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

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