Apparel Sourcing in the Shadow of Coronavirus (updated February 2020)

[The situation has been quickly evolving. Please check the updated analysis: How Might Covid-19 Affect Apparel Sourcing and Trade ]

  • 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.

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  • 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.

Interview with Modaes.es on the Latest Trends of Apparel Sourcing and Trade

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.”

Top Ten Most-read Blog Posts on Shenglufashion in 2019

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#1 WTO reports world textile and apparel trade in 2018

#2 Wage level for garment workers in the world (updated in 2017)

#3 China’s changing role in the world textile and apparel supply chain

#4 Timeline of trade policy in the Trump administration

#5 State of the EU textile and apparel industry (updated April 2019)

#6  2019 U.S. fashion industry benchmarking study released

#7 U.S. textile and apparel industry is NOT immune to the U.S.-China tariff war

#8 U.S. apparel retailers’ shifting sourcing strategy for “Made in China” under the shadow of the tariff war

#9 Demystify the “Made in the USA” apparel sourcing strategy

#10 U.S. textile and apparel industry assesses the impacts of USMCA (NAFTA2.0)

Happy Holidays!

New Analysis: UK’s Apparel Sourcing Patterns under the Shadow of Brexit

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The full article is available HERE

Key findings:

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.

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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.

Japan’s Apparel Sourcing Patterns

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(The full article is available HERE)

Key findings:

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.

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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 Changing Face of Textile and Apparel “Made in Asia”

Video 1: How one Chinese shirt-maker uses automation to safeguard its future

Video 2: Chinese investors move clothing factory to Bangladesh

Video 3: Can Vietnam become the next China?

Discussion questions (for FASH455: Please finish watching ALL the three short videos above before sharing your viewpoints)

  1. How are textile and apparel “Made in Asia” changing its face? What are the driving forces of these changes?
  2. What are the examples of the “flying geese model” from the videos? Overall, why or why not do you think this model is still valid today?
  3. Why or why not do you think the U.S.-China tariff war has fundamentally changed the patterns of textile and apparel production and trade in Asia?

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