First, U.S. apparel imports continue to rebound thanks to consumers’ robust demand. The value of U.S. apparel imports in September 2020 went up by 8.8% from August 2020 (seasonally adjusted), a new record high since March 2020 when COVID-19 broke out in the States. As of September 2020, the volume of U.S. apparel imports has recovered to around 84-85% 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. 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.
Data also 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 2008 financial crisis. Notably, 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.
Second, still, 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 September 2020, China’s market shares have stably stayed at around 27-28% in value and 40-42% in quantity.
According to the media, some sourcing orders are returning to China as China’s competitors in Asia are struggling with more limited production capacity, shortage of raw material and supply chain disruption caused by Covid-19.
That being said, trade data suggests that U.S. fashion companies continue to reduce their “China exposure” overall. For example, both the HHI index and the market concentration ratios (CR3–total market shares of top 3 suppliers and CR5–total market shares of top 5 suppliers) indicate that apparel sourcing orders are gradually moving from China to other Asian countries–it is interesting to see HHI, CR3 and CR5 all suggest a more diversified apparel sourcing base in 2020 (Jan-Sep) than in 2018 and 2019; however, the value of CR5 (exclude China) reached a new record high in 2020 (Jan-Sep).
Third, related to the point above, despite Covid-19, Asia as a whole remains the single largest source of apparel for the U.S. market. Other than China, Vietnam (20.0% YTD in 2020 vs. 16.2% in 2019), ASEAN (33.1% YTD in 2020 and vs. 27.4% in 2019), Bangladesh (8.4% 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 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 trade war. In the first nine months of 2020, only 9.1% 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). Confirming the trend, in the first nine months of 2020, the value of U.S. yarns and fabrics exports to USMCA and CAFTA-DR members also suffered a 26% 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 major contributing factors.
Just an anecdote–according to some industry insiders, the booming of E-commerce during the pandemic may also possibly explain why “near sourcing” is not reflected in trade data despite its reported growing popularity. Specifically, US fashion retailers would:1) import products from Asia and stock them in the bonded warehouses in Mexico (note: bonded warehouse means dutiable goods may be stored, manipulated, or undergo manufacturing operations without payment of duty). 2) When US consumers place orders, the retailer will ship products directly from these bonded warehouses in Mexico to the final destination. Most importantly, retailers could take advantage of the US de minimis rule (i.e., goods valued at $800 or less could enter the U.S. duty-free one person one day) and avoid paying tariffs– even though these products are counted as imports from Asian countries that do not have a free trade agreement with the United States. In other words, these products are not officially treated as imports from Mexico even though they are shipped from bonded warehouse in Mexico.
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.
Jason Prescott founded JP Communications INC in 2005 and rapidly established TopTenWholesale.com and Manufacturer.com as the largest US-based B2B global trade network for manufacturers, retailers, department stores, discounters, importers, wholesalers, buyers and brands. A decade later, in 2016, he established the Apparel Textile Sourcing trade show platform with the China Chamber of Commerce for Import & Export of Textile & Apparel to connect the global B2B network of over 2 million with manufacturers around the globe via in-person events. By 2020, the ATS brand has created the fastest-growing trade shows in the industry producing annual events in Miami, Toronto, Montreal, Berlin and virtually.
Jason is active in search marketing models and technology and provides consulting and seminars in around the world for organizations looking to invest in the USA market. He is the author of two best-selling books, Wholesale 101 and Retail 101, published by McGraw Hill as well as articles on business and technology appearing in B2B Online, Omma, IMediaConnection, CEO Magazine, Entrepreneur Online, and been cited in Inc Magazine, Business Week and Forbes Online.
Kendall: What has motivated you to get involved in the apparel business, especially running the Apparel Textile Sourcing Trade (ATS) Shows, which has grown into one of the most popular and influential sourcing events today?
Jason: We started our company in 2005 w/ our flagship product – www.TopTenWholesale.com – which is a search engine for wholesale suppliers and products. In 2010 we acquired www.manufacturer.com – a sourcing platform to find global producers and manufacturers. It would be fair to say that never in our wildest imagination did we think we would be producing some of the world’s top sourcing trade fairs in the apparel and textile industry. I’d like to say it was a natural evolution but to be frank the opportunity came up over a cup of tea with a very good friend of mine, Mr. Chen Zhirong – Director for the China Chamber of Commerce for Import & Export of Textiles (CCCT) – in Dec 2015. What started from a cup of tea wound up growing into a trade show company that now produces events 4 cities, 3 countries and 2 continents (Miami, Toronto, Montreal, Berlin).
More than 200 of the world’s top producers of apparel, textiles, accessories, footwear, and personal protective equipment will exhibit virtually at Apparel Textile Sourcing trade shows this fall. Attendance is always free and the interactive event also specializes in seminars, sessions, workshops and panels from experts in the industries of sourcing, fashion, design and retail.
Kendall: COVID-19 is the single biggest challenge facing the textile and apparel industry today. From your observation, how has COVID-19 affected textile and apparel companies’ sourcing practices? What will be the medium to the long-term impact of COVID on textile and apparel sourcing?
Jason: The fallout from the pandemic – particularly in the textile and apparel industry – and how it impacts sourcing, has had such a far-reaching magnitude that it’s still very challenging to figure out how sourcing practices will be impacted. Over the long term, there is no question that this pandemic will speed up near-sourcing, on-shoring, digitization, and real-time production. The interim has resulted in massive layoffs, geo-political uncertainty and a turbulent political atmosphere that has rattled the cages of just about every sourcing director. The industry has seen purchase orders defaulted on, behavior in the supply chain that should not be tolerated, and a general lack of accountability. I also have no question that as we continue to emerge out of the pandemic there will be an advanced focus much more on the global revolution of sustainability, fair labor practices, plus a far-keener eye on the eco-systems in which the textile industry lives and breathes.
Kendall: There have been more heated debates on the future of China as an apparel sourcing base for US fashion companies, especially given the escalating U.S.-China trade war and the COVID-19. What is your view?
Jason: It should be noted that more than a billion dollars of trade in the textile sector in China was lost in export shipments to the USA during the first half of 2019 – primarily due to the trade war. The pandemic has since crippled exports of textile and apparel – in not just China – but also in every sourcing region on the planet. While many media outlets and others talk about the demise of China as a producer for textile and apparel that is just not the case. The Chinese have built an infrastructure, invested billions of dollars in the best technology, and have mastered the art of production over the last 3+ decades. We must not also forget that much of this infrastructure was built with trillions of dollars by the world’s leading brands, retailers, and governments. To bail on that would not be prudent. The Chinese are extremely adaptive and there is no question they have taken the time during the pandemic – and I should also note that they have emerged quicker than anyone else from the pandemic – to invest much more in technology, made-to-order, customization, and enhances on sustainable practices by utilizing more renewables.
Kendall: Many studies suggest that fashion companies continue to actively look for China’s alternatives. Do we have a “Next China” yet– Vietnam, Bangladesh, India, Ethiopia, or somewhere else?
Jason: No we do not have a next China yet. The production in many regions that have competent supply chains – like Vietnam – are full and at over-capacity. It should further be noted that a large portion in places like Vietnam are owned in partnerships thru the Chinese. Simply stated, many of the other regions such as Bangladesh, India, and the AGOA regions lack infrastructure and the decades of experience that the Chinese have.
Kendall: Some predict that near sourcing rather than global sourcing will become ever more popular as fashion companies are prioritizing speed to market and building a shorter supply chain. Why or why not do you think the shift to near sourcing or reshoring is happening?
Jason: This is correct. On-demand production, near-sourcing, and the evolution of digitization will of course lead to increased manufacturing domestically. Neither of these options are yet a solution for the high-volume production which is at the heart of the industry. I will agree that the continued emergence of micro-brands, and continually evolving shifts in consumer behavior which generally has resulted in ‘disloyalty’ to brands is another factor that makes on-shoring or near-shoring more attractive.
Kendall: Building a more sustainable and socially responsible textile and apparel supply chain is also growing in importance. From interacting with fashion brands and retailers, can you provide us with some updates in this area, such as companies’ best practices, issues they are working on, or the key challenges that remain?
Jason: The circularity of the industry encompassing the producer, the brand, logistics, and the consumer will continue to evolve in their social responsibilities and awareness of sustainable practices engaged in by the brand. There are great organizations out there like WRAP, TESTEX and Better Buying who are growing and have a much larger voice than what they have had in the past. Post-pandemic, I believe we will see social responsibility as one of the top priorities with so many millions of people displaces from COVID-19.
Kendall: For our students interested in pursuing a career in the textile and apparel industry, especially related to sourcing, do you have any suggestions?
Jason: The top suggestion I can offer is to pursue experience as you are actively engaged in your studies. One of the key elements I can advise of is to take the time and learn culture over language. Having a cultural understanding of the key regions where sourcing occurs will catapult your career and bring significant relationships to the table that you never thought you would have had before. Also, attend trade shows! Walking thru international apparel trade shows – like The Apparel Textile Sourcing – will help you immerse yourself with numerous different nationalities and personalities that you would otherwise never have the chance to meet. Jump on any opportunity you can to go abroad. Especially to regions in Asia and Latin America. Most importantly never forget that your credibility in life is everything and maintain the highest pedigree of integrity as possible.
TAL Apparel is one of the world’s largest apparel companies, with over 70 years of history. Owned by Hong-Kong based TAL group, TAL Apparel employs about 26,000 garment workers in 10 factories globally, producing roughly 50 million pieces of apparel each year, including men’s chinos, polo tees, outerwear, and dress shirts. TAL Apparel claims it makes one in six dress shirts sold in the United States, including for well-known U.S. fashion brands such as Brooks Brothers, Bonobos, and LL Bean.
Other than owning factories in Asian countries such as Vietnam, China, Malaysia, Indonesia, and Thailand, TAL Apparel opened its first garment factory in Ethiopia in 2018 – based at the country’s flagship Hawassa Industrial Park. Among the reasons behind the decision is Ethiopia’s duty-free access to the US under the African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA), and to Europe under the Everything But Arms (EBA) initiative.
Discussion questions [Anyone is more than welcome to join our online discussions; For FASH455, please address at least two questions in your comment; please also mention the question number in your comment.]
From TAL Apparel’s perspective, what are the major impacts of COVID-19 on the apparel industry, especially regarding sourcing and supply chain management? What are the key challenges apparel companies facing?
How has TAL Apparel responded to COVID-19? What lessons can we learn from their experiences?
From TAL Apparel’s story, how is the big landscape of apparel sourcing changing because of COVID-19?
What long term business decisions apparel companies like TAL Apparel have to make, and what are your recommendations?
Anything else you find interesting/intriguing/surprising/enlightening from the video?
Over the past decade, the US and UK bilateral trade in apparel enjoyed steady growth, reflecting ever closer business ties of fashion companies in the two countries. While US apparel exports still predominantly go to geographically nearby countries such as Mexico and Canada, the UK has emerged to become the single largest export market for “Made in the USA” apparel outside the Western Hemisphere. Similarly, the United States has always been the UK’s single largest export market outside the EU region.
On the other hand, the apparel products that the US and the UK export to each other target different segments of the market. Industry sources indicate that the clothing exported from the US to the UK primarily focuses on the premium market. Garments “Made in the USA” in the UK are mostly carried by premium brands and retailers such as Free People, J. Crew, and Moda Operandi. However, due to a lack of brand power, clothing “Made in the USA” is typically priced 30%-50% lower than similar products locally made in the UK or elsewhere in Western EU, such as France and Italy.
In comparison, approximately 70% of apparel exported from the UK to the US are luxury goods. With a relatively clear-cut market position, luxury and high-end designer UK brands, such as Burberry, Roland Mouret, and Victoria Beckham, can effectively reach out to their target markets.
How Might the US-UK FTA Affect the Bilateral Apparel Trade
According to the released negotiation objectives, both the US and the UK seem to be willing to consider a substantial cut or even a full elimination of the apparel tariff rate as part of the trade deal. Should this happen, fashion companies across the Atlantic could benefit from a proportional reduction of their sourcing cost, resulting in a considerable expansion of the US-UK bilateral apparel trade flows.
On the other hand, to enjoy the preferential duty benefit under a free trade agreement, rules of origin will always be a requirement. Notably, most US trade agreements currently adopt the so-called “yarn-forward” rules of origin. In contrast, most EU-based trade deals adopt a more liberal “fabric-forward” rule.
While it is hard to predict which specific rules of origin the proposed US-UK trade agreement will adopt, it seems the result will have a more significant impact on the US apparel exports to the UK than the other way around. Restrained by the limited domestic supply and high cost, a substantial proportion of US apparel exports contain imported textile raw materials. This means US apparel producers may have to either switch to use more expensive domestic textile inputs or forgo the FTA duty-saving benefits should restrictive rules of origin are adopted. Meanwhile, the UK apparel exports to the US will be less sensitive to the rules of origin in the proposed FTA, as most of these luxury items are already 100% “Made in the UK” to meet customers’ expectations.
Uncertainties associated with the US-UK FTA
The US-UK trade negotiations have to deal with an evolving Brexit. Given the EU’s economic cloud, understandably, some argue that the UK may have to reach a comprehensive trade agreement with the EU before it can consider a trade deal with the US. Additionally, several US domestic politics and policy factors may further slow down the progress of the US-UK trade negotiation, from the US presidential election to the upcoming expiration of the trade promotion authority (TPA).
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.
The latest statistics from the Office of Textiles and Apparel (OTEXA) show that while the negative impacts of COVID-19 on U.S. apparel imports continued in June 2020, there appeared to be early signs of economic recovery. Specifically:
While the value of U.S. apparel imports decreased by 42.8% in June 2020 from a year ago, the speed of the decline has slowed (was down 60% year over year in May 2020). Nevertheless, between January and June 2020, the value of U.S. apparel imports decreased by 30.4% 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 support the view that U.S. fashion companies continue to treat China as an essential apparel-sourcing base, despite COVID-19, the trade war, and companies’ sourcing diversification strategy. As the first country hit by COVID-19, China’s apparel exports to the U.S. dropped by as much as 49.0% from January to June 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’s apparel exports to the U.S. are experiencing a “V-shape” recovery: as of June 2020, China had quickly regained its position as the top apparel supplier to the U.S., with a 29.1% market share in value and 43.4% share in quantity.
Moreover, U.S. apparel imports from China 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 June), or down more than 16% (compared with a 4.6% price drop of the world average). As of June 2020, the unit price of U.S. apparel import from China was only 65% of the world average, and around 25—35 percent lower than those imported from other Asian countries. On the other hand, the official Chinese statistics report a 19.4% drop in China’s apparel exports to the world in the first half of 2020.
Despite Covid-19, Asia as a whole remains the single largest source of apparel for the U.S. market. Other than China, Vietnam (20.3% YTD in 2020 vs. 16.2% in 2019), ASEAN (34.4% YTD in 2020 and vs. 27.4% in 2019), Bangladesh (8.9% 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 six months of 2020, only 8.8% of U.S. apparel imports came from CAFTA-DR members (down from 10.3% in 2019) and 4.2% from NAFTA members (down from 4.5% in 2019).
Notably, U.S. fashion companies source products from Asia (including China) and the Western Hemisphere for different purposes. In general, US companies tend to source either price-sensitive or more sophisticated items from Asia, where factories overall have higher productivity and more advanced production techniques. Meanwhile, the Western Hemisphere is typically used to source products that require faster speed-to-market or more frequent replenishments during the selling season. Some studies further show that there is more divergence in the products imported into the United States from Asian countries and the Western Hemisphere from 2015 to 2019. In contrast, over the same period, China, ASEAN, and Bangladesh appear to be exporting increasingly similar products to the United States.
That being said, as USMCA enters into force on July 1, 2020, a more stable trading environment could encourage more U.S. apparel sourcing from Mexico down the road (assuming garment factories there can gradually resume production and no further COVID-19 related shutdown).
As a reflection of weak demand, the unit price of U.S. apparel imports dropped in the first six months of 2020 (price index =100, meaning the same nominal price as in 2010). The price index was 104.7 in 2019. The imports from Mexico (price index =87.1 YTD in 2020 vs. 112.1 in 2019) and China (price index = 69.9 YTD in 2020 vs. 83.5 in 2019) have seen the most notable price decrease so far.
Canada is one of the world’s top ten largest apparel consumption markets, with retail sales totaling USD$28.04bn in 2019 (Euromonitor, 2020). Similar to other developed nations, clothing sold in Canada is predominately imported, making Canada a significant market access opportunity for clothing manufacturers, wholesalers, fashion brands, and retailers around the world. Based on the latest market and trade data, this study intends to provide an in-depth analysis of the Canadian apparel sourcing patterns.
First, the volume of Canada’s apparel imports mirrors its economic growth. As the apparel business is buyer-driven, the performance of Canada’s national economy has a huge impact on its apparel imports. Canada’s GDP growth is an important predictor for its growth in apparel imports. When Canada’s national economy boomed, its apparel imports also enjoyed a proportional expansion thanks to consumers’ higher income and purchasing power. Such a strong correlation, however, also suggests a likely sharp decline in Canada’s apparel imports in 2020 due to its national economy took a hard hit by the Covid-19 pandemic. [Note: with a 6.2% drop in GDP growth as forecasted by IMF, Canada’s apparel imports in 2020 could decrease by 16.4% from 2019. At the 95% confidence level, the worst case in 2020 will be a 29% decline of apparel imports from a year earlier and the most optimistic case will be a 4% decline.]
Second, although China remains the top apparel supplier for Canada, Canadian fashion companies are increasingly sourcing from South Asia. Three trends to note: 1) China’s market share in Canada has been declining steadily from its peak in the 2010s. 2) Meanwhile. Canada is moving more sourcing orders to other Asian countries, particularly Vietnam and Bangladesh. 3) Additionally, thanks to the EU-Canada Free Trade Agreement (CETA), which provisionally entered into force in 2017, Canada’s apparel imports from the European Union (EU) has been rising steadily. In 2019, EU members altogether accounted for 6% of Canada’s apparel imports, an increase from 4% in 2010. Around half of Canada’s apparel imports from the EU are made in Italy, whose high-end luxury apparel exports could be among the biggest beneficiaries of the duty-saving opportunities provided by CETA.
Third,near sourcing from the Americas remains an essential component of Canadian fashion companies’ sourcing portfolio; However, sourcing from the NAFTA regions is in decline. Approximately 9% of Canada’s apparel imports come from North, Central, and South Americas altogether, a pattern that has stayed relatively stable since 2010. As consumers in Canada are seeking “faster fashion”, Canadian fashion companies are attaching even greater importance to leveraging near sourcing from the Americas and improving their speed to market. For example, Lululemon placed around 8% of its sourcing orders with factories in the Americas in 2018, higher than 3%-5% five years ago.
Canada’s apparel imports from members of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), however, has suffered a notable drop from 12.3% back in 2005 to the record low of 5.4% in 2019. As President Trump repeatedly threatened to withdraw the United States from NAFTA since he took office in 2017, the mounting uncertainty had caused Canadian fashion companies to cut sourcing from the region. For years, many Canadian fashion companies have been actively using the tariff preference level (TPL) mechanism to import apparel from the NAFTA region, although only a limited amount of TPL quota is allowed each year. While the TPL utilization rate for Canada’s cotton and man-made fiber apparel imports from the United States always reached 100%, the utilization rate slipped to a record low of 84% in 2019.
U.S. apparel imports from SSA grew faster than the world average. During 2016–19, U.S. apparel imports from SSA enjoyed a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 11.8 percent (compared with 1.3 percent CAGR of all countries), from $1.0 billion in 2016 to $1.4 billion in 2019. However, SSA overall remained a small apparel supplier to the U.S. market, accounting for only 1.7 percent of the market shares in 2019 (lower than 2.7 percent in 2004, but was a record high since 2015).
U.S. apparel imports from SSA remain uneven across countries. The five SSA countries–Kenya, Lesotho, Madagascar, Mauritius, and Ethiopia altogether accounted for almost 95 percent of all apparel imported from the SSA region under AGOA. The growth of U.S. apparel imports from Ethiopia was particularly fast (86.4% CAGR during 2016-2019), thanks to the country’s industrial parks and its increased use of AGOA benefits. Several global brands such as H&M, Calvin Klein, and Tommy Hilfiger currently source apparel from garment factories located in these industrial parks.
The USITC report suggests that the duty-free preferences awarded under AGOA and the liberal rules of origin available for apparel under the “third-country fabric provision”* are the key competitive advantages of SSA serving as an apparel sourcing destination for U.S. companies. Due to limited yarn and fabric production in SSA, the third-country fabric provision remained critical for SSA exports of apparel to receive duty-free entrance to the United States. Notably, nearly all U.S. imports of apparel from SSA countries entered under AGOA (98 percent). Of these imports, virtually all of them (95.8 percent) used the third-country fabric provision in 2018.
Further, the USITC report used Madagascar as an example to illustrate the significance of AGOA and its third-country fabric provision in particular to SSA countries’ apparel exports to the United States. As noted by USITC:
Madagascar was evidenced by the sharp decline in its apparel exports to the U.S. after the country lost its AGOA eligibility in 2009. Without duty-free access to the United States, the average duty rate for U.S. imports of apparel from Madagascar rose to 19.6 percent, and apparel exports to the United States from Madagascar fell from over $211 million in 2009 to only $40 million in 2011.
Madagascar’s AGOA benefits were reinstated in 2014. Just in two years, U.S. apparel imports from Madagascar bounced back to one-half of the 2009 level. In 2019, U.S. apparel imports from Madagascar totaled $243 billion, a new record high since 2015.
The USITC report mentioned several factors that are encouraging more U.S. apparel sourcing from SSA. For example:
U.S. fashion companies’ sourcing diversification strategy
U.S. fashion companies’ rising emphasis on corporate social responsibility (CSR) in sourcing
Deepened regional economic integration among SSA countries through regional trade arrangements such as the African Continental Free Trade Area
However, it remains a concern that SSA countries are lack of genuine competitiveness as apparel sourcing destinations. According to the USITC report, SSA countries’ current competitive advantage in apparel “comes solely through the cutting of tariffs on apparel to zero, since the apparel sectors of Bangladesh, Vietnam, and China are more cost-competitive than those of SSA countries. The current competitive advantage that SSA countries have in the apparel sector will decline significantly if AGOA expires in 2025. The uncertainty about AGOA renewal will likely discourage U.S. FDI in the SSA apparel sector.”
Related, as quoted by the USITC report, according to the 2019 Fashion Industry Benchmarking Study, almost half of the surveyed U.S. fashion companies expressed hesitancy about investing in the SSA region due to the temporary nature of AGOA. Moreover, long lead times, lack of infrastructure, and high logistical costs continue to deter apparel retailers from investing in the AGOA region.
*About the African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA)
The African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA) is a non-reciprocal trade agreement enacted in 2000 that provides duty-free treatment to US imports of certain products from eligible sub-Saharan African (SSA) countries. AGOA intends to promote market-led economic growth and development in SSA and deepen US trade and investment ties with the region.
Because apparel production plays a dominant role in many SSA countries’ economic development, apparel has become one of the top exports for many SSA countries under AGOA. Particularly, the “third-country fabric provision” under AGOA allows US apparel imports from certain SSA countries to be qualified for duty-free treatment even if the apparel use yarns and fabrics produced by non-AGOA countries/regions (such as China, South Korea, and Taiwan). This special rule is deemed as critical because most SSA countries still have no capacity in producing capital and technology-intensive textile products.
On 29 June 2015, the Obama Administration signed a new bill to extend the AGOA (including the third-country fabric provision) for another ten years (until 30 September 2025). The new law simplifies the AGOA rules of origin; gives the president the ability to withdraw, suspend or limit benefits (rather than just terminate eligibility) if designated AGOA countries do not comply with the eligibility criteria; adds notification and reporting requirements; and improves transparency and participation in the AGOA review process.
About the “Third-Country Fabric” provision under AGOA
This is a “Special Rule” for lesser-developed SSA countries (LDCs) under AGOA. According to the rule, these SSA LDCs can enjoy duty-free and quota-free access to the U.S. market for apparel made from yarns and fabrics originating from anywhere in the world. In comparison, most U.S. free trade agreements require the more restrictive “yarn-forward” rules of origin.
It comes with no surprise that the fashion apparel industry has changed drastically in light of the novel coronavirus (COVID-19).
According to the latest statistics released by the U.S. Census Bureau, hit by COVID-19, the value of U.S. clothing and clothing accessories sales went down by 50.5% in March 2020, compared with a year earlier.
According to a recent NPR news report, in Bangladesh, the world’s second-largest garment exporter, about one million garment workers have lost their jobs as a direct result of sourcing changes. An online survey of Bangladesh employers, administered between March 21 and March 25, 2020, indicates that 72.4% of furloughed workers have been sent home without pay, and 80.4% of dismissed workers have not received severance pay.
A survey of 700 companies conducted by the International Textile Manufacturers Federation (ITMF) between 28 March and 6 April 2020 shows that companies in all regions of the world suffered significant numbers of cancellations and/or postponements of orders. Globally, current orders dropped by 31% on average. The severity of the decrease ranges from 20.0% in East Asia to 41% in South America.
According to a newly created COVID-19 Tracker developed by the Worker Rights Consortium, it is concerning that many large-scale fashion brands and retailers are not paying their overseas manufacturers back for the materials the manufacturers have already paid for to start making garments.
Additionally, here is a list of well-known fashion brands that have announced to cut or cancel sourcing orders as of April 13, 2020:
Primark has closed all its stores across Europe and the U.S. and asked all of its suppliers to stop production. However, the company has set up a fund to pay the wages of factory employees who worked on clothing orders that were canceled.
Ross Stores has announced to cancel all merchandise orders through mid-June, 2020.
Gap Inc. has decided to halt the shipments of their summer orders and the production of the fall products
H&M has also canceled orders but told its suppliers it would honor the orders it already placed before the COVID-19.
The spread of the coronavirus (COVID-19) has already resulted in a plummet of U.S. apparel imports that we have never seen in history. According to latest statistics from the Office of Textiles and Apparel (OTEXA) under the U.S. Department of Commerce, as of February 2020:
The value of U.S. apparel imports sharply decreased by 11.2% in February 2020 from a year earlier. Between January and February 2020, the amount of U.S. apparel imports decreased by 10.9% year over year, which is nearly the same loss as in the 2008-2009 global financial crisis.
As the first country took a hit by COVID-19, China’s apparel exports to the United States nearly collapsed in February 2020–down as much as 46.1% compared with a year ago (and -40.6% drop YTD). This result is also worse than the official Chinese statistics, which reported an overall 20% drop in China’s apparel exports in the first two months of 2020).
China’s market shares in the U.S. apparel import market dropped to 21.3% in February 2020, a new record low in history (was 30% in 2019 and 23.9% in January 2020). However, it is important to note that such a downward trend started in October 2019, as U.S. fashion brands and retailers were eager to reduce their exposure to sourcing from China.
China’s lost market shares have been picked up mostly by other Asian suppliers, particularly Vietnam (18.8% YTD in 2020 vs. 16.2% in 2019) and Bangladesh (9.1% YTD in 2020 vs.7.1% in 2019). However, there is no clear evidence suggesting that U.S. fashion brands and retailers are giving more apparel sourcing orders to suppliers from the Western Hemisphere. In the first two months of 2020, only 9.5% of U.S. apparel imports came from CAFTA-DR members (down from 10.3% in 2019) and 4.2% from NAFTA members (down from 4.5% in 2019).
A recent survey of 294 apparel companies and 20 apparel industry clusters* in China was conducted by the China Garment Association between February 19 and 20, 2020, aiming to understand the impact of the coronavirus (2019-nCoV) on China’s garment industry and production. The respondents of the survey include both garment factories (63.3%) and apparel brands (36.7%). Around 83.4% surveyed companies reported over RMB20 million (or $2.85million) sales revenues. Below are the key findings:
State of Production
68.4% of surveyed companies say they have gradually resumed production. Of these companies, about 45.6% of their workers in need have returned. The surveyed companies also expect their production output to reach 50% of its normal level by March and could fully recover by April, should the situation stabilized.
However, still, as many as 31.6% of surveyed companies say they have not resumed production because of a mix of factors ranging from the need to prevent coronavirus, government restrictions, to the difficulty in recruiting workers. Further, for apparel companies from areas most affected by the coronavirus, they report no plan for reopening anytime soon.
Around 87.2% surveyed “large companies” have resumed production, much higher than “medium-sized” (65.4%) and “small-sized” (34.7%) enterprises. [Note: according to China’s Bureau of Statistics, for manufacturers, “large companies” typically refer to those with over 1,000 employees and over RMB400 million (or $57million) annual sales revenue; “small or mini-sized companies” are those with employees less than 200 and less than RMB3million (or $0.43million) annual sales revenues. “medium-sized companies” are those in between].
Further, around 74.3% of surveyed apparel brands have resumed business operations, higher than 64.9% of garment factories. Meanwhile, some apparel brands say only their management team have resumed work or those positions that can be done through work from home; however, their plants remain closed.
Over half of the surveyed companies (54.08%) say less than 50% of their workers have returned. The lack of workers is a more pressing issue for small-sized companies, with over 80% having less than 50% of workers returned.
Key challenges facing the surveyed companies:
#1: Lack of workers, especially to have those workers from other parts of China return to the factory due to travel restrictions (68.7%)
#2: Production cost increase and a lack of supply of raw material from the upstream sector (29.9%)
#3: Slow and stagnant sales, overstock of finished products due to delayed orders and tight with cash flows (20.6%)
#4: Weak market demand and cancellation of orders (19.2%)
#4: Disrupted logistics and transportation (19.2%)
#6: Hard to procure protective equipment for staffs and workers (such as facial masks) (16.8%)
#7: Cancellation of exhibitions, harder to explore markets and more financial burdens (8.4%)
(*Note: apparel industry clusters refer to geographic concentrations of interconnected factories that manufacture a particular type of apparel product)
The value of U.S. textile imports totaled $27,461 million in 2019, down 2.3 percent from 2018. This is the first time since 2016 that U.S. textile imports incurred a negative growth, which could be related to the slowed U.S. domestic textile and apparel production. Meanwhile, the value of U.S. apparel imports reached $83,822 million in 2019, up 1.2 percent from a year earlier but was substantially lower than a 3.4% growth between 2017 and 2018. Despite the trade uncertainties, the U.S. apparel imports overall still mirror the trend of apparel retail sales in the U.S. market.
Looking ahead, while the reaching of the “phase one” U.S.-China trade deal was a relief to U.S. fashion companies, the unexpected outbreak of the coronavirus in China since January and its fast spread had cast a new shadow on the outlook of the world economy. U.S. Fed Chairman Jerome Powell recently cited the prospect of a hit to tourism, exports and financial markets as ways the coronavirus could dent U.S. economic growth. As a consequence, the value of U.S. textile and apparel imports in 2020 could grow at a more modest rate than previously expected.
Because the United States is no longer a major apparel manufacturer but one of the largest apparel consumption markets in the world, apparel products accounted for 75.3 percent of total U.S. textile and apparel imports in 2019, followed by made-up textiles (17.9 percent), fabrics (5.6 percent) and yarns (1.2 percent). This structure has remained quite stable over the past decade.
The U.S. imported apparel from more than 150 countries in 2019. Meanwhile, the Herfindahl index declined from 0.269 in 2010 to 0.253 in 2019, suggesting that overall the U.S. apparel import market is becoming less concentrated. This result is consistent with some recent studies, which show that U.S. fashion brands and retailers continue to diversify their sourcing bases gradually. Reducing the dependence on sourcing from China, catering to the increasing demand for speed to market and fulfilling the market expansion needs were among the top-cited reasons for companies’ sourcing diversification strategy.
Specifically, all top apparel suppliers to the United States in 2019 (by value) were developing countries and most of them were located in Asia, including China (29.7%, down from 33.0% in 2018), Vietnam (16.2%, up from 14.7% in 2018), Bangladesh (7.1%, up from 6.5%), Indonesia (5.3%, down from 5.4% in 2018), India (4.8%, up from 4.6% in 2018) and Mexico (3.7%, down from 4.0% in 2018).
Except for China, the average unit price of U.S. apparel imports from other major sources all went up in 2019, including Vietnam (up 4.6%), Bangladesh (up 5.6%), Indonesia (up 2.1%), India (up 3.1%), Cambodia (up 7.5%) and CAFTA-DR members (up 4.4%). The results suggest that U.S. fashion brands and retailers had to pay a higher price when they move their sourcing orders from China to other alternatives, due to much smaller production capacity and more costly raw material supply there.
Consumption demand remains the most significant factor in shaping the volume of U.S. apparel imports. Between 2010 and 2019, the value of U.S. apparel retail sales always stayed at around three times as much as the value of U.S. apparel imports. Over the same period, the amount of U.S. apparel retail sales and apparel imports also changed in the same direction, and both enjoyed a roughly 3.0% annual growth on average. Such a synchronized move reminds us about the buyer-driven nature of the apparel business today and explains why this industry is so sensitive towards the health of the national economy.
The U.S.-China tariff war had resulted in a change of the seasonal patterns for apparel sourcing and shipment. While July to October used to be the busiest time for U.S. fashion brands and retailers to receive their sourcing orders from China, in 2019 the peak season started earlier in June and ended in September–mostly because U.S. fashion companies tried to avoid the hit of the proposed 15% Section 301 punitive tariffs on Tranche 4A products, which covered most apparel items. For the same reason, U.S. apparel imports from China in November and December 2019 were much lighter than usual.
U.S. fashion brands and retailers continue to diversify their sourcing base, yet the options available remain limited. The lack of qualified alternatives to “Made in China” is one big challenge. Despite the hundreds of apparel exporting countries in the world, only nine of them met the following two criteria: 1) enjoyed a 5% or higher growth of their apparel exports to the U.S. for two consecutive years since 2017; 2) achieved a minimum 1% market share as of 2019. Of these nine countries, only Vietnam, Bangladesh, and Cambodia ranked the top 10 apparel suppliers for the U.S. market in 2019.
U.S. fashion brands and apparel retailers increasingly source both from Asia and the Western Hemisphere, but for different purposes. Notably, the value of export similarity index (ESI) between China and the Western Hemisphere was as low as 40.8 in 2015 and went down further to only 39.6 in 2019, suggesting their export product structure had turned even more heterogeneous. In contrast, between 2015 and 2019, China, ASEAN (whose members include leading apparel exporting countries such as Vietnam, Indonesia, Cambodia, Malaysia, and Thailand) and Bangladesh appear to export increasingly similar products to the United States. This explained why Asian suppliers rather than NAFTA and CAFTA-DR members saw their apparel exports to the United States increased in 2019 as a result of the U.S.-China tariff war.
The real impact of the coronavirus is yet to come. Western fashion brands and retailers know that sourcing from China is always slow in January and early February because of the Chinese New Year (CNY). Instead, the immediate economic impact of the coronavirus right now is on China’s domestic retail market, as many stores (including well-known clothing and footwear brands) have been closed.
As the disease continues to spread quickly, the concerns about the outlook of sourcing from China are growing. Even though factories in China are scheduled to reopen on February 3, according to the latest government announcement, over dozens of major cities in the country have been locked down (encircling roughly 50 million people so far), making it impossible for many workers to return to their job. Further, it is hard to predict how long such an unprecedented large-scale lockdown will last.
Many Western fashion companies are in the status of “wait and see what is going to happen.” Some delays in the arrival of their orders seem unavoidable. However, shifting sourcing orders to other countries does not seem to be a quick solution at this point either for three reasons: 1) China remains the single largest textile and apparel supplier with no alternatives (see the table above); 2) other apparel exporting countries (especially those in Asia) rely heavily on textile raw material, such as yarns and fabrics made in China. 3) for apparel factories in Asia and Africa, it is not rare to see their management team is from China. However, starting from the end of January, countries around the world have begun to impose travel restrictions targeting Chinese travelers.
While last year’s tariff war had already pushed Western fashion brands to source less from China, the coronavirus could accelerate companies’ sourcing diversification strategy further. Western fashion brands and retailers may also see their overall sourcing cost to go up as it requires additional resources to move products around and build new supply chains.
The original interview (in Spanish) is available HERE. Below is the translated version.
Question: Is there a reversal in the globalization of fashion?
Sheng Lu: The fashion industry is becoming more global AND regional — the making and selling of a garment “travel” through more and more countries. Just look at the label of a Gap sweatshirt: it is an American clothing brand, but the product is “Made in Vietnam,” and the label includes the size standards in six different countries. The business model of the fashion industry today is “making anywhere in the world and selling anywhere in the world.”
Q .: What do you mean the industry is becoming more “regional”?
Sheng Lu: The trade flows of textiles and apparel today are heavily influenced by regional free trade agreements (FTAs). For example, while China is known as the world’s largest apparel producer and exporter, nearly 50% of the clothing consumed by European consumers are still produced by EU countries themselves. Notably, consumers have different expectations for clothing: many are price-sensitive, but others prefer more trendy items, which requires “near sourcing”—this explains why fashion companies have to adopt a more balanced sourcing portfolio.
Q .: Is the price still the most important factor in fashion companies’ sourcing decisions?
Sheng Lu: Sourcing is far more than just about chasing for the lowest cost. Sourcing decisions today have to consider a mix of factors, ranging from flexibility, speed to market, sustainability, to compliance risks. In fact, few companies “put all eggs in one basket.” My recent studies show that both in the United States and the EU, fashion companies with more than 1,000 employees, typically sourced from more than twenty different countries—sometimes even exceed forty. Behind such a diversified sourcing practice is the necessity to strike a balance between so many different sourcing factors.
Q .: Is apparel sourcing becoming more diversified today than a decade ago?
Sheng Lu: From my observations, fashion companies are souring from more countries and regions than a decade ago, but not in terms of producers. Especially in the last two or three years, I see some large companies are consolidating their supplier base to build a closer relationship with key vendors. The reason is the same as mentioned earlier: a very competitive price is not enough for apparel sourcing today.
Q .: How has the tariff war between the United States and China affected apparel sourcing?
Sheng Lu: The trade war between the United States and China is having big impacts on apparel sourcing that go beyond the two countries. Notably, American fashion brands and retailers are moving sourcing orders from China to other Asian countries such as Vietnam and Bangladesh. However, finding China’s alternatives is anything but easy. Despite the tariff war, China remains a competitive player in apparel sourcing. The unparalleled production capacity that can fulfill orders nearly for any products in any quantity, and the ability to comply with complex sustainability and social responsibility regulations are among China’s unique competitive advantages. Understandably, companies are not giving up sourcing from China, as there are few other “balanced” sourcing destinations in the world. That being said, it is important to recognize that the big landscape of apparel sourcing is evolving. Even in Europe, which is not having a trade war with China, apparel “Made in China” is seeing a notable decline in its market share.
Q .: How is China adapting?
Sheng Lu: The textile and apparel industry in China is undergoing a structural change. Partially caused by the tariff war, apparel producers in China are increasingly moving their factories to nearby Asian countries (especially for big-volume and/or relatively low value-added product categories). Meanwhile, China itself is changing from an apparel producer to become a leading textile supplier for other apparel-exporting countries in Asia. This is NOT a temporary move, but a permanent transition, which has happened in many industrialized economies in history. Somehow, the tariff war has accelerated the adjustment process, however.
Q .: Will Africa be the next hub for apparel sourcing in the near future?
Sheng Lu: As textile and clothing trade is turning more regional-based, Africa is facing significant challenges to become an attractive tier-1 sourcing base for Western fashion brands and apparel retailers.
Q .: Why is that?
Sheng Lu: In general, there are three primary apparel import markets in the world: the United States, the European Union, and Japan—as of 2018, these three regions altogether still accounted for as many as 70% of the world apparel imports. Surely, Asian countries are important apparel suppliers for all these three regions. However, each of these three markets also has its respective regional suppliers—Mexico and Central & South American countries for the United States, China, and a few Southeast Asian countries for Japan and Eastern European countries for the EU market. Other than geographic proximity, often, these regional suppliers also enjoy preferential market access to the US, EU, and Japan provided by regional free trade agreements.
Africa, on the other hand, is not close to any of these three major apparel import markets geographically. Why would fashion companies in the United States, Japan, or the EU have to source from Africa when there are so many other options available?
Q .: For price?
Sheng Lu: Several trade preference programs currently offer apparel exporters in African countries preferential or duty-free market access to the United States, the EU, and Japan (such as the African Growth Opportunity Act and the EU and Japan Generalized System of Preferences programs). However, sourcing from Africa will entail other extra costs—for example, the raw material cost will be higher as yarns and fabrics have to be imported from Asia first, and the transportation bill could be costly due to the poor infrastructure. Further, not like their counterpart in Asia, the apparel industry is not regarded as a development priority in many African countries, which continue to rely heavily on the export of raw materials instead. Manufacturing for the local market is also complicated—apparel producers in Africa are struggling with both the cheap clothing imported from Asia and the mounting used clothing sent from the West.
Q .: It is said that fashion might be the most regulated sector in international trade other than agriculture. How to explain this?
Sheng Lu: I think we need some changes here. For example, in 2018, textiles and apparel accounted for only 5% of the total U.S. merchandise imports but contributed nearly 40% of the tariff revenue collected. This phenomenon, which makes no sense economically, is the result of the industry lobby—trying to protect domestic manufacturers from import competition.
As another example, around 15%-17% of Mexico’s clothing exports to the United States do not claim the duty-free benefits provided by the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), as the NAFTA rules of origin strictly require the using of regional yarns and fabrics for qualified apparel items. In the end, companies prefer bigger savings on the raw material cost than claiming the NAFTA duty-saving benefits. We should think about how to modernize these trade rules and make them more supply-chain friendly in the 21st century.
Meanwhile, policymakers are developing new regulations to address some emerging areas in international trade, such as E-commerce, labor standards and environmental protection. Increasingly, trade policy is moving from “measures at the border” to “measures behind the borders.”
First, mirroring the trend of aggregate market demand, the value of UK’s apparel imports has only grown marginally over the past decade. Specifically, between 2010 and 2018, the compound annual growth rate of UK’s apparel imports was close to zero, which was notably lower than 1.4% of the world average, the United States (1.9%), Japan (1.5%) and even the European Union as a whole (1.1%).
Second, UK’s fashion brands and retailers are gradually reducing imports from China and diversifying their sourcing base. Similar to other leading apparel import markets in the world, China was the largest apparel-sourcing destination for UK fashion companies, followed by Bangladesh, which enjoys duty-free access to the UK under EU’s Everything But Arms (EBA) program. Because of geographic proximity and the duty-free benefits under the Customs Union with the EU, Turkey was the third-largest apparel supplier to the UK.
Affected by a mix of factors ranging from the increasing cost pressures, intensified competition to serve the needs of speed-to-market better, the market shares of “Made in China” in the UK apparel import market had dropped significantly from its peak of 37.2% in 2010 to a record low of 21.4% in 2018. However, no single country has emerged to become the “next China” in the UK market. Notably, while China’s market shares decreased by 6.3 percentage points between 2015 and 2018, the next top 4 suppliers altogether were only able to gain 0.7 percentage points of additional market shares over the same period.
Third, despite Brexit, the trade and business ties between the UK and the rest of the EU for textile and apparel products are strengthening. Thanks to the regional supply chain, EU countries as a whole remain a critical source of apparel imports for UK fashion brands and apparel retailers. More than 33% of the UK’s apparel imports came from the EU region in 2018, a record high since 2010. On the other hand, the EU region also is the single largest export market for UK fashion companies.
Fourth, the potential impacts of no-deal Brexit on UK fashion companies’ sourcing cost seem to be modest:
For products currently sourced from countries without a free trade agreement with the EU (such as China) and those Generalized System of Preferences (GSP) beneficiaries that enjoy non-zero preferential duty rates, the tariff rate in the no-deal Brexit scenario will be lower than the current level, as round 44% of tariff lines will be duty-free.
For products currently sourced from countries that enjoy duty-free benefits under the GSP program (such as EBA beneficiary countries), their duty-free market access to the UK will remain unchanged according to the temporary tariff regime.
Products currently sourced from EU countries and Turkey will lose the duty-free benefits and be subject to the MFN tariff rate. However, because around 44% of tariff lines will be duty-free, the magnitude of tariff increase should be modest.
Likewise, products currently sourced from countries that enjoy duty-free benefits under an EU free trade agreement could lose the duty-free treatment and be subject to the MFN tariff rate. However, as around 44% of tariff lines will be duty-free and the UK has signed several continuity trade agreements with some of these countries, the magnitude of tariff increase should be modest overall too. Additionally, these countries are minor sourcing bases for UK fashion companies.
About the authors: Victoria Langro is an Honors student at the University of Delaware; and Dr. Sheng Lu is an Associate Professor in Fashion and Apparel Studies at the University of Delaware.
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.
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 studywas based on a survey of 64 sourcing executives from vertical apparel retailers, hybrid wholesalers, and sportswear companies, with a total sourcing volume of $100 billion. Below are the key findings of the report:
More sourcing executives now focus on process improvements in their companies, such as sustainability and transparency (56% of respondents), digitalization of sourcing process and related areas (45% of respondents), consolidation of supplier base (42% of respondents), end-to-end process efficiency (41% of respondents) than shifting sourcing countries (20% of respondents). Related, as cost gaps between sourcing destinations are narrowing, apparel companies are shifting from minimizing the price of supply to a focus on customer-centric, agile product development to meet customer demand. Digitalization, such as intelligent sourcing, is one of the most promising areas.
Affected by the on-going U.S.-China tariff war, two-thirds of surveyed companies expect their overall sourcing cost to increase in the years ahead, including 37.5% expecting a 2-4% increase and 25% expecting 1-2% increase. However, only 3.1% of respondents expect a significant cost increase (>4%).
Echoing the findings of other recent studies, respondents plan to source relatively less from China through 2025. Bangladesh, Vietnam, Myanmar, and Ethiopia are among the top alternative sourcing destinations. Meanwhile, more companies are considering near-sourcing. The biggest challenge, however, is limited fabric production capacity, NOT higher wages.
Sustainable apparel sourcing is regarded as a must—70% of EU companies and 35% of North American companies surveyed say “responsible and sustainable sourcing was on the CEO agenda.” Top challenges to achieve sustainable apparel sourcing include “no common, objective industry standard on sustainable sourcing”, “consumers lack a clear picture of what sustainable fashion is all about”, “mixed influence of the sourcing function in company-wide sustainability strategy.” Further, more companies prioritize environmental-sustainability initiatives (issues such as sustainable material, recycled material, traceability, and packing) than social sustainability initiatives (issues such as) fair on living wage and decent work). Additionally, respondents hold competing views on whether sustainability will increase sourcing costs overall. Around 58% of respondents see additional costs for sustainable sourcing between 1% and 5%.
Sustainability will play an increasingly important role in how apparel companies select their suppliers. Some surveyed apparel brands and retailers say they have upgraded their supplier ratings over the last couple of years, moving away from viewing sustainability simply as a compliance-based hygiene factor and instead embracing criteria that are more sophisticated.
There is also a need to shift from the transactional-based, season-by-season and the low-commitment relationship between apparel companies and their vendors to strategic partnerships between the two. Around 73% of respondents plan to consolidate their supplier base by at least 5% over the next few years. Related, apparel companies increasingly empower suppliers for self-auditing with tools like the Higg Index.
U.S. fashion brands and retailers are deeply concerned about the negative impacts of the tariff war on their businesses. According to the 2019 U.S. Fashion Industry Benchmarking Study released by the U.S. Fashion Industry Association, even without considering the upcoming 10-15% tariffs to be imposed on around $35.7 billion Chinese textiles and apparel covered by tranche 4:
The trade diversion effect of Section 301 has accelerated U.S. fashion companies’ pace of reducing sourcing from China. About 83 percent of respondents expect to decrease sourcing from China over the next two years, up further from 67 percent in 2018.
The Section 301 action is pushing up the price of U.S. apparel imports across the board, making “increasing production and sourcing cost” the top business challenge for respondents in 2019. As much as 63 percent of respondents explicitly say the U.S. Section 301 tariff action against China “increased my companies’ sourcing cost” in 2019. As companies are moving sourcing orders to Bangladesh, Vietnam, and India, the average price of U.S. apparel imports from these countries – the main alternatives to China — have all gone up very quickly.
No evidence shows that Section 301 has benefited near-sourcing from the Western Hemisphere and reshoring from the United States significantly. Instead, respondents say Section 301 has increased the production costs of textiles and apparel “Made in the USA.”
Respondents say they are reluctant but may have to increase their retail prices, should the U.S.-China tariff war escalate further.
Sub-Saharan Africa (SSA) is widely regarded as a growing apparel-souring destination. Particularly, U.S. Congress established theAfrican Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA), a non-reciprocal trade preference program, in 2000, to help developing SSA countries grow their economy through expanded exports to the United States. Because apparel production plays a dominant role in many SSA countries’ economic development, apparel has become one of the top exports for many SSA countries under AGOA. Notably, the “third-country fabric provision” under AGOA allows US apparel imports from certain SSA countries to be qualified for duty-free treatment even if the apparel items use yarns and fabrics produced by non-AGOA members, such as China, South Korea, and Taiwan. This special rule is deemed as critical as most SSA countries still have no capacity in producing capital and technology-intensive textile products.
That being said, to play a bigger role as an apparel sourcing base, SSA is not without significant challenges:
Challenge 1: limited industry upgrading and local textile production capacity
Theoretically, as a country’s economy advances, it should gradually be producing and exporting more capital and technology-intensive textiles versus labor-intensive apparel products. This is the notable trends in many Asian countries (such as China and Vietnam), where the textile/apparel export ratio has been rising steadily between 2005 and 2017. However, as a reflection of the stagnant industry upgrading, the textile/apparel export ratio remains fairly low in SSA, including in Lesotho, Kenya, and Mauritius, the top three largest apparel exporters in the SSA region.
Challenge 2: Slow and no progress in export diversification
Ideally, as the economy becomes more sophisticated, textiles and apparel (T&A) should account for a declining share in a country’s total merchandise exports. Countries such as China, Vietnam, and ASEAN demonstrate perfect examples. However, in some SSA countries (e.g., Lesotho), T&A has stably accounted for over 80% of their total merchandise exports over the past 17 years, a sign of slow or no progress in export diversification. In other SSA countries, T&A accounted for less than 10% of their total merchandise exports, suggesting the sector is not a priority to the local economy.
Challenge 3: Intense competition both in key export markets and domestic market
As of 2017, over 96% of SSA countries’ T&A exports went to three markets: the United States, the EU, and other SSA members. However, because of the intense competition, except for the regional SSA market, SSA countries account for merely 1.4% and 0.2% of total U.S. and EU textile and apparel imports in 2017 respectively.
Even more concerning, the T&A industry in SSA countries is facing growing competition in the domestic market with cheap imports, mostly from Asia. Notably, SSA countries import MORE apparel than they export, a phenomenon rarely seen among developing countries in a similar stage of economic development.
Challenge 4: U.S. companies remain low interest in investing in the region directly
According to several recent studies, leading U.S. fashion brands and retailers remain low interest in investing in the SSA region directly, even though companies admit more investments in areas such as infrastructure are critical to the success of SSA countries serving as competitive apparel sourcing bases. Some argue that the “temporary” nature of AGOA make companies hesitant to build factories in SSA. However, should AGOA become a permanent free trade agreement, which follows the principle of reciprocity, SSA countries would have to lower their trade barriers to U.S. products, including eliminating the tariffs and non-tariff barriers, in exchange for the reciprocal market access benefits from the United States. It doesn’t seem most AGOA members are ready for that stage yet.
First, U.S. fashion brands and retailers are sourcing less from China, particularly in quantity. Notably, the number of “Made in China” apparel newly launched to the market had significantly dropped from 26,758 SKUs in the first quarter of 2018 to only 8,352 SKUs in the first quarter of 2019 . Nevertheless, consistent with the macro-level trade statistics, China remains the single largest apparel supplier to the U.S. retail market.
Second, apparel “Made in China” are becoming more expensive in the U.S. retail market, yet remain price-competitive overall. Notably, apparel “Made in Vietnam” is becoming more expensive in the U.S. retail market too—an indication that as more production is moving from China to Vietnam, apparel producers and exporters in Vietnam are facing growing cost pressures.
Third, U.S. fashion retailers are shifting what apparel products they source from China. U.S. apparel retailers have been sourcing less lower value-added basic fashion items (such as tops, and underwear), but more sophisticated and higher value-added apparel categories (such as dresses and outerwear) from China since 2018. The shifting product structure could also be a factor that contributed to the rising average retail price of “Made in China” in the U.S. market.
On the other hand, U.S. retailers adopt a very different product assortment strategy for apparel sourced from China versus other regions of the world. There seems to be much fewer alternative sourcing destinations for more sophisticated product categories, such as accessories and outerwear. Somehow ironically, moving to source more sophisticated and higher value-added products from China could make U.S. fashion brands and retailers even MORE vulnerable to the tariff war because of fewer alternative sourcing destinations.
In conclusion, the results imply that China will remain a critical sourcing destination for U.S. fashion brands and retailers in the near future, regardless of the scenario of the U.S.-China tariff war. Meanwhile, we should expect U.S. fashion companies continue to adjust their sourcing strategy for apparel “Made in China” in response to the escalation of the tariff war.
On April 19, 2019, the U.S. International Trade
Commission (USITC) released
its independent assessment report on the likely economic impact of the
U.S.-Mexico-Canada Free Trade Agreement (USMCA or NAFTA2.0). Below are the key
findings of the report:
Impact of USMCA on
the U.S. economy
USITC found that because of the size of the U.S. economy
relative to the size of the Mexican and Canadian economies and the reduction in
tariff and nontariff barriers that has already taken place among the three countries
under the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), the overall impact of USMCA on the U.S. economy is likely to be
moderate. For example, USITC’s computable general equilibrium (CGE) model suggests
that compared to the base year level in 2017, USMCA could increase the U.S. GDP
by 0.35% (or $68.2 billion) and create 0.17 million new jobs when other factors
Impact of USMCA on
the textile and apparel sector
First, USITC found that the USMCA overall is a balanced deal for the textile and apparel sector, particularly regarding the rules of origin (RoO) debate. As USITC noted, USMCA eases the requirements for duty-free treatment for certain textile and apparel products, but tighten the requirements for other products. For example, USMCA eliminates the NAFTA requirements that visible linings must be sourced from members of the agreement; however, USMCA adds more restrictive new requirements for narrow elastic fabrics, sewing thread, and pocket bag fabric.
Second, USITC found that the USMCA changes to the Tariff Preference Level (TPLs) would not have much effect on related trade flows. As USITC noted in its report, where USMCA would cut the TPL level on particular U.S. imports from Canada or Mexico, the quantitative limit for these product categories was not fully utilized in the past. Meanwhile, the TPL level for product categories typically fully used would remain unchanged under USMCA. The only trade flow that might enjoy a notable increase is the U.S. cotton and man-made fiber (MMF) apparel exports to Canada—the TPL is increased to 20million SME annually under USMCA from 9 million under NAFTA.
Third, USITC suggested that in aggregate, the changes under USMCA for the textile and apparel sector will more or less balance each other out and USMCA would NOT affect the overall utilization of USMCA’s duty-free provisions significantly. Notably, the under-utilization of free trade agreements (FTAs) by U.S. companies in apparel sourcing has been a long-time issue. Data from the Office of Textiles and Apparel (OTEXA) shows that of the total $4,292.8 million U.S. apparel imports from the NAFTA region in 2018, only $3,756.1 million (or 87.5%) claimed the preferential duty benefits under the agreement. As noted in the U.S. Fashion Industry Benchmarking Study, some U.S. fashion companies do not claim the duty savings largely because of the restrictive RoO and the onerous documentation requirements.
However, interesting enough, the USITC report says little
about the potential impact of USMCA on U.S. textile and apparel manufacturing.
On 30 September 2018, the United States reached USMCA with Canada and Mexico. On 30 November 2018, USMCA was officially signed by Presidents of the three countries. According to the Bipartisan Congressional Trade Priorities and Accountability Act of 2015 (the picture above), after the release of the USITC economic assessment report on USMCA, the Trump Administration will need to work with U.S. Congress to develop legislation to approve and implement the agreement. However, there remains huge uncertainties over USMCA’s prospect.
Last week in FASH455, we discussed the unique critical role played by textile and apparel trade in generating economic growth in many developing countries. The developed countries also use trade policy tools, such as trade preference programs, to encourage the least developed countries (LDCs) making and exporting more apparel. However, a debate on these trade programs is that they have done little to improve the genuine competitiveness of LDCs’ apparel exports in the world marketplace, but instead have made LDCs rely heavily on these trade programs to continue their apparel exports. Here is one more example:
With growing concerns about “the deterioration of democracy, respect for human rights and the rule of law in Cambodia”, in a statement made on February 12, 2019, the European Union says it has started the process that could lead to a temporary suspension of Cambodia’s eligibility for EU’s Everything But Arms (EBA) program. Specifically, the EU process will include the following three stages:
Stage 1: six
months of intensive monitoring and engagement with the Cambodian government;
Stage 2: another three months for the EU to produce a
report based on the findings in stage 1
Stage 3: after
a total of twelve months in stages 1
& 2, the EU Commission will conclude the procedure with a final decision on
whether or not to withdraw tariff preferences; it is also at this stage that
the Commission will decide the scope and duration of the withdrawal. Any
withdrawal would come into effect after a further six-month period.
However, the EU
Commission also stressed that launching the temporary withdrawal procedure does
not entail an immediate removal of Cambodia’s preferential access to the EU
market, which “would be the option of last resort.”
Developed in 2001, the EBA program establishes duty-free and quota-free
treatment for all Least Developed Countries (LDCs) in the EU market. EBA includes
almost all industries other than arms and armaments. As of February 2019, there
EBA beneficiary countries.
The EBA program has benefited the apparel sector in particular given clothing accounts for the lion’s share in many LDCs’ total merchandise exports. Because of the preferential duty benefits provided by EBA, many LDCs can compete with other competitive apparel powerhouses such as China. Notably, the EBA program also adopts the “cut and sew” rules of origin for apparel, which is more general than the “double transformation” rules of origin typically required by EU free trade agreement and trade preference programs. Under the “cut and sew” rule, Cambodia’s apparel exports to the EU can enjoy the import duty-free treatment while using yarns and fabrics sourced from anywhere in the world.
Cambodia is a major apparel supplier for the EU market, accounting for approximately 4% of EU’s
total apparel imports in 2017. Exporting
apparel to EU through the EBA program is also of particular importance to
Cambodia economically. In 2016, the apparel sector created over 500,000
jobs in Cambodia, of whom 86% were female, working in 556 registered factories.
According to Eurostat, of EU’s €4.9bn imports from Cambodia in 2017, around 74.9% were apparel (HS chapters 61 and
62). Meanwhile, of EU’s €3.7bn apparel imports from Cambodia in 2017, as high
as 96.6% claimed the EBA benefits. Understandably,
losing the EBA eligibility could hurt Cambodia’s apparel exports to the EU significantly.