Outlook 2022– Key Issues to Shape Apparel Sourcing and Trade

In December 2021, Just-Style consulted a panel of industry leaders and scholars in its Outlook 2022–what’s next for apparel sourcing briefing. Below is my contribution to the report. All comments and suggestions are more than welcome!

What next for apparel sourcing?

As “COVID sets the agenda” and the trajectory of several critical market and non-market forces hard to predict (for example, global inflation, and geopolitics), fashion companies may still have to deal with a highly volatile and uncertain market environment in 2022. That being said, it is still hopeful that fashion companies’ toughest sourcing challenges in 2021 will start to gradually ease at some point in the new year, including the hiking shipping costs, COVID-related lockdowns, and supply chain disruptions.

In response to the “new normal,” fashion companies may find several sourcing strategies essential:

One is to maintain a relatively diverse apparel sourcing base. The latest trade data suggests that US, EU, and Japan-based fashion companies have been steadily sourcing from a more diverse group of countries since 2018, and such a trend continues during the pandemic. Echoing the pattern, in the latest annual benchmarking study I conducted in collaboration with the United States Fashion Industry Association (USFIA), we find that “China plus Vietnam plus many” remains the most popular sourcing model among respondents. This strategy means China and Vietnam combined now typically account for 20-40 percent of a fashion company’s total sourcing value or volume, a notable down from 40-60 percent in the past few years. Fashion companies diversify their sourcing away from “China plus Vietnam” to avoid placing “all eggs in one basket” and mitigate various sourcing risks. In addition, more than 85 percent of surveyed fashion companies say they will actively explore new sourcing opportunities through 2023, particularly those that could serve as alternatives to sourcing from China.

The second strategy is to strengthen the relationship with key vendors further. As apparel is a buyer-driven industry, fashion brands and retailers fully understand the importance of catering to consumers’ needs. However, the supply chain disruptions caused by COVID-19 remind fashion companies that building a close and partner-based relationship with capable suppliers also matters. For example, working with vendors that have a presence in multiple countries (or known as “super-vendors”) offers fashion companies a critical competitive edge to achieve more flexibility and agility in sourcing. Sourcing from vendors with a vertical manufacturing capability also allows fashion companies to be more resilient toward supply chain disruptions like the shortage of textile raw materials, a significant problem during the pandemic.

Further, we could see fashion companies pay even closer attention to textile raw material sourcing in the year ahead. On the one hand, given the growing concerns about various social and environmental compliance issues like forced labor, fashion brands and retailers are making more significant efforts to better understand their entire supply chain. For example, in addition to tracking who made the clothing or the fabrics (i.e., tier 1 & 2 suppliers), more companies have begun to release information about the sources of their fibers, yarns, threads, and trimmings (i.e., tier 3 & tier 4 suppliers). On the other hand, many fashion brands and retailers intend to diversify their textile material sourcing from Asia, particularly China, against the current business environment. Compared with cutting and sewing garments, much fewer countries can make textiles locally, and it takes time to build textile production capacity. Thus, fashion companies interested in taking more control of their textile raw material sourcing need to take concrete actions such as shifting their sourcing model and making long-term investments intentionally.

Apparel industry challenges and opportunities

One key issue we need to watch closely is the US-China relations. China currently remains the single largest source of apparel globally, with no near alternative. China also plays an increasingly significant role as a textile supplier for many leading apparel exporting countries in Asia. However, as the US-China relations become more concerning and confrontational, we could anticipate new trade restrictions targeting Chinese products and products from any sources that contain components made in China. Notably, with strong bipartisan support, President Biden signed into law the Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act on December 23, 2021. The new law is a game-changer! Depending on the detailed implementation guideline to be developed by the Customs and Border Protection (CBP), US fashion companies may find it not operationally viable to source many textiles and apparel products from China. In response, China may retaliate against well-known western fashion brands, disrupting their sales expansion in the growing Chinese consumer market. Further, as China faces many daunting domestic economic and political challenges, a legitimate question for fashion companies to think about is what an unstable China means for their sourcing from the Asia-Pacific region and what the contingency plan will be.

Another critical issue to watch is the regional textile and apparel supply chains and related free trade agreements. While apparel is a global sector, apparel trade remains largely regional-based, i.e., countries import and export products with partners in the same region. Data shows that from 2019 to 2020, around 80% of Asian countries’ textile and apparel imports came from within Asia and about 50% for EU countries. Over the same period, over 87% of Western Hemisphere (WH) countries’ textile and apparel exports went to other WH countries and about 75% for EU countries.

Notably, the reaching and implementation of new free trade agreements will continue to alter and shape new regional textile and apparel supply chains in 2022 and beyond. For example, the world’s largest free trade agreement, the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), officially entered into force on January 1, 2022. The tariff reduction and the very liberal rules of origin in the agreement could strengthen Japan, South Korea, and China as the primary textile suppliers for the Asia-based regional supply chain and enlarge the role of ASEAN as the leading apparel producer. RCEP could also accelerate other trade agreements in the Asia-Pacific region, such as the China-South Korea-Japan Free Trade Agreement currently under negotiation.

As one of RCEP’s ripple effects, we can highly anticipate the Biden administration to announce its new Indo-pacific economic framework soon to counterbalance China’s influences in the region. The Biden administration also intends to leverage trade programs such as the Dominican Republic-Central America Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA-DR) to boost textile and apparel production, trade, and investment in the Western Hemisphere and address the root causes of migration. These trade initiatives will be highly relevant to fashion companies that could use the opportunity to expand near sourcing, take advantage of import duty-saving benefits and explore new supply chains. 

Additionally, fashion companies need to be more vigilant toward political instability in their major sourcing destinations. We have already seen quite a turmoil recently, from Myanmar’s military coup, Ethiopia’s loss of the African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA) benefits, concerns about Haiti and Nicaragua’s human rights, and the alleged forced labor in China’s Xinjiang region. Whereas fashion brands and retailers have limited or no impact on changing a country’s broader human rights situation, the reputational risks could be very high. Having a dedicated trade compliance team monitoring the geopolitical situation routinely and ensuring full compliance with various government regulations will become mainstream among fashion companies.

And indeed, sustainability, due diligence, recycling, digitalization, and data analytics will remain buzzwords for the apparel industry in the year ahead.

by Sheng Lu

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.

Apparel Sourcing and Trade: Washington Trade Policy Perspectives

Speaker: Julia Hughes, President, United States Fashion Industry Association (USFIA)

Topics covered:

  • US fashion companies’ latest sourcing trends and sourcing strategies during COVID-19
  • 2021 US textile and apparel trade policy (e.g., China section 301 and product exclusion extensions, and WROs against forced labor)
  • Biden administration’s trade policy agenda (e.g., worker-centered trade policy, climate change, retaliation against DST, GSP, MTB and TPA renewal, potential trade sanctions against Myanmar, promote domestic PPE production, and new FTA negotiation)   

The event is part of the Apparel and Textile Sourcing 2021 S/S virtual seminar series

US Department of Labor: 28 countries were Found Using Child or Forced Labor in Making Textiles and Apparel

In its updated List of Goods Produced by Child Labor or Forced Labor (ILAB) released on December 1, 2014, the U.S. Department Labor said that at least 28 countries are found using child or forced labor in making textiles and apparel. All countries on the list appear to be developing countries. Particularly, the problem of using child labor or forced labor was found most serious in the cotton sector (18 countries), followed by garment manufacturing (9 countries).

Bangladesh, a focus of corporate social responsibilities practices these days, was found using child labor in making garment according to ILAB.

1

2(Data compiled by Sheng Lu)

Note: * ILAB maintains a list of goods and their source countries which it has reason to believe are produced by child labor or forced labor in violation of international standards. The List is intended to raise public awareness about child labor and forced labor around the world, and to promote and inform efforts to address them. A starting point for action, the List creates opportunities for ILAB to engage and assist foreign governments. It is also a valuable resource for researchers, advocacy organizations and companies wishing to carry out risk assessments and engage in due diligence on labor rights in their supply chains

Follow up:

After the release of the ILAB report, four House Democrats sent a letter to USTR Michael Forman on December 4th, 2014, asking him to provide details on labor provisions in the TPP. As noted by the lawmakers in the letter: “Vietnam, Mexico, Peru, and Malaysia, one-third of the nations included in the TPP, were all cited for labor abuses in the report…”. “We are following up with you because we believe it is important that you take action to ensure that real, meaningfully enforceable labor protections are in the TPP”.

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