COVID-19 and U.S. Apparel Imports (Updated: April 2020)

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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.

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  • 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).

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  • 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).

WTO Reports World Textile and Apparel Trade in 2016

[The 2017 statistics are available, see WTO Reports World Textile and Apparel Trade in 2017

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According to the newly released World Trade Statistical Review 2017 by the World Trade Organization (WTO), the current dollar value of world textiles (SITC 65) and apparel (SITC 84) exports totaled $284 billion and $443 billion respectively in 2016, marginally decreased by 2.3 percent and 0.4 percent respectively from a year earlier. This is the second year in a roll since 2015 that the value of world textiles and apparel exports grew negatively.

However, textiles and apparel are not alone. The current dollar value of world merchandise exports also declined by 3 percent in 2015, to $11.2 trillion, mostly caused by the strong decline in exports of fuels and mining products (-14 percent). On the other hand, as noted by the WTO, the steep drop in commodity prices recorded in 2015 mostly halted in 2016, except energy prices.

Textile and apparel exports

Measured in value, China, European Union, and India remained the top three exporters of textiles in 2016. Altogether, these top three accounted for 65.9 percent of world exports in 2016, slightly down from 66.5 percent in 2015, which is mostly due to India’s shrinking market shares.

The United States remained the fourth top textile exporter in 2016, accounting for 4.6 percent of the shares (down from 4.8 percent in 2015). Over half of the top ten exporters experienced a decline in the value of their exports in 2016, with the highest declines seen in Hong Kong (-13 percent), Taiwan (-8 percent), South Korea (-6 percent) and the United States (-6 percent). Notably, Vietnam entered the world’s top ten textile exporters for the first time (2 percent market shares, 9 percent growth rate from 2015).

Top three exporters of apparel include China, the European Union, and Bangladesh. Altogether, they accounted for 69.1 percent of world exports, close to 70.3 percent in 2015. Among the top ten exporters of apparel, increases in export values were recorded by Cambodia (+6 percent), Bangladesh (+6 percent), Vietnam (+5 percent), and European Union (+4 percent). Other leading exporters saw stagnation in their export values (such as Turkey) or recorded a decline (such as China, India, and Indonesia).

Could be negatively affected by the rising labor and production cost, China’s shares in the world textile exports dropped from 37.4 percent in 2015 to 37.2 percent in 2016, and the shares in the world apparel exports fell from 39.2 percent in 2015 to 36.4 percent in 2016—a record low since 2010.

Textile and apparel imports

Measured in value, the European Union, the United States, and China were the top three importers of textiles in 2016. These top three altogether accounted for 38 percent of world textile imports, slightly up from 37 percent in 2015, but remains much lower than over 53 percent back in 2000. Notably, over the past decade, apparel manufacturing continues to shift from developed to developing countries and many developing countries heavily rely on imported textile inputs due to the lack of local manufacturing capacity. This explains why more textile exports now go to the developing nations.

On the other hand, affected by consumers’ purchasing power (often measured by GDP per capita) and size of the population, the European Union, the United States, and Japan remained the top three importers of apparel in 2016. Altogether, these top three accounted for 62.9 percent of world apparel imports in 2016, up from 59 percent in 2015. Notably, China is quickly becoming one of the world’s top apparel importers. From 2010 to 2016, China’s apparel imports enjoyed an annual 17 percent growth, much higher than most other countries.

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