Trend 1: US fashion companies continue to diversify their sourcing base in 2022
Numerous studies suggest that US fashion companies leverage sourcing diversification and sourcing from countries with large-scale production capacity in response to the shifting business environment. For example, according to the 2022 fashion industry benchmarking study from the US Fashion Industry Association (USFIA), more than half of surveyed US fashion brands and retailers (53%) reported sourcing apparel from over ten countries in 2022, compared with only 37% in 2021. Nearly 40% of respondents plan to source from even more countries and work with more suppliers over the next two years, up from only 17% in 2021.
Trade data confirms the trend. For example, the Herfindahl–Hirschman index (HHI), a commonly-used measurement of market concentration, went down from 0.110 in 2021 to 0.105 in 2022, suggesting that US apparel imports came from even more diverse sources.
Trend 2: Asia as a whole will remain the dominant source of imports
Measured in value, about 73.5% of US apparel imports came from Asia in 2022, up from 72.8% in 2021. Likewise, the CR5 index, measuring the total market shares of the top five suppliers—all Asia-based, i.e., China, Vietnam, Bangladesh, Indonesia, and India, went up from 60.6% in 2021 to 61.1% in 2022. Notably, the CR5 index without China (i.e., the total market shares of Vietnam, Bangladesh, Indonesia, India, and Cambodia) enjoyed even faster growth, from 40.7% in 2021 to 43.7% in 2022.
Additionally, facing growing market uncertainties and weakened consumer demand amid high inflation pressure, US fashion companies may continue to prioritize costs and flexibility in their vendor selection. Studies consistently show that Asia countries still enjoy notable advantages in both areas thanks to their highly integrated regional supply chain, production scale, and efficiency. Thus, US fashion companies are unlikely to reduce their exposure to Asia in the short to medium term despite some worries about the rising geopolitical risks.
Trend 3: US fashion companies’ China sourcing strategy continues to evolve
Several factors affected US apparel sourcing from China negatively in 2022:
One was China’s stringent zero-COVID policy, which led to severe supply chain disruptions, particularly during the fall. As a result, China’s market shares from September to November 2022 declined by 7-9 percentage points compared to the previous year over the same period.
The second factor was the implementation of the Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act (UFLPA) in June 2022, which discouraged US fashion companies from sourcing cotton products from China. For example, only about 10% of US cotton apparel came from China in the fourth quarter of 2022, down from 17% at the beginning of the year and much lower than nearly 27% back in 2018.
The third contributing factor was the US-China trade tensions, including the continuation of Section 301 punitive tariffs. Industry sources indicate that US fashion companies increasingly source from China for relatively higher-value-added items targeting the premium or luxury market segments to offset the additional sourcing costs.
Further, three trends are worth watching regarding China’s future as an apparel sourcing base for US fashion companies:
One is the emergence of the “Made in China for China” strategy, particularly for those companies that view China as a lucrative sales market. Recent studies show that many US fashion companies aim to tailor their product offerings further to meet Chinese consumers’ needs and preferences.
Second is Chinese textile and apparel companies’ growing efforts to invest and build factories overseas. As a result, more and more clothing labeled “Made in Bangladesh” and “Made in Vietnam” could be produced by factories owned by Chinese investors.
Third, China could accelerate its transition from exporting apparel to providing more textile raw materials to other apparel-exporting countries in Asia. Notably, over the past decade, most Asian apparel-exporting countries have become increasingly dependent on China’s textile raw material supply, from yarns and fabrics to various accessories. Moreover, recent regional trade agreements, particularly the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), provide new opportunities for supply chain integration in Asia.
Trend 4: US fashion companies demonstrate a new interest in expanding sourcing from the Western Hemisphere, but key bottlenecks need to be solved
Trade data suggests a mixed picture of near-shoring in 2022. For example, members of the Dominican Republic-Central America Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA-DR) and US-Mexico-Canada Trade Agreement (USMCA) accounted for a declining share of US apparel imports in 2022, measured in quantity and value. While CAFTA-DR and USMCA members showed an increase in their market share of US apparel imports in the fourth quarter of 2022, reaching 10.7% and 3.1%, respectively, this growth was not accompanied by an increase in trade volume. Instead, US apparel imports from these countries decreased by 11% and 15%, respectively, compared to the previous year. CAFTA-DR and USMCA members’ gain in market share was mainly due to a sharper decline in US apparel imports from the rest of the world (i.e., decreased by over 25% in the fourth quarter of 2022).
Trade data also suggests two other bottlenecks preventing more US apparel sourcing from CAFTA-DR and USMCA members. One is the lack of product diversity. For example, the product diversification index consistently shows that US apparel imports from CAFTA-DR members and Mexico concentrated on only a limited category of products, and the problem worsened in 2022. The result explained why US fashion companies often couldn’t move souring orders from Asia to CAFTA-DR and USMCA members.
Another problem is the underutilization of the trade agreement. For example, CAFTA-DR’s utilization rate for US apparel imports consistently went down from its peak of 87% in 2011 to only 74% in 2021. The utilization rate fell to 66.6% in 2022, the lowest since CAFTA-DR fully came into force in 2007. This means that as much as one-third of US apparel imports from CAFTA-DR did NOT claim the agreement’s preferential duty benefits. Thus, regarding how to practically grow US fashion companies’ near-shoring, we could expect more public discussions and debates in the new year.
Second, I hope FASH455 helps students shape a big-picture vision of the T&A industry in the 21st-century world economy and provides students a fresh new way of looking at the world. Throughout the semester, we’ve examined many critical, timely, and pressing global agendas that are highly relevant to the T&A industry, from the impact of COVID-19 on apparel sourcing and trade, apparel companies’ social responsibility practices, the debate on the textile and apparel provisions in U.S. free trade agreements to the controversy of forced labor in the apparel supply chain. It is critical to keep in mind that we wear more than clothes: We also wear the global economy, international business, public policy, and trade politics that make affordable, fashionable, and safe clothes possible and available for hardworking families.
Likewise, I hope FASH455 can put students into thinking about why “fashion” matters. A popular misconception is that “fashion and apparel” are just about “sewing,” “fashion magazine,” “shopping” and “Project Runway.” In fact, as one of the largest and most economically influential sectors in the world today, the fashion industry plays a critical and unique role in creating jobs, promoting economic development, enhancing human development, and reducing poverty. As we mentioned in class, over 120 million people remain directly employed in the T&A industry globally, and a good proportion of them are females living in poor rural areas. For most developing countries, T&A typically accounts for 70%–90% of their total merchandise exports and provides one of the very few opportunities for these countries to participate in globalization. COVID-19, in particular, reveals the fashion industry’s enormous social and economic impacts and many problems that need our continuous efforts to make an improvement.
Last but not least, I hope from taking FASH455, students will take away meaningful questions that can inspire their future studies and even life’s pursuit. For example:
How to make apparel sourcing and trade more sustainable, socially responsible and transparent? What needs to be done further–fashion companies, government, consumers and other stakeholders?
How has COVID-19 fundamentally and permanently changed the pattern of apparel sourcing and trade? What role can the textile and apparel sector play in contributing to the post-COVID economic recovery?
How will automation, AI and digital technologies change the future landscape of apparel sourcing, trade, and job opportunities? What may fashion education look like ten years from now given the shifting nature of the industry?
How to use trade policy as a tool to solve challenging global issues such as forced labor and climate change? Or shall we leave these issues to the market forces?
We don’t have solid answers yet for these questions. However, these issues are waiting for you, the young professional and the new generation of leaders, to write history, based on your knowledge, wisdom, responsibility, courage, and creativity!
So what do you take away from FASH455? Please feel free to share your thoughts and comments.
In December 2022, Just-Style consulted a panel of industry experts and scholars in its Outlook 2023–what’s next for apparel sourcing briefing. Below is my contribution to the report. All comments and suggestions are more than welcome!
2023 is likely another year full of challenges and opportunities for the global apparel industry.
First, the apparel industry may face a slowed world economy and weakened consumer demand in 2023. Apparel is a buyer-driven industry, meaning the sector’s volume of trade and production is highly sensitive to the macroeconomic environment. Amid hiking inflation, high energy costs, and retrenchment of global supply chains, leading international economic agencies, from the World Bank to the International Monetary Fund (IMF), unanimously predict a slowing economy worldwide in the new year. Likewise, the World Trade Organization (WTO) forecasts that the world merchandise trade will grow at around 1% in 2023, much lower than 3.5% in 2022. As estimated, the world apparel trade may marginally increase between 0.8% and 1.5% in the new year, the lowest since 2021. On the other hand, the falling demand may somewhat help reduce the rising sourcing cost pressure facing fashion companies in the new year.
Second, fashion brands and retailers will likely continue leveraging sourcing diversification and strengthening relationships with key vendors in response to the turbulent market environment. According to the 2022 fashion industry benchmarking study I conducted in collaboration with the US Fashion Industry Association (USFIA), nearly 40 percent of surveyed US fashion companies plan to “source from more countries and work with more suppliers” through 2024. Notably, “improving flexibility and reducing resourcing risks,” “reducing sourcing from China,” and “exploring near-sourcing opportunities” were among the top driving forces of fashion companies’ sourcing diversification strategies. Meanwhile, it is not common to see fashion companies optimize their supplier base and work with “fewer vendors.” For example, fashion companies increasingly prefer working with the so-called “super-vendors,” i.e., those suppliers with multiple-country manufacturing capability or can make textiles and apparel vertically, to achieve sourcing flexibility and agility. Hopefully, we could also see a more balanced supplier-importer relationship in the new year as more fashion companies recognize the value of “putting suppliers at the core.”
Third, improving sourcing sustainability and sourcing apparel products using sustainable textile materials will gain momentum in the new year. On the one hand, with growing expectations from stakeholders and pushed by new regulations, fashion companies will make additional efforts to develop a more sustainable, socially responsible, and transparent apparel supply chain. For example, more and more fashion brands and retailers have voluntarily begun releasing their supplier information to the public, such as factory names, locations, production functions, and compliance records. Also, new traceability technologies and closer collaboration with vendors enable fashion companies to understand their raw material suppliers much better than in the past. Notably, the rich supplier data will be new opportunities for fashion companies to optimize their existing supply chains and improve operational efficiency.
On the other hand, with consumers’ increasing interest in fashion sustainability and reducing the environmental impact of textile waste, fashion companies increasingly carry clothing made from recycled textile materials. My latest studies show that sourcing clothing made from recycled textile materials may help fashion companies achieve business benefits beyond the positive environmental impacts. For example, given the unique supply chain composition and production requirements, China appeared to play a less dominant role as a supplier of clothing made from recycled textile materials. Instead, in the US retail market, a substantial portion of such products was “Made in the USA” or came from emerging sourcing destinations in America (e.g., El Salvador, Nicaragua) and Africa (e.g., Tunisia and Morocco). In other words, sourcing clothing made from recycled textile materials could help fashion companies with several goals they have been trying to achieve, such as reducing dependence on sourcing from China, expanding near sourcing, and diversifying their sourcing base. Related, we are likely to see more public dialogue regarding how trade policy tools, such as preferential tariffs, may support fashion companies’ efforts to source more clothing using recycled or other eco-friendly textile materials.
Additionally, the debates on fashion companies’ China sourcing strategy and how to meaningfully expand near-sourcing could intensify in 2023. Regarding China, fashion companies’ top concerns and related public policy debates next year may include:
What contingency plan will be should the geopolitical tensions in the Asia-Pacific region directly affect shipping from the region?
Meanwhile, driven by various economic and non-economic factors, fashion companies will likely further explore ways to “bring the supply chain closer to home” in 2023. However, the near-shoring discussion will become ever more technical and detailed. For example, to expand near-shoring from the Western Hemisphere, more attention will be given to the impact of existing free trade agreements and their specific mechanisms (e.g., short supply in CAFTA-DR) on fashion companies’ sourcing practices. Even though we may not see many conventional free trade agreements newly launched, 2023 will be another busy year for textile and apparel trade policy deliberation, especially behind the scene and on exciting new topics.
#1. What makes globalization and trade controversial and debatable? Please use 1-2 examples from the video to illustrate your point.
#2. Are classic trade theories (e.g., comparative advantage) still relevant or outdated in the 21st century? Why? Please share your thoughts based on the video and the figures.
#3. Based on the video and the figures above, is the US textile manufacturing sector a winner or loser of globalization and international trade? Why?
#4. Related to question #3, does the future prosperity of the US textile manufacturing sector need globalization or de-globalization? What’s your vision?
#5. Take the following poll (anonymous) and share your reflections.
#6. Should the government’s trade policy consider non-economic factors such as national security and geopolitics? What should be the line between promoting “fair trade” and “trade protectionism”? What’s your view?
#7. Is there anything else you find interesting/intriguing/thought-provoking in the video? Why?
(Welcome to our online discussion. For students in FASH455, please address at least two questions and mention the question number (#) in your reply)
On September 2, 2022, the Office of the US Trade Representative (USTR) announced it would continue the billions of dollars of Section 301 punitive tariffs against Chinese products. USTR said it made the decision based on requests from domestic businesses benefiting from the tariff action. As a legal requirement, USTR will launch a full review of Section 301 tariff action in the coming months.
In her remarks at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace on Sep 7, 2022, US Trade Representative Katharine Tai further said that the Section 301 punitive tariffs on Chinese imports “will not come down until Beijing adopts more market-oriented trade and economic principles.” In other words, the US-China tariff war, which broke out four years ago, is not ending anytime soon.
A Brief History of the US Section 301 tariff action against China
The US-China tariff war broke out as both unexpected and not too surprising. For decades, the US government had been criticizing China for its unfair trade practices, such as providing controversial subsidies to state-owned enterprises (SMEs), insufficient protection of intellectual property rights, and forcing foreign companies to transfer critical technologies to their Chinese competitors. The US side had also tried various ways to address the problems, from holding bilateral trade negotiations with China and imposing import restrictions on specific Chinese goods to suing China at the World Trade Organization (WTO). However, despite these efforts, most US concerns about China’s “unfair” trade practices remain unsolved.
When former US President Donald Trump took office, he was particularly upset about the massive and growing US trade deficits with China, which hit a record high of $383 billion in 2017. In alignment with the mercantilism view on trade, President Trump believed that the vast trade deficit with China hurt the US economy and undermined his political base, particularly with the working class.
President Trump lost his patience with China in the summer of 2018. In the following months, citing the USTR Section 301 investigation findings, the Trump administration announced imposing a series of punitive tariffs on nearly half of US imports from China, or approximately $250 billion in total. As a result, for more than 1,000 types of products, US companies importing them from China would have to pay the regular import duties plus a 10%-25% additional import tax. However, the Trump administration’s trade team purposefully excluded consumer products such as clothing and shoes from the tariff actions. The last thing President Trump wanted was US consumers, especially his political base, complaining about the rising price tag when shopping for necessities. The timing was also a sensitive factor—the 2018 congressional mid-term election was only a few months away.
President Trump hoped his unprecedented large-scale punitive tariffs would change China’s behaviors on trade. It partially worked. As the trade frictions threatened economic growth, the Chinese government returned to the negotiation table. Specifically, the US side wanted China to purchase more US goods, reduce the bilateral trade imbalances and alter its “unfair” trade practices. In contrast, the Chinese asked the US to hold the Section 301 tariff action immediately.
However, the trade talks didn’t progress as fast as Trump had hoped. Even worse, having to please domestic forces that demanded a more assertive stance toward the US, the Chinese government decided to impose retaliatory tariffs against approximately $250 billion US products. President Trump felt he had to do something in response to China’s new action. In August 2019, he suddenly announced imposing Section 301 tariffs on a new batch of Chinese products, totaling nearly $300 billion. As almost everything from China was targeted, apparel products were no longer immune to the tariff war.With the new tariff announcement coming at short notice, US fashion brands and retailers were unprepared for the abrupt escalation since they typically placed their sourcing orders 3-6 months before the selling season.
Nevertheless, Trump’s new Section 301 actions somehow accelerated the trade negotiation. The two sides finally reached a so-called“phase one” trade agreementin about two months. As part of the deal, China agreed to increase its purchase of US goods and services by at least $200 billion over two years, or almost double the 2017 baseline levels. Also, China promised to address US concerns about intellectual property rights protection, illegal subsidies, and forced technology transfers. Meanwhile, the US side somewhat agreed to trim the Section 301 tariff action but rejected removing them. For example, the punitive Section 301 tariffs on apparel products were cut from 15% to 7.5% since implementing the “phase one” trade deal.
Trump lost the 2020 presidential election, and Joe Biden was sworn in as the new US president on January 20, 2021. However, the Section 301 tariff actions and the US-China “phase one” trade deal stayed in force.
Debate on the impact of the US-China tariff war
Like many other trade policies, the US Section 301 tariff actions against China raised heated debate among stakeholders with competing interests. This was the case even among different US textile and apparel industry segments.
On the one hand, US fashion brands and retailers strongly oppose the punitive tariffs against Chinese products for several reasons:
First, despite the Section 301 tariff action, China remained a critical apparel sourcing base for many US fashion companies with no practical alternative. Trade statistics show that four years into the tariff war, China still accounted for nearly 40 percent of US apparel imports in quantity and about one-third in value as of 2021. According to the latest data, in the first ten months of 2022, China remained the top apparel supplier, accounting for 35% of US apparel imports in quantity and 22.2% in value. Studies also consistently find that US fashion companies rely on China to fulfill orders requiring a small minimum order quantity, flexibility, and a great variety of product assortment.
Second, having to import from China, fashion companies argued that the Section 301 punitive tariffs increased their sourcing costs and cut profit margins. For example, for a clothing item with an original wholesale price of around $7, imposing a 7.5% Section 301 punitive tariff would increase the sourcing cost by about 5.8%. Should fashion companies not pass the cost increase to consumers, their retail gross margin would be cut by 1.5 percentage points. Notably, according to the US Fashion Industry Association’s 2021 benchmarking survey, nearly 90 percent of respondents explicitly say the tariff war directly increased their company’s sourcing costs. Another 74 percent say the tariff war hurt their company’s financials.
Third, as companies began to move their sourcing orders from China to other Asian countries like Vietnam, Bangladesh, and Cambodia to avoid paying punitive tariffs, these countries’ production costs all went up because of the limited production capacity. In other words, sourcing from everywhere became more expensive because of the Section 301 action against China.
Further, it is important to recognize that fashion companies supported the US government’s efforts to address China’s “unfair” trade practices, such as subsidies, intellectual property rights violations, and forced technology transfers. Many US fashion companies were the victims of such practices. However, fashion companies did not think the punitive tariff was the right tool to address these problems effectively. Instead, fashion brands and retailers were concerned that the tariff war unnecessarily created an uncertain and volatile market environment harmful to their business operations.
“While NCTO members support the inclusion of finished products in Section 301, we are seriously concerned that…adding tariffs on imports of manufacturing inputs that are not made in the US such as certain chemicals, dyes, machinery, and rayon staple fiber in effect raises the cost for American companies and makes them less competitive with China.”
Mitigate the impact of the tariff war: Fashion Companies’ Strategies
The first approach was to switch to China’s alternatives. Trade statistics suggest that Asian countries such as Vietnam and Bangladesh picked up most of China’s lost market shares in the US apparel import market. For example, in 2022 (Jan-Nov), Asian countries excluding China accounted for 51.2% of US apparel imports, a substantial increase from 41.2% in 2018 before the tariff war. In comparison, about 16.4% of U.S. apparel imports came from the Western Hemisphere in 2021 (Jan-Nov), lower than 17.0% in 2018. In other words, no evidence shows that Section 301 tariffs have expanded U.S. apparel sourcing from the Western Hemisphere.
The second approach was to adjust what to source from China by leveraging the country’s production capacity and flexibility. For example, market data from industry sources showed that since the Section 301 tariff action, US fashion companies had imported more “Made in China” apparel in the luxury and premium segments and less for the value and mass markets. Such a practice made sense as consumers shopping for premium-priced apparel items typically were less price-sensitive, allowing fashion companies to raise the selling price more easily to mitigate the increasing sourcing costs. Studies also found that US companies sourced fewer lower value-added basic fashion items (such as tops and underwear), but more sophisticated and higher value-added apparel categories (such as dresses and outerwear) from China since the tariff war.
Related, US fashion companies such as Columbia Sportswear leveraged the so-called “tariff engineering” in response to the tariff war. Tariff engineering refers to designing clothing to be classified at a lower tariff rate. For example, “women’s or girls’ blouses, shirts, and shirt-blouses of man-made fibers” imported from China can tax as high as 26.9%. However, the same blouse added a pocket or two below the waist would instead be classified as a different product and subject to only a 16.0% tariff rate. Nevertheless, using tariff engineering requires substantial financial and human resources, which often were beyond the affordability of small and medium-sized fashion companies.
Third, recognizing the negative impacts of Section 301 on US businesses and consumers, the Office of the US Trade Representative (USTR) created a so-called “Section 301 exclusion process.” Under this mechanism, companies could request that a particular product be excluded from the Section 301 tariffs, subject to specific criteria determined at the discretion of USTR. The petition for the product exclusion required substantial paperwork, however. Even companies with an in-house legal team typically hire a DC-based law firm experienced with international trade litigation to assist the petition, given the professional knowledge and a strong government relation needed. Also of concern to fashion companies was the low success rate of the petition. The record showed that nearly 90 percent of petitions were denied for failure to demonstrate “severe economic harm.” Eventually, since the launch of the exclusion process, fewer than 1% of apparel items subject to the Section 301 punitive tariff were exempted. Understandably, the extra financial burden and the long shot discouraged fashion companies, especially small and medium-sized, from taking advantage of the exclusion process.
In conclusion, with USTR’s latest announcement, the debate on Section 301 and the outlook of China as a textile and apparel sourcing base will continue. Notably, while economic factors matter, we shall not ignore the impact of non-economic factors on the fate of the Section 301 tariff action against China. For example, with the implementation of the Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act (UFLPA), only about 10% of US cotton apparel imports came from China in the first ten months of 2022 (latest data available), the lowest in a decade. As the overall US-China bilateral trade relationship significantly deteriorated in recent years and the friction between the two countries expanded into highly politically sensitive areas, the Biden administration could “willfully” choose to keep the Section 301 tariff as negotiation leverage. Domestically, President Biden also didn’t want to look “weak” on his China policy, given the bipartisan support for taking on China’s rise.
This article provided a comprehensive review of the world textiles and clothing trade patterns in 2021 based on the newly released data from the World Trade Statistical Review 2022 and the United Nations (UNComtrade). Affected by the ongoing pandemic and companies’ evolving production and sourcing strategies in response to the shifting business environment, the world textiles and clothing trade patterns in 2021 included both continuities and new trends. Specifically:
Pattern #1: As the world economy recovered from COVID, the world clothing export boomed in 2021, while the world textile exports grew much slower due to a high trade volume the year before. Specifically, thanks to consumers’ strong demand, world clothing exports in 2021 fully bounced back to the pre-COVID level and exceeded $548.8bn, a substantial increase of 21.9% from 2020. The apparel sector is not alone. With economic activities mostly resumed, the world merchandise trade in 2021 also jumped 26.5% from a year ago, the fastest growth in decades.
In comparison, the value of world textiles exports grew slower at 7.8% in 2021 (i.e., reached $354.2bn), lagging behind most sectors. However, such a pattern was understandable as the textile trade maintained a high level in 2020, driven by high demand for personal protective equipment (PPE) during the pandemic.
Nevertheless, the world textiles and clothing trade could face strong headwinds down the road due to a slowing world economy and consumers’ weakened demand. Notably, amid hiking inflation, high energy costs, and retrenchment of global supply chains, leading international economic agencies, from the World Bank to the International Monetary Fund (IMF), unanimously predict a slowing economy worldwide. Likewise, the World Trade Organization (WTO) forecasts that the growth of world merchandise trade will be cut to 3.5% in 2022 and down further to only 1% in 2023. As a result, the world textiles and clothing trade will likely struggle with stagnant growth or a modest decline over the next two years.
Pattern #2: COVID did NOT fundamentally shift the competitive landscape of textile exports but affected the export product structure. Meanwhile, some long-term structural changes in world textile exports continued in 2021.
Specifically, China, the European Union (EU), and India remained the world’s three largest textile exporters in 2021, a pattern that has stayed stable for over a decade. Together, these top three accounted for 68% of the world’s textile exports in 2021, similar to 66.9% before the pandemic (2018-2019). Other textile exporters that made it to the top ten list in 2021 were also the same as a year ago and before the pandemic (2018-2019).
Meanwhile, the growth rate of the top ten textile exporters varied significantly in 2021, ranging from -5.5% (China) to 47.8% (India). The demand shift from PPE to apparel-related yarns and fabrics was a critical contributing factor behind the phenomenon. For example, China’s PPE-related textile exports decreased by more than $33bn (or down 43%) in 2021. In contrast, the world knit fabric exports (SITC code 655) surged by more than 30% in 2021, led by India (up 74%) and Pakistan (up 72%). Nevertheless, as consumers’ lifestyles almost reached a “new normal,” we could expect the textile export product structure to stabilize soon.
On the other hand, as a trend already emerged before the pandemic, middle-income developing countries continued to play a more significant role in textile exports, whereas developed countries lost market shares. For example, the United States, Germany, and Italy led the world’s textile exports in the 2000s, accounting for more than 20% of the market shares. However, these three countries’ shares fell to 12.8% in 2019 and hit a new low of 11.3% in 2021. In comparison, middle-income developing countries like China, Vietnam, Turkey, and India have entered the development stage of expanding textile manufacturing. As a result, their market share in the world’s textile exports rose steadily. These countries also achieved a more balanced textiles/clothing export ratio over the years, meaning more textile raw materials like yarns and fabrics can be locally produced instead of relying on imports. For example, Vietnam, known for its competitive clothing products, achieved a new high of $11.5bn in textile exports in 2021 and ranked sixth globally. Vietnam’s textiles/clothing ratio also doubled from 0.15 in 2005 to 0.37 in 2021. It is not unlikely that Vietnam’s textile exports may surpass the United States over the next few years.
Pattern #3: Countries with large-scale production capacity stood out in world clothing exports in 2021. Meanwhile, clothing exporters compete to become China’s alternatives, but there seems to be no clear winner yet.
Consumers’ surging demand and COVID-related supply chain disruptions significantly impacted the world’s clothing export patterns in 2021. As fashion brands and retailers were eager to find sourcing capacity, countries with large-scale production capacity and relatively stable supply enjoyed the fastest growth in clothing exports. For example, except for Vietnam, which suffered several months of COVID lockdowns, all other top five clothing exporters enjoyed a more than 20% growth of their exports in 2021, such as China (up 24%), Bangladesh (up 30%), Turkey (up 22%), and India (up 24%).
As another critical trend, many international fashion brands and retailers have been trying to reduce their apparel sourcing from China, driven by various economic and non-economic factors, from cost considerations and trade tensions to geopolitics. Notably, despite its strong performance in 2021, China accounted for only 23.1% of US apparel imports in 2022 (January to September), much lower than 36.2% in 2015. Likewise, China’s market shares in the EU, Japanese, and Canadian clothing import markets also fell over the same period, suggesting this was a worldwide phenomenon.
With reduced apparel sourcing from China, fashion companies have actively sought alternative sourcing destinations, but the latest trade data suggests no clear winner yet. For example, Vietnam and Bangladesh, the two most popular candidates for “Next China,” accounted for 6.5% and 5.7% shares in the world’s clothing export in 2021, still far behind China (32.1%). Interestingly, from 2015 to 2021, the world’s top four largest clothing exporters next to China (i.e., Bangladesh, Vietnam, Turkey, and India) did not substantially gain new market shares. Instead, China’s lost market was filled by “the rest of the world.”
Additionally, recent studies show that many fashion companies have switched back to the sourcing diversification strategy in 2022 as managing risks and improving sourcing flexibility become more urgent priorities. In other words, the world’s clothing export market could turn more “crowded” and competitive in the coming years.
Pattern #4: Regional supply chains remain critical features of the world textiles and clothing trade. Several factors support and shape the regional textiles and clothing trade patterns. First, as clothing production often needs to be close to where textile materials are available, many developing clothing-producing countries rely heavily on imported textile materials, primarily from more advanced economies in the same region. Second, through lowered trade barriers, regional free trade agreements also financially encouraged garment producers, particularly in Asia, the EU, and Western Hemisphere (WH), to use locally or regionally made textile materials. Further, fashion companies’ interest in “near-shoring” supported the regional supply chain, and related textiles and clothing trade flows between neighboring countries.
The latest trade data indicated that Asia’s regional textiles and clothing trade patterns strengthened further despite supply chain chaos during the pandemic. Specifically, in 2021, as many as 82% of Asian countries’ textile imports came from within Asia, up from 80% in 2015. China, in particular, has played a more prominent role as a leading textile supplier for other Asian clothing-exporting countries. For example, more than 60% of Vietnam’s textile imports came from China in 2021, a substantial increase from 23% in 2005. The same pattern applied to Pakistan, Cambodia, Bangladesh, and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) members.
In January 2022, the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), a mega free trade agreement involving all major economies in Asia, entered into force. The tariff cut and very liberal rules of origin of the agreement will hopefully drive Asia’s booming regional textiles and clothing trade and further deepen its regional economic integration.
Besides Asia, the regional textiles and clothing trade pattern in the EU (or the so-called Intra-EU trade) was also in good shape. In 2021, 50.8% of EU countries’ textile imports and 37% of clothing imports came from other EU members. This pattern has changed little over the past decade, thanks to many EU countries’ commitment to maintaining local textiles and clothing production rather than outsourcing.
In comparison, the Western Hemisphere (WH) textile and apparel supply chain (e.g., clothing made in Mexico or Central America using US or regionally made textiles) seemed to struggle in recent years. As of 2021, only 20% of WH countries’ textile imports came from within WH, down from 26% in 2015. Likewise, WH countries (mainly the US and Canada) just imported 14.6% of clothing from WH in 2021, down from 15.3% in 2015 and much lower than their EU counterparts (37% in 2021). It will be interesting to see whether US and Canadian fashion companies’ expressed interest in expanding near-shoring may reverse the course.
Furthermore, the regional textiles and clothing trade patterns in Sub-Saharan Africa (SSA) are also worth watching. Compared with Asia and the EU, SSA clothing producers used much fewer locally-made textiles (i.e., stagnant at around 11% only from 2011 to 2021), reflecting the region’s lack of textile manufacturing capability. Most trade programs with SSA countries, such as the US-led African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA) and EU’s Everything But Arms (EBA) program, adopt liberal rules of origin for clothing products, allowing third-party textile input to be used. It can be studied whether such liberal rules of origin somehow disincentivize building SSA’s own textile manufacturing sector or are still essential given the reality of SSA’s limited textile production capacity.
This study offers valuable input and practical policy recommendations from U.S. apparel companies’ perspectives regarding expanding U.S. apparel sourcing from CAFTA-DR members. For the study, we consulted executives at 27 leading U.S.-based apparel companies (note: 85% report having annual revenues exceeding $500 million; over 95% have been sourcing apparel from the CAFTA-DR region for more than ten years).
The results confirm that expanding U.S. apparel sourcing from CAFTA-DR could be the best chance to effectively create more jobs in Central America and solve the root causes of migration there. To achieve this goal, we need to focus on four areas:
First, improve CAFTA-DR’s apparel production capacity and diversify its product offers.
As many as 92 percent of respondents report currently sourcing apparel from CAFTA-DR members.
Highly consistent with the macro trade statistics, the vast majority of respondents (i.e., 60 percent) place less than 10 percent of their company’s total sourcing orders with CAFTA-DR members.
Whereas respondents rate CAFTA-DR members overall competitive in terms of “speed to market,” they express concerns about CAFTA-DR countries’ limited production capacity in making various products. As a result, U.S. companies primarily source basic fashion items like T-shirts and sweaters from the region. These products also face growing price competition with many alternative sourcing destinations.
Improving CAFTA-DR’s production capacity and diversifying product offers would encourage U.S. apparel companies to move more sourcing orders from Asia to the region permanently.
Second, practically solve the bottleneck of limited textile raw material supply within CAFTA-DR and do NOT worsen the problem.
The limited textile raw material supply within CAFTA-DR is a primary contributing factor behind the region’s stagnated apparel export volume and a lack of product diversification.
Notably, respondents say for their apparel imports from CAFTA-DR members, only 42.9% of fabrics, 40.0% of sewing threads, and 23.8% of accessories (such as trims and labels) can be sourced from within the CAFTA-DR area (including the United States). CAFTA-DR’s textile raw material supply problem could worsen as the U.S. textile industry switches to making more technical textiles and less so for apparel-related fabrics and textile accessories.
Maintaining the status quo or simply calling for making the CAFTA-DR apparel supply chain more “vertical” will NOT automatically increase the sourcing volume. Instead, allowing CAFTA-DR garment producers to access needed textile raw materials at a competitive price will be essential to encourage more U.S. apparel sourcing from the region.
Third, encourage more utilization of CAFTA-DR for apparel sourcing.
CAFTA-DR plays a critical role in promoting U.S. apparel sourcing from the region. Nearly 90 percent of respondents say the duty-free benefits provided by CAFTA-DR encourage their apparel sourcing from the region.
The limited textile supply within CAFTA-DR, especially fabrics and textile accessories, often makes it impossible for U.S. companies to source apparel from the region while fully complying with the strict “yarn-forward” rules of origin. As a result, consistent with the official trade statistics, around 31 percent of respondents say they sometimes have to forgo the CAFTA-DR duty-free benefits when sourcing from the region.
Respondents say the exceptions to the “yarn-forward” rules of origin, including “short supply,” “cumulation,” and “cut and assemble” rules, provide necessary flexibilities supporting respondents’ apparel sourcing from CAFTA-DR members. Around one-third of respondents utilize at least one of these three exceptions when sourcing from CAFTA-DR members when the products are short of meeting the strict “yarn-forward” rules of origin. It is misleading to call these exceptions “loopholes.”
Fourth, leverage expanded apparel sourcing to incentivize more investments in the CAFTA-DR region’s production and infrastructure.
U.S. apparel companies are interested in investing in CAFTA-DR to strengthen the region’s sourcing and production capacity. Nearly half of respondents explicitly say they will make investments, including “building factories or expanding sourcing or manufacturing capacities” in the CAFTA-DR region through 2026.
CAFTA-DR will be better positioned to attract long-term investments in its textile and apparel industry with a sound and expanded apparel sourcing volume.
U.S. fashion companies report significant challenges coming from the macro-economy in 2022, particularly inflation and rising cost pressures. However, most respondents still feel optimistic about the next five years.
Respondents rated “increasing production or sourcing costs” and “inflation and outlook of the U.S. economy” as their 1st and 3rd top business challenges in 2022.
As a new record, 100 percent of respondents expect their sourcing costs to increase in 2022, including nearly 40 percent expecting a substantial cost increase from a year ago. Further, almost everything has become more expensive this year, from textile raw materials, shipping, and labor to the costs associated with compliance with trade regulations.
Over 90 percent of respondents expect their sourcing value or volume to grow in 2022, but more modest than last year.
Despite the short-term challenges, most respondents (77 percent) feel optimistic or somewhat optimistic about the next five years. Reflecting companies’ confidence in their businesses, nearly ALL respondents (97 percent) plan to increase hiring over the next five years.
U.S. fashion companies adopt a more diverse sourcing base in response to supply chain disruptions and the need to mitigate growing sourcing risks.
Asia remains the dominant sourcing base for U.S. fashion companies—eight of the top ten most utilized sourcing destinations are Asia-based, led by China, Vietnam, Bangladesh, and India.
More than half of respondents (53 percent) report sourcing apparel from over ten countries in 2022, compared with only 37 percent in 2021.
Reducing “China exposure” is one crucial driver of U.S. fashion companies’ sourcing diversification strategy. One-third of respondents report sourcing less than 10% of their apparel products from China this year. In addition, a new record of 50 percent of respondents sources MORE from Vietnam than China in 2022.
Nearly 40 percent of respondents plan to “source from more countries and work with more suppliers” over the next two years, up from only 17 percent last year.
Managing the risk of forced labor in the supply chain is a top priority for U.S. fashion companies in 2022, especially with the new implementation of the Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act (UFLPA).
Over 95 percent of respondents expect UFLPA’s implementation to affect their company’s sourcing. Notably, more than 85 percent of respondents plan to cut their cotton-apparel imports from China, and another 45 percent to further reduce non-cotton apparel imports from the country.
Most respondents (over 92 percent) do NOT plan to reduce apparel sourcing from Asian countries other than China. However, nearly 60 percent of respondents also would “explore new sourcing destinations outside Asia” in response to UFLPA.
Mapping and understanding the supply chain is a critical strategy adopted by U.S. fashion companies to address the forced labor risks in the supply chain. Almost all respondents currently track Tier 1 and 2 suppliers. With the help of new traceability technologies, 53 percent of respondents have started tracking Tier 3 suppliers this year (i.e., those manufacturing yarn, threads, and trimmings), a substantial increase from 25-36 percent in the past.
There is considerable new excitement about increasing apparel sourcing from members of the Dominican Republic-Central America Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA-DR). Respondents also call for more textile raw sourcing flexibility to encourage apparel sourcing from the CAFTA-DR region.
CAFTA-DR plays a more significant role as a sourcing base. About 20 percent of respondents place more than 10% of their sourcing orders from the region, doubling from 2021.
Over the next two years, more than 60 percent of respondents plan to increase apparel sourcing from CAFTA-DR members as part of their sourcing diversification strategy.
CAFTA-DR is critical in promoting U.S. apparel sourcing from the region. Around 80 percent of respondents took advantage of the agreement’s duty-free benefits when sourcing apparel from the region this year, up from 50—60 percent in the past.
Respondents say the exceptions to the “yarn-forward” rules of origin, such as the “short supply” and “cumulation” mechanisms, provide essential flexibility that encourages more apparel sourcing from CAFTA-DR members.
Respondents say improving textile raw material supply is critical to encouraging more U.S. apparel sourcing from CAFTA-DR members. Particularly, “allowing more flexibility in souring fabrics from outside CAFTA-DR” and “improving yarn production capacity and variety within CAFTA-DR” are the top two priorities.
U.S. fashion companies strongly support another ten-year renewal of the African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA). Meanwhile, Ethiopia’s loss of AGOA eligibility discourages U.S. apparel sourcing from the ENTIRE AGOA region.
As much as 75 percent of respondents say another ten-year AGOA renewal will encourage more apparel sourcing from the region and making investment commitments.
However, despite the tariff benefits and the liberal rules of origin, respondents express explicit concerns about the region’s lack of competitiveness in speed to market, political instability, and having an integrated regional supply chain.
Ethiopia’s loss of AGOA benefits had a notable negative impact on sourcing from the country AND the entire AGOA region. Notably, no respondent plans to move sourcing orders from Ethiopia to other AGOA beneficiaries.
Textile and apparel manufacturing in the U.S. has significantly shrunk in size over the past decades due to multiple factors ranging from automation, import competition to the shifting U.S. comparative advantages for related products. However, U.S. textile manufacturing is gradually coming back. The output of U.S. textile manufacturing (measured by value added) totaled $16.59 billion in 2021, up 23.8% from 2009. In comparison, U.S. apparel manufacturing dropped to $9.5 billion in 2019, 4.4% lower than ten years ago (Bureau of Economic Analysis, 2021).
Meanwhile, like many other sectors, U.S. textile and apparel production was hit hard by COVID-19 in the first half of 2020 but started to recover in the 3rd quarter. Notably, as of December 2021, U.S. textile production had returned to its pre-COVID level.
On the other hand, as the U.S. economy is turning more mature and sophisticated, the share of U.S. textile and apparel manufacturing in the U.S. Gross Domestic Product (GDP) dropped to only 0.12% in 2020 from 0.57% in 1998 (Bureau of Economic Analysis, 2021).
The U.S. textile and apparel manufacturing is changing in nature. For example, textile products had accounted for over 66% of the total output of the U.S. textile and apparel industry as of 2019, up from only 58% in 1998 (Bureau of Economic Analysis, 2020). Textiles and apparel “Made in the USA” are growing particularly fast in some product categories that are high-tech driven, such as medical textiles, protective clothing, specialty and industrial fabrics, and non-woven. These products are also becoming the new growth engine of U.S. textile exports. Notably, “special fabrics and yarns” had accounted for more than 34% of U.S. textile exports in 2019, up from only 20% in 2010 (Data source: UNComtrade, 2021).
Compatible with the production patterns, employment in the U.S. textile industry (NAICS 313 and 314) and apparel industry (NAICS 315) fell to the bottom in April-May 2020 due to COVID-19 but started to recover steadily since June 2020. From January 2021 to December 2021, the total employment in the two sectors increased by 4.5% and 4.2%, respectively (Seasonally adjusted). However, the employment level remains much lower than the pre-COVID level (benchmark: December 2019).
To be noted, as production turns more automated and thanks to improved productivity (i.e., the value of output per worker), U.S. textile and apparel factories have been hiring fewer workers even before the pandemic. The downward trend in employment is not changing for the U.S. textile and apparel manufacturing sector. Related, how to attract the new generation of workforce to the factory floor remains a crucial challenge facing the future of textile and apparel “Made in the USA.”
It is not rare to find clothing labeled “made in the USA with imported fabric” or “made in the USA with imported material” in the stores. Statistical analysis shows a strong correlation between the value of U.S. apparel output and U.S. yarn and fabric imports from 1998 to 2019.
Like many other developed economies whose textile and apparel industries had reached the stage of post-maturity, the United States today is a net textile exporter and net apparel importer. COVID-19 has affected U.S. textile and apparel trade in several ways:
Trade volume fell and yet fully recovered: Both affected by the shrinkage of import demand and supply chain disruptions, the value of U.S. textile and apparel imports dropped by as much as 19.3% in 2020 from a year ago, particularly apparel items (down 23.5%). Likewise, the value of U.S. textile and apparel exports in 2020 decreased by 15.6%, including an unprecedented 26% decrease in yarn exports. Further, thanks to consumers’ robust demand, the value of US apparel imports enjoyed a remarkable 27.4% growth in 2021 from a year ago and but was still 2.5% short of the level in 2019.
Trade balance shifted: Before the pandemic, U.S. was a net exporter of fabrics. However, as the import demand for non-woven fabrics (for making PPE purposes) surged during the pandemic, U.S. ran a trade deficit of $502 million for fabrics in 2020; the trade deficit expanded to $975 million in 2021. Meanwhile, as retail sales slowed and imports dropped during the pandemic, the U.S. trade deficit in apparel shrank by 19% in 2020 compared with 2019. However, the shrinkage of the trade deficit did not necessarily boost clothing “Made in the USA” in 2020, reminding us that the trade balance often is not an adequate indicator to measure the economic impact of trade.
No change in export market: More than 70% of U.S. textile and apparel export went to the Western Hemisphere in 2021, a pattern that has stayed stable over the past decades (OTEXA, 2022). More can be done to strengthen the Western Hemisphere supply chain and textile and apparel production in the region by leveraging regional trade agreements like CAFTA-DR and USMCA.
The full study is available here(need Just-Style subscription)
By leveraging production and trade statistics from government databases, we examined the critical trends of US textile manufacturing and supply. Particularly, we try to understand the strengths and weaknesses of the United States as a textile raw material supplier for domestic garment manufacturers and those in the Western Hemisphere. Below are the key findings:
First, fiber, yarn, and thread manufacturing is a long-time strength in the US, whereas fabric production is much smaller in scale. Specifically, fiber, yarn, and thread (NAICS 31311) accounted for nearly 18% of US textile mills’ total output in 2019. In comparison, less than 13% of the production went to woven fabrics (NAICS 31321) and only about 5% for knit fabrics (NAICS 31324).
Second, the US textile industry shifts to make more technical textiles and less apparel-related yarns, fabrics, and other raw materials. Data shows that from 2015 to 2019, the value of US fiber, yarn, and thread manufacturing (NAICS code 31311) dropped by as much as 16.8 percent. Likewise, US broadwoven fabric manufacturing (NAICS code 31321) and knit fabric (NAICS code 31324) decreased by 2.0 percent and 2.7 percent over the same period. Labor cost, material cost, and capital expenditure are critical factors behind the structural shift of US textile manufacturing.
Third, the structural change of US textile manufacturing directly affects the role of the US serving as a textile supplier for domestic apparel producers and those in the Western Hemisphere.
On the one hand, the US remains a critical yarns and threads supplier in the Western Hemisphere. For example, from 2010 to 2019, the value of US fibers, yarn and threads exports (NAICS31311) increased by 25%, much higher than other textile categories. Likewise, in 2021, fibers, yarns, and threads accounted for about 23.3% of US textile exports, higher than 21.0% in 2010. Additionally, nearly 40% of Mexico and CAFTA-DR members’ yarn imports in 2021 (SITC 651) still came from the US, the single largest source. This trend has stayed stable over the past decade.
On the other hand, the US couldn’t sufficiently supply fabrics and other textile accessories for garment producers in the Western Hemisphere, and the problem seems to worsen. Corresponding to the decline in manufacturing, US broadwoven fabric (NAICS 31321) and knit fabric (NAICS 31324) exports decreased substantially.
The US also plays a declining role as a fabric and textile accessories supplier for garment factories in the Western Hemisphere. Garment producers in Mexico and CAFTA-DR members had to source 60%-80% of woven fabrics and 75-82% of knit fabrics from non-US sources in 2021. Likewise, only 40% and 14.6% of Mexico and CAFTA-DR members’ textile accessories, such as labels and trims, came from the US in 2021.
Likewise, the limited US fabric supply affects the raw material sourcing of domestic apparel manufacturers. For example, according to the “Made in the USA” database managed by the Office of Textiles and Apparel (OTEXA), around 36% of US-based apparel mills explicitly say they use “imported material,” primarily fabrics.
The study’s findings echo some previous studies suggesting that textile raw material supply, especially fabrics and textile accessories, could be the single most significant bottleneck preventing more apparel “Made in the USA” and near-sourcing from the Western Hemisphere.
Meanwhile, how to overcome the bottleneck could trigger heated public policy debate. For example, US policymakers could encourage an expansion of domestic fabric and textile accessories manufacturing as one option. However, to make it happen takes time and requires substantial new investments. Also, economic factors may continue to favor technical textiles production over apparel-related fabrics in the US.
(About the authors: Dr Sheng Lu is an associate professor in fashion and apparel studies at the University of Delaware; Anna Matteson is a research assistant in fashion and apparel studies at the University of Delaware).
As US fashion companies diversify their sourcing from Asia, near-sourcing from the Western Hemisphere, particularly members of the Dominican Republic-Central America Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA-DR) seems to benefit. According to the latest trade data from the Office of Textiles and Apparel (OTEXA), US apparel companies placed relatively more sourcing orders with suppliers in the Western Hemisphere in 2021. For example, CAFTA-DR members’ market shares increased by 0.31 percentage points in quantity and nearly one percentage point in value compared with a year ago.
However, it is concerning to see the utilization rate of CAFTA-DR for apparel sourcing fall to a new record low of only 73.7% in 2021. This means that as much as 26.3% of US apparel imports from CAFTA-DR members did NOT claim the duty-free benefits.
The lower free trade agreement (FTA) utilization rate became a problem, particularly among CAFTA-DR members with fast export growth to the US market in 2021. For example, whereas US apparel imports from Honduras enjoyed an impressive 45.6% growth in 2021, only 72.6% of these imports claimed the CAFTA-DR duty benefits, down from 82.3% a year ago. We can observe a similar pattern in El Salvador, Nicaragua, and the Dominican Republic.
The phenomenon is far from surprising, however. For years, US fashion companies have expressed concerns about the limited textile supply within CAFTA-DR, especially fabrics and textile accessories. The lack of textile supply plus the restrictive “yarn-forward” rules of origin in the agreement often creates a dilemma for US fashion companies: either source from Asia entirely or source from CAFTA-DR but forgo the duty-saving benefits.
Likewise, because of a lack of sufficient textile supply within the region, US apparel imports from CAFTA-DR members become increasingly concentrated on basic fashion items, typically facing intense competition with many alternative sourcing destinations. For example, measured in value, over 80% of US apparel imports from CAFTA-DR members in 2021 were shirts, trousers, and underwear. However, US companies import the vast majority (70%-88%) from non-CAFTA-DR sources for these product categories.
Understandably, it will be unlikely to substantially expand US apparel sourcing from CAFTA-DR members without solving the textile supply shortage problem facing the region.
First, US apparel imports continue to rebound in November 2021 as companies build the inventory for the holiday season. Thanks to US consumers’ strong demand and the upcoming holidays, the value of US apparel imports went up by 15.7% in November 2021 from a month ago (seasonally adjusted) and increased by as much as 39.7% from 2020. However, before the pandemic, the value of US apparel imports always peaked in October and then gradually slipped in November and December. The unusual surge of imports in November 2021 could be the combined effects of price inflation and the late arrival of goods due to the shipping crisis.
Meanwhile, US apparel imports so far in 2021 have been far more volatile than in the past few years because of uncertainties and disruptions caused by COVID-19 and the shipping crisis. For example, the year-over-year (YoY) growth rate ranged from 131% in May to 17.6% in July, causing fashion companies additional inventory planning and supply chain management challenges. Unfortunately, the new omicron variant could worsen the market uncertainty and volatility.
Second, Asian countries remain the dominant sourcing base for US fashion companies as the production capacity elsewhere is limited. Asian countries’ market shares fell from 74.2% in 2020 to 71.3% in July 2021, primarily because of the COVID lockdowns in Vietnam and Bangladesh. US apparel imports came from Asian countries rebounded to 74.8% and 72.5% in October and November 2021, respectively. This result suggests a lack of alternative sourcing destinations outside Asia, especially for large volume items. Meanwhile, the worsening shipping crisis affecting the route from Asia to North America could explain why Asian suppliers’ market shares in November were somewhat lower than a month ago.
Third, US companies continue to treat China as one of their essential sourcing bases in the current business environment. However, companies are NOT reversing their long-term strategy of reducing “China exposure.” China stays the largest supplier for the US market in November 2021, accounting for 41.5% of total US apparel imports in quantity and 25.8% in value. Due to the seasonal factor, China’s market shares typically peak from June to September and then drop from October until March-April.
Both industry sources and the export product diversification index also consistently show that China supplied the most variety of products to the US market with no near competitors. In comparison, US apparel imports from Bangladesh, Mexico, and CAFTA-DR members concentrate more on specific product categories.
Nevertheless, the HHI index and market concentration ratios (CR3 and CR5) calculated based on the latest data suggest that US fashion companies continue to move their apparel sourcing orders from China to other Asian countries overall. For example, only around 15% of US cotton apparel comes from China, compared with about 27% in 2018. My latest studies also indicate that it has become ever more common to see a fashion company places only around 10% of its total sourcing value or volume from China compared to over 30% in the past. Furthermore, with the growing tensions of the US-China relations and the newly enacted Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act, fashion companies could take another look at their China sourcing strategy to avoid potential high-impact disruptions.
Fourth, near sourcing from the Western Hemisphere, especially CAFTA-DR members, continue to gain popularity. Specifically, 17.3% of US apparel imports came from the Western Hemisphere year-to-date (YTD) in 2021 (January-November), higher than 16.1% in 2020. Notably, CAFTA-DR members’ market shares increased to 10.6% in 2021 (January to November) from 9.6% in 2020. The value of US apparel imports from CAFTA-DR also enjoyed a 41.7% growth in 2021 (January—November) from a year ago, one of the highest among all sourcing destinations. The imports from El Salvador (up 42.6%), Honduras (up 47.1%), and Guatemala (36.6%) had grown particularly fast so far in 2021. However, the political instability in some Central American countries could make fashion companies feel hesitant to permanently switch their sourcing orders to the region or make long-term investments.
Additionally, the latest trade data suggests a notable increase in the price of US apparel imports. Notably, the unit price of US apparel imports from almost all leading sources went up by more than 10% from January 2021 to November 2021. As worldwide inflation continues, the rising sourcing cost pressure won’t ease anytime soon.
As “COVID sets the agenda” and the trajectory of several critical market and non-market forces hard to predict (for example, global inflation, and geopolitics), fashion companies may still have to deal with a highly volatile and uncertain market environment in 2022. That being said, it is still hopeful that fashion companies’ toughest sourcing challenges in 2021 will start to gradually ease at some point in the new year, including the hiking shipping costs, COVID-related lockdowns, and supply chain disruptions.
In response to the “new normal,” fashion companies may find several sourcing strategies essential:
One is to maintain a relatively diverse apparel sourcing base. The latest trade data suggests that US, EU, and Japan-based fashion companies have been steadily sourcing from a more diverse group of countries since 2018, and such a trend continues during the pandemic. Echoing the pattern, in the latest annual benchmarking study I conducted in collaboration with the United States Fashion Industry Association (USFIA), we find that “China plus Vietnam plus many” remains the most popular sourcing model among respondents. This strategy means China and Vietnam combined now typically account for 20-40 percent of a fashion company’s total sourcing value or volume, a notable down from 40-60 percent in the past few years. Fashion companies diversify their sourcing away from “China plus Vietnam” to avoid placing “all eggs in one basket” and mitigate various sourcing risks. In addition, more than 85 percent of surveyed fashion companies say they will actively explore new sourcing opportunities through 2023, particularly those that could serve as alternatives to sourcing from China.
The second strategy is to strengthen the relationship with key vendors further. As apparel is a buyer-driven industry, fashion brands and retailers fully understand the importance of catering to consumers’ needs. However, the supply chain disruptions caused by COVID-19 remind fashion companies that building a close and partner-based relationship with capable suppliers also matters. For example, working with vendors that have a presence in multiple countries (or known as “super-vendors”) offers fashion companies a critical competitive edge to achieve more flexibility and agility in sourcing. Sourcing from vendors with a vertical manufacturing capability also allows fashion companies to be more resilient toward supply chain disruptions like the shortage of textile raw materials, a significant problem during the pandemic.
Further, we could see fashion companies pay even closer attention to textile raw material sourcing in the year ahead. On the one hand, given the growing concerns about various social and environmental compliance issues like forced labor, fashion brands and retailers are making more significant efforts to better understand their entire supply chain. For example, in addition to tracking who made the clothing or the fabrics (i.e., tier 1 & 2 suppliers), more companies have begun to release information about the sources of their fibers, yarns, threads, and trimmings (i.e., tier 3 & tier 4 suppliers). On the other hand, many fashion brands and retailers intend to diversify their textile material sourcing from Asia, particularly China, against the current business environment. Compared with cutting and sewing garments, much fewer countries can make textiles locally, and it takes time to build textile production capacity. Thus, fashion companies interested in taking more control of their textile raw material sourcing need to take concrete actions such as shifting their sourcing model and making long-term investments intentionally.
Apparel industry challenges and opportunities
One key issue we need to watch closely is the US-China relations. China currently remains the single largest source of apparel globally, with no near alternative. China also plays an increasingly significant role as a textile supplier for many leading apparel exporting countries in Asia. However, as the US-China relations become more concerning and confrontational, we could anticipate new trade restrictions targeting Chinese products and products from any sources that contain components made in China. Notably, with strong bipartisan support, President Biden signed into law the Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act on December 23, 2021. The new law is a game-changer! Depending on the detailed implementation guideline to be developed by the Customs and Border Protection (CBP), US fashion companies may find it not operationally viable to source many textiles and apparel products from China. In response, China may retaliate against well-known western fashion brands, disrupting their sales expansion in the growing Chinese consumer market. Further, as China faces many daunting domestic economic and political challenges, a legitimate question for fashion companies to think about is what an unstable China means for their sourcing from the Asia-Pacific region and what the contingency plan will be.
Another critical issue to watch is the regional textile and apparel supply chains and related free trade agreements. While apparel is a global sector, apparel trade remains largely regional-based, i.e., countries import and export products with partners in the same region. Data shows that from 2019 to 2020, around 80% of Asian countries’ textile and apparel imports came from within Asia and about 50% for EU countries. Over the same period, over 87% of Western Hemisphere (WH) countries’ textile and apparel exports went to other WH countries and about 75% for EU countries.
Notably, the reaching and implementation of new free trade agreements will continue to alter and shape new regional textile and apparel supply chains in 2022 and beyond. For example, the world’s largest free trade agreement, the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), officially entered into force on January 1, 2022. The tariff reduction and the very liberal rules of origin in the agreement could strengthen Japan, South Korea, and China as the primary textile suppliers for the Asia-based regional supply chain and enlarge the role of ASEAN as the leading apparel producer. RCEP could also accelerate other trade agreements in the Asia-Pacific region, such as the China-South Korea-Japan Free Trade Agreement currently under negotiation.
As one of RCEP’s ripple effects, we can highly anticipate the Biden administration to announce its new Indo-pacific economic framework soon to counterbalance China’s influences in the region. The Biden administration also intends to leverage trade programs such as the Dominican Republic-Central America Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA-DR) to boost textile and apparel production, trade, and investment in the Western Hemisphere and address the root causes of migration. These trade initiatives will be highly relevant to fashion companies that could use the opportunity to expand near sourcing, take advantage of import duty-saving benefits and explore new supply chains.
Additionally, fashion companies need to be more vigilant toward political instability in their major sourcing destinations. We have already seen quite a turmoil recently, from Myanmar’s military coup, Ethiopia’s loss of the African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA) benefits, concerns about Haiti and Nicaragua’s human rights, and the alleged forced labor in China’s Xinjiang region. Whereas fashion brands and retailers have limited or no impact on changing a country’s broader human rights situation, the reputational risks could be very high. Having a dedicated trade compliance team monitoring the geopolitical situation routinely and ensuring full compliance with various government regulations will become mainstream among fashion companies.
And indeed, sustainability, due diligence, recycling, digitalization, and data analytics will remain buzzwords for the apparel industry in the year ahead.
Data shows that 15.2% of US apparel imports came from USMCA and CAFTA-DR members YTD in 2021 (January-August), higher than 13.7% in 2020 and about 14.7% before the pandemic (2018-2019). Notably, CAFTA-DR members’ market shares increased to 11% in 2021 (January to Aug) from 9.6% in 2020. The value of US apparel imports from CAFTA-DR also enjoyed a 54% growth in 2021 (January—Aug) from a year ago, faster than 25% of the world’s average.
#2 Sourcing apparel from USCMA and CAFTA-DR members helps US fashion brands and retailers save around $1.6-1.7 billion tariff duties annually. (note: the estimation considers the value of US apparel imports from USMCA and CAFTA-DR members at the 6-digit HTS code level and the applied MFN tariff rates for these products; we didn’t consider the additional Section 301 tariffs US companies paid for imports from China). Official trade statistics also show that measured by value, about 73% of US apparel imports under free trade agreements came through USMCA (25%) and CAFTA-DR (48%) from 2019 to 2020.
#3 US apparel imports from USMCA and CAFTA-DR members do NOT necessarily focus on items subject to a high tariff rate. Measured at the 6-digit HS code level, apparel items subject to a high tariff rate (i.e., applied MFN tariff rate >17%) only accounted for about 8-9% of US apparel imports from USMCA members and 7-8% imports from CAFTA-DR members. In comparison, even having to pay a significant amount of import duties, around 17% of US apparel imports from Vietnam and 10% of imports from China were subject to a high tariff rate (see table below).
The phenomenon suggests that USCMA and CAFTA-DR members still have limited production capacity for many man-made fibers(MMF) clothing categories (such as jackets, swimwear, dresses, and suits), typically facing a higher tariff rate. This result also implies that expanding production capacity and diversifying the export product structure could make USMCA and CAFTA-DR more attractive sourcing destinations.
#4 US apparel imports from USMCA and CAFTA-DR members tend to focus on large-volume items subject to a medium tariff rate. Specifically, from 2017 to 2021 (Jan-Aug), ten products (at the 6-digit HTS code level) typically contributed around half of the US tariff revenues collected from apparel items (HS chapters 61-62). However, the average applied MFN tariff rates for these items were only about 13%. Meanwhile, these top tariff-revenue-contributing apparel items accounted for about 50% of US apparel imports from USMCA members and nearly 64%-69% of imports from CAFTA-DR members.
Likewise, the top ten products (at the 6-digit HTS code level) typically accounted for 65%-68% of US apparel imports from USMCA members and nearly 73-75% of US apparel imports from CAFTA-DR members. These products also had a medium average applied MFN rate at 11-12% for USMCA and 12-13% in the case of CAFTA-DR.
Given the duty-saving incentives, expanding “near-sourcing” from USMCA and CAFTA-DR members could prioritize these large-volume apparel items with a medium tariff rate in short to medium terms. However, in the long run, a shortcoming of this strategy is that many such items are basic fashion clothing that primarily competes on price (such as T-shirts and trousers) and cannot leverage the unique competitive edge of near-sourcing (such as speed to market). When the US reaches new free trade agreements, particularly those involving leading apparel-producing countries in Asia, it could offset the tariff advantages enjoyed by USMCA and CAFTA-DR members and quickly result in trade diversion.
As one breaking news, on 16 September 2021, China officially presented its application to join the 11-member Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP). While the approval of China’s membership in CPTPP remains a long shot and won’t happen anytime soon, the debate on the potential impact of China’s accession to the trade agreement already starts to heat up.
Like many other sectors, textile and apparel companies are on the alert. Notably, China plus current CPTPP members accounted for nearly half of the world’s textile and apparel exports in 2020. Many non-CPTPP countries are also critical stakeholders of China’s membership in the agreement. In particular, the Western Hemisphere textile and apparel supply chain, which involves the US textile industry, could face unrepresented challenges once China joins CPTPP.
First, once China joins CPTPP, the tariff cut could provide strong financial incentives for Mexico and Canada to use more Chinese textiles. China is already a leading textile supplier for many CPTPP members. In 2019, as much as 47.7% of CPTPP countries’ textile imports (i.e., yarns, fabrics, and accessories) came from China, far more than the United States (12.1%), the other leading textile exporter in the region.
Notably, thanks to the Western Hemisphere supply chain and the US-Mexico-Canada Trade Agreement (USMCA, previously NAFTA), the United States remains the largest textile supplier for Mexico (48.2%) and Canada (37.2%). Mexico and Canada also serve as the largest export market for US textile producers, accounting for as many as 46.4% of total US yarn and fabric exports in 2020.
However, US textile exporters face growing competition from China, offering more choices of textile products at a more competitive price (e.g., knitted fabrics and man-made fiber woven fabrics). From 2005 to 2019, US textile suppliers lost nearly 20 percentage points of market shares in Mexico and Canada, equivalent to what China gained in these two markets over the same period.
Further, China’s membership in CPTPP means its textile exports to Mexico and Canada could eventually enjoy duty-free market access. The significant tariff cut (e.g., from 9.8% to zero in Mexico) could make Chinese textiles even more price-competitive and less so for US products. This also means the US textile industry could lose its most critical export market in Mexico and Canada even if the Biden administration stays away from the agreement.
Second, if both China and the US become CPTPP members, the situation would be even worse for the US textile industry. In such a case, even the most restrictive rules of origin would NOT prevent Mexico and Canada from using more textiles from China and then export the finished garments to the US duty-free. Considering its heavy reliance on exporting to Mexico and Canada, this will be a devastating scenario for the US textile industry.
Even worse, the US textile exports to CAFTA-DR members, another critical export market, would drop significantly when China and the US became CPTPP members. Under the so-called Western-Hemisphere textile and apparel supply chain, how much textiles (i.e., yarns and fabrics) US exports to CAFTA-DR countries depends on how much garments CAFTA-DR members can export to the US. In comparison, US apparel imports from Asia mostly use Asian-made textiles. For example, as a developing country, Vietnam relies on imported yarns and fabrics for its apparel production. However, over 97% of Vietnam’s textile imports come from Asian countries, led by China (57.1%), South Korea, Taiwan, and Japan (about 25%), as opposed to less than 1% from the United States.
The US textile industry also deeply worries about Vietnam becoming a more competitive apparel exporter with the help of China under CPTPP. Notably, among the CPTPP members, Vietnam is already the second-largest apparel exporter to the United States, next only to China. Despite the high tariff rate, the value of US apparel imports from Vietnam increased by 131% between 2010 and 2020, much higher than 17% of the world average. Vietnam’s US apparel import market shares quickly increased from only 7.6% in 2010 to 16.6% in 2020 (and reached 19.3% in the first half of 2021). The lowered non-tariff and investment barriers provided by CPTPP could encourage more Chinese investments to come to Vietnam and further strengthen Vietnam’s competitiveness in apparel exports.
Understandably, when apparel exports from China and Vietnam became more price-competitive thanks to their CPTPP memberships, more sourcing orders could be moved away from CAFTA-DR countries, resulting in their declined demand for US textiles. Notably, a substantial portion of US apparel imports from CAFTA-DR countries focuses on relatively simple products like T-shirts, polo shirts, and trousers, which primarily compete on price. Losing both the USMCA and CAFTA-DR export markets, which currently account for nearly 70% of total US yarns and fabrics exports, could directly threaten the survival of the US textile industry.
First, the shipping crisis and new wave of COVID cases start to affect US apparel imports negatively. While US consumers’ demand for clothing overall remains strong, for the second month in a row, the value of US apparel imports (seasonally adjusted) in July 2021 decreased by 5.5% from a month ago and down 9.7% from May to June. The absolute value of US apparel imports year to date (YTD) in 2021 (January—July) was 25.3% higher than in 2020 and around 87% of the pre-COVID level (benchmark: January-July, 2019). However, the year-over-year growth in July 2021 was only 15.4%, compared with 60.0% in May 2021 and 29.1% in June 2021. Overall, the results remind us that the market environment is far from stable yet as the COVID situation in the US and other parts of the world continues to evolve.
Second, Asian countries lost market shares as some leading apparel supplying countries, including Vietnam and Bangladesh, struggled with new COVID lockdowns. While Asia as a whole remains the single largest apparel sourcing base for US companies, Asian countries’ market shares fell from 74.2% in 2020 to 71.3% in July 2021, the lowest since 2010. The new COVID lockdowns in Vietnam and Bangladesh, the No. 2 and No. 3 top suppliers for the US market, post significant challenges to US fashion companies trying to build inventory for the upcoming holiday season. Notably, US companies source many high-volume products from these two countries, and there is a lack of alternative sourcing destinations in the short run.
Third, US companies continue to treat China as an essential sourcing base during the current challenging time. However, there is no clear sign that companies are reversing their long-term strategy of reducing “China exposure.” China stays the largest supplier for the US market in July 2021, accounting for 41.3% of total US apparel imports in quantity and 26.0% in value. The export product diversification index also suggests that China supplied the most variety of products to the US market. US apparel imports from Bangladesh, Mexico, and CAFTA-DR members are more concentrated on specific product categories. In other words, should China were under lockdowns, the negative impacts on US companies’ inventory management could be even worse.
Nevertheless, the HHI index and market concentration ratios (CR3 and CR5) calculated based on the latest data suggest that US fashion companies continue to move their apparel sourcing orders from China to other Asian countries overall. For example, only 14.7% of US cotton apparel imports came from China in 2021 (January—July), a new record low in the past ten years. Further, as US apparel imports from China typically peak from June to September because of seasonal factors, China’s market shares are likely to drop in the next few months. Additionally, the fundamental concerns about sourcing from China are NOT gone. On the contrary, new US actions against alleged forced labor in Xinjiang are likely in the coming months and affect imports from China beyond cotton products.
Fourth, US apparel sourcing from the Western Hemisphere, especially CAFTA-DR members, gains new momentum. Specifically, 18.1% of US apparel imports came from the Western Hemisphere YTD in 2021 (January-July), higher than 16.1% in 2020 and 17.1% before the pandemic. Notably, CAFTA-DR members’ market shares increased to 11.2% in 2021 (January to July) from 9.6% in 2020. The value of US apparel imports from CAFTA-DR also enjoyed a 58.4% growth in 2021 (January—July) from a year ago, one of the highest among all sourcing destinations. The imports from El Salvador (up 75.2%), Honduras (up 74.6%), Dominican Republic (45.1%), and Guatemala (40.6%) had grown particularly fast so far in 2021.
Meanwhile, US apparel imports from USMCA members stayed stable (i.e., no significant change in market shares). CAFTA-DR and USMCA members currently account for around 60% and 25% of US apparel imports from the Western Hemisphere. They are also the single largest export market for US textile products (about 70%).
Fifth, US apparel imports start to see a notable price increase. While an across-the-board price increase was not a big concern at the beginning of 2021, the increase has become more noticeable since June 2021. For example, of the top 20 US apparel imports (HS chapters 61-62) at the 6-digit HS code level based on import value, the price of thirteen products increased from May to June 2021. The price increase at the country level is even more significant. From May to July 2021, the average unit price of US apparel imports from leading sources all went up substantially, including China (7%), Vietnam (13%), Bangladesh (13.9%), and India (15.6%).
As almost everything is becoming more expensive, from raw material, shipping to labor, the August and September trade data (to be released in October and November) could suggest an even more significant price increase.
#1 COVID-19 continues to substantially affect U.S. fashion companies’ sourcing and business operations in 2021
Recovery is happening: Most respondents expect their business to grow in 2021. Around 76 percent foresee their sourcing value or volume to increase from 2020. Around 60 percent of respondents expect a full recovery of their sourcing value or volume to the pre-COVID level by 2022.
Uncertainties remain: Still, 27 percent find it hard to tell when a full recovery will happen. About 20 percent of respondents still expect 2021 to be a very challenging year financially.
U.S. fashion companies’ worries about COVID still concentrate on the supply side, including driving up production and sourcing costs and causing shipping delays and supply chain disruptions. U.S. fashion companies’ COVID response strategies include strengthening relationships with key vendors, emphasizing sourcing agility and flexibility, and leveraging digital technologies. In comparison, few respondents canceled sourcing orders this year.
#2 The surging sourcing costs are a significant concern to U.S. fashion companies in 2021.
As many as 97 percent of respondents anticipate the sourcing cost to increase further this year, including 37 percent expect a “substantial increase” from 2020.
Respondents say almost EVERYTHING becomes more expensive in 2021. Notably, more than 70 percent of respondents expect the “shipping and logistics cost,” “cost of textile raw material (e.g., yarns and fabrics),” “cost of sourcing as a result of currency value and exchange rate changes,” and “labor cost” to go up.
#3 U.S. fashion companies’ sourcing strategies continue to envovle in response to the shifting business environment.
Asia’s position as the dominant apparel sourcing base for U.S. fashion companies remains unshakeable.
“China plus Vietnam plus Many” remains the most popular sourcing model among respondents. However, the two countries combined now typically account for 20-40 percent of a U.S. fashion company’s total sourcing value or volume, down from 40-60 percent in the past few years.
Asia is U.S. fashion companies’ dominant sourcing base for textile intermediaries. “China plus at least 1-2 additional Asian countries” is the most popular textile raw material sourcing practice among respondents.
As U.S. fashion companies prioritize strengthening their relationship with key vendors during the pandemic, respondents report an overall less diversified sourcing base than in the past few years.
#4 U.S. fashion companies continue to reduce their China exposure. However, the debate on China’s future as a textile and apparel sourcing base heats up.
Most U.S. fashion companies still plan to source from China in short to medium terms. While 63 percent of respondents plan to decrease sourcing from China further over the next two years, it is a notable decrease from 70 percent in 2020 and 83 percent in 2019.
Most respondents still see China as a competitive and balanced sourcing base from a business perspective. Few other sourcing countries can match China’s flexibility and agility, production capacity, speed to market, and sourcing cost. As China’s role in the textile and apparel supply chain goes far beyond garment production and continues to expand, it becomes ever more challenging to find China’s alternatives.
Non-economic factors, particularly the allegations of forced labor in China’s Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region (XUAR), significantly hurt China’s long-term prospect as a preferred sourcing base by U.S. fashion companies. China also suffered the most significant drop in its labor and compliance rating this year.
#5 With an improved industry look and the continued interest in reducing “China exposure,” U.S. fashion companies actively explore new sourcing opportunities.
Vietnam remains a hot sourcing destination. However, respondents turn more conservative this year about Vietnam’s growth potential due to rising cost concerns and trade uncertainties caused by the Section 301 investigation.
U.S. fashion companies are interested in sourcing more from Bangladesh over the next two years. Respondents say apparel “Made in Bangladesh” enjoys a prominent price advantage over many other Asian suppliers. However, the competition among Bangladeshi suppliers could intensify as U.S. fashion companies plan to “work with fewer vendors in the country.”
Respondents are also interested in sourcing more from Sub-Saharan Africa by leveraging the African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA). Respondents also demonstrate a growing interest in investing more in AGOA members directly. “Replace AGOA with a permanent free trade agreement that requires reciprocal tariff cuts and continues to allow the “third-country fabric provision” is respondents’ most preferred policy option after AGOA expires in 2025.
#6 Sourcing from the Western Hemisphere is gaining new momentum
Overall, U.S. fashion companies’ growing interest in the Western Hemisphere is more about diversifying sourcing away from China and Asia than moving the production back to the region (i.e., reshoring or near-shoring).
Respondents say CAFTA-DR’s “short supply” and “cumulation” mechanisms provide critical flexibility that allow U.S. fashion companies to continue to source from its members. However, despite the “yarn-forward” rules of origin, only 15 percent of respondents sourcing apparel from CAFTA-DR members say they “purposefully use U.S.-made fabrics” to enjoy the agreement’s duty-free benefits.
Respondents suggest that encouraging more apparel sourcing from the Western Hemisphere requires three significant improvements: 1) make the products more price competitive; 2) strengthen the region’s fabric and textile raw material production capacity; 3) make rules of origin less restrictive in relevant U.S. trade agreements.
This year’s benchmarking study was based on a survey of executives at 31 leading U.S. fashion companies from April to June 2021. The study incorporates a balanced mix of respondents representing various types of businesses in the U.S. fashion industry. Approximately 54 percent of respondents are self-identified retailers, 46 percent self-identified brands, 69 percent self-identified importers/wholesalers. Around 65 percent of respondents report having more than 1,000 employees. Another 27 percent of respondents represent medium-sized companies with 101-999 employees.
First, free trade agreements enacted in the U.S. have had a small but positive effect on the U.S. economy and trade. As of January 1, 2021, the United States has 14 free trade agreements (FTAs) with 20 countries in force. In the year 2017 (the base year), they led to an estimated increase in U.S. real Gross Domestic Product (GDP) of $88.8 billion (0.5 percent), and in aggregate U.S. employment of 485,000 full-time equivalent (FTE) jobs (0.3 percent). Real wages increased by 0.3 percent. Further, U.S. exports increased by $37.4 billion (1.6 percent), and imports increased by $95.2 billion (3.4 percent) because of these FTAs.
Second, USITC estimates that U.S.-free trade agreements have expanded the U.S. textile industry but hurt U.S. domestic apparel production. Thanks to the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA, now the U.S.-Mexico-Canada Trade Agreement, USMCA) and the Dominican Republic-Central America Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA-DR), the Western Hemisphere has become the single largest export market for U.S. textile producers. However, U.S. apparel manufacturers have to face intensified import competition.
Third, the textile and apparel-specific rules in U.S. free trade agreements are complicated and often hinder the usage of the trade agreements. As noted by USITC, the U.S. duty on imported textile and, especially, apparel goods are among the highest of all product categories. Despite the duty-saving incentives, only 12.1% of U.S. textile and apparel imports came in under FTAs in 2020, even lower than 16.7% in 2007 when fewer FTAs were in force.
The complexity of the textile and apparel-specific rules of origins (ROOs) is a significant cause of the low FTA utilization rate. As USITC noted, “No two FTAs using the tariff shift model contain the same ROOs for apparel goods…for some importers, the strict preference rules of origins (ROOs), along with the record-keeping and documentation requirements the rules entail, make the cost of compliance too great to take full advantage of the duty-free opportunities.” According to the annual USFIA fashion industry benchmarking study, the surveyed U.S. fashion companies consistently expressed the same concerns about the too restrictive ROOs in U.S. FTAs.
Related, the USITC report noted, “some U.S. domestic textile industry representatives state that the existing FTA rules follow a simple template designed to benefit upstream manufacturers in the textile and apparel supply chain.” Having to use more expensive domestic-made fibers and yarns reduces the price competitiveness of U.S. fabrics and home textiles in the export market.
Further, the USITC report explains the history of the “Short supply” and “Tariff-preference level, TPL” mechanisms in U.S. free trade agreements. However, the report does not provide an assessment of their trade impacts.
Trade statistics show that these exceptions to the restrictive “yarn-forward” rules of origin are critical for U.S. apparel sourcing from certain FTA partners. For example, more than 60% of U.S. apparel imports from Canada claimed duty-free benefits by using the TPL mechanism rather than complying with the USMCA/NAFTA “yarn-forward” rules in 2020. Around 8% of U.S. apparel imports from Mexico did the same. Likewise, in 2020, approximately 4% of U.S. apparel imports from CAFTA-DR members used the “short supply” mechanism, and the other 4% used the “cumulation” mechanism.
First, thanks to consumers’ resumed demand and a more optimistic outlook for the U.S. economy, U.S. apparel imports continue to rebound. However, uncertainties remain. On the one hand, mirroring retail sales patterns, the value of U.S. apparel imports in April 2021 went up by 66% from a year ago, a new record high since the pandemic. The absolute value of U.S. apparel imports so far in 2021 (January –April) also recovered to around 88% of the pre-Covid level (i.e., January to April 2019). However, the value of U.S. apparel imports in April 2021 was 11.2% lower than in March 2021 (seasonally adjusted), suggesting that the market environment is far from stable yet as the COVID situation in the U.S. and other parts of the world continue to evolve.
Second, data indicates that Asia as a whole remains the single largest sourcing base for U.S. fashion companies, stably accounting for around 72-75% of the import value. Studies show that two factors, in particular, contribute to Asia’s competitiveness as a preferred apparel sourcing base—price and flexibility & agility. Asia’s highly integrated regional supply chains and its vast production capacity shape its competitiveness in these two aspects.
Third, as the direction of the US-China relations becomes ever more concerning, U.S. fashion companies seem to accelerate diversifying sourcing from China.Even China remains the top apparel supplier for the U.S. market, from January to April 2021, China’s market shares fell to 32.1% in quantity (was 36.6% in 2020) and 20.2% in value (was 23.7% in 2020). Also, the HHI index and market concentration ratios (CR3 and CR5) suggest that US fashion companies are increasingly moving their apparel sourcing orders from China to other Asian countries. For example, according to a leading U.S. fashion corporation in its latest annual report, “in response to the recent tariffs imposed by the current US administration, the Company has reduced the amount of goods being produced in China.”
Further, the latest data suggests that the concerns about the alleged forced labor in Xinjiang hurt China’s prospect as an apparel sourcing destination, BOTH for cotton and non-cotton items. Measured by value, only 11.9% of U.S. cotton apparel came from China in April 2021, a new record low since implementing the CBP WROs, which impose a regional ban on any cotton and cotton apparel made in the Xinjiang region. The latest data also suggests that China is quickly losing market shares for non-cotton textile and apparel items.
Fourth, U.S. apparel sourcing from CAFTA-DR members gains new momentum, reflecting the strong interest in sourcing more from the region from the business community and policymakers. For example, 17.5% of U.S. apparel imports came from the Western Hemisphere in 2021 (Jan-Apr), higher than 16.1% in 2020 and 17.1% before the pandemic. Notably, CAFTA-DR members’ market shares increased to 10.8% in 2021 (Jan-Apr) from 9.6% in 2020. The value of U.S. apparel imports from CAFTA-DR also enjoyed a 25.8% growth in 2021 (Jan-Apr) from a year ago, one of the highest among all sourcing destinations. The imports from El Salvador (up 29.2%), Honduras (up 28.0%), and Guatemala (27.0%) had grown particularly fast in 2021.
Meanwhile, U.S. apparel imports from USMCA members stayed stable overall. CAFTA-DR and USMCA members currently account for around 60% and 25% of U.S. apparel imports from the Western Hemisphere. They are also the single largest export market for U.S. textile products (around 70%). The Biden administration has signaled its strong interest in strengthening the western hemisphere textile and apparel supply chain by leveraging CAFTA-DR along with other trade policy tools.
I encourage everyone to watch the two short videos above, which provide an excellent wrap-up for FASH455 and remind us of the meaning and significance of our course. BTW, the names of several experts featured in the video should sound familiar to you, such as David Spooner (former U.S. Chief Textile Negotiator and Assistant Secretary of Commerce), Julia Hughes (president of the US Fashion Industry Association, USFIA) and Auggie Tantillo (former president of the National Council of Textile Organizations, NCTO).
First of all, I hope students can take away essential knowledge about textile and apparel (T&A) trade & sourcing from FASH455. As you may recall from the video, in FASH455:
Likewise, I hope FASH455 can put students into thinking about why “fashion” matters. A popular misconception is that “fashion and apparel” is just about “sewing,” “fashion magazine,” “shopping” and “Project Runway.” In fact, as one of the largest and most economically influential sectors in the world today, the fashion industry plays a critical and unique role in creating jobs, promoting economic development, enhancing human development and reducing poverty. As we mentioned in the class, over 120 million people remain directly employed in the T&A industry globally, and a good proportion of them are females living in poor rural areas. For most developing countries, T&A typically accounts for 70%–90% of their total merchandise exports and provides one of the very few opportunities for these countries to participate in globalization. COVID-19, in particular, reveals the enormous social and economic impacts of the apparel sector and many problems that need our continuous efforts to make an improvement.
Last but not least, I hope from taking FASH455, students will take away meaningful questions that can inspire their future study and even life’s pursuit. For example:
How to make apparel sourcing and trade more sustainable and socially responsbile?
How will automation, AI and digital technologies change the future landscape of apparel sourcing, trade, and job opportunities?
How to use trade policy as a tool to solve tough global issues such as forced labor and climate change?
Is inequality a problem caused by global trade? If global trade is the problem, what can be the alternative?
These questions have no good answers yet. However, they are waiting for you, the young professional and the new generation of leaders, to write the history, based on your knowledge, wisdom, responsibility, courage, and creativity!
So what do you take away from FASH455? Please feel free to share your thoughts and comments.
Witness: National Council of Textile Organizations (NCTO) President and CEO Kim Glas; The full testimony is available HERE
Berry Amendment: Under a provision of 1941 legislation known as the “Berry Amendment” , the Department of Defense (DOD) must buy clothing, fabrics, fibers, yarns, other made-up textiles, boots, and certain other items that are 100% US-made. Notably, the Berry Amendment mandates a much higher level of domestic content than the Buy American Act of 1933, which, in general, only requires 50% of the costs of a product to be manufactured in the United States. DOD spent around $1.6 billion on clothing, textiles, and footwear in FY2020 under the Berry Amendment. The items covered by the Berry Amendment have varied over the years. In the FY2017 NDAA (P.L. 114-328), Congress extended the Berry Amendment by requiring DOD to provide 100% U.S.-made running shoes for recruits entering basic training.
Related, onFebruary 24, 2021, President Biden released an executive order (EO) and announced to conduct a 100-day supply chains review on several key US industries, including semiconductors, batteries, strategic minerals, and pharmaceuticals. The review will also cover certain critical business sectors, such as national defense, public health, information and communication technology, energy, transportation, and agriculture. Further, the EO explicitly asks the Secretary of Health and Human Services, in consultation with the heads of appropriate agencies, to submit a report identifying risks in the supply chain of personal protective equipment (PPE). PPE includes textile products like facial masks, gowns and gloves. More comprehensive reform and supply chain strategies are likely to follow after the supply chain review requested by the EO.
Within the Western-Hemisphere (WH) textile and apparel supply chain, the United States serves as the leading textile supplier, whereas developing countries in North, Central, and South America (such as Mexico and countries in the Caribbean region) assemble imported textiles from the United States or elsewhere into apparel. The majority of clothing produced in the area is eventually exported to the United States or Canada.
WH countries still form a close supply chain partnership in textile and apparel production. For example, close to 70% of US textile exports went to WH members in 2020, a pattern that has stayed stable over the past decades (OTEXA, 2021). Meanwhile, the United States serves as the single largest export market for most apparel exporting countries in the WH For example, in 2019, close to 89% of apparel exports from CAFTA-DR and USMCA (NAFTA) members went to the US.
However, the WH textile and apparel supply chain is not without significant challenges. For example, CAFTA-DR and Mexico are increasingly using textiles inputs from outside the WH region, which weakens the US role as a dominant textile supplier. Notably, most of the market shares lost by US textile suppliers are fulfilled by Asian countries, including China and other members of the RCEP (Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership). Theoretically, using cheaper textile inputs from Asia may help apparel producing countries in the WH improve the price competitiveness of their finished garments and diversify their export markets beyond the US.
Meanwhile, despite the apparent popularity of “near-sourcing”, no evidence suggests that US fashion brands and retailers are sourcing more from WH countries, including CAFTA-DR and USMCA (NAFTA) members. Neither the US-China trade war nor COVID-19 seems to have shifted the trends. Instead, close to 75%-80% of US apparel imports still come from Asian countries (OTEXA, 2021). Studies further show that a vast majority of US apparel imports from WH concentrate on a limited category of products, such as tops and bottoms, which is far from sufficient to meet retailers’ sourcing needs.
On the other hand, technical textiles and industrial textiles account for a growing share in the total US textile exports, and Asia is a particularly fast-growing market. However, there is few US free trade agreement with Asian countries, making it a disadvantage to promote “Made in the USA” products in these markets. It is debatable what should be the priority for the US textile and apparel trade policy: to continue to protect the exports of yarn and fabrics to the WH or open new export markets for technical and industrial textiles outside the WH region?
U.S. apparel imports continue to rebound, but uncertainty remains
Asia will remain the dominant apparel sourcing base
U.S. fashion companies are NOT giving up China as one of their essential apparel-sourcing bases, although companies continue to reduce their “China exposure” overall. Meanwhile, do NOT underestimate the impact of non-economic factors on sourcing.
No clear evidence suggests near sourcing from the Western Hemisphere is happening in a large scale
Watch Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) and Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP). These two mega-free trade agreements could shape new textile and apparel supply chains in the Asia-Pacific region.
First, affected by the surge of COVID cases and consumers’ slowed spending, the value of U.S. apparel imports decreased by 15.7% in December 2020, the worst performance since September 2020. Specifically, the value of U.S. apparel imports in December 2020 shrank by 6.4% from November 2020 (seasonally adjusted), compared with an 8.8% growth from Aug to September, a 4.6% growth from September to October (seasonally adjusted), and a slight 0.3% decline from October to November (seasonally adjusted).
The substantial drop of U.S. apparel imports in December 2020 also altered the recovery trajectory. Overall, the outlook of US apparel imports in 2021 is hopeful but remains far from uncertain.
Second, supporting the findings of some recent studies, data suggests that U.S. fashion brands and retailers continue to reduce their “China exposure” in 2020. For example, both the HHI index and market concentration ratios (CR3 and CR5) suggest that apparel sourcing orders are gradually moving from China to other Asian countries. Measured by value, only 23.7% of U.S. apparel imports came from China in 2020, a new record low in the past ten years (was 29.7% in 2019 and 33% in 2018).
However, China’s apparel exports to the US lost more market shares from 2018-2019 than 2019-2020–it seems the impact of the trade war is more significant than the COVID.
The latest data confirms the concerns that some non-economic factors negatively affect China’s prospect as an apparel sourcing destination. For example, the reported forced labor issue related to Xinjiang, China, and a series of actions taken by the U.S. government (such as the CBP withhold release orders) have significantly affected U.S. cotton apparel imports from China. Measured by value, only 15.4% of U.S. cotton apparel came from China in 2020, compared with 22.2% in 2019 and 28% back in 2017. While China’s total textile and apparel exports to the US dropped by 30.7% in 2020, China’s cotton textiles and cotton apparel exports to the US went down more sharply by nearly 40%.
Third, despite Covid-19, Asia as a whole remains the single largest source of apparel for the U.S. market. Other than China, Vietnam (19.6% in 2020 vs. 16.2% in 2019), ASEAN (32.3% in 2020 and vs. 27.4% in 2019), Bangladesh (8.2% in 2020 vs.7.1% in 2019), and Cambodia (4.4% in 2020 vs. 3.2% in 2019) all gain additional market shares in 2020 from a year ago.
Fourth, due to seasonal factors, around 21% of U.S. apparel imports came from the Western Hemisphere in December 2020. Notably, to fulfill consumers’ last-minute holiday orders, which require faster speed to market, U.S. fashion companies typically do relatively more near-sourcing from September to December. In comparison, U.S. fashion companies place more sourcing orders with Asian suppliers from June to late September/early October.
However, no clear evidence suggests that U.S. fashion brands and retailers have been giving more apparel sourcing orders to suppliers from the Western Hemisphere because of COVID-19 and the U.S.-China tariff war. In 2020, 9.6% of U.S. apparel imports came from CAFTA-DR members (down from 10.3% in 2019) and 4.1% from USMCA members (down from 4.5% in 2019).
First, U.S. apparel imports continue to rebound thanks to consumers’ robust demand. However, the speed of recovery slowed. Specifically, The value of U.S. apparel imports in November 2020 marginally went down by 0.3% from October 2020 (seasonally adjusted), compared with an 8.8% growth from Aug to September and a 4.6% growth from September to October (seasonally adjusted).
As of November 2020, the volume of U.S. apparel imports has recovered to around 85-90% of the pre-coronavirus level. This result echoes the trend of U.S. apparel retail sales (NAICS 4481), which also indicates a “V-shape” rebound since May 2020.
Data further shows that compared with the 2008 world financial crisis, Covid-19 has caused a more significant drop in the value of U.S. apparel imports. However, it seems the post-Covid recovery process has been more robust than the 2009 financial crisis. The Auto Regressive Integrated Moving Average (ARIMA) model forecasts that at the current speed of recovery, the value of U.S. apparel imports (seasonally adjusted) could start to enjoy a positive year over year (YoY) growth by February 2021 (or around 11 months after the outbreak of Covid-19 in March 2020). In comparison, when recovering from the 2008 world financial crisis, it took almost 15 months to turn the YoY growth rate from negative to positive).
With the new lockdown measures taken in response to the resurgence of the Covid cases, the outlook of US apparel imports remains uncertain. It should also be noted that the period from December to April usually is the light season for apparel imports.
Second, supporting the findings of some recent studies, data suggests that U.S. fashion brands and retailers continue to reduce their “China exposure” in 2020. For example, both the HHI index and market concentration ratios (CR3 and CR5) suggest that apparel sourcing orders are gradually moving from China to other Asian countries. Related, since August 2020, China’s market shares in total U.S. apparel imports have been sliding both in quantity and in value.
We should NOT ignore the impact of non-economic factors on China’s prospect as an apparel sourcing destination. For example, the reported forced labor issue related to Xinjiang, China, and a series of actions taken by the U.S. government (such as the CBP withhold release orders) have significantly affected U.S. cotton apparel imports from China. Measured by value, from January to November 2020, only 15.4% of U.S. cotton apparel came from China, compared with 22.2% in 2019 and 28% back in 2017. While China’s total textile and apparel exports to the US dropped by 32% in 2020 (Jan to Nov), China’s cotton textiles and cotton apparel exports to the US went down more sharply by 41.1% and 47.2%, respectively.
Third, despite Covid-19, Asia as a whole remains the single largest source of apparel for the U.S. market. Other than China, Vietnam (19.8% YTD in 2020 vs. 16.2% in 2019), ASEAN (32.6% YTD in 2020 and vs. 27.4% in 2019), Bangladesh (8.2% YTD in 2020 vs.7.1% in 2019), and Cambodia (4.4% YTD in 2020 vs. 3.2% in 2019) all gain additional market shares in 2020 (Jan to Nov) from a year ago.
Fourth, still, no clear evidence suggests that U.S. fashion brands and retailers have been giving more apparel sourcing orders to suppliers from the Western Hemisphere because of COVID-19 and the U.S.-China tariff war. In the first eleven months of 2020, 9.4% of U.S. apparel imports came from CAFTA-DR members (down from 10.3% in 2019) and 4.4% from USMCA members (down from 4.5% in 2019). The limited local textile production capacity and the high production cost are the two notable disadvantages of sourcing from the region.