Outlook 2019: Apparel Industry Issues in the Year Ahead

In January 2019, Just-Style consulted a panel of industry leaders and scholars in its Outlook 2019–Apparel Industry Issues in the Year Ahead management briefing. Below is my contribution to the report. Any comments and suggestions are more than welcome!

1: What do you see as the biggest challenges – and opportunities – facing the apparel industry in 2019, and why?

In my view, uncertainty will remain the single biggest challenge facing the apparel industry in 2019, ranging from a more volatile global economy, the unpredictable outlook of the U.S.-China trade talks to the various possible scenarios of Brexit. While uncertainty creates exciting new research opportunities for scholars like me, it could be a big headache for companies seeking a foreseeable market environment to guide their future business plan and investments. 

Meanwhile, the increasing digitalization of the apparel supply chain based on big-data tools and artificial intelligence (AI) technologies means a huge opportunity for fashion companies. Indeed, the apparel industry is quickly changing in nature—becoming ever more globalized, supply-chain based, technology-intensive and data-driven. Take talent recruitment as an example. In the 2018 US Fashion Industry Benchmarking Study, which I conducted in collaboration with the US Fashion Industry Association (USFIA), as much as 68 percent of surveyed leading U.S. fashion brands and apparel retailers say they plan to increase hiring of data scientists in the next five years. Googling “apparel industry” together with terms such as “big data” and “data science” also returns much more results than in the past. It is hopeful that the advancement of digital technologies and the smarter use of data will enable apparel companies to overcome market uncertainties better and improve many aspects of their businesses such as speed to market, operational efficiency and even sustainability.

2: What’s happening with sourcing? How is the sourcing landscape likely to shift in 2019, and what can apparel firms and their suppliers do to stay ahead?

Based on my research, I have three observations regarding apparel companies’ sourcing trends and the overall sourcing landscape in 2019:

First, apparel companies overall will continue to maintain a diverse sourcing base. For example, in a recent study, we examined the detailed sourcing portfolios of the 50 largest U.S.-based apparel companies ranked by the Apparel Magazine. Notably, on average these companies sourced from over 20 different countries or regions using more than 200 vendors in 2017. Similarly, in the 2018 US Fashion Industry Benchmarking Study, which I conducted in collaboration with the US Fashion Industry Association (USFIA), we also found companies with more than 1,000 employees typically source from more than ten different countries and regions. Since no sourcing destination is perfect, maintaining a relatively diverse sourcing base allows apparel companies to strike a balance among various sourcing factors ranging from cost, speed, flexibility, to risk management.

Second, while apparel companies are actively seeking new sourcing bases, many of them are reducing either the number of countries they source from or the number of vendors they work with. According to our study, some apparel companies have been strategically reducing the number of sourcing facilities with the purpose of ensuring closer collaborations with their suppliers on social and environmental compliance issues. Some other companies are consolidating their sourcing base within certain regions to improve efficiency and maximize productivity in the supply chain. Related to this trend, it is interesting to note that approximately half of the 50 largest U.S. apparel companies report allocating more sourcing orders to their largest vendor in 2017 than three years ago.

Third, nearshoring or onshoring will become more visible. Take “Made in the USA” apparel for example. According to the 2018 U.S. Fashion Industry Benchmarking Study, around 46 percent of surveyed U.S. fashion brands and apparel retailers report currently sourcing “Made in the USA” products, even though local sourcing typically only account for less than 10 percent of these companies’ total sourcing value or volume. In a recent study, we find that 94 out of the total 348 retailers (or 27 percent) sold “Made in the USA” apparel in the U.S. market between December 2017 and November 2018. These “Made in the USA” apparel items, in general, focus on fashion-oriented women’s wear, particularly in the categories of bottoms (such as skirts, jeans, and trousers), dresses, all-in-ones (such as playsuits and dungarees), swimwear and suits-sets. The advantage of proximity to the market, which makes speedy replenishment for in-season items possible, also allows retailers to price “Made in the USA” apparel substantially higher than imported ones and avoid offering deep discounts. Looking ahead, thanks to automation technology and consumers’ increasing demand for speed to market, I think nearshoring or onshoring, including ”Made in the USA” apparel, will continue to have its unique role to play in fashion brands and retailers’ merchandising and sourcing strategies.

3: What should apparel firms and their suppliers be doing now if they want to remain competitive further into the future? What will separate the winners from the losers?

2019 will be a year to test apparel companies’ resources, particularly in the sourcing area. For example, winners will be those companies that have built a sophisticated but nimble global sourcing network that can handle market uncertainties effectively. Likewise, companies that understand and leverage the evolving “rules of the game”, such as the apparel-specific rules of origin and tariff phase-out schedules of existing or newly-reached free trade agreements, will be able to control sourcing cost better and achieve higher profit margins. Given the heavy involvement of trade policy in apparel sourcing this year, companies with solid government relations should also enjoy unique competitive advantages. 

On the other hand, as apparel business is changing in nature, to stay competitive, apparel companies need to start investing the future. This includes but not limited to exploring new sourcing destinations, studying the changing consumer demographics, recruiting new talents with expertise in emerging areas, and adopting new technologies fitting for the digital age. 

4: What keeps you awake at night? Is there anything else you think the apparel industry should be keeping a close eye on in the year ahead? Do you expect 2019 to be better than 2018, and why?

Two things are at the top of my watchlist:

First, what is the future of China as an apparel sourcing base? While external factors such as the U.S.-China tariff war have attracted most of the public attention, the genuine evolution of China’s textile and apparel industry is something even more critical to watch in the long run. From my observation, China is playing an increasingly important role as a textile supplier for apparel-exporting countries in Asia. For example, measured by value, 47 percent of Bangladesh’s textile imports came from China in 2017, up from 39 percent in 2005. Similar trends are seen in Cambodia (up from 30 percent to 65 percent), Vietnam (up from 23 percent to 50 percent), Pakistan (up from 32 percent to 71 percent), Malaysia (up from 25 percent to 54 percent), Indonesia (up from 28 percent to 46 percent), Philippines (up from 19 percent to 41 percent) and Sri Lanka (up from 15 percent to 39 percent) over the same time frame. A key question in my mind is how quickly China’s textile and apparel industry will continue to evolve and upgrade by following the paths of most other advanced economies in history.

Second, how will the implementation of several newly-reached free trade agreements (FTAs) affect the big landscape of apparel sourcing and the existing regional apparel supply chains? For example:

  • The newly-reached U.S.-Mexico-Canada Free Trade Agreement (USMCA or commonly called NAFTA2.0) includes several interesting changes to the textile and apparel specific rules of origin provisions, such as the adjustment of the tariff-preference level (TPL) mechanism. Whether these changes will boost textile and apparel production in the Western-Hemisphere and attract more sourcing from the region will be something interesting to watch.
  • The implementation of the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP) and the EU-Vietnam Free Trade Agreement (EVFTA) will allow Vietnam to get access to nearly 40% of the world apparel import market (i.e., EU + Japan) duty-free. However, restrained by the country’s relatively small population, the apparel industry is increasingly facing the challenge of competing for labor with other export-oriented sectors in Vietnam. Realistically, what is the growth potential of apparel “Made in Vietnam” after the implementation of CPTPP and EVFTA?
  • In 2017, close to 80% of Asian countries’ textile imports came from other Asian countries, up from around 70% in the 2000s. Similarly, in 2017, 85.6% of Asian countries’ apparel imports also came from within the region. The negotiation of the Regional Comprehensive and Economic Partnership (RCEP) is likely to conclude in 2019, whose membership includes member states of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and other six economies in the Asia-Pacific region (Australia, China, India, Japan, South Korea and New Zealand). Will RCEP result in an ever more integrated Asia-based textile and apparel supply chain and make the Asia region even more competitive as an apparel sourcing destination?  

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Evolving Sourcing Strategies of U.S. Apparel Companies

The full article is available HERE

To better understand companies’ latest sourcing practices, we recently examined the detailed sourcing portfolios of the 50 largest U.S.-based apparel companies ranked by the Apparel Magazine. Specifically, we conducted a content analysis of each company’s publicly released annual reports and their financial statements from 2014 to 2017 (the latest information available), with a focus on the following two research questions: 1) How have the sourcing strategies of U.S. apparel companies evolved? 2) How have the evolving sourcing strategies affected companies’ financial performance? Here are the key findings:

First, U.S. apparel companies overall adopt a diverse sourcing base. Among the 50 companies we examined, on average they sourced from over 20 different countries or regions using more than 200 vendors in 2017. These results echo the findings of the 2018 U.S. Fashion Industry Benchmarking Study released by the U.S. Fashion Industry Association (USFIA) in July. Based on a survey of nearly 30 executives from leading U.S. fashion brands and apparel retailers, the study also found companies with more than 1,000 employees typically source from more than ten different countries and regions. Also, larger companies, in general, adopt a more diverse sourcing base than smaller ones.

Second, while U.S. apparel companies are actively seeking new sourcing bases, many of them are reducing either the number of countries they source from or the number of vendors they work with. Specifically, among the top 50 U.S. apparel companies examined, around 28 percent increased the number of countries or regions they use as sourcing bases between 2014 and 2017. However, over the same period, 52 percent chose to consolidate their existing sources base, but on a small scale. Likewise, among the top 50 U.S. apparel companies examined, approximately half reduced the number of vendors they use between 2014 and 2017, compared with 33 percent that chose to source from more vendors.

Third, for risk control purposes, most U.S. apparel companies avoid relying too much on any single vendor; however, some companies have begun to allocate more sourcing orders to its largest vendors. The top 50 U.S. apparel companies we examined on average assigned no more than 10 percent of their total sourcing value or volumes to any single vendor in 2017. This practice suggests that minimizing supply chain risks is a critical consideration of U.S. apparel companies’ sourcing strategy. Nevertheless, between 2014 and 2017, around 45 percent of apparel companies we examined raised the cap slightly.

Fourth, regarding the financial implications of the adjustment of sourcing strategies, companies that diversified their sourcing bases between 2014 and 2017, in general, were able to reduce sourcing cost and improve gross margin. In comparison, U.S. apparel companies we examined that consolidated their sourcing base between 2014 and 2017 suffered a slight decline in their gross margin percentage.

On the other hand, however, there was no clear pattern between a company’s choice of sourcing strategy and their net profit margin. While multiple factors could come into play, one possible explanation for the results is that that either diversifying or considering the sourcing base would incur additional management cost for the company.

Recommended citation: Luetje, J., & Lu, S. (2018).How do apparel sourcing shifts impact the bottom line?. Just-Style. Retrieved from https://www.just-style.com/analysis/how-do-apparel-sourcing-shifts-impact-the-bottom-line_id134604.aspx

Regional Supply Chain Remains an Import Feature of World Textile and Apparel Trade

The full article is available HERE

Key findings:

The deepening of the regional production and trade network(RPTN) is a critical factor behind the increasing concentration of world textile and apparel exports. RPTN refers to the phenomenon that geographically proximate countries form a regional supply chain.

In general, three primary textile and apparel regional supply chains are operating in the world today:

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

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

Western-Hemisphere(WH): within this regional supply chain, the United States serves as the leading textile supplier, whereas developing countries in North, Central andSouth America (such as Mexico and countries in the Caribbean region) assemble imported textiles from the United States or elsewhere into apparel. The majority of clothing produced in the area is eventually exported to the UnitedStates or Canada for consumption.

Associated with these regional production and trade networks, three particular trade flows are important to watch:

First, Asian countries are increasingly sourcing textile inputs from within the region. In2017, close to 80 percent of Asian countries’ textile imports came from other Asian countries, up from around 70 percent in the 2000s.

Second, the pattern of EU intra-region trade for textile and apparel stays strong and stable. Intra-region trade refers to trade flows between EU members. In 2017, 55 percent of EU countries’ textile imports and 47 percent of EU countries’ apparel imports came from within the EU region. Over the same period, 68 percent of EU countries’ textile exports and 75 percent of their apparel exports also went to other EU countries.

Third, trade flows under the Western-Hemisphere textile and apparel supply chain are becoming more unbalanced. On the one hand, textile and apparel exporters in the Western-Hemisphere still rely heavily on the region. In 2017, respectively as much as 80 percent of textiles and 89 percent of apparel exports from countries in the Western Hemisphere went to the same region.  However, on the other hand, the operation of the Western-Hemisphere supply chain is facing growing competition from Asian suppliers. For example,  in 2017, only 24.8 percent of North, South and Central American countries’ textile imports and 15.7 percent of their apparel imports came from within the region, a record low in the past ten years.

Look ahead, it will be interesting to see how will the reaching and implementation of several new free trade agreements, such as CPTPP, RCEP, EU-Vietnam FTA, and the potential US-EU and US-Japan FTAs,  affect the regional pattern of world textile and apparel trade.

Recommended citation: Lu,S. (2018). How regional supply chains are shaping world textile and apparel trade. Just-Style. Retrieved from https://www.just-style.com/analysis/how-regional-supply-chains-are-shaping-world-textile-and-apparel-trade_id135021.aspx

Patterns of Canada’s Apparel Sourcing and Trade

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The full article is available HERE

Key findings:

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

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

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

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

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

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China’s Changing Role in the World Textile and Apparel Supply Chain (updated October 2018)

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Following the steps of many countries in history, China is gradually shifting its role in the world textile and apparel supply chain. While China unshakably remains the world’s largest apparel exporter, its market shares measured by value fell from 38.6 percent in 2015 to 33.7 percent in 2017.  China’s market shares in the world’s top three largest apparel import markets, namely the United States, EU, and Japan, also indicate a clear downward trend in the past five years. This result is consistent with several recent survey studies, which find that fashion brands and retailers are actively seeking alternative apparel sourcing bases to China. Indeed, no country, including China, can forever keep its comparative advantage in making labor-intensive garments when its economy becomes more industrialized and advanced.

However, it is also important to recognize that China is playing an increasingly important role as a textile supplier for apparel-exporting countries in Asia. For example, measured by value, 47 percent of Bangladesh’s textile imports came from China in 2017, up from 39 percent in 2005. We observe similar trends in Cambodia (up from 30 percent to 65 percent), Vietnam (up from 23 percent to 50 percent), Pakistan (up from 32 percent to 71 percent), Malaysia (up from 25 percent to 54 percent), Indonesia (up from 28 percent to 46 percent), Philippines (up from 19 percent to 41 percent) and Sri Lanka (up from 15 percent to 39 percent) over the same time frame. 

So maybe the right question to ask in the future is: how much value of “Made in China” actually contains in Asian countries’ apparel exports to the world?

China’s Textile and Apparel Factories Today

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Related readings: 

Are Textile and Apparel “Made in China” Losing Competitiveness in the U.S. Market? (updated October 2018)

A fact-checking review of trade statistics in 2017 of a total 167 categories of textile and apparel (T&A) products categorized by the Office of Textiles and Apparel (OTEXA) suggests that T&A products  “Made in China” still have no near competitors in the U.S. import market. Specifically, in 2017:

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  • Of the total 11 categories of yarn, China was the top supplier for 3 categories (or 27.3%);
  • Of the total 34 categories of fabric, China was the top supplier for 26 categories (or 76.5%);
  • Of the total 106 categories of apparel, China was the top supplier for 87 categories (or 82.1%);
  • Of the total 16 categories of made-up textiles, China was the top supplier for 11 categories (or 68.8%);

In comparison, for those Asian T&A suppliers regarded as China’s top competitors:

  • Vietnam was the top supplier for only 5 categories of apparel (less than 5% of the total);
  • Bangladesh was the top supplier for only 2 categories of apparel (less than 2% of the total)
  • India was the top supplier for 1 category of fabric (2.9% of the total), 1 category of apparel (1% of the total) and 5 categories of made-up textiles (41.7% of the total)

Notably, China not only was the top supplier for many T&A products but also held a lion’s market shares. For example, in 2017:

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  • For the 26 categories of fabric that China was the top supplier, China’s average market shares reached 40.5%, 22 percentage points higher than the 2nd top suppliers for these categories
  • For the 87 categories of apparel that China was the top supplier, China’s average market shares reached 52.4%, 36 percentage points higher than the 2nd top suppliers for these categories.
  • For the 11 categories of made-up textiles that China was the top supplier, China’s average market shares reached 58%, 43 percentage points higher than the 2nd top suppliers for these categories.

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Furthermore, T&A “Made in China” are demonstrating even bigger price competitiveness compared to other suppliers in the U.S. market. For example, in 2017, the unit price of apparel “Made China” was only 74% of the price of “Made in Vietnam” (in 2015 was 80%), 86% of “Made in Bangladesh” (in 2015 was 93%), 85% of “Made in Mexico” (in 2015 was 90%) and 86% of products by members of CAFTA-DR (in 2012 was 98%).

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Last but not least, the U.S.-China tariff war apparently has NOT affected China’s textile and apparel exports to the United States significantly. From January to August this year, China’s apparel exports to the U.S. declined by 1% in value and 0.3% in quantity from a year earlier, but China’s textile exports to the U.S. increased by 12.3% in value and 7.2% in quantity.  China’s market shares in the U.S. market also remains overall stable.

Are the results surprising? How to explain China’s increasing price competitiveness despite its reported rising labor cost? What’s your outlook for the future of China as a sourcing destination for U.S. fashion brands and retailers? Please feel free to share your views. 

Suggested citation: Lu, Sheng. (2018). Are Textile and Apparel “Made in China” Losing Competitiveness in the U.S. Market? (updated October 2018). Retrieved from https://shenglufashion.com/2018/10/28/are-textile-and-apparel-made-in-china-losing-competitiveness-in-the-u-s-market-updated-october-2018/