The prospect of Myanmar as an apparel sourcing base has been a hot-button issue since the country’s 2021 military coup. Notably, the labor-intensive apparel sector remained one of Myanmar’s largest employers and accounted for more than 30% of the country’s total exports in 2021 (UNComtrade, 2022). However, the military coup had also resulted in substantial job losses and growing concerns about the working conditions in Myanmar’s apparel sector.
Nevertheless, fashion companies’ Myanmar apparel sourcing strategy seems to evolve in 2022 in response to the shifting business environment, particularly the inflation factor and the need to reduce “China exposure.” Specifically:
First, data from UNComtrade shows that fashion brands and retailers continued to source apparel from Myanmar in 2022, although the practice varied by country.
- While Myanmar’s apparel export suffered a notable decline in 2021, it somehow bounced back in 2022 (Jan-May). Among its top apparel export markets, Myanmar’s market shares stayed stable in the EU and the US, and it enjoyed a remarkable increase in Japan (i.e., back to the level before the military coup).
- That being said, Mynammar’s market shares in the leading apparel import markets (e.g., US, EU, and Japan) remain tiny (less than 5%). Likewise, fashion brands and retailers typically treat Myanmar as a supplementary sourcing base as part of their overall sourcing diversification strategy.
- Meanwhile, Myanmar is gradually diversifying its export market after the military coup. For example, over 8.5% of Myanmar’s apparel exports went to other Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) members in 2021, up from only 3.0% in 2020 and 2.7% in 2019.
- As a developing country, Myanmar relies on imported textile raw materials for its apparel production. In 2021, 97.3% of Myanmar’s imported textiles came from Asia, including 72% from China.
Second, Myanmar’s apparel export performance is associated with the level of trade-related sanctions imposed by the importing countries.
- US has imposed the most significant sanctions since Myanmar’s 2021 military coup, such as suspending the 2013 Trade and Investment Framework Agreement (TIFA) and issuing the Business Advisory for Burma in January 2022. Not surprisingly, US fashion brands and retailers are among the most cautious about sourcing from Myanmar after the military coup. For example, in the 2022 USFIA Industry Benchmarking Study released in July 2022, only about 9.4% of respondents reported sourcing from Myanmar, much lower than 19% in 2020 before the military coup.
- In comparison, the EU continues to allow apparel exports from Myanmar to enjoy duty-free benefits under the Everything But Arms (EBA) program. Likewise, without facing major trade-related sanctions, Myanmar’s apparel exports to Japan remain qualified for duty-free benefits under the Generalized System of Preferences Program for Least Developed Countries (as of April 1, 2022).
Third, from the business perspective, fashion companies commonly use Myanmar as a low-cost sourcing destination for specialized product categories, particularly outwear.
- Brands and retailers currently source apparel from Myanmar include Zara, H&M, Adidas, Fast Retailing Group, C.P. Company, among others.
- Outwear is the single largest category of products fashion companies sourced from Myanmar (around 37%).In comparison, fashion companies typically source tops and bottoms from Bangladesh and Vietnam.
- Also, industry sources indicate that, on average, outwear “Made in Myanmar” (around $70/piece) is priced much lower than those sourced from China (over $200/piece) and Vietnam (over $150/piece) in the retail market (EU, US, and Japan).
- As fashion companies struggled with the hiking sourcing costs in 2022 and the pressure of reducing China exposure further, Myanmar remains a reasonable sourcing destination to fulfill certain orders from the business perspective.
Nevertheless, Myanmar’s outlook as an apparel sourcing base remains quite uncertain, especially given the recent new political instability in the country. Notably, some labor unions call for the EU to suspend Myanmar’s EBA eligibility. Without the duty-free benefits, it would be detrimental to Myanmar’s apparel exports. Meanwhile, labor unions also ask fashion brands and retailers to “make responsible exit from Myanmar,” including committing to transparency throughout and ensuring workers receive all wages, benefits, and severance payments owed to them.
by Sheng Lu