Outlook 2019: Apparel Industry Issues in the Year Ahead

In January 2019, Just-Style consulted a panel of industry leaders and scholars in its Outlook 2019–Apparel Industry Issues in the Year Ahead management briefing. Below is my contribution to the report. Any comments and suggestions are more than welcome!

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.
  • The implementation of the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP) and the EU-Vietnam Free Trade Agreement (EVFTA) will allow Vietnam to get access to nearly 40% of the world apparel import market (i.e., EU + Japan) duty-free. However, restrained by the country’s relatively small population, the apparel industry is increasingly facing the challenge of competing for labor with other export-oriented sectors in Vietnam. Realistically, what is the growth potential of apparel “Made in Vietnam” after the implementation of CPTPP and EVFTA?
  • 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?  

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Textile and Apparel and the Proposed U.S.-EU Free Trade Agreement

I. Background

On 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 agreement.   

II. Negotiating Objectives

On January 11, 2019, the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative (USTR) released the negotiating 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

As of 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 goals:

First, eliminate import duties. For example:

American 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.”

European 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 buyers.”

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 future.”

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

The 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).

Meanwhile, 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:

First, 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.

Second, 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. 

Recommended reading:
Lu, S. (2017). Trans-Atlantic Trade and Investment Partnership: An Opportunity or a Threat to the EU Textile and Apparel Industry? Journal of the Textile Institute, 109 (7), 933-941.

How Has the Apparel Trade Flow Reacted to the Section 301 Tariff Action against China? (updated November 2018)

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.

Data source: Office of Textiles and Apparel (OTEXA), US Department of Commerce

by Sheng Lu

Apparel Specific Rules of Origin in NAFTA 2.0 (US-Mexico-Canada Free Trade Agreement)

Untitled

The full article is available HERE

Key findings:

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:

  • 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.

About USMCA

On 30 September 2018, The United States reached an agreement with Canada, alongside Mexico on the updated North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), now called the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA)

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.

Textile and Apparel Items Removed from USTR’s Original Proposed Product List for the Section 301 Action (September 2018)

On September 17, 2018, President Trump formerly announced to take the Section 301 action against another $200 billion worth of imports from China. The additional tariffs will be effective starting September 24, 2018, and initially will be in the amount of 10 percent.  Starting January 1, 2019, the level of the additional tariffs will increase to 25 percent.

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:

section 301

Data source: CCCT (2018) 

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.

Trade War Looms over New York Fashion Week

Discussion questions:

  • Why does the U.S. textile industry call for additional tariffs on textile and apparel imports from China whereas U.S. fashion brands and apparel retailers oppose the tariffs?
  • Based on the trade theories we have learned so far, why or why not would you recommend President Trump to impose 25% punitive tariffs on imports from China?

Appendix: Comments on the Proposed Section 301 Tariffs on Imports from China (August 2018)

For the complete timeline of the U.S. Section 301 tariff action against China, please click HERE