or alignment for these regulations.”
Euratex: “Maintaining high
level of standards while eliminating unnecessary burdens, removing additional
requirements and facilitating customs procedures that impede business are top
priorities. Mutual recognition of the EU and US standards will preserve high
level of consumer protection on both sides of the Atlantic. Convergence on labelling (fibre
names, care symbols and wool labelling),
consumer safety on children products and flammability standards is key for the
T&C sector.” “EURATEX believes the EU and US standardization bodies should
cooperate on setting standards for Smart Textiles taking into account the
industry views for facilitating development and trade of such products of the
Third, adopt flexible/modern rules of origin. For example:
AAFA: “We should also support higher usage of the agreement by making sure the rules of origin reflect the realities of the industry today…”the yarn forward” rules, although theoretically promote usage of trade partner inputs, in practice they operate as significant barriers that restrict the ability of companies to use a trade agreement in many cases”…” We need to incorporate sufficient flexibilities into the rules of origin so that different supply chains –and the U.S. jobs they support – can take advantage of the agreement.”
Euratex: “Zero customs
duties while ensuring modern rules of
origin will allow EU companies to boost exports and offer more choice to
American consumers and professional buyers.”
The National Council of Textile Organizations (NCTO), which represents the U.S. textile industry, hasn’t publically stated its position on the proposed U.S.-EU Free Trade Agreement. However, NCTO had strongly urged U.S. trade negotiators to adopt a yarn-forward rule of origin in T-TIP. NCTO also opposed opening the U.S. government procurement market protected by the Berry Amendment to EU companies.
IV. Patterns of U.S.-EU textile and apparel trade
United States and the EU are mutually important textile and apparel (T&A)
trading partners. For example, the United States is EU’s largest extra-region
export market for textiles, and EU’s fifth largest extra-region supplier of
textiles in 2017 (Euratex, 2018).
the EU is one of the leading export markets for U.S.-made technical textiles as
well as an important source of high-end apparel products for U.S. consumers (OTEXA,
2018). Specifically, in 2017, U.S. T&A exports to the European Union
totaled $2,572 million, of which 73.2% were textile products, such as specialty
& industrial fabrics, felts & other non-woven fabrics and filament
yarns. In comparison, EU’s T&A exports to the United States totaled $4,163
million in 2017, among which textiles and apparel evenly accounted for 48.7%
and 51.3% respectively.
V. Potential economic impact of the agreement
By adopting the Global Trade Analysis Project (GTAP) model, Lu (2017) quantitatively evaluated the potential impact of a free trade agreement between the U.S. and EU on the textile and apparel sector. According to the study:
the trade creation effect of the agreement will expand the EU-U.S.
intra-industry trade for textiles. Meanwhile, the agreement is likely to
significantly expand EU’s apparel exports to the United States.
the trade diversion effect of the U.S.-EU Free Trade Agreement will affect other
T&A exporters negatively, including Asia’s T&A exports to the U.S. market
and EU and Turkey’s T&A exports to the EU market.
Third, the U.S.-EU Textile and Apparel Trade might affect the intra-region T&A trade in the EU region negatively but in a limited way.
Overall, the study suggests that the EU T&A industry will benefit from the additional market access opportunities created by the U.S.-EU Free Trade Agreement.One important factor is that the U.S. and EU T&A industries do not constitute a major competing relationship. For example, the United States is no longer a major apparel producer, and EU’s apparel exports to the United States fulfill U.S. consumers’ demand for high-end luxury products. The U.S.-EU Free Trade Agreement is also likely to create additional export opportunities for EU textile companies in the U.S. market, especially in the technical textiles area, which accounted for approximately 40% of EU’s total textile exports to the United States in 2017 measured in value. Compared with traditional yarns and fabrics for apparel making purposes, technical textiles are with a greater variety in usage, which allows EU companies to be able to differentiate products and find their niche in the U.S. market.
Further, the study suggests that we shall pay more attention to the details of non-tariff barrier removal under the U.S.-EU Free Trade Agreement, which could result in bigger economic impacts than tariff elimination.
While apparel products are not subject to the Section 301 tariff yet, the trade action nevertheless has created huge market uncertainties for U.S. fashion brands and apparel retailers. Here is how the monthly trade flow of U.S. apparel imports has reflected the impacts of the U.S.-China tariff war:
First, U.S. companies did NOT stop importing from China. Seasonally adjusted data shows that between January and September 2018, the value of U.S. apparel imports from China decreased by 0.6 percent in volume and 0.05 percent in value year on year. Despite the decline, China remained the No.1 apparel supplier for the U.S. market in the first nine months of 2018, accounting for 32.3 percent market share in value and 41.3 percent shares in quantity, only marginally dropped by 1 and 0.7 percentage points from a year earlier respectively .
Second, apparel “Made in China” are becoming even cheaper. Notably, the average unit price of U.S. apparel imports from China dropped from $2.5/SME in 2016,$2.38/SME in 2017 to $2.36/SME in the first nine months of 2018. On the one hand, this result suggests that cost concern is not the most influential factor that drives U.S. companies to source less from China. However, it is also likely that Chinese exporters are intentionally reducing their price to keep their orders and overcome the challenges caused by the Section 301.
Third, there is no perfect replacement for “Made in China”. In response to the market uncertainty created by the Section 301 trade action, U.S. apparel importers are diversifying their sourcing base. That being said, it is difficult to identify a single largest beneficiary–notably, the market shares of apparel exports from Vietnam, Bangladesh, NAFTA, and CAFTA regions only marginally increased in the first nine months of 2018 compared with a year ago.
Additionally, it remains unclear whether the section 301 trade action has benefited U.S. textile and apparel manufacturing. Data shows that in the first ten months of 2018, the production index (2012=100) of textile manufacturing in the United States slightly increased from 92.8 in 2017to 94.3. However, over the same period, the index of apparel manufacturing decreased from 73.6 to 72.4.
Looking ahead, the volume of US textile and apparel imports from China is likely to increase in the short run since U.S. importers are eager to complete their sourcing orders before the new tariff hit. Usually, companies place sourcing orders several months ahead of the selling season. However, it will be interesting to see if the trade data in the first half of 2019 will reveal the negative impact of the Section 301 action on China’s apparel exports to the U.S. market.
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.
1) Compared with NAFTA, USMCA will cut the TPL level, but only to those product categories with a low TPL utilization rate;
2) 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.
Before taking into effect, USMCA still needs to be ratified by all member countries. In the United States, the earliest that President Trump can sign the agreement will be 11/29/2018 (i.e., 90 days after notifying the Congress). The U.S. International Trade Commission has until 3/14/2019 (i.e., 150 days after President signing the agreement) to release an assessment of the new trade agreement. Afterward, the Trump Administration will need to work with the Congress to develop legislation to approve and implement the agreement.
The $200 billion imports from China targeted include 5,745 full or partial lines of the original 6,031 tariff lines that were on a proposed list of Chinese imports announced on July 10, 2018. Included among the products removed from the original proposed list are certain consumer electronics products such as smart watches and Bluetooth devices; certain chemical inputs for manufactured goods, textiles and agriculture; certain health and safety products such as bicycle helmets, and child safety furniture such as car seats and playpens.
Below are the textile and apparel related products removed from the original proposed list:
However, the final $200 billion product list still covers several textile and apparel-related products such as backpacks, handbags, purses, wallets, baseball gloves, hats and leather, and fur apparel, as well as textiles and machinery that are used for domestic manufacturing. In general, the final $200 billion product list includes about 20% consumer products (v.s. only 1% in the $50 billion already subject to the 25% additional tariff), 50% intermediary goods and 30% capital goods.
The state of the U.S. textile and apparel (T&A) manufacturing sector
U.S. T&A manufacturing has shrunk significantly: the value of T&A shipments (seasonally adjusted) in 2016 ($68 billion) was almost 56% decrease in real terms since 1995 ($153 billion).
U.S. T&A manufacturing has undergone substantial structural change: textiles and textile products accounted for 82% of the total shipments of the U.S. T&A industry as of 2016, compared to 57% in 1995. Notably, only 18% of shipments came from apparel manufacturing in 2016, compared to 43% in 1995.
U.S. T&A manufacturing sector is hiring less: Between 1990 and 2016, total employment decreased by 79%, from 1.7 million to 352,000 workers; over the same period, over 86% of apparel manufacturing jobs disappeared.
U.S. T&A manufacturers are making more capital investments: The overall total Capital Expenditures (CAPEX) of the 571 respondents increased 90 percent from 2012 to 2016 (from $1.6 billion to $3.1 billion). Particularly, the CAPEX of textile mills grew by 80 percent over that period—mostly on “Machinery, Equipment, and Vehicles.”
North Carolina hosted the largest number of U.S. T&A facilities (22 percent of the respondents), followed by Georgia (10 percent), and South Carolina (9 percent).
China, Mexico, and Canada are the most popular destinations for foreign investments by U.S. T&A manufacturers.
Competition landscape and factors
Respondents listed a total of 1,309 U.S. competitors and 552 non-U.S. competitors. Chinese companies were cited as the number one source of foreign competition.
“Quality,” “Lead Time,” and “Innovation” were the top three competitive advantages of U.S. T&A manufacturers as they related to foreign competition. “Labor Costs” was regarded as the top disadvantage of U.S. T&A manufacturing.
43 percent of respondents believed that reshoring was occurring in U.S. T&A manufacturing. Almost all of these respondents believed that “Shorter Lead Times” and the “Marketability of the ‘Made in USA’ Label” were the factors driving the trend.
The Affordable Care Act (ACA), Minimum Wage regulations (Federal, State, and Local), and U.S. Trade Policy were the top governmental regulations and provisions cited as negatively impacting the competitiveness of U.S. T&A manufacturers.
61 percent of respondents reported that they had difficulties hiring and/or retaining employees for their T&A operations, specifically production line workers such as operators and machine technicians. The skill gaps in the labor market for those positions were by far the biggest ones identified for the industry.
43 percent of respondents believed that reshoring was occurring in T&A manufacturing (i.e., the practice of transferring a business operation that was moved to a non-U.S. location back to the United States.) Textile manufacturers were more likely to be aware of reshoring.
Trade and U.S. textile and apparel manufacturing
On average, respondents say 48 percent of their textile and textile products are “100 percent made in the U.S.”, while for apparel it was around 54 percent.
U.S. T&A exports dropped 10 percent between 2012 and 2016, from $2.2 billion to $1.98 billion. On average, exports accounted for only 12 percent of respondents’ total sales.
33 percent of respondents considered themselves to be dependent on foreign sources for supplies, which was highest among textile mills.
37 percent of respondents reported that they considered themselves to be dependent on non-U.S. sourcing for their machinery or equipment.
Berry Amendment and U.S. textile and apparel manufacturing
For textile mills, an average of 12 percent of U.S. output was Berry Amendment-related; for textile product mills the average was 21 percent, and for apparel production, it averaged 26 percent. 67 percent of respondents believed that the Berry Amendment had a positive impact on their organization’s business.
The Office of U.S. Trade Representative (USTR) announced that the United States and Mexico have “reached a preliminary agreement in principle” to update the 24-year old North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). According to USTR, compared with the existing NAFTA, the new deal will
strengthen the labor and environmental protection provisions
provide stronger and more effective protection and enforcement of intellectual property right protection
reduce various non-tariff barriers facing U.S. agriculture exports
include new rules of origin and origin procedures for autos (including requiring 75 percent of auto content be made in the United States and Mexico AND 40-45 percent of auto content be made by workers earning at least $16 per hour.)
include new chapters dealing with digital trade and textiles
include a 16-year “sunset period” with a review every six years, at which time the parties can renew the deal for another 16 years.
Specifically for the textile and apparel sector, USTR said that “The new provisions on textiles incentivize greater United States and Mexican production in textiles and apparel trade, strengthen customs enforcement, and facilitate broader consultation and cooperation among the Parties on issues related to textiles and apparel trade.” More specifically, the new textile chapter in renegotiated NAFTA will:
1) Promote greater use of Made-in-the-USA fibers, yarns, and fabrics by limiting rules that allow for some use of non-NAFTA inputs in textile and apparel trade; and requiring that sewing thread, pocketing fabric, narrow elastic bands, and coated fabric, when incorporated in apparel and other finished products, be made in the region for those finished products to qualify for trade benefits. “
2) Include textile-specific verification and customs cooperation provisions that provide new tools for strengthening customs enforcement and preventing fraud and circumvention.
Based on USTR’s statement, it is likely, although not confirmed, that the US-Mexico deal will allow more limited tariff preference level (TPL) than the existing NAFTA.
USTR’s statement also said that the new deal would be subject to “finalization and implementation,” and its relationship with NAFTA remain unclear. The statement did not mention anything about Canada, another NAFTA member, either. Interesting enough, when announcing the US-Mexico deal in front of the press, President Trump said “I will terminate the existing deal (NAFTA). When that happens, I can’t quite tell you; it depends on what the timetable is with Congress. But I’ll be terminating the existing deal and going into this deal. We’ll start negotiating with Canada relatively soon.”
In a statement released on the same day, the American Apparel and Footwear Association (AAFA) said it welcomed the conclusion of bilateral talks with Mexico on NAFTA and emphasized the need for Canada to be a part of any final agreement: “The conclusion of talks between the U.S. and Mexico is a positive step in the NAFTA negotiations, however, it is essential that the updated agreement remain trilateral. At the same time, we encourage the administration to share the details of the agreement so the business community can inspect the impact on North American supply chains and share feedback with the administration and Congress…Any update to the agreement must continue to support these American jobs, promote trade linkages, and be seamlessly implemented to be considered a success. It is with this in mind that we are deeply concerned to hear any mention of withdrawal or termination of the existing agreement at this late stage.”
According to Inside U.S. Trade, the National Council of Textile Organizations (NCTO)which represents the U.S. textile industry says it is “encouraged by the information released by USTR with respect to strengthening the rules of origin for textiles and apparel in the announced agreement with Mexico. U.S. talks with Canada are still ongoing, however, and NCTO will wait to review the text of any final agreement before issuing a more detailed statement on the negotiation outcome.”
Business challenges facing U.S. fashion companies: Protectionism is the top challenge for the U.S. fashion industry in 2018. More companies worry about increases in production or sourcing cost, too. For the second year in a row, “protectionist trade policy agenda in the United States” ranks the top challenge for U.S. fashion companies in 2018.
Industry outlook:Despite concerns about trade policy and cost, executives are more confident about the five-year outlook for the U.S. fashion industry in 2018 than they were a year ago, although confidence has not fully recovered to the level seen in 2015 and 2016. In addition, 100 percent of respondents say they plan to hire more employees in the next five years, compared with 80-85 percent in previous studies; market analysts, data scientists, sustainability/compliance related specialists or managers, and supply chain specialists are expected to be the most in-demand.
U.S. fashion companies’ sourcing strategy: When it comes to sourcing, diversification is key for many companies.
Most respondents continue to maintain a diverse sourcing base, with 60.7 percent currently sourcing from 10+ different countries or regions, up from 57.6 percent in 2017.
Larger companies, in general, continue to be more diversified than smaller companies.
Reflecting the U.S. fashion industry’s growing global reach, respondents report sourcing from as many as 51 countries or regions in 2018, the same as in 2017. Asia as a whole continues to take the lead as the dominant sourcing region. Meanwhile, with the growing importance of speed-to-market and flexibility, the Western Hemisphere is becoming an indispensable sourcing base.
Keeping a relatively diverse sourcing base will remain a key element of U.S. fashion companies’ sourcing strategy. Nearly 80 percent of respondents plan to source from the same number of countries, or more countries, in the next two years. However, respondents are equally divided on whether to increase or decrease the number of suppliers they will work with.
“China plus Vietnam plus Many” has become an ever more popular sourcing model among respondents. And this model is evolving as companies further diversify their China production. In particular, China now typically accounts for only 11-30 percent of companies’ total sourcing value or volume, compared with 30-50 percent in the past.
Although China’s position as the top sourcing destination is unshakable, companies are actively seeking alternatives to “Made in China.” This does not seem to be due to concerns about cost, but rather the worries about the escalating U.S.-China trade tensions.
Benefiting from the diversification away from China, Vietnam and Bangladesh are expected to play a bigger role as apparel suppliers for the U.S. market in the near future.
Rules of origin and the utilization of trade agreements for sourcing: Rules of origin, and exceptions to the rules of origin, significantly impact whether companies use free trade agreements (FTAs) and trade preference programs for sourcing.
While FTAs and trade preference programs remain largely underutilized by U.S. fashion companies, more companies are using NAFTA (65 percent), CAFTA-DR (58 percent) and AGOA (50 percent) than in the past two years.
Still, it’s concerning that companies often do not claim the duty-free benefits when sourcing from countries with FTAs or preference programs. Companies say this is primarily due to the strict rules of origin.
Exceptions to the “yarn-forward” rules of origin, including tariff preference levels (TPLs), commercial availability/short supply lists, and cumulation, are priorities for respondents; 48 percent say they currently use these mechanisms for sourcing. These exceptions provide critical flexibilities that make companies more likely to use FTAs and source from FTA regions.
NAFTA: U.S. fashion companies call for a further reduction of trade barriers and urge trade negotiators to “do no harm” to NAFTA, the most-utilized free trade agreement by respondents.
Respondents predominantly support initiatives to eliminate trade barriers of all kinds, from high tariffs to overcomplicated documentation requirements, to restrictive rules of origin in NAFTA and future free trade agreements.
More than half of respondents explicitly say NAFTA is important to their business—and they have grave concerns about the uncertain future of the agreement.
Sourcing in sustainable and socially compliant ways: Overall, U.S. fashion companies are making more commitments to sustainability and social responsibility.
85 percent of respondents plan to allocate more resources for sustainability and social compliance in the next two years, in areas including providing training to suppliers and internal employees, adding more employees, and working more closely with third-party certification programs on sustainability and social compliance. However, the availability of operational budget remains the primary hurdle for companies that want to do more.
100 percent of respondents map their supply chains (i.e., keep records of name, location, and function of suppliers), up from 90 percent in 2017. Over 80 percent of respondents track not only Tier 1 suppliers (i.e., factory where the final product is assembled), but also Tier 2 suppliers (i.e., subcontractors or major component suppliers, such as fabrics). However, it’s less common for companies to map Tier 3 (i.e., yarn spinners, finding and trimming suppliers) and Tier 4 suppliers (i.e., raw materials suppliers, such as cattle/pig hides, rubber, cotton, wool, goose down, minerals/metals and chemicals).
100 percent of respondents audit their suppliers for issues including building safety, fire safety, and treatment of workers. The vast majority of respondents (96 percent) currently use third-party certification programs to audit, with both announced and unannounced audits.
The US Fashion Industry Benchmarking Study from 2014 to 2017 can be downloaded from HERE