2021 USFIA Fashion Industry Benchmarking Study Released

The full report is available HERE

Key findings of this year’s report:

#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.

COVID-19 and U.S. Apparel Imports: Key Trends (Updated: June 2021)

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.

However, the recent surge of COVID cases in India and its neighboring Southeast Asian countries has raised new worries about the potential sourcing risks and supply chain disruptions for U.S. fashion companies currently sourcing from there.  

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.

by Sheng Lu

The Future of Asia as a Textile and Apparel Sourcing Base—Discussion Questions from Students in FASH455

Garment factories in Vietnam adopt RFID; Video credit: Li &Fung

#1: How to explain the phenomenon that US fashion companies are diversifying apparel sourcing from China, but not so much from the Asia region? For example, as of 2020, still, around 75% of US apparel imports came from Asian countries.

#2: From the readings and your observation, to which extent will automation challenge the conclusions of the “flying geese model” and the evolution pattern of Asian countries’ textile and apparel industry over the past decades?

#3: It could be a crazy idea, but given the current business environment, what would the textile and apparel supply chain in Asia look like without “Made in China”? What would be the implications for US fashion companies sourcing strategies?

#4: RCEP members are with a diverse competitiveness in textile and apparel production and exports. Several leading Asian apparel-exporting countries are not RCEP members (such as Bangladesh). Is it unavoidable that RCEP will create BOTH winners and losers for textile and apparel trade? How so?

#5: Is the growth model and development path of Asian countries’ textile and apparel industry an exception—meaning it is challenging to apply it to the rest of the world, such as the Western Hemisphere and Africa? What is your view?

#6: What is your outlook of Asia as a textile and apparel-sourcing base in the post-Covid world? Why?

(Welcome to our online discussion. For students in FASH455, please address at least two questions and mention the question number (#) in your reply)

Regional Supply Chain Remains a Key Feature of World Textile and Apparel Trade

While textile and apparel is well-known as a global sector, the latest statistics show that world textile and apparel trade patterns remain largely regional-based. Three particular regional textile and apparel trade flows are critical to watch:

First, Asian countries are increasingly sourcing textile raw material from within the region. As much as 85% of Asian countries’ textile imports came from other Asian countries in 2019, a substantial increase from only 70% in the 2000s. This result reflects the formation of an ever more integrated regional textile and apparel supply chain in Asia. However, as Asian countries become more economically integrated, textile and apparel producers in other parts of the world could find it more challenging to get involved in the region. With the recent reaching of several mega free trade agreements among countries in the Asia-Pacific region, such as the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), the pattern of “Made in Asia for Asia” is likely to strengthen further.

Second, the EU intra-region trade pattern for textile and apparel stays relatively strong and stable. Intra-region trade refers to trade flows between EU members. Statistics show that 54.6% of EU(27) members’ textile imports and 37.4% of their apparel imports came from within the EU(27) region in 2019. This pattern only slightly changed over the past decade. In other words, despite the reported increasing competition from Asian suppliers, many of which even enjoy duty-free market access to the EU market (such as through the EU Everything But Arms program), a substantial share of apparel sold in the EU markets are still locally made.

EU consumers’ preferences for “slow fashion” (i.e., purchasing less but for more durable products with higher quality) may contribute to the stable EU intra-region trade pattern. Many EU consumers also see textile and apparel as cultural products and do NOT shop simply for the price. This explains why Western EU countries such as Italy, Germany, and France rank the top apparel producers and exporters in the EU region despite their high wage and production costs.

Third, the Western Hemisphere (WH) supply chain faces significant challenges despite the seemingly growing popularity of “near-sourcing.” On the one hand, textile and apparel exporters in the Western-Hemisphere still rely heavily on the regional market. In 2019, respectively, as much as 79% of textiles and 86% of apparel exports from countries in the Western Hemisphere went to the same region. 

However, on the other hand, the Western-Hemisphere supply chain is facing increasing competition from Asian suppliers. For example, in 2019, only 22% of North, South, and Central American countries’ textile imports and 15% of their apparel imports came from within the Western Hemisphere, a new record low in ten years. Similarly, in the first eleven months of 2020, only 15.7% of US apparel imports came from the Western Hemisphere, down from 17.1% in 2019 before the pandemic. The limited local textile production capacity and the high production cost are the two notable factors that discourage US fashion brands and retailers from committing to more “near-sourcing” from the Western Hemisphere.

In comparison, Asian countries supplied a new record high of 62.2% of textiles and 75% apparel to countries in the Western Hemisphere in 2019, up from 49.1% and 71.1% ten years ago. This trend suggests that as the competitiveness of “Factory Asia” continues to improve, even regional trade agreements (such as USMCA and CAFTA-DR) and their restrictive “yarn-forward” rules of origin have limits to protect the Western Hemisphere supply chain.

In comparison, Asian countries supplied a new record high of 62.2% of textiles and 75% apparel to countries in the Western Hemisphere in 2019, up from 49.1% and 71.1% ten years ago. This trend suggests that as the competitiveness of “Factory Asia” continues to improve, even regional trade agreements (such as USMCA and CAFTA-DR) and their restrictive “yarn-forward” rules of origin have limits to protect the Western Hemisphere supply chain.

Additionally, many say that the reaching of RCEP creates new pressure for the new Biden administration to consider joining the CPTPP and strengthening economic ties with countries in the Asia-Pacific region. Notably, several USMCA and CAFTA-DR members, such as Mexico, also have RCEP or CPTPP membership. Apparel producers in these Western Hemisphere countries may find it more rewarding to access the cheaper textile raw material from Asia through CPTPP or RCEP rather than claiming the duty-saving benefits for finished garments under USMCA or CAFTA-DR. Like it or not, the Biden administration’s inaction will also have consequences. 

by Sheng Lu

Further reading: Lu, Sheng. (2021). Regional supply chains still shape textile and apparel trade. Just-Style

US Apparel Sourcing Trends to Watch in 2021

Key points:

  • Key themes in 2021: COVID-19+ trade policy
  • 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.

A Snapshot of Myanmar’s Apparel Industry and Export

First, the textile and apparel industry plays a significant role in Myanmar’s economy, particularly the export sector. Data from the UNComtrade shows that textile and apparel accounted for nearly 30% of Myanmar’s total merchandise exports in 2019, followed by footwear and luggage. Industry data also indicates that the textile, apparel, and footwear industry employed more than 1.1 million workers in Myanmar in 2018, up from only 0.3 million in 2016.

On the other hand, as a developing country, Myanmar highly depends on the imported textile raw material. As of 2019, nearly 83% of Myanmar’s textile imports came from China.

Second, since the United States lifted the import ban on Myanmar and the EU reinstated the Everything But Arms (EBA) trade preferences for the country in 2013, Myanmar has been one of the most popular emerging apparel sourcing bases among fashion companies.  From 2015 to 2019, Myanmar’s apparel exports to the world enjoyed an impressive 57% annual growth. Myanmar’s apparel exports to the EU (97% annual growth) and the United States (78% annual growth) have been growing particularly fast.

From 2019 to 2020, some of the top fashion brands that carry apparel items “Made in Myanmar” include United Colors of Benetton, Next, Only, Guess, Jack & Jones, and Mango.

Second, the reasons why fashion companies source apparel from Myanmar are multiple:

  • Thanks to foreign investment (e.g., nearly half of Myanmar’s garment factories are foreign-owned), Myanmar specializes in making relatively higher-quality functional/technical clothing (i.e., outwear like jackets and coats). This is different from many other apparel exporting countries like Bangladesh, Vietnam, and Cambodia, mostly exporting low-cost tops and bottoms.
  • Myanmar’s apparel exports were able to enjoy duty-free market access in the EU, Japan, and South Korea. Myanmar was also a beneficiary of the US Generalized System of Preferences (GSP) program. This explains why Myanmar’s apparel exports mostly go to the EU (56%), Japan and South Korea (30%), and the US (5.5%).
  • Relatively low production cost—garment workers earn around $85/month in 2019.

However, Myanmar still accounts for a tiny share in fashion companies’ total sourcing portfolio because of the size effect. For example, as of 2019, less than 0.1% of US and EU countries’ apparel imports came from Myanmar.

Third, western fashion brands could reevaluate their sourcing strategy from Myanmar because of its recent coup. Notably, in a new study, we find that apparel sourcing is not merely about “competing on price.” Instead, fashion companies give substantial weight to the factors of “political stability” and “financial stability” in their sourcing decisions—reputation risk matters. The country’s latest political instability will hurt Myanmar’s attractiveness as an apparel sourcing base, given many other alternatives out there.

Further, the international community, including the US and the EU, is considering new sanctions against Myanmar. Should Myanmar lose its EU’s EBA eligibility or no longer enjoy duty-free access to its key apparel export markets, the country’s apparel exports could be among the biggest losers. Notably, it could be challenging for Myanmar to find an alternative apparel export market during the pandemic. (for example, only 1.3% of Myanmar’s apparel exports went to China in 2019).

By Sheng Lu

Further reading:

Outlook 2021– Key Issues to Shape Apparel Sourcing

In January 2021, Just-Style consulted a panel of industry leaders and scholars in its Outlook 2021–Key Issues to Shape Apparel Sourcing Management Briefing. Below is my contribution to the report. All comments and suggestions are more than welcome!

What do you see as the biggest challenges – and opportunities – facing the apparel industry in 2021?

I see COVID-19 and market uncertainties caused by the contentious US-China relations as the two most significant challenges facing the apparel industry in 2021.

The difficulties imposed by COVID-19 on fashion businesses are twofold. First, with the resurgence of COVID cases worldwide, when and how quickly apparel consumption can rebound to the pre-COVID level remain hard to tell, particularly in leading consumption markets, including the United States and Europe. As the apparel business is buyer-driven, the industry’s full recovery is impossible without a strong return of consumers’ demand. Numerous studies also show that switching to making and selling PPE won’t be sufficient to make up for losses from regular businesses for most fashion companies.

Second, COVID-19 will also continue to post tremendous pressures on the supply side. In the 2020 Fashion Industry Benchmarking Study, which I conducted in collaboration with the US Fashion Industry Association (USFIA), the surveyed sourcing executives reported severe supply chain disruption during the pandemic. These disruptions come from multiple aspects, ranging from a labor shortage, a lack of textile raw materials, and a substantial cost increase in shipping and logistics. Even more concerning, many small and medium-sized (SME) vendors, particularly in the developing countries, are near the tipping point of bankruptcy after months of struggle with the order cancellation, mandatory lockdown measures, and a lack of financial support.  The post-covid recovery of the apparel business relies on a capable, stable, and efficient textile and apparel supply chain, in which these SME vendors play a critical role.

In 2021, fashion companies also have to continue to deal with the ramifications of contentious US-China relations. On the one hand, the chance is slim that the punitive tariffs imposed on Chinese products, which affect most textiles and apparel, will soon go away. On the other hand, we cannot rule out the possibility that the US-China commercial relationship will deteriorate further in 2021, as more sensitive, complicated, and structural issues began to get involved, such as national security, forced labor, and human rights. Compared with President Trump’s unilateral trade actions, the new Biden administration may adopt a multilateral approach to pressure China. However, it also means more countries could be “dragged into” the US-China trade tensions, making it even more challenging for fashion companies to mitigate the trade war’s supply chain impacts.

Meanwhile, I see digitalization as a big opportunity for the apparel industry, not only in 2021 but also in the years to come. Fashion brands and retailers will increasingly find digitalization ubiquitous to their businesses—like air and electricity. In 2021, I expect fashion companies will make more efforts to creatively use digital technologies to interact with consumers, make transactions, develop products, and improve consumers’ online shopping experiences. Thanks to the adoption of digital tools, apparel companies may also find new opportunities to improve sustainability, better understand their customers through leveraging data science, and develop a more agile and nimble supply chain. 

What’s happening with supply chains? How is the sourcing landscape likely to shift in 2021, and what can apparel firms and their suppliers do to stay ahead, remain competitive and build resilience for the future?

Apparel companies’ sourcing and supply chain strategies will continue to evolve in response to consumers’ shifting demand, COVID-19, and the new policy environment. Several trends are worth watching in 2021:

First, fashion companies’ sourcing bases at the country level will stay relatively stable in 2021 overall. For example, although it sounds a little contradictory, fashion companies will continue to treat China as an essential sourcing base and reduce their “China exposure” further, a process that has started years before the tariff war. Most apparel sourcing orders left China will go to China’s competitors in Asia, such as Vietnam, Bangladesh, and Cambodia. This also means that Asia, as a whole, will remain the single largest source of apparel imports, particularly for US and Asia-based fashion companies. In comparison, still, “near-sourcing” is NOT likely to happen on a large scale, mainly because “near-sourcing” requires enormous new investments to rebuild the supply chain, and most fashion companies do not have the resources to do so during the pandemic. 

Second, sourcing diversification is slowing down at the firm level, and more apparel companies are switching to consolidate their existing sourcing base. For example, as the 2020 USFIA benchmarking study found, close to half of the respondents say they plan to “source from the same number of countries, but work with fewer vendors” through 2022. Another 20 percent of respondents say they would “source from fewer countries and work with fewer vendors.” The results are understandable– competition in the apparel industry is becoming supply chain-based. Building a strategic partnership with high-quality vendors will play an ever more critical role in supporting fashion brands and retailers’ efforts to achieve speed to market, flexibility and agility, sourcing cost control, and low compliance risk. Thus, apparel companies find it more urgent and rewarding to consolidate the existing sourcing base and resources and strengthen their key vendors’ relations.

Third, apparel sourcing executives still need to keep a close watch on trade policy in 2021. However, we may see fewer news headlines about trade and more “behind the door” advocacy and diplomacy. Specifically:

  • US Section 301 actions: While the punitive tariffs on Chinese goods may not go away anytime soon, there could be a fight over whether the new Biden administration should continue granting certain companies exclusions from those tariffs. Further, in October 2020, the Trump Administration launched two new Section 301 investigations on Vietnam regarding its import and use of timber and reported “undervaluation currency.” The case is pending, but the stakes are high for fashion companies —Vietnam is often treated as the best alternative to sourcing from China and already accounting for nearly 20% of total US apparel imports.
  • The US-China relationship: We all know the relationship is at its low-point, but the fact is many US fashion companies still treat China as one of their most promising markets to explore. China continues to expand its role in the Asia-based textile and apparel supply chain also. In a nutshell, more than ever, apparel executives need to care about what is going on in geopolitics. Hopefully, “tough times can breed positive outcomes.”
  • CPTPP and RCEP: With the reaching of the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) in November 2020, there are growing calls for the new Biden administration to consider rejoining the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) in some format to showcase the US presence in the Asia-Pacific region. To make the situation even more complicated, China has openly expressed its interest in joining the Comprehensive Progressive Agreement of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP), commonly known as “the TPP without the US.” 2021 will be a critical time window for all stakeholders, including the apparel sector, to debate various trade policy options that could shape the future trade architecture in the Asia-Pacific region.
  • Brexit: Brexit will enter a new phase in 2021 as the transition period ends on 31 December 2020. On the positive side, we have a playbook to follow—the UK has announced its new tariff schedules for various scenarios, which provide critical market predictability. We might also see the reaching of a new US-UK free trade agreement in the first half of the year, which will be exciting news for the apparel sector, particularly those in the luxury segment. However, as the US Trade Promotion Authority (TPA) is set to expire in July 2021, when and how soon such an agreement will enter into force will be another story. By no means trade policy in 2021 will go boring.

by Sheng Lu

COVID-19 and U.S. Apparel Imports: Key Trends (Updated: January 2021)

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.

by Sheng Lu

Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) and Textiles and Apparel

What is RCEP?

The Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) is a free trade agreement between ten member states of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN)* and five other large economies in the Asia-Pacific region (China, Japan, South Korea, New Zealand, and Australia). RCEP was reached on November 15, 2020, after nearly eight years of tough negotiation. (Note: ASEAN members include Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, and Vietnam. India was an original RCEP member but decided to quit in late 2019 due to concerns about competing with Chinese products, including textiles and apparel.)

So far, RCEP is the world’s largest trading bloc. As of 2019, RCEP members accounted for nearly 26.2% of world GDP, 29.5% of world merchandise exports, and 25.9% of world merchandise imports.

Hopefully, RCEP will enter into force as early as late 2021 or early 2022. Officially, RCEP will enter into force 60 days after at least six members approved the agreement through their respective domestic legislature; However, these six members must include three ASEAN members and three non-ASEAN members.

Why RCEP matters to the textile and apparel industry?

RCEP matters significantly for the textile and apparel (T&A) sector. According to statistics from the United Nations, in 2019, the fifteen RCEP members altogether exported US$374 billion worth of T&A (or 50% of the world share) and imported US$139 billion (or 20% of the world share).

In particular, RCEP members serve as critical apparel-sourcing bases for many US and EU fashion brands. For example, in 2019, close to 60% of US apparel imports came from RCEP members, up from 45% in 2005. Likewise, in 2019, 32% of EU apparel imports also came from RCEP members, up from 28.1% in 2005.

Notably, RCEP members have been developing and forming a regional textile and apparel supply chain. More economically advanced RCEP members (such as Japan, South Korea, and China) supply textile raw materials to the less economically developed countries in the region within this regional supply chain. Based on relatively lower wages, the less developed countries typically undertake the most labor-intensive processes of apparel manufacturing and then export finished apparel to major consumption markets worldwide.

As a reflection of an ever more integrated regional supply chain, in 2019, as much as 72.8% of RCEP members’ textile imports came from other RCEP members, a substantial increase from only 57.6% in 2005. Nearly 40% of RCEP members’ textile exports also went to other RCEP members in 2019, up from 31.9% in 2005.

What are the key provisions in RCEP related to textiles and apparel?

First, RCEP members have committed to reducing the tariff rates to zero for most textile and apparel traded between RCEP members on day one after the agreement enters into force. That being said, the detailed tariff phaseout schedule for textile and apparel products under RCEP is very complicated. Each RCEP member sets their own tariff phaseout schedule, which can last more than 20 years (for example, 34 years for South Korea and 21 years for Japan.) Also, different from U.S. or EU-based free trade agreements, the RCEP phaseout schedule is country-specific. For example, South Korea sets different tariff phaseout schedules for textile and apparel products from ASEAN, China, Australia, Japan, and New Zealand. Japan’s tariff cut for apparel products is more generous toward ASEAN members and less so for China and South Korea (see the graph above). Companies interested in taking advantage of the duty-free benefits under RCEP need to study the “rules of the game” in detail.

Second, in general, RCEP adopts very liberal rules of origin for apparel products. It only requires that all non-originating materials used in the production of the good have undergone a tariff shift at the 2-digit HS code level (say a change from any chapters from chapters 50-60 to chapter 61). In other words, RCEP members are allowed to source yarns and fabrics from anywhere in the world, and the finished garments will still qualify for duty-free benefits.  Most garment factories in RCEP member countries can immediately enjoy the RCEP benefits without adjusting their current supply chains.

What are the potential economic impacts of RCEP on the textile and apparel sector?

On the one hand, the implementation of RCEP is likely to further strengthen the regional textile and apparel supply chain among RCEP members. Particularly, RCEP will likely strengthen Japan, South Korea, and China as the primary textile suppliers for the regional T&A supply chain. Meanwhile, RCEP will also enlarge the role of ASEAN as the leading apparel producer in the region.

On the other hand, as a trading bloc, RCEP could make it even harder for non-RCEP members to get involved in the regional textile and apparel supply chain formed by RCEP members. Because an entire regional textile and apparel supply chain already exists among RCEP members, plus the factor of speed to market, few incentives are out there for RCEP members to partner with suppliers from outside the region in textile and apparel production. The tariff elimination under the RCEP will put textile and apparel producers that are not members of the agreement at a more significant disadvantage in the competition. Not surprisingly, according to a recent study, measured by value, only around 21.5% of RCEP members’ textile imports will come from outside the area after the implementation of the agreement, down from the base-year level of 29.9% in 2015.

Further, the reaching of RCEP could accelerate the negotiation of other trade agreements in the Asia-Pacific region, such as the China-South Korea-Japan Free Trade Agreement. Many also say RCEP may create new pressure for the new Biden administration to strengthen the US economic ties with countries in the Asia-Pacific region, such as joining the CPTPP or negotiating new bilateral trade agreements. 

By Sheng Lu

Further reading

The Impact and Insights of Trade – the 2020 Shakeup & the 2021 Outlook for the Fashion Industry

The panel discussion is part of the 2020 Virtual Apparel and Textile Sourcing Show. Topics covered by the session include:

  • Impact of COVID-19 on US fashion companies’ businesses and sourcing strategies
  • Impact of the 2020 US presidential election on the fashion industry
  • Key US trade policy issues related to the fashion industry 2020-2021
  • Patterns of US apparel sourcing and trade 2020-2021
  • Sourcing from Asia vs. near sourcing from the Western Hemisphere

New ILO Report: The supply chain ripple effect– How COVID-19 is affecting garment workers and factories in Asia and the Pacific

The full report is available HERE. Key findings:

1. The garment industry in the Asia-Pacific region is particularly vulnerable to the adverse impact of COVID-19 because of the size of the industry present and the high stakes involved. Notably, garment workers (over 60 million in total, including 35 million women) accounted for 21.1% of the manufacturing employment in the region as of 2019. Over 60% of the world’s apparel exports currently come from the Asia-Pacific region.

2. The cumulative impacts of COVID-19 on garment supply chains have been both far-reaching and complex: 1) As of September 9, 2020, more than 31 million garment workers in the Asia Pacific region were still affected by factory closure (i.e., mandatory closures of non-essential workplaces). 2) The drop in consumer demand and the decline in retail sales in the primary apparel consumption markets across the world have affected garment workers in the Asia-Pacific region negatively. As of September 9, 2020, 49% of all jobs in the Asia-Pacific garment supply chains (29 million) were dependent on demand for garments from consumers living in countries with the most stringent lockdown measures in place. Another 31 million jobs (51%) depended on consumer demand that is based in countries with a medium level of lockdown measures in place. 3) COVID-19 has further caused supply chain disruptions and prevented imported inputs into garment production from arriving in time. The heavy reliance on textile raw material supply from China makes many apparel producing countries in South-East Asian countries highly vulnerable to shortages of inputs.

3. The world apparel trade has fallen in the first half of 2020 sharply. This includes a 26% YoY drop in the US, a 25% drop in the EU, and a 17% drop in Japan. However, the timing and magnitude of these import declines vary significantly — China’s exports started to drop first at the beginning of the year,2020. Then, the exports from Vietnam, Bangladesh, Indonesia, and India began to decrease also since February (a joint effect of the shortage of raw material + decreased import demand). Data further shows that the drop in world apparel trade has been more significant than other products in the first half of 2020.

4. Apparel suppliers in the Asia Pacific region have been struggling with order cancellations AND longer payment terms insisted on by Western fashion brands and retailers. Garment factories say that they don’t have the leverage to ‘push back’ against these changes to contract terms and buyer policies.

5. Thousands of garment factories in the Asia-Pacific region closed at least temporarily because of COVID-19, some of them indefinitely. For example, In Cambodia, approximately 15-25% of factories had no orders at the end of the June 2020. Likewise, around 60% of garment factories in Bangladesh reported closing for more than 3 weeks. Related, layoffs have been widespread. For example, according to Indonesia’s Ministry of Industry, approximately 30% of their apparel and footwear workforce had been laid-off by July 2020 (812,254 in total). In Cambodia, approximately 15% of their garment workers (more than 150,000 workers) were reported to have lost their jobs during the pandemic. Further, garment factories have been operating at reduced capacity during the pandemic. For example, in Bangladesh, as of July 2020, the proportion of workers returning to work after re-opening was only 57% of the pre-pandemic level. Similarly, in Vietnam, as of July 2020, the proportion of workers returning to work after re-opening was also just around 50% of the pre-pandemic level.

Related reading:

COVID-19 and U.S. Apparel Imports: Key Trends (Updated: October 2020)

First, U.S. apparel imports continue to rebound thanks to consumers’ robust demand. The value of U.S. apparel imports in August 2020 went up by 7.6% from July 2020 (seasonally adjusted), a new record high since March 2020 when COVID-19 broke out in the States. As of August 2020, the volume of U.S. apparel imports has recovered to around 80% of the pre-coronavirus level.  This result echoes the trend of U.S. apparel retail sales (NAICS 448), which also indicates a “V-shape” rebound since May 2020. As fashion brands and retailers typically build their inventory for holiday sales (such as back to school, Thanksgiving, and Christmas) from July to October, the upward trend of U.S. apparel imports hopefully will last for another 1-2 months.

Nevertheless, between January and August 2020, the value of U.S. apparel imports decreased by almost 30% year over year, which has been MUCH worse than the performance during the 2008-2009 global financial crisis (down 11.8%).

Second, no evidence suggests that U.S. fashion companies are giving up China as one of their essential apparel-sourcing bases. Notably, since May 2020, China had quickly regained its position as the top apparel supplier to the U.S. market. From June to August 2020, China’s market shares have stably stayed at around 27-28% in value and 40-42% in quantity.

Some industry sources show that “Made in China” enjoys two notable advantages that other apparel supplying countries cannot catch up in the short term. 1) unparalleled production capacity, meaning importers can source almost all products in any quantity from China vs. more limited production capacity (both in terms of variety and volume) in other alternative sourcing destinations. 2) China can mostly produce textile raw material locally vs. many apparel exporting countries still rely heavily on imported yarns and fabrics (supplied by China).

However, non-economic factors, particularly the reported Xinjiang forced labor issue, are complicating fashion companies’ sourcing decisions. Notably, US cotton apparel imports from China year-to-date (YTD) in 2020 (Jan to August) significantly decreased by 54% from a year ago, much higher than the 22% drop in US imports from the rest of the world.  As a result, China’s market share in the US cotton apparel import market sharply declined from 22% in 2019 to only 15.1% in 2020 (Jan-Aug), a record low in the past ten years. This unusual trade pattern suggests that the concerns about social compliance risk are holding US fashion companies back from sourcing cotton apparel products from China. As the forced labor issue continues to evolve and become ever more sensitive and high profile, it is not unlikely that US fashion companies may substantially cut their China sourcing further, even if it is not a preferred choice economically.

Third, despite Covid-19, Asia as a whole remains the single largest source of apparel for the U.S. market. Other than China, Vietnam (20.2% YTD in 2020 vs. 16.2% in 2019), ASEAN (33.6% YTD in 2020 and vs. 27.4% in 2019), Bangladesh (8.6% YTD in 2020 vs.7.1% in 2019), and Cambodia (4.5% YTD in 2020 vs. 3.2% in 2019) all gain additional market shares in 2020 from a year ago.

Likewise, thanks to a highly integrated regional textile and apparel supply chain, Asian countries all together were able to maintain fairly stable market shares on the world stage over the past decade despite all market disruptions, from the financial crisis, trade war to the wage increase.

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 trade war. In the first seven months of 2020, only 8.9% 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). Confirming the trend, in the first eight months of 2020, the value of U.S. yarns and fabrics exports to USMCA and CAFTA-DR members also suffered a 28.0% decline from a year ago. The heavy reliance on textile supply from the U.S. (implying more vulnerability to the Covid-19 supply chain disruptions) and the price disadvantage could be among the contributing factors.

Further, industry sources show that the apparel products U.S. fashion companies import from members of USMCA and CAFTA-DR predominantly are tops and bottoms. The lack of production capacity for other product categories significantly limits the growth potential of these countries playing the role as a leading sourcing base.

by Sheng Lu

COVID-19 and U.S. Apparel Imports (Updated: September 2020)

The latest statistics from the Office of Textiles and Apparel (OTEXA) show that the patterns of U.S. apparel imports continue to involve because of COVID-19 and the escalating US-China tensions. Meanwhile, there appeared to be more potent signs of gradual economic recovery in the U.S. driven by consumers’ robust demand. Specifically:

While the value of U.S. apparel imports decreased by 32.0% in July 2020 from a year ago, the speed of the decline has significantly slowed (was down 60% and 42.8% year over year in May and June 2020, respectively). This result echoes the trend of U.S. apparel retail sales (NAICS 448), which indicates a “V-shape” rebound since May 2020. As fashion brands and retailers typically build their inventory for holiday sales (such as back to school, Thanksgiving, and Christmas) from July to October, the upward trend of U.S. apparel imports could continue in the next two to three months.

Nevertheless, between January and July 2020, the value of U.S. apparel imports decreased by 30.7% year over year, which has been much worse than the performance during the 2008-2009 global financial crisis (down 11.8%).

The latest trade statistics suggest that based on economic factors, U.S. fashion companies would like to continue to treat China as an essential apparel-sourcing base. As the first country hit by COVID-19, China’s apparel exports to the U.S. dropped by as much as 49.3% from January to July 2020 year over year. In February 2020, China’s market shares slipped to only 11%, and both in March and April 2020, U.S. fashion companies imported more apparel from Vietnam than from China. However, China had quickly regained its position as the top apparel supplier to the U.S., with a 26.3% market share in value and a 38.8% share in quantity in July 2020.

Different from the impact of the trade war, COVID-19 could benefit China as an apparel sourcing base as fashion companies have to “do more with fewer resources.” In general, China still enjoyed two notable advantages that other apparel supplying countries are unable to catch up in the short term. 1) unparalleled production capacity, meaning importers can source almost all products in any quantity from China vs. more limited production capacity (both in terms of variety and volume) in other alternative sourcing destinations. 2) China can mostly produce textile raw material locally vs. many apparel exporting countries still rely heavily on imported yarns and fabrics (supplied by China).

Contrary to common perceptions, apparel “Made in China” apparently are also becoming more price-competitive–the unit price slipped from $2.25/Square meters equivalent (SME) in 2019 to $1.88/SME in 2020 (January to July), or down more than 16.7% (compared with a 5.6% price drop of the world average). As of July 2020, the unit price of U.S. apparel import from China was only 65.7% of the world average, and around 25—35 percent lower than those imported from other Asian countries.

That being said, non-economic factors, from the deteriorating US-China relations to the reported Xinjiang forced labor issue, are increasingly complicating fashion companies’ sourcing decisions. Somehow as a warning sign, China’s market shares in the U.S. apparel import market slipped in both quantity and value terms in July 2020 compared with a month ago.

Despite Covid-19, Asia as a whole remains the single largest source of apparel for the U.S. market. Other than China, Vietnam (20.5% YTD in 2020 vs. 16.2% in 2019), ASEAN (34.3% YTD in 2020 and vs. 27.4% in 2019), Bangladesh (8.6% YTD in 2020 vs.7.1% in 2019), and Cambodia (4.5% YTD in 2020 vs. 3.2% in 2019) all gain additional market shares in 2020 from a year ago.

However, 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 trade war. In the first seven months of 2020, only 8.8% 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). Confirming the trend, in the first seven months of 2020, the value of U.S. yarns and fabrics exports to USMCA and CAFTA-DR members also suffered a 28.9% decline from a year ago. The heavy reliance on textile supply from the U.S. (implying more vulnerability to the Covid-19 supply chain disruptions) and the price disadvantage could be among the contributing factors why near sourcing has been stagnant.

As a reflection of weak demand, the unit price of U.S. apparel imports was lower in the first six months of 2020. The price index declined from 104.7 in 2019 to 99.0 YTD (Jan to Jul) in 2020 (Year 2010 =100). The imports from Mexico (price index =86.4 YTD in 2020 vs. 112.1 in 2019) and China (price index = 69.7 YTD in 2020 vs. 83.5 in 2019) have seen the most notable price decrease so far.

by Sheng Lu

2020 USFIA Fashion Industry Benchmarking Study Released

The 2021 USFIA Fashion Industry Benchmarking Study is Released

The full report is available HERE

Key findings of this year’s report:

Impact of COVID19 on Fashion Companies’ Businesses

The overwhelming majority of respondents report “economic and business impacts of the coronavirus (COVID-19)” as their top business challenge in 2020. The business difficulties caused by COVID-19 will not go away anytime soon, and U.S. fashion companies have to prepare for a medium to the long-term impact of the pandemic.

COVID-19 has caused severe supply chain disruptions to U.S. fashion companies. The disruptions come from multiple aspects, ranging from a labor shortage, shortages of textile raw materials, and a substantial cost increase in shipping and logistics.

COVID-19 has resulted in a widespread sales decline and order cancellation among U.S. fashion companies. Almost all respondents (96 percent) expect their companies’ sales revenue to decrease in 2020.

As sales drop and business operations are significantly disrupted, not surprisingly, all respondents (100 percent) say they more or less have postponed or canceled sourcing orders. Nearly half of self-identified retailers say the sourcing orders they canceled or postponed go beyond the 2nd quarter of 2020. Another 40 percent expect order cancellation and postponement could extend further to the fourth quarter of 2020 or even beyond. The order cancellation or postponement has affected vendors in China, Bangladesh, and India the most.

Impact of COVID-19 and US-China Trade War on Fashion Companies’ Sourcing

As high as 90 percent of respondents explicitly say, the U.S. Section 301 action against China has increased their company’s sourcing cost in 2020, up from 63 percent last year.

COVID-19 and the trade war are pushing U.S. fashion companies to reduce their “China exposure” further. While “China plus Vietnam plus Many” remains the most popular sourcing model among respondents, around 29 percent of respondents indicate that they source MORE from Vietnam than from China in 2020, up further from 25 percent in 2019.

As U.S. fashion companies are sourcing relatively less from China, they are moving orders mostly to China’s competitors in Asia. All respondents (100 percent) say they have “moved some sourcing orders from China to other Asian suppliers” this year, up from 77 percent in 2019.

However, no clear evidence suggests that U.S. fashion companies are sourcing more from the Western Hemisphere because of COVID-19 and the U.S.-China trade war.

Emerging Sourcing Trends

Sourcing diversification is slowing down, and more U.S. fashion companies are switching to consolidate their existing sourcing base. Close to half of the respondents say they plan to “source from the same number of countries, but work with fewer vendors,” up from 40 percent in last year’s survey.

China most likely will remain a critical sourcing base for U.S. fashion companies. However, non-economic factors could complicate companies’ sourcing decisions. Benefiting from U.S. fashion companies’ reduced sourcing from China, Vietnam and Bangladesh are expected to play a more significant role as primary apparel suppliers for the U.S. market.

Given the supply chain disruptions experienced during the pandemic, U.S. fashion companies are more actively exploring “Made in the USA” sourcing opportunities to improve agility and flexibility and reduce sourcing risks. Around 25 percent of respondents expect to somewhat increase sourcing locally from the U.S. in the next two years, which is the highest level since 2016.

US-Mexico-Canada Trade Agreement (USMCA)

For companies that were already using NAFTA for sourcing, the vast majority (77.8 percent) say they are “ready to achieve any USMCA benefits immediately,” up more than 31 percent from 2019. Even for respondents who were not using NAFTA or sourcing from the region, about half of them this year say they may “consider North American sourcing in the future” and explore the USMCA benefits. Some respondents expressed concerns about the rules of origin changes. These worries seem to concentrate on denim products in particular.

African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA)

Close to 37 percent of respondents say they have been sourcing MORE textile and apparel from sub-Saharan Africa (SSA) since the latest AGOA renewal in 2015, a substantial increase from 27 percent in the 2019 survey. More than 40 percent of respondents say AGOA and its “third-country fabric provision” are critical for their sourcing from the SSA region. More than 40 percent of respondents say AGOA and its “third-country fabric provision” are critical for their sourcing from the SSA region.

However, respondents still demonstrate a low level of interest in investing in the SSA region directly. Around 27 percent of respondents say the temporary nature of AGOA and the uncertainty associated with the future of the agreement have discouraged them.

With AGOA’s expiration date quickly approaching, the discussions on the future of the agreement and the prospect of sourcing from SSA begin to intensify. Among the various policy options to consider, “Renew AGOA for another ten years with no major change of its current provisions” and “Replace AGOA with a permanent free trade agreement that requires reciprocal tariff cut and continues to allow the third-country fabric provision” are the most preferred by respondents.

Japan’s Apparel Sourcing Patterns

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(The full article is available HERE)

Key findings:

First, the total value of Japan’s apparel imports has been growing steadily in line with consumption patterns. Between 2010 and 2018, the value of Japan’s apparel imports enjoyed a 2.7% compound annual growth rate, which was lower than the US (3.4%), but higher than the EU (1.9%) and the world average (1.3%) over the same period.

Second, while China remains the top supplier, Japanese fashion brands and retailers are also diversifying their sourcing bases. Similar to their counterparts in the US and EU, Japanese fashion brands and retailers are actively seeking alternatives. Imports from Vietnam, Bangladesh, and Indonesia have been growing particularly fast, even though their production capacity and market shares are still far behind China.

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Third, Japanese fashion companies are increasingly sourcing from Asia. As of 2018, only 7.5% of Japan’s apparel imports came from non-Asian countries (mostly western EU countries), a notable drop from 11.4% back in 2000. A good proportion of Japan’s apparel imports from Asia actually contain fibers and yarns originally made in Japan. For example, it is not difficult to find clothing labeled ‘Made in China’ or ‘Made in Vietnam’ that also includes phrases such as ‘Using soft, slow-spun Japanese fabric’ and ‘With Japanese yarns’ in the detailed product description.

Fourth, overall, Japan sets a lower tariff barrier for apparel than other leading import countries. As of September 2019, there were around 15 FTAs and TPAs in force in Japan, whose members include several 1st tier apparel supplying countries in Asia, such as Vietnam, Bangladesh, India, Indonesia, and Cambodia. Most of these trade programs adopt the so-called “fabric-forward” rules of origin (also known as “double-transformation” rules of origin). Additionally, Japan is actively engaged in negotiations on a trilateral free trade agreement with China and South Korea, and the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), which involves Japan, South Korea, China and members of the Association of Southeast Asian (ASEAN) countries. Once reached and implemented, these trade agreements will provide new exciting duty-saving sourcing opportunities, including from China, the top apparel exporter in the world.

The Changing Face of Textile and Apparel “Made in Asia”

Video 1: How one Chinese shirt-maker uses automation to safeguard its future

Video 2: Chinese investors move clothing factory to Bangladesh

Video 3: Can Vietnam become the next China?

Discussion questions (for FASH455: Please finish watching ALL the three short videos above before sharing your viewpoints)

  1. How are textile and apparel “Made in Asia” changing its face? What are the driving forces of these changes?
  2. What are the examples of the “flying geese model” from the videos? Overall, why or why not do you think this model is still valid today?
  3. Why or why not do you think the U.S.-China tariff war has fundamentally changed the patterns of textile and apparel production and trade in Asia?

Related readings

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Patterns of Canada’s Apparel Sourcing and Trade

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The full article is available HERE

Key findings:

First, Canada is one of the largest and fastest growing apparel import markets in the world. Data from the UN Comtrade show that the value of Canada’s apparel imports totaled $10.7bn in 2017, which ranked the fifth in the world, only after the European Union (EU), the United States, Japan, and Hong Kong.

Second, the Asian region as a whole is the dominant apparel supplier for Canada. Measured in value, as much as 80.9 percent of Canada’s apparel imports in 2017 came from Asia. Specifically, China (40.6 percent), Bangladesh (11.1 percent), Cambodia (8.1 percent) and Vietnam (7.7 percent) were the top individual supplier for Canada in 2017, and all of them are located in Asia. Meanwhile, Canadian apparel companies are gradually diversifying their sourcing base: the Herfindahl Index (HHI), a commonly adopted measure of market concentration, declined from 0.3 in 2010 to 0.19 in 2017.

Third, the NAFTA-region remains an important apparel-sourcing base for Canada, but its overall influence is in decline. Measured in value, the United States and Mexico were the 6th and 9th top apparel supplier for Canada in 2017 respectively. However, facing the competition from Asia, the United States and Mexico combined accounted for only 6.4 percent of Canada’s apparel imports in 2017, a significant drop from 9.8 percent back in 2007.

Fourth, free trade agreements and trade preference programs provide duty-saving opportunities for apparel sourcing in Canada. In 2017, Canada applied an average tariff rate of 17.1 percent on imports of knitted apparel (HS Chapter 61) and 15.9 percent on woven apparel (HS chapter 62). As of August 2018, Canada has 17 free trade agreements (FTAs) and trade preference programs (TPAs) in force, offering preferential or duty-free market access to Canada. Traditionally, a substantial portion of Canada’s FTA partners come from the Western Hemisphere, such as Chile, Costa Rica, Colombia, Peru, Honduras, and Panama. However, in recent years, Canada has been actively negotiating and reaching new FTAs with countries in Asia (such as South Korea, India, and Japan) and Europe (including the European Union and Ukraine). 

Compared with the United States, in general, Canada adopts more liberal rules of origin (RoO) for apparel products. Quite a few Canada FTAs allow companies to source yarns or even fabrics from anywhere in the world – with the finished products still enjoying duty-free treatment when exported to Canada.

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Regional Textile and Apparel Supply Chains–Questions from FASH455

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NAFTA and Textile and Apparel Rules of Origin

#1 How do rules of origin (RoO) and free trade agreement (FTA) regulations affect speed to market in apparel sourcing? Do countries who are part of an FTA find it to be easier to get to market in a shorter amount of time if they are working with other FTA members? Or could RoO slow down the production process because producers have to be more careful about compliance with the complicated RoO?

#2 Why or why not the “yarn forward” rules of origin remains an effective way to promote textile and apparel production in the Western-Hemisphere?  What other options are available to improve the competitiveness of the Western-Hemisphere textile and apparel supply chain?

#3 What would happen to the Western-Hemisphere textile and apparel supply chain should NAFTA no longer exist?

#4 Should NAFTA be responsible for the loss of US apparel manufacturing jobs? Any hard evidence?

#5 If you were U.S. trade negotiators, what would you do with TPL in NAFTA given the competing views from the U.S. textile industry and U.S. fashion brands and retailers?

The Outlook of “Factory-Asia”

#6 From the perspective of the U.S. textile and apparel industry, is it a good idea for the United States to reach free trade agreement (FTA) with Asian countries? If so, what countries should be included in the new FTA? If not, why?

#7 How can U.S. companies get involved in the Asia-based textile and apparel supply chain?

#8 Why or why not is the “Flying geese model” unique to Asia? Can the model be replicated in America too?

(Welcome to join our online discussion. Please mention the question number in your reply)

Regional Supply Chain Remains an Important Feature of Global Textile and Apparel Trade (Updated: November 2017)

Regional supply chain (or production-trade network, RPTN) or refers to a vertical industry collaboration system between countries that are geographically close to each other. Within a regional supply chain, each country specialized in certain portions of production or value-added activities based on their respective comparative advantages to maximize the efficiency of the whole supply chain.

There are three primary textile and apparel (T&A) regional supply chains in the world today:1

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Asia: within this regional T&A supply chain, more economically advanced Asian countries (such as Japan, South Korea, and China) supply textile raw material to the less economically developed countries in the region (such as Myanmar, Cambodia, and Vietnam). Based on relatively lower wages, the less developed countries typically undertake the most labor-intensive processes of apparel manufacturing and then export finished apparel to major consumption markets around the world.

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Europe: within this regional T&A supply chain, developed countries in Southern and Western Europe such as Italy and Germany serve as the primary textile suppliers. Regarding apparel manufacturing in the European Union,  products for the mass markets are typically produced by developing countries in Southern and Eastern Europe such as Poland and Romania, whereas high-end luxury products are mostly produced by Southern and Western European countries such as Italy and France. Furthermore, a high portion of finished apparel is shipped to developed EU members such as UK, Germany, France, and Italy for consumption.

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America: within the region, 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 for consumption.

Data from the World Trade Organization (WTO) shows that regional supply chain remains an essential feature of today’s global textile and apparel trade.  Notably, three trade flows are worth watching:

First, Asian countries are increasingly importing more textiles from within the region. In 2016, around 91.2% of Asian countries’ textile imports came from other Asian countries, up from 86.8% in 2006. This change reflects the formation of a more integrated T&A supply-chain in Asia. The more efficient regional supply chain also helps improve the price competitiveness of apparel made by “factory Asia” in the world marketplace. Particularly in the past few years, T&A exports from Asia is posting substantial pressures on the operation of the T&A regional supply chains in the Western Hemisphere.

Second, the intra-region T&A trade in EU remains stable. In 2016, 64.1% of EU countries’ textile imports and 55.6% of EU countries’ apparel imports came from within the EU region. Over the same period, 73.3% of EU countries’ textile exports and 81.6 % of their apparel exports also went to other EU countries.

Third, the Western-Hemisphere T&A supply chain, which involves countries in North, South and Central America, is facing substantial challenges from the increasing competition from Asian T&A exporters. In 2016, only 29.0% of North, South and Central American countries’ textile imports and 18.6% of their apparel imports came from within the region, a record low in the past ten years. Meanwhile, in 2016 Asian countries supplied 60.1% of textiles and 73.7% of clothing imported by countries in the Western Hemisphere, a record high in history. Understandably, if regional free trade agreements, such as NAFTA and CAFTA-DR, no longer exist, it would be even more difficult for the Western-Hemisphere T&A supply chain to survive. The potential losers of the collapse of the Western-Hemisphere T&A supply chain will include not only US textile exporters but also apparel exporters in North, South and Central America. Notably, in 2016, 89.3% of apparel exported by countries in the Western Hemisphere were destined for the region.  

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Data Source: World Trade Organization (2017)

by Sheng Lu

The Future of the Asia-Pacific Region as a Textile and Apparel Sourcing Destination: Discussion Questions Proposed by FASH455

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#1 How have US importers/retailers/fashion brands which source from China reacted to China’s rising labor cost in recent years? Any specific examples of companies’ practices and strategies?

#2 It is widely reported that China’s labor cost has been rising quickly in recent years (around 14% annually between 2010 and 2014). But trade data didn’t show a significant drop of China’s textile and apparel exports to the US. Why is that?

#3 Why do you think people have a conception of China being a “highly reliable” sourcing destination for textile and apparel? What is China’s unique competitiveness?

#4 Many domestic and foreign firms have started investing in textile/fiber factories in Vietnam because of the yarn forward rules of origin in TPP. Would it be in the United States’ best interest to become one of these investors? Why or why not?

#5 In the class we discussed the “flying geese model” and the phenomenon of “Factory Asia”. Particularly, Asian countries are forming an ever more integrated textile and apparel supply chain—for example, apparel manufacturers in Asia are gradually using more textile inputs made in Asia rather than made outside the region. Does it mean that the United States has no role to play in Asia-based textile and apparel supply chain? Will the TPP make a difference?

#6 Should US allow China to join the TPP? Why or why not? If China joins the TPP, what will be the implications for the pattern of textile and apparel trade in the Asia-Pacific region?

 #7 What is the relationship between the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) and the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP)? Alternatives? Competitors? Friends? Foes? Why are there so many different free trade agreements (FTA) in the same region?

Please feel free to share your thoughts and recommend any additional articles/readings/resources relevant to the discussion. Please mention the question # in your reply.

 

The Future of Asia-Pacific and Implications for the U.S. Textile and Apparel Industry

Asia Pacific

The following discussion questions are proposed by students enrolled in FASH455 (Global Apparel & Textile Trade and Sourcing) Fall 2015 after learning the unit on textile and apparel industry & market in the Asia-Pacific region. Please feel free to leave your comment and engage in our online discussion.

  1. We’ve heard so much about China’s superior involvement in the textile & apparel sectors globally, but how are these industries contributing to the local economy?
  2. As rules on working conditions and minimum wage have been enforced in Mainland China many business people have moved their operations to Southeast Asia, do you think the Southeast Asia will eventually become like mainland China forcing businessmen to seek low wages elsewhere?
  3. Will Vietnam shift its sourcing of yarns and fabrics from China to US after TPP? What are some setbacks associated with this? What are some potential opportunities?
  4. While Vietnam is currently one of the primary exporters of apparel to the United States, what should be the actions taken by the United States if they continue to “refuse” to cut out Chinese Textiles? Or, should the United States continue their trading patterns with Vietnam despite their reliance on Chinese Textiles?
  5. The Asia pacific region is made up of a variety of countries with different strengths and political infrastructure. How does the variety of policies and governments affect how we do business abroad, and is there a way to set standards that are not individualized to each country?
  6. China and the US can be seen as a threat to one another. However the president of China said the “Pacific Ocean has enough space for the two large countries”. Do you think they are threats to each other, or are they ultimately helping each other’s economies grow?
  7. What will happen as more and more countries that used to produce apparel move into producing more capital intensive production?
  8. What are the advantages or disadvantages of excluding China from international trade agreements such as TPP?
  9. If the T&A industry in China is envisioned by policymakers as beginning to focus more on technical textiles, how will the textile industry in China compete with the industry in the United States?
  10. Why has East Asia become one of the most economically interconnected regions in the world?
  11. What are some of the reasons that China still remains one of most price competitive export markets in the World? Also, does China face challenges in losing their top spot as leader in price competitiveness? If so, what are some of the reasons they are in danger of competition?
  12. How is the discussion about yarn forward rules of origin different in regards to TPP countries than the same discussion between the NAFTA/CAFTA-DR countries?

 [Discussion for this post is closed].

Potential Impact of TPP on the Textile and Apparel Sector: A Summary of Recent Studies

Screenshot 2015-10-06 08.13.16

(Picture credit: Lu, S. (2015) Does Japan’s accession to the Trans-Pacific Partnership mean an opportunity or a threat to the U.S. textile industry? A quantitative evaluation, Journal of the Textile Institute, 106(5), 536-549.)

With the conclusion of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) negotiation on Oct 5, 2015, it is time to think about its potential impact. Specifically for the textile and apparel (T&A) industry, the followings studies may offer some hints (to read more, you can click each title):

Trade Statistics

Statistics show the 12 TPP partners altogether imported $65 billion worth of textiles and $154 billion worth of apparel in 2013, which accounted for a world import share of 20 percent and 32 percent, respectively (WTO, 2015). In 2014, around 55 percent of U.S. textile and apparel exports (or $13.3 billion) went to the other 11 TPP partners, and 17 percent of U.S. textile and apparel imports (or $17.8 billion) came from the TPP region (OTEXA, 2015).

Impact of TPP on U.S. Textile and Apparel Manufacturing: A Preliminary Estimation

TPP overall will have a negative impact on U.S. domestic textile and apparel manufacturing. In all simulated scenarios, the annual manufacturing output in the United States will decline by $846 million–$3,780 million for textile and $1,154 million–$1,828 million for apparel than otherwise.

2.The “yarn-forward” rule may not substantially benefit U.S. domestic textile and apparel manufacturing as some people had suggested, for two reasons: 1) results show that Vietnam is more likely to use Japanese textiles than U.S. textiles when yarn-forward rule is in place. 2) U.S. apparel imports from Vietnam directly compete with those imported from NAFTA and CAFTA regions, the largest export market for U.S.-made yarns and fabrics. When NAFTA and CAFTA’s market share in the U.S. apparel import market is taken away by Vietnam, U.S. textile exports to NAFTA and CAFTA will decline anyway, regardless of whether Vietnam uses U.S.-made textiles.

3.Results suggest that compared with the “yarn-forward” rule, development of Vietnam’s local textile industry will have an even larger impact on the future of U.S. domestic textile and apparel manufacturing. Particularly, when Vietnam becomes more capable of making textile inputs by its own, not only Vietnam’s overall demand for imported textiles will decline, but also Vietnam’s apparel exports will become even more price-competitive in the U.S. as well as the world marketplace.

“Import Sensitive” Clothing and the TPP X-basket : What might include

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Based on examining three recent trade programs, including: U.S. International Trade Commission (USITC) monitoring program on T&A imports from China based on the U.S.-China Textile Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) (2008—present), Office of Textiles and Apparel (OTEXA) monitoring program on U.S. T&A imports from Vietnam (2007-2008) and U.S. textile safeguard measures against China (2003-2005), it seems “import sensitive” T&A in the United States mostly refer to cotton and man-made fiber apparel and fabrics. OTEXA product Code 338, 339, 340, 345, 347, 348, 352, 447, 638, 639, 640, 645, 646, 647, 648 and 652 are most likely to be included in the TPP X-basket.

Because Vietnam’s T&A exports to the United States heavily concentrate on these “import sensitive” T&A categories, the X-basket has the potential to substantially affect the actual trade liberalization that can be enjoyed by the T&A sector under TPP:

  • By the most conservative estimation, i.e. the X-basket only covers Category A “import sensitive” apparel products, it will affect about 41.6 percent of U.S. apparel imports from Vietnam (or 38.7 percent of total U.S. T&A imports from Vietnam) if trade pattern remains the same as in 2014.
  • In the worst case, i.e. the X-basket covers all “import sensitive” T&A products identified by this study, it will affect about 70.0 percent of total U.S. T&A imports from Vietnam, if trade patterns remains the same as in 2014.

2015 US Fashion Industry Benchmarking Study

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The survey results show that TPP matters for the U.S. fashion industry, with as many as 79 percent of respondents saying implementation of the agreement will impact their business practices. Specifically:

  • 72 percent expect to source more textiles and apparel from TPP partners, suggesting the imminent impact of TPP for the U.S. fashion industry could be trade creation.
  • Fewer than 10 percent expect to source less from non-TPP members after the implementation of the agreement, suggesting the trade diversion effect of TPP could be limited.
  • 48 percent expect to strategically adjust or redesign their supply chain based on TPP, implying TPP could be a game changer and has the potential to shape new patterns of textile and apparel trade in the Asia-Pacific region in the long term.
  • However, as few as 7 percent expect to export more products to TPP partners, while only 10 percent expect to invest more in TPP partners (building factories, operating retail stores and e-commerce operations) after implementation of the agreement. It seems the U.S. fashion industry hasn’t focused much on TPP’s potential to promote exports and achieve greater market access.
  • Additionally, 45 percent say the TPP Short-Supply List should be expanded, and comments indicate the proposed “yarn-forward” Rule of Origin is a major hurdle to the industry realizing real benefits from the agreement. In fact, as many as 83 percent support or strongly support abandoning the strict “yarn-forward” Rule of Origin and adopting a more flexible one in future FTAs (Figure 21). This suggests that the benefit of TPP for the U.S. fashion industry and the utilization of the agreement will largely depend on the Rule of Origin. In particular, there is a strong call among U.S. fashion companies to make the textile and apparel Rule of Origin less restrictive and more flexible in TPP.

Why does the US Textile Industry Want Yan-forward Rule of Origin (RoO) in TPP?

The US textile industry insists yarn-forward RoO in TPP is not because they expect a substantial increase of textile exports to Vietnam as the case of NAFTA and CAFTA which help capture the export markets in Mexico and Central America. But rather it is because:

1) Without yarn-forward, situation will get even worse. Particularly, a less restrictive RoO will make Vietnam’s apparel exports which contain textiles made in China, Taiwan or South Korea qualified for duty free access to the US market. Definitely this will be a more imminent and bigger threat to the US textile industry than simply facing competition from Vietnam’s apparel which contains Japanese made textiles. And still many US textile companies don’t treat the Japanese textile industry very seriously, although I think they should. Remember, Japan currently is the fourth largest textile supplier to Vietnam and the NO.1 textile supplier to China.

2) With yarn-forward RoO in place, at least US textile companies can invest in Vietnam (remember, globalization is about movement of capital as well. Many apparel companies in Mexico and Central America actually are invested by US companies). Without yarn-forward RoO however, Vietnam can simply rely on imported textiles as the case mentioned in (1) and there will be no incentive for US textile companies to move factories to Vietnam (meaning, capital holders will lose).

So overall yarn-forward RoO may win a few more years for the US textile industry. But in the long run, it is my view that the US textile production and its exports to the Western Hemisphere countries may still inevitably decline (especially those output to be used for apparel assembly purposes) after the implementation of TPP. In the 21st century, the nature of competition is supply chain v.s. supply chain.

China to Become the World’s Largest Apparel Market in 2019

According to forecast made by the Euromonitor, China will exceed the United States and become the world’s largest apparel market by 2019. Specifically, annual apparel sales in China will reach $333,312 million in 2019, an increase of 25% from $267,246 million in 2014. In comparison, apparel sales in the United States is estimated to reach $267,360 million in 2019, which is only 3% higher than $260,050 million in 2014.

size of apparel market

2However, it shall be noted that China seems to be an even more competitive apparel market than the United States. For example, no apparel brand was able to achieve a market share more than 1% in 2014 in China, whereas in the United States, market shares of several leading apparel brands exceeded 2%. Moreover, domestic brands overall outperform international brands in the Chinese apparel market.

34On the other hand, despite its overall market size, as a developing country, dollar spending on apparel per capita will remain much lower in China than many developed economies around the world. In 2014, each Chinese consumer on average spent $240 on apparel versus $815 in the United States, even though apparel spending accounted for a larger share in household income in China (around 10%) compared with the United States (less than 3%).

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Several personal thoughts based on the data:

First, it is the time that U.S. apparel companies/fashion brands should start to seriously think about their sourcing strategy specifically for the Chinese market.

Second, for many Chinese apparel companies, serving the domestic market will help them more effectively achieve functional upgrading (i.e. shifting from low-value added manufacturing to higher-value added functions such as design, branding and distribution) than through exporting.

Third, controlling sourcing cost will be as important in China as in the United States. When China’s applied tariff rate is still as high as 9.63% for textiles and 16.05% for apparel (WTO, 2015), U.S. fashion companies/fashion brands may not have many options but to use “Made in China” to serve the Chinese consumers. In the long run, however, “Made in China” shall be gradually replaced by “Made in Asia”, especially when several free trade agreements (FTAs) involving China eventually take into effect (such as CEPA). However, China may strategically use rules of origin in these FTAs and encourage apparel manufacturers in the region to use Chinese made textile inputs (just like what U.S. did in NAFTA and CAFTA). Nevertheless, either for managing the apparel supply chain based on “Made in China” or “Made in Asia”, it doesn’t seem U.S. apparel companies/fashion brands will easily enjoy competitiveness over their Chinese competitors.

Data source: Euromonitor Passport(2015)

Two Years after the Rana Plaza Tragedy: What Has Changed?

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Note: the followings updates are compiled based on the 2015 Bangladesh Development Conference held from June 5th to 6th at the Harvard University. The conference attracted over 100 attendants and speakers from various aspects of the apparel industry, government agencies, international organizations, non-government organizations and academia.

1. Overall, the industry side argues that tremendous efforts have been made to improve work safety in the Bangladesh apparel industry and things are gradually improving. However, representatives from some labor unions say that changes are not happening fast enough as they should.

2. Indeed, as one of the most noticeable changes after the Rana Plaza tragedy, the Bangladesh apparel factories are now facing more frequent safety inspection and audit from various parties:

  • In addition to the regular inspection conducted by individual fashion brand or retailer, the Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh (the Accord) and Alliance for Bangladesh Worker Safety (the Alliance) were established in 2013 respectively (mostly funded by western apparel brands sourcing from Bangladesh) to maintain minimum safety standards in the Bangladesh apparel industry.
  • The Accord has a total five-year budget of $50 million to be used on factory safety inspection and improvement. However, it is far from being clear what will happen after the Accord agreement expires in 2018 and whether the inspection achievements can be maintained afterwards.
  • The International Labor Organization and International Finance Corporation launched the “Better Work” program in collaboration with Bangladesh government, apparel factory owners, workers, fashion buyers and other relevant stakeholders. The program intends to provide assessments of factory compliance with national law and core international labor standards, paired with transparent public reporting on findings.
  • Nevertheless, some people argue that audit itself is not the answer to the problem, just like “a pig will not gain weight simply by weighting it; instead, we have to feed it.” Reflecting on the limitation of inspection and audit, they refer to compliance as just a piece of paper whereas ethics is something that keeps people awake in bed.

3. Some foreign governments also have responded to the Rana Plaza tragedy, although in different ways:

  • Stick: the U.S. government decided to suspend Bangladesh’s Generalized System of Preferences (GSP) status in 2013 as a response to the Rana Plaza tragedy. Because textile and apparel are excluded from GSP, this measure has no direct impact on Bangladesh’s apparel exports to the United States. But the movement is symbolic and significantly increases the publicity of corporate social responsibility (CRS) issue in the Bangladesh apparel industry.
  • Carrot: in comparison, the European Union chooses to continue providing Bangladesh its GSP benefits. As a GSP beneficiary, Bangladesh’s apparel exports to EU can enjoy duty free treatment when competing with other Asian suppliers such as China and India. According to EU, from 2008 to 2012 EU28 imports from Bangladesh increased from €5,464 million to €9,212 million (+69%), which is more than half of Bangladesh’s total exports. While granting Bangladesh the benefit, EU also launches the GSP Action Plan and the Sustainability Compact to encourage responsible businesses in Bangladesh.

4. Training has been provided for Bangladesh officials to help them better understand building safety requirements.

5. More apparel factories in Bangladesh now have their own labor unions. According to the local law, 30 percent of the labor force in a factory can form its own labor union, meaning theoretically one factory can have up to three different unions. There has been more open discussions on “worker/women empowerment”, “social dialogue” and “stakeholder engagement” in the Bangladeshi society as well.  

6. Some creative financial incentive mechanisms are suggested to improve the situation, such as offering factories with better compliance record with more attractive interest rate for bank loans; and adding building safety clauses in factory insurance contract.  

7. Academia is actively engaged in finding a solution for improving the CRS practices in the Bangladesh apparel industry as well:

  • Based on analyzing the factory inspection data, some scholars start to evaluate the effectiveness of the current inspection system (eg: does who pay for the inspection matter for the result? Does violation go down overtime in inspection? What is the role of on-going people to people relationship in inspection?).
  • Some projects intend to develop an estimate of the true size of the Bangladesh apparel industry, given the fact that the worst work condition may exist in those undocumented factories. As a matter of fact, even the Bangladesh government doesn’t know how many garment factories they have in the country.
  • Some scholars propose the idea of linking a company’s social compliance data with its business financial data to evaluate the business implication of CRS practices.
  • Some studies compare the labor practices between Bangladesh and other developing countries in South Asia such as Cambodia and Sri Lanka.
  • Some people suggest using case studies to develop hypotheses for a policy change.
  • More and more studies are now conducted based on field trip and interview in Bangladesh.

8. Criminal charges recently are filed against a dozen individuals and companies identified responsible for the Rana Plaza tragedy.

9. Response to the Rana Plaza tragedy has further led to a discussion on the broader economic, social and political reform in Bangladesh.

Sheng Lu

What Does “Factory Asia” Mean for the U.S. Textile and Apparel Industry?

Slide37

Slide38As we discussed in class, following the “flying geese pattern”, countries in Asia form a dynamic division of labor in textile and apparel (T&A) manufacturing. Although China may gradually lose its comparative advantage in labor-intensive apparel manufacturing, it will continue playing a critical role in “Factory Asia” (i.e. Asia-based T&A supply chain). As results, Asia will remain a giant player in T&A production and export in the years to come.

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Slide35

Another important feature of “Factory Asia” is regional integration–Asian countries tend to use more and more T&A inputs from within Asia rather than from outside the region. This may improve the internal efficiency of “Factory Asia”, but also may make it harder for T&A companies outside Asia to get access to the Asian market.

Slide54

So, what is your view on “Factory Asia”? What are the implications of “Factory Asia” for the U.S. T&A industry? Can the Trans-Pacific Partnership potentially shape new T&A supply chain in the Asia-Pacific region? What market opportunities does the Asia-Pacific region present to the US T&A industry? Please feel free to share your view and any other questions in your mind about the Asia-Pacific region. 

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