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

The latest statistics from the Office of Textiles and Apparel (OTEXA) show that the patterns of U.S. apparel imports continue to involve because of COVID-19 and the escalating US-China tensions. Meanwhile, there appeared to be more potent signs of gradual economic recovery in the U.S. driven by consumers’ robust demand. Specifically:

While the value of U.S. apparel imports decreased by 32.0% in July 2020 from a year ago, the speed of the decline has significantly slowed (was down 60% and 42.8% year over year in May and June 2020, respectively). This result echoes the trend of U.S. apparel retail sales (NAICS 448), which 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 could continue in the next two to three months.

Nevertheless, between January and July 2020, the value of U.S. apparel imports decreased by 30.7% 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 suggest that based on economic factors, U.S. fashion companies would like to continue to treat China as an essential apparel-sourcing base. As the first country hit by COVID-19, China’s apparel exports to the U.S. dropped by as much as 49.3% from January to July 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 had quickly regained its position as the top apparel supplier to the U.S., with a 26.3% market share in value and a 38.8% share in quantity in July 2020.

Different from the impact of the trade war, COVID-19 could benefit China as an apparel sourcing base as fashion companies have to “do more with fewer resources.” In general, China still enjoyed two notable advantages that other apparel supplying countries are unable to 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).

Contrary to common perceptions, apparel “Made in China” apparently 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 July), or down more than 16.7% (compared with a 5.6% price drop of the world average). As of July 2020, the unit price of U.S. apparel import from China was only 65.7% of the world average, and around 25—35 percent lower than those imported from other Asian countries.

That being said, non-economic factors, from the deteriorating US-China relations to the reported Xinjiang forced labor issue, are increasingly complicating fashion companies’ sourcing decisions. Somehow as a warning sign, China’s market shares in the U.S. apparel import market slipped in both quantity and value terms in July 2020 compared with a month ago.

Despite Covid-19, Asia as a whole remains the single largest source of apparel for the U.S. market. Other than China, Vietnam (20.5% YTD in 2020 vs. 16.2% in 2019), ASEAN (34.3% 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.

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 seven months of 2020, only 8.8% 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 seven months of 2020, the value of U.S. yarns and fabrics exports to USMCA and CAFTA-DR members also suffered a 28.9% 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 why near sourcing has been stagnant.

As a reflection of weak demand, the unit price of U.S. apparel imports was lower in the first six months of 2020. The price index declined from 104.7 in 2019 to 99.0 YTD (Jan to Jul) in 2020 (Year 2010 =100). The imports from Mexico (price index =86.4 YTD in 2020 vs. 112.1 in 2019) and China (price index = 69.7 YTD in 2020 vs. 83.5 in 2019) have seen the most notable price decrease so far.

by Sheng Lu

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

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.

by Sheng Lu

WTO Reports World Textiles and Apparel Trade in 2019

According to the World Trade Statistical Review 2020 newly released by the World Trade Organization (WTO):

First, the volume of world textiles and apparel trade reduced in 2019 due to weakened demand and the negative impacts of trade tensions. According to the WTO, the value of the world textiles (SITC 65) and apparel (SITC 84) exports totaled $305bn and $492bn in 2019, respectively, decreased by 2.4% and 0.4% from a year ago. The world merchandise trade also fell by nearly 3% measured by value and 0.1% measured by volume 2018-2019, in contrast with a positive 2.8% growth 2017-2018. Put these numbers in context, the year 2019 was the first time that world merchandise trade fell since the 2008 global financial crisis, and the decline happened even before the pandemic. As noted by the WTO, the economic slowdown and the escalating trade tensions, particularly the tariff war between the United States and China, were among the major contributing factors for the contraction of trade flows. 

Second, the pattern of world textile exports overall stays stable in 2019; Meanwhile, China and Vietnam continue to gain momentum. China, European Union (EU28), and India remained the world’s top three exporters of textiles in 2019. Altogether, these top three accounted for 66.9% of the value of world textile exports in 2019, almost no change from two years ago. Notably, despite the headwinds, China and Vietnam stilled enjoy the positive growth of their textile exports in 2019, up 0.9%, and 8.3%, respectively. In particular, Vietnam exceeded Taiwan and ranked the world’s seventh-largest textile exporter in 2019 ($8.8bn of exports, up 8.3% from a year earlier), the first time in history. The change also reflects Vietnam’s efforts to continuously upgrade its textile and apparel industry and strengthen the local textile production capacity are paying off.

Third, the pattern of world apparel exports reflects fashion companies’ shifting strategies to reduce sourcing from China. China, the European Union (EU28), Bangladesh, and Vietnam unshakably remained the world’s top four exporters of apparel in 2019. Altogether, these top four accounted for as much as 71.4% of world market shares in 2019, which, however, was lower than 74% from 2016 to 2018—primarily due to China’s reduced market shares.

China is exporting less apparel and more textiles to the world. Notably, China’s market shares in world apparel exports fell from its peak of 38.8% in 2014 to a record low of 30.8% in 2019 (was 31.3% in 2018). Meanwhile, China accounted for 39.2% of world textile exports in 2019, which was a new record high. It is important to recognize that China is playing an increasingly critical role as a textile supplier for many apparel-exporting countries in Asia.

On the other hand, even though apparel exports from Vietnam (up 7.7%) and Bangladesh (up 2.1%) enjoyed fast growth in absolute terms in 2019, their gains in market shares were quite limited (i.e., no change for Vietnam and marginally up 0.3 percentage point from 6.8% to 6.5% for Bangladesh). This result indicates that due to capacity limits, no single country has yet emerged to become the “Next China.” Instead, China’s lost market shares in apparel exports were fulfilled by a group of Asian countries altogether.

Fourth, associated with the shifting pattern of world apparel production, the world textile import is increasingly driven by apparel-exporting countries in the developing world. Notably, 2019 marks the first time that Vietnam emerged to become one of the world’s top three largest importers of textiles, primarily due to its expanded apparel production and heavy dependence on imported textile raw materials. In comparison, although the US and the EU remain the world’s top two largest textile importers, their total market shares had declined from nearly 40% in 2010 to only 31.2% in 2019, the lowest in the past ten years. Furthermore, both the US and the EU have been importing more finished textile products (such as home furnishings and carpets) as well as highly specialized technical textiles, rather than conventional yarns and fabrics for apparel production purposes. The weakening import demand for intermediary textile raw materials also suggests that reshoring (i.e., making apparel locally rather than sourcing from overseas) has NOT become a mainstream industry practice in the developed economies like the US and the EU.

Fifth, the world apparel import market is becoming ever more diversified as import demand is increasingly coming from emerging economies with a booming middle class. Affected by consumers’ purchasing power (often measured by GDP per capita) and size of the population, the European Union (EU28), US, and Japan remained the world’s top three importers of apparel in 2019. This pattern has lasted for decades. Altogether, these top three absorbed 58.1% of world apparel in 2019, which, however, was a new historic low (was 84% back in 2005). Behind the numbers, it is not the case that consumers in the EU, US, and Japan are necessarily purchasing less clothing. Instead, several emerging economies are becoming fast-growing apparel consumption markets and starting to import more. For example, China’s apparel imports totaled $8.9bn in 2019, up 8.1% from a year earlier. From 2010 to 2019, China’s apparel imports enjoyed a nearly 15% annual growth, compared with only 1.9% of the traditional top three.

by Sheng Lu

Additional reading: Lu, S. (2020). Five ways world textile and apparel trade is changing. Just-Style.

Appendix:

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

The latest statistics from the Office of Textiles and Apparel (OTEXA) show that the negative impact of COVID-19 on U.S. apparel imports deepened further in April 2020. Specifically:

  1. Unusually but not surprisingly, the value of U.S. apparel imports sharply decreased by 44.5% in April 2020 from a year ago. Between January and April 2020, the value of U.S. apparel imports decreased by 19.6% year over year, which has been much worse than the performance during the 2008-2009 global financial crisis (down 11.8%).

2. As the first country took a hit by COVID-19, China’s apparel exports to the United States continue to deteriorate—its value decreased by a new record of 59.0% in April 2020 compared with a year ago (and -46.4% drop year to date). This result is also worse than the official Chinese statistics, which reported an overall 22% drop in China’s apparel exports in the first four months of 2020).

3. For the second month in a row, Vietnam surpassed China and ranked the top apparel supplier to the U.S. market in April 2020. China’s market shares in the U.S. apparel import market remained as low as 18.2% in April 2020 (was 30% in 2019), although it slightly recovered from only 11% in March 2020. With U.S.-China relations at a new low, there have been more intensified discussions on how to move the entire textile and apparel supply chain out of China and diversify apparel sourcing from the Asia region as a whole. However, as China itself has grown into one of the world’s largest apparel consumption markets, there is little doubt that China will remain a critical player for apparel sourcing, especially for the “China for China” business model.

4. Continuing the trend emerged in recent years, China’s lost market shares have been picked up mostly by other Asian suppliers, particularly Vietnam (19.7% YTD in 2020 vs. 16.2% in 2019) and Bangladesh (9.8% YTD in 2020 vs.7.1% in 2019). However, no clear evidence has suggested that U.S. fashion brands and retailers are giving more apparel sourcing orders to suppliers from the Western Hemisphere. In the first four months of 2020, still only 9.4% of U.S. apparel imports came from CAFTA-DR members (down from 10.3% in 2019) and 4.1% from NAFTA members (down from 4.5% in 2019).

5. As a reflection of weak demand, the unit price of U.S. apparel imports was lower in the first four months of 2020 (price index =102.1) compared with 2019 (price index =104.7).  Imports from China have seen the most notable price decrease so far (price index =71.5 YTD in 2020 vs. 83.5 in 2019).

by Dr. Sheng Lu

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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