Second, I hope FASH455 helps students shape a big-picture vision of the fashion apparel industry in the 21st-century world economy and provides students a fresh new way of looking at the world. Throughout the semester, we’ve examined many critical, timely, and pressing global agendas that are highly relevant to the textile and apparel industry, from the impact of COVID-19 on apparel sourcing and trade, the growing interest in expanding near-shoring from the Western Hemisphere, the debate on the textile and apparel provisions in U.S. free trade agreements to the controversy of forced labor in the apparel supply chain. It is critical to keep in mind that we wear more than clothes: We also wear the global economy, international business, public policy, and trade politics that make affordable, fashionable, and safe clothes possible and available for hardworking families.
Likewise, I hope FASH455 can put students into thinking about why “fashion” matters. A popular misconception is that “fashion and apparel” are just about “sewing,” “fashion magazine,” “shopping” and “Project Runway.” In fact, as one of the largest and most economically influential sectors in the world today, the fashion industry plays a critical and unique role in creating jobs, promoting economic development, enhancing human development, and reducing poverty. As we mentioned in class, over 120 million people remain directly employed in the textile and apparel industry globally, and a good proportion of them are females living in poor rural areas. For most developing countries, textile and apparel typically account for 70%–90% of their total merchandise exports and provide one of the very few opportunities for these countries to participate in globalization. The global pandemic, in particular, reveals the fashion industry’s enormous social and economic impacts and many problems that need our continuous efforts to make meaningful improvements.
Last but not least, I hope from taking FASH455, students will take away meaningful questions that can inspire their future studies and even life’s pursuit. For example:
How to make apparel sourcing and trade more sustainable, socially responsible, and transparent? What needs to be done further–fashion companies, government, consumers, and other stakeholders?
To which extent will geopolitics, such as the Russia-Ukraine war and US-China tensions, affect world trade patterns and fundamentally shift fashion companies’ sourcing and supply chain strategies?
How will automation, AI, and digital technologies change the future landscape of apparel sourcing, trade, and job opportunities? What may fashion education look like ten years from now given the shifting nature of the industry?
How to use trade policy as a tool to solve challenging global issues such as forced labor and climate change? Or shall we leave these issues to the market forces?
We don’t have solid answers yet for these questions. However, these issues are waiting for you, the young professional and the new generation of leaders, to write history, based on your knowledge, wisdom, responsibility, courage, and creativity!
So what do you take away from FASH455? Please feel free to share your thoughts and comments.
The Asia-Pacific region includes several mega free trade agreements:
ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) is a regional intergovernmental organization comprising ten countries in Southeast Asia (Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, and Vietnam). In 2021, ASEAN members have a combined GDP of $3.11 trillion and a population of 673 million.
CPTPP (Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership) is a free trade agreement signed by 11 countries in the Asia-Pacific region, including Japan, Malaysia, Vietnam, Australia, Singapore, Brunei, New Zealand, Canada, Mexico, Peru, and Chile. The CPTPP covers a market of 495 million people with a combined GDP of $13.5 trillion in 2021. The United States was originally a participant in the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) negotiations, but in January 2017, former US President Trump withdrew the US from the agreement. The Biden administration has indicated no interest in rejoining CPTPP. Additionally, China is actively seeking to join CPTPP.
RCEP (Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership) is a free trade agreement signed by 15 countries in the Asia-Pacific region, including China, Japan, South Korea, Australia, New Zealand, Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, Vietnam. In 2021, RCEP members collectively represented a market of 2.3 billion people with a combined GDP of $26.3 trillion. India was an RCEP member but withdrew from the agreement due to concerns about import competition with China.
IPEF (Indo-Pacific Economic Framework for Prosperity) is a US-led economic cooperation framework that aims to “link major economies and emerging ones to tackle 21st-century challenges and promote fair and resilient trade for years to come.” IPEF is NOT a traditional free trade agreement, and it does not address market access issues like tariff cuts. Instead, IPEF includes four pillars: trade, supply chains, clean economy, and fair economy. IPEF members in the Asia-Pacific region include the United States, Japan, Australia, New Zealand, South Korea, India, Fiji, Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, and Vietnam. The IPEF is designed to be flexible, meaning that IPEF partners are not required to join all four pillars. For example, India chooses not to join the trade pillar of the framework. In 2021, IPEF countries collectively represented a market of 2.1 billion people with a combined GDP of $23.3 trillion. The potential economic impact of IPEF remains too early to tell.
Notably, ASEAN, CPTPP, RCEP, and IPEF members play significant roles in the world textile and apparel trade. Specifically:
ASEAN and RCEP members have established a highly integrated regional textile and apparel supply chain. For example, a substantial portion of ASEAN and RECP members’ textile imports came from within the region.
ASEAN and RCEP members’ supply chain connection with China has substantially strengthened over the past decade. In contrast, the US barely participated in Asia-based textile and apparel supply chains. For example, other than CPTPP, the US accounted for less than 2% of ASEAN, RCEP, and IPEF members’ textile imports in 2021.
ASEAN and RCEP members also hold significant market shares in the world textile and apparel export (over 50%). Meanwhile, the US and EU are indispensable export markets for ASEAN and RCEP members.
Because of the United States, IPEF represented one of the world’s largest apparel import markets (i.e., 33.7% in 2021, measured in value). Similarly, in 2022, about 26% of US apparel imports came from current IPEF members. Should IPEF address market access issues, it could potentially offer significant duty-saving opportunities for textile and apparel products.
Additionally, UK’s membership in CPTPP may have a limited direct impact on the textile and apparel sector, at least in short to medium terms. For example, current CPTPP members only accounted for about 6% of UK’s apparel imports in 2021.
Background: What sets Shein and Temu’s sourcing strategies apart from other US fashion brands?
Leading US fashion companies have increasingly turned to sourcing diversification to reduce supply chain risks and market uncertainties. For example, industry surveys and firm-level analyses consistently found that prominent US fashion brands and retailers typically source from more than 10-20 countries. Notably, “reducing China exposure” is a growing trend among US fashion companies, given the concerns about the rising US-China trade tensions and geopolitics.
Instead, Temu and Shein are notable for their reliance on Chinese suppliers, with Temu primarily shipping products directly from China rather than US-based distribution centers. This business model may be explained by two factors.
One is to leverage China’s strengths in making apparel products with greater varieties and smaller quantities. In other words, while countries like Bangladesh and Cambodia may be better suited for sourcing large orders, “Made in China” can remain overall price competitive for a wide range of products requiring a smaller minimum order quantity. In this way, China can offer greater flexibility to Temu, which intends to manufacture various products while controlling costs.
Another possible reason is to take advantage of the “de minimis rule.” Under US customs law, specifically the Trade Facilitation and Trade Enforcement Act of 2015, import duties are generally waived for goods with a value of $800 or less per person per day. Therefore, Temu’s shipping from China to US consumers is likely to be eligible for the benefits.
Discussion question: What shall we do about Shein?
In March 2023, the Office of the United States Trade Representative (USTR) released its 2024 Fiscal Year Budget report, outlining six major goals and objectives for FY2024. USTR’s FY2024 goals and objectives for textile and apparel are similar to FY2023, but keywords such as “near-shoring” are newly emphasized.
Goal 1: Open Foreign Markets and Combat Unfair Trade
Provide policy guidance and support for international negotiations or initiatives affecting the textile and apparel sector to ensure that the interests of U.S. industry and workers are taken into account and, where possible, to provide new or enhanced export opportunities for U.S. industry. (Note: no change from FY2023)
Conduct reviews of commercial availability petitions regarding textile and apparel products and negotiate corresponding FTA rules of origin changes, where appropriate, in a manner that takes into account market conditions while preserving export opportunities for U.S. producers and employment opportunities for U.S. workers. (Note: no change from FY2023)
Engage relevant trade partners to address regulatory issues potentially affecting the U.S. textile and apparel industry’s market access opportunities. (Note: no change from FY2023)
Continue to engage with CAFTA-DR partner countries to address trade-related issues to optimize inclusive economic opportunities; strengthen trade rules and transparency and address non-tariff trade impediments; provide capacity building in areas such as textile and apparel trade-related regulation and practice on customs, border and market access issues, including agricultural and sanitary and phytosanitary regulations, to avoid barriers to trade. (note: newly mentioned “transparency”)
Continue to engage CAFTA-DR partners and stakeholders to identify and develop means to increase two-way trade in textiles and apparel and strengthen the North American supply chain and near-shoring to enhance formal job creation. (note: newly emphasized “Near-shoring”)
Provide policy guidance and support for international negotiations or initiatives affecting the textile and apparel sector to ensure that the interests of U.S. industry and workers are taken into account and, where possible, to provide new or enhanced export opportunities for U.S. industry. (Note: no change from FY2023)
Conduct reviews of commercial availability petitions regarding textile and apparel products and negotiate corresponding FTA rules of origin changes, where appropriate, in a manner that takes into account market conditions while preserving export opportunities for U.S. producers and employment opportunities for U.S. workers (note: no change from FY2023)
Engage relevant trade partners to address regulatory issues potentially affecting the U.S. textile and apparel industry’s market access opportunities. (note: no change from FY2023)
Goal 2: Fully Enforce U.S. Trade Laws, Monitor Compliance with Agreements, and Use All Available Tools to Hold Other Countries Accountable
Closely collaborate with industry and other offices and Departments to monitor trade actions taken by partner countries on textiles and apparel to ensure that such actions are consistent with trade agreement obligations and do not impede U.S. export opportunities. (note: no change from FY2023)
Research and monitor policy support measures for the textile sector, in particular in the PRC, India, and other large textile producing and exporting countries, to ensure compliance with international agreements. (note: no change from FY2023)
Continue to work with the U.S. textile and apparel industry to promote exports and other opportunities under our free trade agreements and preference programs, by actively engaging with stakeholders and industry associations and participating, as appropriate, in industry trade shows. (note: no change from FY2023)
Goal 4: Develop Equitable Trade Policy Through Inclusive Processes
Take the lead in providing policy advice and assistance in support of any Congressional initiatives to reform or re-examine preference programs that have an impact on the textile and apparel sector. (note: no change from FY2023)
Other Priorities for USTR in FY2024:
#1 “Advancing a Worker-Centered Trade Policy.” For example, given “communities of color and lower socio-economic backgrounds were more negatively affected by free trade policies that have reduced tariffs and distributed supply chains across the globe,” USTR will develop “a new strategic approach to trade relationships that is not built on traditional free trade agreements…USTR is embarking on trade engagements with allies and like-minded economies, like Taiwan and Kenya and [through] multinational economic frameworks that focus on clean energy and supply chains rather than tariffs.”
#2 Address forced labor. For example, USTR developed the first-ever focused trade strategy to combat forced labor. Paired with the implementation of the Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act, and the Memorandum of Cooperation (MOC) launching of a Task Force on the Promotion of Human Rights and International Labor Standards in Supply Chains under the U.S.-Japan Partnership on Trade. And USTR will “use every tool available to block the importation of goods made partially or entirely with forced labor.”
#3 Re-Aligning the U.S. – Beijing Trade Relationship. “USTR continues to keep the door open to conversations with the PRC, including on its Phase One commitments. However, USTR acknowledges the Agreement’s limitations. USTR’s strategy is expand beyond only pressing Beijing for change and includes vigorously defending our values and economic interests from the negative impacts of the PRC’s unfair economic policies and practices.”
#4 Strengthen enforcement of US trade policy. For example, USTR sees enforcement “a key component of our worker-centered trade policy.” USTR is “upholding the eligibility requirements in preference programs,” such as the African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA). As many enforcement tools were “were crafted decades ago,” USTR will be “reviewing our existing trade tools and working with Congress to develop new tools as needed.”
The session intends to facilitate constructive dialogue regarding the latest progress, challenges, and opportunities for achieving more sustainable and socially responsible apparel sourcing in the Post-COVID world. The session will offer a unique opportunity to hear directly from leading fashion brands and retailers regarding 1) fashion companies’ latest sourcing practices against the evolving business environment and their impacts on due diligence; 2) fashion companies’ new efforts and innovative projects to achieve more sustainable and socially responsible apparel sourcing; 3) opportunities and challenges to further improve sustainability and social responsibility in apparel sourcing in the post-COVID world. In addition, the session will be highly relevant and informative to all stakeholders in the fashion apparel business community, civil society, international organizations, academia, and policymakers.
This study aims to understand western fashion brands and retailers’ latest China apparel sourcing strategies against the evolving business environment. We conducted a content analysis of about 30 leading fashion companies’ public corporate filings (i.e., annual or quarterly financial reports and earnings call transcripts) submitted from June 1, 2022 to December 31, 2022.
The results suggest several themes:
First, China remains one of the most frequently used apparel sourcing destinations. For example:
Express says, “The top five countries from which we sourced our merchandise in 2021 were Vietnam, China, Indonesia, Bangladesh and the Philippines, based on total cost of merchandise purchased.”
According to TJX, “a significant amount of merchandise we offer for sale is made in China.”
Children’s Place says, “We source from a diversified network of vendors, purchasing primarily from Vietnam, Cambodia, Indonesia, Ethiopia, Bangladesh, and China.“
Ralph Lauren adds, “In Fiscal 2022, approximately 97% of our products (by dollar value) were produced outside of the US, primarily in Asia, Europe, and Latin America, with approximately 19% of our products sourced from China and another 19% from Vietnam.
However, many fashion companies have significantly cut their apparel sourcing volume from China. More often, China is no longer the No.1 apparel sourcing destination, overtaken by China’s competitors in Asia, such as Vietnam.
According to Lululemon, “During 2021, approximately 40% of our products were manufactured in Vietnam, 17% in Cambodia, 11% in Sri Lanka, 7% in China (PRC), including 2% in Taiwan, and the remainder in other regions… From a sourcing perspective, when looking at finished goods for the upcoming 2022 fall season, Mainland China represents only 4% to 6% of our total unit volume.”
Levi’s says, “The good thing about our supply chain is we’ve got truly a global footprint. We don’t manufacture a whole lot in China anymore. We’ve been slowly divesting manufacturing out of China, if you will, and kind of playing our chips elsewhere on the global map… Less than 1% of what we’re bringing into this country, into the US, less than 1% of it is coming from China.”
Adidas says, “In 2021, we sourced 91% of the total apparel volume from Asia (2020: 93%). Cambodia is the largest sourcing country, representing 21% of the produced volume (2020: 22%), followed by China with 20% (2020: 20%) and Vietnam with 15% (2020: 21%).”
Victoria’s Secret says, “On China, China is a single-digit percentage of our total inflow of merchandise. We’re not particularly dependent on China at all.”
Nike: “As of May 31, 2022, we were supplied by 279 finished goods apparel contract factories located in 33 countries. For fiscal 2022, contract factories in Vietnam, China and Cambodia manufactured approximately 26%, 20% and 16% of total NIKE Brand apparel, respectively“
Meanwhile, fashion companies still heavily use China as a sourcing base for textile raw materials (such as fabrics). For example:
Columbia Sportswear says it sources most of its finished products from Vietnam, but “a large portion of the raw materials used in our products is sourced by our contract manufacturers in China.”
Likewise, Puma says, “90% of our recycled polyester comes from Vietnam, China, Taiwan (China) and Korea.”
Guess says, “During fiscal 2022, we sourced most of our finished products with partners and suppliers outside the U.S. and we continued to design and purchase fabrics globally, with most coming from China.”
Lulumemon says, “Approximately 48% of the fabric used in our products originated from Taiwan, 19% from China Mainland, 11% from Sri Lanka, and the remainder from other regions.”
Second, Western fashion companies unanimously ranked the COVID situation as one of their top concerns for China. Many companies reported significant sales revenue and profits loss due to China’s draconian “zero-COVID” policy and lockdown measures. For example,
Tapestry says, “For Greater China, sales declined 11% due to lockdowns and business disruption… as a result, we have tempered our fiscal year 2023 outlook based on the expectation for a delayed recovery in China.”
Adidas says, “With Great China… we continue to see several market-specific challenges that are affecting our entire industry. The strict zero COVID-19 policy with nationwide restrictions remains in place amid more than 2000 daily new COVID-19 cases in November. As a consequence, offline traffic is subdued due to the imminent risk of new lockdowns.
Under Armour says, “Ongoing impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic and related preventative and protective actions in China…have negatively impacted consumer traffic and demand and may continue to negatively impact our financial results.”
VF Corporation says, “The performance in Greater China…continues to be impacted by widespread rolling COVID lockdowns and restrictions as well as lower consumer spending.”
Puma says, “COVID-19-related restrictions are still impacting business in Greater China, and higher freight rates and raw material prices continue to put pressure on margins.”
Notably, despite China’s most recent COVID policy U-turn, most fashion companies expect market uncertainties to stay in China, at least in the short run, given the surging COVID cases and policy unpredictability. For example:
PVH says, “While we remain optimistic about our business in China, it continues to be a challenging environment as restrictions have once again intensified in the fourth quarter of 2022.”
Nike says, “So we’ve taken a very cautious approach in our guidance to China, given the short-term uncertainties that are there.”
Abercrombie & Fitch also listed China’s COVID situation as one of their top risk factors, “risks and uncertainty related to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, including lockdowns in China, and any other adverse public health developments.”
Third, fashion companies report the negative impacts of US-China trade tensions on their businesses. Also, as the US-China relationship sours, fashion bands and retailers have been actively watching the potential effect of geopolitics. For example,
Express says, “recent geopolitical conditions, including impacts from the ongoing conflict between Russia and Ukraine and increased tensions between China and Taiwan, have all contributed to disruptions and rising costs to global supply chains.”
When assessing the market risk factors, Chico’s FAS says, “our reliance on sourcing from foreign suppliers and significant adverse economic, labor, political or other shifts (including adverse changes in tariffs, taxes or other import regulations, particularly with respect to China, or legislation prohibiting certain imports from China)”
Adidas holds the same view, “In addition, the challenging market environment in China had an adverse impact on the company’s business activities… Additional challenges included the geopolitical situation in China and extended lockdown measures.”
Macy’s adds, “At this time, it is unknown how long US tariffs on Chinese goods will remain in effect or whether additional tariffs will be imposed. Depending upon their duration and implementation, as well as our ability to mitigate their impact, these changes in foreign trade policy and any recently enacted, proposed and future tariffs on products imported by us from China could negatively impact our business, results of operations and liquidity if they seriously disrupt the movement of products through our supply chain or increase their cost.”
Gap Inc. says, “Trade matters may disrupt our supply chain. For example, the current political landscape, including with respect to U.S.-China relations, and recent tariffs and bans imposed by the United States and other countries (such as the Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act) has introduced greater uncertainty with respect to future tax and trade regulations.”
QVC says, “The imposition of any new US tariffs or other restrictions on Chinese imports or the taking of other actions against China in the future, and any responses by China, could impair our ability to meet customer demand and could result in lost sales or an increase in our cost of merchandise, which would have a material adverse impact on our business and results of operations.”
Additionally,NO evidence shows that fashion companies are decoupling with China. Instead, Western fashion companies, especially those with a global presence, still hold an optimistic view of China as a long-term business opportunity. For example:
Inditex, which owns Zara, says, “we remain absolutely confident about our opportunities there (in China) in the medium to long term. Fashion demand continues to be strong in China. For sure it will remain a core market for us for Inditex.”
Ralph Lauren says, “China provides not only the successful blueprint for our elevated ecosystem strategy globally, it also represents one of several geographic long-term opportunities for our brand…We continue to see near and long term brand opportunities in China.”
Lululemon says, “On China, we remain very excited…we remain very, very excited about the potential and the role that will play in quadrupling our international business with Mainland China.”
Nike says, “We have remained committed to investing in Greater China for the long term.”
Adidas says, “On China, clearly, we believe in as a midterm opportunity in China… And then when the market opens up (from COVID), we believe, the western brand is well-positioned in China again, and we can start growing significant in China again.”
Meanwhile, Western fashion companies plan to make more efforts to localize their product offer and cater to the specific needs of Chinese consumers, especially the young generation. The “Made in China for China” strategy could become more popular among Western fashion companies. For example,
PVH says, “So, I think in general, our production in China is heavily oriented to China for China production. I think for us generally speaking, the biggest impact of the shutdowns that we’ve seen across Shanghai and Beijing has really been focused on the impact to our China market.”
Likewise, Levi’s says, “We’re manufacturing somewhere in the neighborhood of 5% of our global production is in China, and most of it staying in China.“
Hanesbrands says, “we’re committed to opening new stores, and that’s continues to go well, despite, the challenges that are there. Looking specifically at Champion, we continued our expansion in China adding new stores in the quarter through our partners.”
H&M says, “we still see China as an important market for us.”
According to Hugo Boss, “Thanks to overall robust local demand, revenues in China in 2021 grew 24% as compared to 2019.”
VF Corporation adds, “China is a significant opportunity…(We are) really pushing decision-making into the regions and providing more and more latitude for local-for-local decision-makings around product, around storytelling, certainly staying within the confines or the framework of the brand strategy, but really giving more freedom and more empowerment to the regions.”
This article provided a comprehensive review of the world textiles and clothing trade patterns in 2021 based on the newly released data from the World Trade Statistical Review 2022 and the United Nations (UNComtrade). Affected by the ongoing pandemic and companies’ evolving production and sourcing strategies in response to the shifting business environment, the world textiles and clothing trade patterns in 2021 included both continuities and new trends. Specifically:
Pattern #1: As the world economy recovered from COVID, the world clothing export boomed in 2021, while the world textile exports grew much slower due to a high trade volume the year before. Specifically, thanks to consumers’ strong demand, world clothing exports in 2021 fully bounced back to the pre-COVID level and exceeded $548.8bn, a substantial increase of 21.9% from 2020. The apparel sector is not alone. With economic activities mostly resumed, the world merchandise trade in 2021 also jumped 26.5% from a year ago, the fastest growth in decades.
In comparison, the value of world textiles exports grew slower at 7.8% in 2021 (i.e., reached $354.2bn), lagging behind most sectors. However, such a pattern was understandable as the textile trade maintained a high level in 2020, driven by high demand for personal protective equipment (PPE) during the pandemic.
Nevertheless, the world textiles and clothing trade could face strong headwinds down the road due to a slowing world economy and consumers’ weakened demand. Notably, amid hiking inflation, high energy costs, and retrenchment of global supply chains, leading international economic agencies, from the World Bank to the International Monetary Fund (IMF), unanimously predict a slowing economy worldwide. Likewise, the World Trade Organization (WTO) forecasts that the growth of world merchandise trade will be cut to 3.5% in 2022 and down further to only 1% in 2023. As a result, the world textiles and clothing trade will likely struggle with stagnant growth or a modest decline over the next two years.
Pattern #2: COVID did NOT fundamentally shift the competitive landscape of textile exports but affected the export product structure. Meanwhile, some long-term structural changes in world textile exports continued in 2021.
Specifically, China, the European Union (EU), and India remained the world’s three largest textile exporters in 2021, a pattern that has stayed stable for over a decade. Together, these top three accounted for 68% of the world’s textile exports in 2021, similar to 66.9% before the pandemic (2018-2019). Other textile exporters that made it to the top ten list in 2021 were also the same as a year ago and before the pandemic (2018-2019).
Meanwhile, the growth rate of the top ten textile exporters varied significantly in 2021, ranging from -5.5% (China) to 47.8% (India). The demand shift from PPE to apparel-related yarns and fabrics was a critical contributing factor behind the phenomenon. For example, China’s PPE-related textile exports decreased by more than $33bn (or down 43%) in 2021. In contrast, the world knit fabric exports (SITC code 655) surged by more than 30% in 2021, led by India (up 74%) and Pakistan (up 72%). Nevertheless, as consumers’ lifestyles almost reached a “new normal,” we could expect the textile export product structure to stabilize soon.
On the other hand, as a trend already emerged before the pandemic, middle-income developing countries continued to play a more significant role in textile exports, whereas developed countries lost market shares. For example, the United States, Germany, and Italy led the world’s textile exports in the 2000s, accounting for more than 20% of the market shares. However, these three countries’ shares fell to 12.8% in 2019 and hit a new low of 11.3% in 2021. In comparison, middle-income developing countries like China, Vietnam, Turkey, and India have entered the development stage of expanding textile manufacturing. As a result, their market share in the world’s textile exports rose steadily. These countries also achieved a more balanced textiles/clothing export ratio over the years, meaning more textile raw materials like yarns and fabrics can be locally produced instead of relying on imports. For example, Vietnam, known for its competitive clothing products, achieved a new high of $11.5bn in textile exports in 2021 and ranked sixth globally. Vietnam’s textiles/clothing ratio also doubled from 0.15 in 2005 to 0.37 in 2021. It is not unlikely that Vietnam’s textile exports may surpass the United States over the next few years.
Pattern #3: Countries with large-scale production capacity stood out in world clothing exports in 2021. Meanwhile, clothing exporters compete to become China’s alternatives, but there seems to be no clear winner yet.
Consumers’ surging demand and COVID-related supply chain disruptions significantly impacted the world’s clothing export patterns in 2021. As fashion brands and retailers were eager to find sourcing capacity, countries with large-scale production capacity and relatively stable supply enjoyed the fastest growth in clothing exports. For example, except for Vietnam, which suffered several months of COVID lockdowns, all other top five clothing exporters enjoyed a more than 20% growth of their exports in 2021, such as China (up 24%), Bangladesh (up 30%), Turkey (up 22%), and India (up 24%).
As another critical trend, many international fashion brands and retailers have been trying to reduce their apparel sourcing from China, driven by various economic and non-economic factors, from cost considerations and trade tensions to geopolitics. Notably, despite its strong performance in 2021, China accounted for only 23.1% of US apparel imports in 2022 (January to September), much lower than 36.2% in 2015. Likewise, China’s market shares in the EU, Japanese, and Canadian clothing import markets also fell over the same period, suggesting this was a worldwide phenomenon.
With reduced apparel sourcing from China, fashion companies have actively sought alternative sourcing destinations, but the latest trade data suggests no clear winner yet. For example, Vietnam and Bangladesh, the two most popular candidates for “Next China,” accounted for 6.5% and 5.7% shares in the world’s clothing export in 2021, still far behind China (32.1%). Interestingly, from 2015 to 2021, the world’s top four largest clothing exporters next to China (i.e., Bangladesh, Vietnam, Turkey, and India) did not substantially gain new market shares. Instead, China’s lost market was filled by “the rest of the world.”
Additionally, recent studies show that many fashion companies have switched back to the sourcing diversification strategy in 2022 as managing risks and improving sourcing flexibility become more urgent priorities. In other words, the world’s clothing export market could turn more “crowded” and competitive in the coming years.
Pattern #4: Regional supply chains remain critical features of the world textiles and clothing trade. Several factors support and shape the regional textiles and clothing trade patterns. First, as clothing production often needs to be close to where textile materials are available, many developing clothing-producing countries rely heavily on imported textile materials, primarily from more advanced economies in the same region. Second, through lowered trade barriers, regional free trade agreements also financially encouraged garment producers, particularly in Asia, the EU, and Western Hemisphere (WH), to use locally or regionally made textile materials. Further, fashion companies’ interest in “near-shoring” supported the regional supply chain, and related textiles and clothing trade flows between neighboring countries.
The latest trade data indicated that Asia’s regional textiles and clothing trade patterns strengthened further despite supply chain chaos during the pandemic. Specifically, in 2021, as many as 82% of Asian countries’ textile imports came from within Asia, up from 80% in 2015. China, in particular, has played a more prominent role as a leading textile supplier for other Asian clothing-exporting countries. For example, more than 60% of Vietnam’s textile imports came from China in 2021, a substantial increase from 23% in 2005. The same pattern applied to Pakistan, Cambodia, Bangladesh, and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) members.
In January 2022, the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), a mega free trade agreement involving all major economies in Asia, entered into force. The tariff cut and very liberal rules of origin of the agreement will hopefully drive Asia’s booming regional textiles and clothing trade and further deepen its regional economic integration.
Besides Asia, the regional textiles and clothing trade pattern in the EU (or the so-called Intra-EU trade) was also in good shape. In 2021, 50.8% of EU countries’ textile imports and 37% of clothing imports came from other EU members. This pattern has changed little over the past decade, thanks to many EU countries’ commitment to maintaining local textiles and clothing production rather than outsourcing.
In comparison, the Western Hemisphere (WH) textile and apparel supply chain (e.g., clothing made in Mexico or Central America using US or regionally made textiles) seemed to struggle in recent years. As of 2021, only 20% of WH countries’ textile imports came from within WH, down from 26% in 2015. Likewise, WH countries (mainly the US and Canada) just imported 14.6% of clothing from WH in 2021, down from 15.3% in 2015 and much lower than their EU counterparts (37% in 2021). It will be interesting to see whether US and Canadian fashion companies’ expressed interest in expanding near-shoring may reverse the course.
Furthermore, the regional textiles and clothing trade patterns in Sub-Saharan Africa (SSA) are also worth watching. Compared with Asia and the EU, SSA clothing producers used much fewer locally-made textiles (i.e., stagnant at around 11% only from 2011 to 2021), reflecting the region’s lack of textile manufacturing capability. Most trade programs with SSA countries, such as the US-led African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA) and EU’s Everything But Arms (EBA) program, adopt liberal rules of origin for clothing products, allowing third-party textile input to be used. It can be studied whether such liberal rules of origin somehow disincentivize building SSA’s own textile manufacturing sector or are still essential given the reality of SSA’s limited textile production capacity.
The full interview, conducted by Modaes’ Editor-in-Chief, Iria P. Gestal, is available HERE (in Spanish). Below is an abridged translation.
Question: Fashion brands have reduced their exposure to China markedly in recent years. What has been the turning point?
Sheng: We could interpret fashion companies’ decisions in the context of their overall sourcing diversification strategy. Many companies want to diversify their sourcing base because of the ever-uncertain business environment, ranging from the continuation of the supply chain disruptions, and the Russia-Ukraine war, to the rising geopolitical tensions. As China is one of the largest sourcing bases for many fashion companies, reducing “China exposure” is unavoidable.
Question: Isn’t there a specific concern about sourcing from China?
Sheng: Definitely! The Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act (UFLPA), officially implemented in the summer of 2022, is a big deal. For example, back in 2017, around 30% of US cotton apparel came from China. However, because of the new law and concerns about the risk of forced labor, China’s market shares fell to only 10% as of August 2022. One well-known US brand selling jean products cut their sourcing from China to just 1% of the total.
Question: Is it possible that the apparel sector as a whole reaches that point?
Sheng: Whether we like it or not, it is still unlikely to get rid of China from the supply chain entirely in the short to medium terms. Notably, China continues to play a significant role as a supplier of raw textile materials, particularly for leading apparel-exporting countries in Asia like Vietnam, Bangladesh, and Cambodia. Diversifying textile raw materials sourcing will be a longer and more complicated process.
Question: Is the “China Plus One” strategy no longer enough?
Sheng: The “China Plus One” strategy does not necessarily mean companies only source from “two” countries. Instead, the phrase refers to companies’ sourcing diversification strategy, trying to avoid “putting all eggs in one basket.” However, neither is the case that fashion companies blindly source from more countries today. Notably, many companies attempt to leverage a stronger relationship with key vendors to mitigate sourcing risks and achieve more sourcing flexibility and agility. For example, fashion companies increasingly tend to work with the so-called “super vendors,” i.e., those with multiple country presence and vertical manufacturing capabilities.
Question: Some politicians have said that the war in Russia has been the “geopolitical awakening” of Europe. Has the same thing happened in fashion?
Sheng: Indeed! We say fashion is a “global sector” because companies “produce anywhere in the world and SELL anywhere in the world.” However, many fashion brands and retailers have had to leave Russia due to the war and geopolitics. The same could apply to China—for example, China’s zero-COVID policy has posed a dilemma for western fashion companies operating there—whether to stay or leave the country, which used to be regarded as one of the fastest-growing emerging consumer markets. Likewise, more and more fashion companies have chosen to develop “dual supply chains” in response to the geopolitical tensions between China and the West—“made in China for China” and “made elsewhere for the rest of the world/Western market.” However, we must admit that this is not an ideal way to optimize the global supply chain.
Question: Has the apparel sector been “naïve” until now, ignoring these risks?
Sheng: I do not think so. In fact, most fashion companies and their leaders closely watch world affairs. As I recall, some visionary companies started evaluating geopolitics’ supply chain implications last year. Indeed, a peaceful world with few trade barriers is an ideal business environment for fashion companies. Unfortunately, there are too many “black swans” to worry about these days. As another example, “friend-shoring,” meaning only trading with allies or “like-minded” countries, becomes increasingly popular today. This phenomenon is also the result of geopolitics. With the looming of a new cold war (or the winter is already here), fashion companies may need to use imagination and prepare for the “worst scenarios” to come.
Question: Is a textile and apparel supply without China a more expensive one?
Sheng: It depends on how to look at it. The most challenging part of “reducing China exposure” is the textile raw materials. But we could think outside the box. For example, my recent studies show that China is NOT the top supplier of clothing made from recycled textile materials. Instead, fashion companies are more likely to source such products locally from the US or EU, or Africa—like Jordan, Tunisia, and Morocco, because of the unique supply chain composition. In other words, sourcing more clothing made from recycled textile materials may help fashion companies achieve several long-awaited goals, such as diversifying sourcing base, expanding nearshoring, and reducing sourcing costs.
U.S. fashion companies report significant challenges coming from the macro-economy in 2022, particularly inflation and rising cost pressures. However, most respondents still feel optimistic about the next five years.
Respondents rated “increasing production or sourcing costs” and “inflation and outlook of the U.S. economy” as their 1st and 3rd top business challenges in 2022.
As a new record, 100 percent of respondents expect their sourcing costs to increase in 2022, including nearly 40 percent expecting a substantial cost increase from a year ago. Further, almost everything has become more expensive this year, from textile raw materials, shipping, and labor to the costs associated with compliance with trade regulations.
Over 90 percent of respondents expect their sourcing value or volume to grow in 2022, but more modest than last year.
Despite the short-term challenges, most respondents (77 percent) feel optimistic or somewhat optimistic about the next five years. Reflecting companies’ confidence in their businesses, nearly ALL respondents (97 percent) plan to increase hiring over the next five years.
U.S. fashion companies adopt a more diverse sourcing base in response to supply chain disruptions and the need to mitigate growing sourcing risks.
Asia remains the dominant sourcing base for U.S. fashion companies—eight of the top ten most utilized sourcing destinations are Asia-based, led by China, Vietnam, Bangladesh, and India.
More than half of respondents (53 percent) report sourcing apparel from over ten countries in 2022, compared with only 37 percent in 2021.
Reducing “China exposure” is one crucial driver of U.S. fashion companies’ sourcing diversification strategy. One-third of respondents report sourcing less than 10% of their apparel products from China this year. In addition, a new record of 50 percent of respondents sources MORE from Vietnam than China in 2022.
Nearly 40 percent of respondents plan to “source from more countries and work with more suppliers” over the next two years, up from only 17 percent last year.
Managing the risk of forced labor in the supply chain is a top priority for U.S. fashion companies in 2022, especially with the new implementation of the Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act (UFLPA).
Over 95 percent of respondents expect UFLPA’s implementation to affect their company’s sourcing. Notably, more than 85 percent of respondents plan to cut their cotton-apparel imports from China, and another 45 percent to further reduce non-cotton apparel imports from the country.
Most respondents (over 92 percent) do NOT plan to reduce apparel sourcing from Asian countries other than China. However, nearly 60 percent of respondents also would “explore new sourcing destinations outside Asia” in response to UFLPA.
Mapping and understanding the supply chain is a critical strategy adopted by U.S. fashion companies to address the forced labor risks in the supply chain. Almost all respondents currently track Tier 1 and 2 suppliers. With the help of new traceability technologies, 53 percent of respondents have started tracking Tier 3 suppliers this year (i.e., those manufacturing yarn, threads, and trimmings), a substantial increase from 25-36 percent in the past.
There is considerable new excitement about increasing apparel sourcing from members of the Dominican Republic-Central America Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA-DR). Respondents also call for more textile raw sourcing flexibility to encourage apparel sourcing from the CAFTA-DR region.
CAFTA-DR plays a more significant role as a sourcing base. About 20 percent of respondents place more than 10% of their sourcing orders from the region, doubling from 2021.
Over the next two years, more than 60 percent of respondents plan to increase apparel sourcing from CAFTA-DR members as part of their sourcing diversification strategy.
CAFTA-DR is critical in promoting U.S. apparel sourcing from the region. Around 80 percent of respondents took advantage of the agreement’s duty-free benefits when sourcing apparel from the region this year, up from 50—60 percent in the past.
Respondents say the exceptions to the “yarn-forward” rules of origin, such as the “short supply” and “cumulation” mechanisms, provide essential flexibility that encourages more apparel sourcing from CAFTA-DR members.
Respondents say improving textile raw material supply is critical to encouraging more U.S. apparel sourcing from CAFTA-DR members. Particularly, “allowing more flexibility in souring fabrics from outside CAFTA-DR” and “improving yarn production capacity and variety within CAFTA-DR” are the top two priorities.
U.S. fashion companies strongly support another ten-year renewal of the African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA). Meanwhile, Ethiopia’s loss of AGOA eligibility discourages U.S. apparel sourcing from the ENTIRE AGOA region.
As much as 75 percent of respondents say another ten-year AGOA renewal will encourage more apparel sourcing from the region and making investment commitments.
However, despite the tariff benefits and the liberal rules of origin, respondents express explicit concerns about the region’s lack of competitiveness in speed to market, political instability, and having an integrated regional supply chain.
Ethiopia’s loss of AGOA benefits had a notable negative impact on sourcing from the country AND the entire AGOA region. Notably, no respondent plans to move sourcing orders from Ethiopia to other AGOA beneficiaries.
The latest trade data shows that in the first four months of 2022, US apparel imports increased by 40.6% in value and 25.9% in quantity from a year ago. However, the seemingly robust import expansion is shadowed by the rising market uncertainties.
Uncertainty 1: US economy. As the US economic growth slows down, consumers have turned more cautious about discretionary spending on clothing to prioritize other necessities. Notably, in the first quarter of 2022, clothing accounted for only 3.9% of US consumers’ total expenditure, down from 4.3% in 2019 before the pandemic. Likewise, according to the Conference Board, US consumers’ confidence index (CCI) dropped to 106.4 (1985=100) in May 2022 from 113.8 in January 2022, confirming consumers’ increasing anxiety about their household’s financial outlook.
Removing the seasonal factor, US apparel imports in April 2022 went up 2.8% in quantity and 3.0% in value from March 2022, much lower than 9.3% and 11.9% a month ago (i.e., March 2022 vs. February 2022). The notable slowed import growth reflects the negative impact of inflation on US consumers’ clothing spending. According to the Census, the value of US clothing store sales marginally went up by 0.8% in April 2022 from a month ago, also the lowest so far in 2022.
Uncertainty 2: Worldwide inflation. Data from the Bureau of Economic Analysis shows that the price index of US apparel imports reached 103.1 in May 2022 (May 2020=100), up from 100.3 one year ago (i.e., a 2.8% price increase). At the product level (i.e., 6-digit HS Code, HS Chapters 61-62), over 60% of US apparel imports from leading sources such as China, Vietnam, Bangladesh, and CAFTA-DR experienced a price increase in the first quarter of 2022 compared with a year ago. The price surge of nearly 40% of products exceeded 10 percent. As almost everything, from shipping, textile raw materials, and labor to energy, continues to soar, the rising sourcing costs facing US fashion companies are not likely to ease anytime soon.
The deteriorating inflation also heats up the debate on whether to continue the US Section 301 tariff action against imports from China. Since implementing the punitive tariffs, US fashion companies have to pay around $1 billion in extra import duties every year, resulting in the average applied import tariff rate for dutiable apparel items reaching almost 19%. Although some e-commerce businesses took advantage of the so-called “de minimis” rule (i.e., imports valued at $800 or less by one person on a day are not required to pay tariffs), over 99.8% of dutiable US apparel imports still pay duties.
Uncertainty 3: “Made in China.” US apparel imports from China in April 2022 significantly dropped by 26.7% in quantity and 24.6% in value from March 2022 (seasonally adjusted). China’s market shares also fell to a new record low of 26.3% in quantity and 16.8% in value in April 2022. The zero-COVID policy and new lockdown undoubtedly was a critical factor contributing to the decline. Fashion companies’ concerns about the trajectory of the US-China relations and the upcoming implementation of the new Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act (UFLPA) are also relevant factors. For example, only 10.5% of US cotton apparel imports came from China in April 2022, a further decline from about 15% at the beginning of the year. Given the expected challenges of meeting the rebuttable presumption requirements in UFLPA and the high compliance costs, it is not unlikely that US fashion companies may continue to reduce their China exposure.
As US fashion companies source less from China, they primarily move their sourcing orders to China’s competitors in Asia. Measured in value, about 74.8% of US apparel imports came from Asia so far in 2022 (January-April), up from 72.8% a year ago. In comparison, there is no clear sign that more sourcing orders have been permanently moved to the Western Hemisphere. For example, in April 2022, CAFTA-DR members accounted for 9.3% of US apparel imports in quantity (was 10.8% in April 2021) and 10.2% in value (was 11.4% in April 2021).
Uncertainty 4: Shipping delays. Data suggests we are not out of the woods yet for shipping delays and supply chain disruptions. For example, as Table 2 shows, the seasonable pattern of US apparel imports in March 2022 is similar to January before the pandemic (2017-2020). In other words, many US fashion companies still face about 1.5-2 months of shipping delays. Additionally, several of China’s major ports were under strict COVID lockdowns starting in late March, including Shanghai, the world’s largest. Thus, the worsened supply chain disruptions could negatively affect the US apparel import volumes in the coming months.
Event summary by Mariel Abano (FASH455 student, Spring 2022)
COVID-19 and other external shocks such as the Ukraine-Russia war shifted the fashion supply chain from its conventional low-cost model. In response to the changes, brands and companies focus on flexibility, strengthening their relationships with suppliers, and sustainability.
Regarding the pandemic’s impacts on the apparel supply chain, fashion brands need to be more future-oriented to better prepare for unexpected market shocks that may come up in the fluctuating world. Flexibility within their merchandising teams allowed Neiman Marcus to pivot during the pandemic and market differently within the context of the pandemic. The company explored new ways to connect with its consumers via digital platforms as many physical stores closed. However, fashion companies need to be flexible enough to respond to the increasing demand from its growing e-commerce platform. This is not always easy to happen.
Likewise, Reformation tries its best to predict demand, build supply chain capacity, and manage lead time during COVID-19. Their manufacturing chains within the U.S. and vertical integration helped them respond quickly to supply chain disruptions. As a result, the company pivoted quickly to athleisure even though its brand is typically known for its event-wear dresses.
Meanwhile, when evaluating their supply chain, Amanda Martin explains that Neiman Marcusprioritizes labor, speed, and cost. With this, there is a balance between investment of capital and resources and mitigating costs like surging fuel prices.
The relationship with vendors also matters during the pandemic. For example, Neiman Marcus’s relationships with its vendors built over the years allowed the company to move more quickly from ocean to air shipping during the pandemic. In the discussion, Amanda Martin explained why the relationship between retailers/brands and manufacturers needs to help both sides grow and benefit. Likewise, Reformation also focuses on people and their relationships with their suppliers during the pandemic. Kathleen Talbot emphasizes that brand-supplier relationships are evolving. Fostering two-way conversations is key to moving away from the previous model that prioritized the needs and wants of the brand over the manufacturer.
Sustainability is NOT ignored during the pandemic. For example, fashion companies increasingly use technology and process management to take accountability for supply chains and improve traceability. In terms of environmental impact, there are more applications within sourcing emphasizing recycled and renewable materials. For example, Reformation recently launched a new circularity initiative that focuses on extending a product’s lifetime and then recycling that back into the system. When creating new styles, the company started from sustainable fibers. Further, they hope to shift transportation from air to other means to minimize their carbon footprint.
Question #2: Primark sources from 28 countries work with around 928 contracted factories. What are the pros and cons of using such a diverse sourcing base?
Question #3: Near-shoring, meaning bringing manufacturing closer to home, is growing in popularity. Does it mean globalization is “in retreat”? What is your view?
Question #4: In the current state of the fashion industry, ethical labor laws are really important, especially to consumers. For example, activists are protesting Pretty Little Thing in London to protest the low wages paid to garment workers at the factories that Pretty Little Thing sources from. With this in mind, do you think that it would be wise for Primark to look for sourcing opportunities outside of Asia? Or do you believe Primark’s Ethical Trade and Environmental Sustainability team is sufficient to ensure ethical and sustainable sourcing?
Question #5: As of May 2021, Primark has the most workers in its Asian factories. Should we still call Primark an EU company? Does a company’s national identity still matter in today’s globalized world?
(Welcome to our online discussion. For students in FASH455, please address at least two questions and mention the question number (#) in your reply)
According to the video, how has the supply chain for apparel and footwear changed over the past decade?
What are the pros and cons of moving from a global supply chain to a regional one for fashion companies?
For fashion companies interested in “near-shoring” and “re-shoring”, what factors should they consider? Why?
Anything else you find interesting/intriguing/thought-provoking/debatable in the video? Why?
Note: Everyone is welcome to join our online discussion. For students in FASH455, please address at least two questions. Please mention the question number # (no need to repeat the question) in your comment.
As “COVID sets the agenda” and the trajectory of several critical market and non-market forces hard to predict (for example, global inflation, and geopolitics), fashion companies may still have to deal with a highly volatile and uncertain market environment in 2022. That being said, it is still hopeful that fashion companies’ toughest sourcing challenges in 2021 will start to gradually ease at some point in the new year, including the hiking shipping costs, COVID-related lockdowns, and supply chain disruptions.
In response to the “new normal,” fashion companies may find several sourcing strategies essential:
One is to maintain a relatively diverse apparel sourcing base. The latest trade data suggests that US, EU, and Japan-based fashion companies have been steadily sourcing from a more diverse group of countries since 2018, and such a trend continues during the pandemic. Echoing the pattern, in the latest annual benchmarking study I conducted in collaboration with the United States Fashion Industry Association (USFIA), we find that “China plus Vietnam plus many” remains the most popular sourcing model among respondents. This strategy means China and Vietnam combined now typically account for 20-40 percent of a fashion company’s total sourcing value or volume, a notable down from 40-60 percent in the past few years. Fashion companies diversify their sourcing away from “China plus Vietnam” to avoid placing “all eggs in one basket” and mitigate various sourcing risks. In addition, more than 85 percent of surveyed fashion companies say they will actively explore new sourcing opportunities through 2023, particularly those that could serve as alternatives to sourcing from China.
The second strategy is to strengthen the relationship with key vendors further. As apparel is a buyer-driven industry, fashion brands and retailers fully understand the importance of catering to consumers’ needs. However, the supply chain disruptions caused by COVID-19 remind fashion companies that building a close and partner-based relationship with capable suppliers also matters. For example, working with vendors that have a presence in multiple countries (or known as “super-vendors”) offers fashion companies a critical competitive edge to achieve more flexibility and agility in sourcing. Sourcing from vendors with a vertical manufacturing capability also allows fashion companies to be more resilient toward supply chain disruptions like the shortage of textile raw materials, a significant problem during the pandemic.
Further, we could see fashion companies pay even closer attention to textile raw material sourcing in the year ahead. On the one hand, given the growing concerns about various social and environmental compliance issues like forced labor, fashion brands and retailers are making more significant efforts to better understand their entire supply chain. For example, in addition to tracking who made the clothing or the fabrics (i.e., tier 1 & 2 suppliers), more companies have begun to release information about the sources of their fibers, yarns, threads, and trimmings (i.e., tier 3 & tier 4 suppliers). On the other hand, many fashion brands and retailers intend to diversify their textile material sourcing from Asia, particularly China, against the current business environment. Compared with cutting and sewing garments, much fewer countries can make textiles locally, and it takes time to build textile production capacity. Thus, fashion companies interested in taking more control of their textile raw material sourcing need to take concrete actions such as shifting their sourcing model and making long-term investments intentionally.
Apparel industry challenges and opportunities
One key issue we need to watch closely is the US-China relations. China currently remains the single largest source of apparel globally, with no near alternative. China also plays an increasingly significant role as a textile supplier for many leading apparel exporting countries in Asia. However, as the US-China relations become more concerning and confrontational, we could anticipate new trade restrictions targeting Chinese products and products from any sources that contain components made in China. Notably, with strong bipartisan support, President Biden signed into law the Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act on December 23, 2021. The new law is a game-changer! Depending on the detailed implementation guideline to be developed by the Customs and Border Protection (CBP), US fashion companies may find it not operationally viable to source many textiles and apparel products from China. In response, China may retaliate against well-known western fashion brands, disrupting their sales expansion in the growing Chinese consumer market. Further, as China faces many daunting domestic economic and political challenges, a legitimate question for fashion companies to think about is what an unstable China means for their sourcing from the Asia-Pacific region and what the contingency plan will be.
Another critical issue to watch is the regional textile and apparel supply chains and related free trade agreements. While apparel is a global sector, apparel trade remains largely regional-based, i.e., countries import and export products with partners in the same region. Data shows that from 2019 to 2020, around 80% of Asian countries’ textile and apparel imports came from within Asia and about 50% for EU countries. Over the same period, over 87% of Western Hemisphere (WH) countries’ textile and apparel exports went to other WH countries and about 75% for EU countries.
Notably, the reaching and implementation of new free trade agreements will continue to alter and shape new regional textile and apparel supply chains in 2022 and beyond. For example, the world’s largest free trade agreement, the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), officially entered into force on January 1, 2022. The tariff reduction and the very liberal rules of origin in the agreement could strengthen Japan, South Korea, and China as the primary textile suppliers for the Asia-based regional supply chain and enlarge the role of ASEAN as the leading apparel producer. RCEP could also accelerate other trade agreements in the Asia-Pacific region, such as the China-South Korea-Japan Free Trade Agreement currently under negotiation.
As one of RCEP’s ripple effects, we can highly anticipate the Biden administration to announce its new Indo-pacific economic framework soon to counterbalance China’s influences in the region. The Biden administration also intends to leverage trade programs such as the Dominican Republic-Central America Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA-DR) to boost textile and apparel production, trade, and investment in the Western Hemisphere and address the root causes of migration. These trade initiatives will be highly relevant to fashion companies that could use the opportunity to expand near sourcing, take advantage of import duty-saving benefits and explore new supply chains.
Additionally, fashion companies need to be more vigilant toward political instability in their major sourcing destinations. We have already seen quite a turmoil recently, from Myanmar’s military coup, Ethiopia’s loss of the African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA) benefits, concerns about Haiti and Nicaragua’s human rights, and the alleged forced labor in China’s Xinjiang region. Whereas fashion brands and retailers have limited or no impact on changing a country’s broader human rights situation, the reputational risks could be very high. Having a dedicated trade compliance team monitoring the geopolitical situation routinely and ensuring full compliance with various government regulations will become mainstream among fashion companies.
And indeed, sustainability, due diligence, recycling, digitalization, and data analytics will remain buzzwords for the apparel industry in the year ahead.
Note: The video provides a great overview of Amazon’s supply chain strategies in response to the current shipping crisis and their broad industry implications. You will also learn how international shipping and logistics work today, including processes, technologies, innovations, and remaining challenges.
The latest industry estimates show that Amazon’s apparel and footwear sales in the U.S. grew by roughly 15% in 2020 to more than $41 billion, more than Walmart did. This represents a highly impressive 11%-12% share of all apparel sold in the U.S. and 34%-35% share of all apparel sold online. Amazon achieved early success by offering a wide range of basics, but it has since expanded its fashion business. It now features a growing slate of name brands. The company also launched online luxury fashion shops in the fall of 2019.
What are the unique features of Amazon’s supply chain strategies in response to the current shipping crisis? Do these strategies work well? What is your evaluation?
To what extent can other retailers emulate what Amazon is doing? Should they?
Should conventional fashion companies (such as Macy’s and Gap Inc) see Amazon as a competitor or a potential collaborator? Why?
Is there anything else you find interesting/intriguing/thought-provoking in the video? Why?
Shipping & logistics terms mentioned in the video:
TEU (Twenty-foot Equivalent Unit): TEU is a measure of volume in units of twenty-foot long containers. For example, large container ships are able to transport more than 18,000 TEU (a few can even carry more than 21,000 TEU). One 20-foot container equals one TEU.
FEU (Forty-foot Equivalent Unit): Two TEUs equal one FEU.
FCL (Full Container Load): This means that a shipment occupies the entire space of a container without having to share it with other shippers. In an FCL cargo, the complete goods in the container are owned by one shipper.
LCL (Less than Container Load): LCL describes the transportation of small ocean-freight shipments, which do not require the full capacity of a container.
ULD (Unit Load Device): A container used for baggage, cargo and mail on wide-body and narrow-body aircraft.
Freight Forwarder: An agency that receives freight from a shipper and arranges for transportation with one or more carriers to the final destination. While the forwarder does not always handle the freight itself, it contracts with other carriers to move goods via road, rail, ocean and air.
In December 2021, McKinsey & Co’ and Business of Fashion (BOF) released its annual State of Fashion report. Below are the key points in the report regarding the sourcing trends in the year ahead:
#1 The logistics challenges could intensify in 2022, with 87% of respondents expecting supply chain disruptions to continue to affect their profit margins in the year ahead negatively. The global surges in demand create additional and unpredictable pressures on freight services, ports, and terminals. As a result, fashion companies may need to “plan for a permanently more expensive logistical future.”
#2 It will be critical for fashion companies to keep sourcing flexible, build resilience into the supply chain, and work closely with vendors. As one respondent commented, “[crises like] pandemics do happen.”
#3 The interest in nearshoring and reshoring will continue in 2022. Over 70% of respondents plan to increase the share of nearshoring close to company headquarters, and about 25% intend to reshore sourcing to their headquarters’ country. Notably, some EU-based companies have been moving textile manufacturing from China to Turkey to minimize delays.
#4 One crucial free trade agreement to watch is the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), to take effect on January 1, 2022. It’s the largest free trade agreement in history, involving nearly 30% of the world’s population. RCEP “has the potential to be at the core of the reconstruction of the global supply chain. RCEP is possibly the only trading block with both production capacity and consumer demand,” meaning it could dramatically facilitate regional trade and investment within Asia.
#5 There is a “significant opportunities in creating a hyperdigital supply chain.” Some companies are leveraging technology to find“competitive advantages in a supply-chain context when it comes to speed, agility, cost efficiency, and price.” However, fashion companies admit, it will remain challenging to plan inventory flow with much precision, which won’t change any time soon.
Other interesting comments from the report:
“One mega trend…in the sector is the importance of breaking down the traditional boundaries of what’s in the company and [what is done externally]; what can be accomplished together as a network — whether it’s creativity, sustainability, and supply chain, or technology.”
“As fashion brands look to pursue closed-loop recycling solutions, it is increasingly important to engage with suppliers who can help them move toward sourcingcircular materials.” “Cost is certainly a factor; recycled fibres are typically more expensive than their virgin counterparts.”
“In the longer term, fashion brands will need to balance the desire to enhance speed to market with the need to alleviate supply chain pressure…That may mean streamlining production, logistics planning, and booking capabilities, as well as putting in place contingency plans and alternative suppliers while remaining as agile and flexible as possible.”
Regarding Levi’s “new normal” for apparel sourcing and supply chain management, what is Harmit Singh’s vision? Why or why not do you agree with him?
How could Levi’s digital transformation plans affect its sourcing practices?
What is your evaluation of Levi’s “tailor shop” program?
What is the rationale behind Levi’s “buy better and wear better” initiative?
What is a chief financial officer (CFO)’s role in helping Levi’s achieve its sustainability goals?
Anything else you find interesting/intriguing/new/inspiring from the video and why?
Levi Strauss & Co is a global apparel company rooted in the jeans category. Its brand portfolio consists of Levi’s brand, Levi’s Signature, Dockers, and Denizen. In 2020, Levi’s global sales exceeded $7.1 billion. The United States is Levi’s largest market, accounting for about 41% of its sales in 2020, followed by Mexico. As of June 2021, Levi’s sources its apparel products from around 350 factories located in about 30 countries.
Years before the pandemic, Levi Strauss has begun to reduce its reliance on wholesalers and instead expand its direct-to-consumer (DTC) business. In response to COVID-19, Levi Strauss has increased flexibility and resilience through diversification across geographies, categories, genders, and distribution channels. Levi’s is also well-known as a leader in sustainability, particularly reducing chemical and water use in products.
US fashion brands and apparel retailers face the challenge of running out of inventory amid the holiday season and the ongoing shipping crisis. Based on consultation with industry insiders and resources, we take a detailed look at which apparel products are more likely to be out of stock in the US retail market. Several patterns are noteworthy:
First, clothing products targeting the premium and mass market face more significant shortages than luxury or value apparel items in the US. Take clothing items in the premium market, for example. Of those apparel products newly launched to the US retail market from August 1 to November 1, 2021, nearly half of them were already out of stock as of November 10, 2021 (note: measured by SKUs). The increased demand from middle-class US consumers could be among the primary contributing factors.
Second, seasonal products and stable fashion items are more likely to be out of stock. For example, as we are already in the winter season, it is not surprising to see many swimwear products run out of stock. Meanwhile, it is interesting to see stable fashion products like hosiery and underwear also report a relatively high percentage of inventory shortage. The result could be the combined effects of consumers’ robust demand and the shipping delay.
Third, apparel products locally sourced from the US seem to have the lowest out-of-stock rate. Reflecting the shipping crisis, clothing items sourced from Bangladesh and India report a much higher out-of-stock rate. However, a substantial percentage of “made in the USA” apparel was in the category of “T-shirt”, implying switching to domestic sourcing often is not a viable option for US fashion brands and retailers.
Additionally, fast fashion retailers overall report a much lower out-of-stock rate than department stores and specialty clothing stores. This result showcases fast fashion retailers’ competitive advantages in supply chain management, which payoffs in the current challenging business environment.
On the other hand, the latest trade data suggests a notable increase in the price of US apparel imports. Notably, the unit price of US apparel imports from almost all leading sources went up by more than 10% from January 2021 to September 2021.
By leveraging theGlobalData Apparel Intelligence Center’s “Company Filing Analytics” tool, we took a detailed look at apparel companies’ latest efforts on addressing climate change. Specifically, we conducted a content analysis of annual and quarterly filings (e.g., 10-Q report and corporate annual report) submitted by over a hundred leading apparel companies worldwide from June 2020 to September 2021.
First, addressing climate change has become a more critical topic for apparel companies over the past five years. The percentage of apparel companies that mention “climate change” in their corporate filings nearly doubled from 43% in 2016 to 80% in 2020. Notably, different from the public perception, fast fashion brands like Inditex and H&M were among apparel companies that most frequently mentioned “climate change” in their corporate reports over that period.
Second, many apparel companies see their business risks associated with climate change growing. Results from GlobalData show that apparel companies are particularly concerned about potential supply chain disruption caused by climate change. Apparel companies are also concerned that climate change could increase their sourcing and production costs and hurt financials. As a leading fashion brand noted, “Disasters, climate change…may cause escalating prices or difficulty in procuring the raw materials (such as cotton, cashmere, down, etc.)”. Another added, “In the long term, the broader impacts of climate change may impact the cost and accessibility of materials used to manufacture products or other resources needed to operate business.”
Third, an increasing number of apparel companies have incorporated climate change into their corporate strategies or long-term business visions. Some apparel companies also established a dedicated office or governance structure to address climate change.
Further, apparel companies call for more detailed and transparent regulatory guidelines that can help them combat climate change. As one leading fashion brand commented, “Any assessment of the potential impact of future climate change legislation, regulations or industry standards, as well as any international treaties and accords, is uncertain given the wide scope of potential regulatory change in the countries in which we operate… As a result, the effects of climate change could have a long-term adverse impact on our business and the results of operations.”
In conclusion, addressing climate change is no longer a topic apparel companies can only ignore or treat as a marketing slogan. Instead, we are likely to see companies allocate more dedicated resources to this area in the long run, from human resources to research & development (R&D) spendings. Meanwhile, apparel companies may find it necessary and beneficial to effectively communicate their efforts and needs to address climate change with key stakeholders like consumers and public policymakers.
Julia Hughes, President, United States Fashion Industry Association
Matthias Knappe, Senior Officer and Program Manager for Cotton, Fibers and Textiles, International Trade Centre
Avedis Seferian, President & CEO, Worldwide Responsible Accredited Production (WRAP).
Anna Walker, Vice President of Public Policy, Levi’s Strauss Co.
Dr. Sheng Lu, Associate Professor, Department of Fashion & Apparel Studies, University of Delaware
Apparel is a $2.5 trillion global business, involving over 120 million workers worldwide and playing a uniquely critical role in the post-COVID economic recovery. The session intends to facilitate constructive dialogue regarding the progress, challenges, and opportunities of building a more sustainable and transparent apparel supply chain in the Post-COVID world, which matters significantly to ALL stakeholders, from fashion brands, garment workers, policymakers to ordinary consumers.
The panel shared their valuable insights about the impacts of COVID on the world apparel trade patterns and how to make the apparel supply chain more sustainable and transparent in the post-COVID world. Specifically:
First, panelists agree that COVID-19 has resulted in unpresented challenges for apparel sourcing and trade, from supply chain disruptions, cost increases to market uncertainties.
Second, despite the mounting challenges and financial pressures caused by COVID-19, the apparel industry as a whole is NOT ignoring sustainability and social responsibility. Some leading fashion brands and retailers allocate more resources to strengthen their relationships with key vendors during the pandemic. The shifting business environment and the adoption of digital technologies also allow apparel companies to explore new business models and achieve more sustainable and socially responsible apparel production and trade.
Third, the apparel industry is attaching greater importance to supply chain transparency. Today, fashion brands and retailers typically track their tier 1 and tier 2 suppliers. A growing number of companies also start to understand who is making the textile raw materials (i.e., fibers and yarns). To improve supply chain transparency further, panelists suggest more traceability technologies, building trust between importers and suppliers and creating a clearer regulatory framework. Trade policy can also have a crucial role to play in the process.
Recently, VF Corporation, one of the most historical and largest US apparel corporations, released the entire supply chain of its 20 popular apparel items, such as Authentic Chino Stretch, Men’s Merino Long Sleeve Crewe, and Women’s Down Sierra Parka. VF Corporation used 326 factories worldwide to make these apparel items and related textile raw materials. We conducted a statistical analysis of these factories, focusing on exploring their geographic locations, production features, and related factors. The results help us gain new insights into VF Corporation’s supply chain strategy and offer a unique firm-level perspective to understand China’s outlook as a textile and apparel sourcing base for US fashion companies. Specifically:
First, China remains the single largest sourcing base across VF Corporation’s entire textile and apparel supply chain. Specifically, as many as 113 (or 35%) of the total 326 factories used by VF Corporation are China-based, far exceeding any other country or region. Besides China, VF Corporation sourced products from the US (42), Taiwan (31), South Korea (16), Mexico (13), Honduras (12), Vietnam (11), Indonesia (8), as well as a few EU countries, such as Germany, Czech Republic, and France.
Notably, thanks to its unparalleled production capacity, China also offered the most variety of textiles and apparel among all suppliers. Chinese factories supplied products ranging from chemicals, yarns, fibers, trims, threads, labels, packing materials to finished garments. In comparison, most other countries or regions serve a narrower role in VF Corporation’s supply chain. For example, 65% of US-based factories supplied yarns, threads, trims, and fabrics; 80% of Taiwan-based factories supplied trims, fabrics, and zippers; and VF Corporation used most factories from Vietnam, Mexico, Honduras, and Indonesia to cut and sew garments only.
Second, VF Corporation is more likely to source from China when a higher percentage of the production processes across the apparel supply chain happens in Asia. For example, VF did not use any Chinese textile and apparel factory for its Williamson Dickies’s Original 874® Work Pant. Instead, Williamson Dickies’s supply chain was primarily based in the Western Hemisphere, involving the US (yarns, trims, and fabric suppliers), Mexico (fabric suppliers and garment manufacturers), Honduras (garment manufacturers), and Nicaragua (garment manufacturers).
In comparison, VF used China-made textiles for Napapijri’s Parka Coat Celsius. Nearly 83% of this product’s production processes also happened in the Asia region, such as Taiwan (fabrics, zippers, plastic suppliers), Hong Kong (trim suppliers), and Vietnam (garment manufacturers). This pattern reflects China’s deep involvement and central role in the Asia-based regional textile and apparel production network. We may also expect such an Asia-based regional supply chain to become more economically integrated and efficient after implementing the Regional Comprehensive and Economic Partnership (RCEP) and other regional trade facilitation initiatives in the next few years.
Third, reflecting the evolving nature of China’s textile and apparel industry, the result shows that VF Corporation is more likely to use China as a supplier of textile intermediaries than the finished garment. Due to various reasons, from the US Section 301 tariffs to the wage increases, China already plays a less significant role as a garment supplier for VF Corporation, accounting for just around 10% of the company’s tier 1 suppliers. This result is highly consistent with the official trade statistics—measured by value, only 23.7% of US apparel imports came from China in 2020, a new record low over the past decade.
Fourth, interesting enough, the results indicate that when an apparel item involves more production stages or needs a greater variety of inputs, it will reduce VF Corporation’s likelihood of sourcing from China. For example, the supply chain of Icebreaker’s Men’s Merino 200 Oasis Long Sleeve Crewe included five different processes (e.g., wool fiber, wool yarn, and finished garments). VF Corporation used around 21 various factories and facilities across the supply chain, of which 57.1% were China-based. In comparison, North Face’s Women’s Denali 2 Jacket included around 21 different processes (e.g., polyester yarn, nylon yarn, tape, zipper, trim, polyester interlining, thread, eyelet, label, and finished products). The supply chain included around 24 various factories and facilities, of which only 16.7% were China-based. One possible contributing factor behind this phenomenon is the cost of moving intermediaries across China’s borders. Sourcing from China seems to be disadvantaged by the relatively high trade barriers and a lack of free trade agreements with key trading partners, especially when some components in the supply chain need to come from outside the Asia region, such as the Western Hemisphere and the EU.
Additionally, NO clear evidence suggests that pricing and environmental and social compliance significantly affect VF Corporation’s decision to source from China. For example, the apparel items using either China-made textile raw material or cut and sew in China had a wide price range in the retail market, from as little as $26 to as much as $740. The retail price of those apparel cut and sew in China ranged from $56 to $86, which was neither exceptionally high nor low (i.e., no particular pattern).
Meanwhile, according to VF Corporation, around 61.9% of its China-based factories across the apparel supply chain had received at least one type of “environmental & chemical management certification.” This record was on par with non-Chinese factories (64.8%). Likewise, around 29.0% of China-based tier 1 & tier 2 factories had received one type of “Health, Safety and Social Responsibility Certification(s),” similar to 22.5% of non-Chinese factories. Overall, how US fashion companies like VF Corporation factored in pricing, environmental, and social compliance in their sourcing decisions need to be explored further.
#1 COVID-19 continues to substantially affect U.S. fashion companies’ sourcing and business operations in 2021
Recovery is happening: Most respondents expect their business to grow in 2021. Around 76 percent foresee their sourcing value or volume to increase from 2020. Around 60 percent of respondents expect a full recovery of their sourcing value or volume to the pre-COVID level by 2022.
Uncertainties remain: Still, 27 percent find it hard to tell when a full recovery will happen. About 20 percent of respondents still expect 2021 to be a very challenging year financially.
U.S. fashion companies’ worries about COVID still concentrate on the supply side, including driving up production and sourcing costs and causing shipping delays and supply chain disruptions. U.S. fashion companies’ COVID response strategies include strengthening relationships with key vendors, emphasizing sourcing agility and flexibility, and leveraging digital technologies. In comparison, few respondents canceled sourcing orders this year.
#2 The surging sourcing costs are a significant concern to U.S. fashion companies in 2021.
As many as 97 percent of respondents anticipate the sourcing cost to increase further this year, including 37 percent expect a “substantial increase” from 2020.
Respondents say almost EVERYTHING becomes more expensive in 2021. Notably, more than 70 percent of respondents expect the “shipping and logistics cost,” “cost of textile raw material (e.g., yarns and fabrics),” “cost of sourcing as a result of currency value and exchange rate changes,” and “labor cost” to go up.
#3 U.S. fashion companies’ sourcing strategies continue to envovle in response to the shifting business environment.
Asia’s position as the dominant apparel sourcing base for U.S. fashion companies remains unshakeable.
“China plus Vietnam plus Many” remains the most popular sourcing model among respondents. However, the two countries combined now typically account for 20-40 percent of a U.S. fashion company’s total sourcing value or volume, down from 40-60 percent in the past few years.
Asia is U.S. fashion companies’ dominant sourcing base for textile intermediaries. “China plus at least 1-2 additional Asian countries” is the most popular textile raw material sourcing practice among respondents.
As U.S. fashion companies prioritize strengthening their relationship with key vendors during the pandemic, respondents report an overall less diversified sourcing base than in the past few years.
#4 U.S. fashion companies continue to reduce their China exposure. However, the debate on China’s future as a textile and apparel sourcing base heats up.
Most U.S. fashion companies still plan to source from China in short to medium terms. While 63 percent of respondents plan to decrease sourcing from China further over the next two years, it is a notable decrease from 70 percent in 2020 and 83 percent in 2019.
Most respondents still see China as a competitive and balanced sourcing base from a business perspective. Few other sourcing countries can match China’s flexibility and agility, production capacity, speed to market, and sourcing cost. As China’s role in the textile and apparel supply chain goes far beyond garment production and continues to expand, it becomes ever more challenging to find China’s alternatives.
Non-economic factors, particularly the allegations of forced labor in China’s Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region (XUAR), significantly hurt China’s long-term prospect as a preferred sourcing base by U.S. fashion companies. China also suffered the most significant drop in its labor and compliance rating this year.
#5 With an improved industry look and the continued interest in reducing “China exposure,” U.S. fashion companies actively explore new sourcing opportunities.
Vietnam remains a hot sourcing destination. However, respondents turn more conservative this year about Vietnam’s growth potential due to rising cost concerns and trade uncertainties caused by the Section 301 investigation.
U.S. fashion companies are interested in sourcing more from Bangladesh over the next two years. Respondents say apparel “Made in Bangladesh” enjoys a prominent price advantage over many other Asian suppliers. However, the competition among Bangladeshi suppliers could intensify as U.S. fashion companies plan to “work with fewer vendors in the country.”
Respondents are also interested in sourcing more from Sub-Saharan Africa by leveraging the African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA). Respondents also demonstrate a growing interest in investing more in AGOA members directly. “Replace AGOA with a permanent free trade agreement that requires reciprocal tariff cuts and continues to allow the “third-country fabric provision” is respondents’ most preferred policy option after AGOA expires in 2025.
#6 Sourcing from the Western Hemisphere is gaining new momentum
Overall, U.S. fashion companies’ growing interest in the Western Hemisphere is more about diversifying sourcing away from China and Asia than moving the production back to the region (i.e., reshoring or near-shoring).
Respondents say CAFTA-DR’s “short supply” and “cumulation” mechanisms provide critical flexibility that allow U.S. fashion companies to continue to source from its members. However, despite the “yarn-forward” rules of origin, only 15 percent of respondents sourcing apparel from CAFTA-DR members say they “purposefully use U.S.-made fabrics” to enjoy the agreement’s duty-free benefits.
Respondents suggest that encouraging more apparel sourcing from the Western Hemisphere requires three significant improvements: 1) make the products more price competitive; 2) strengthen the region’s fabric and textile raw material production capacity; 3) make rules of origin less restrictive in relevant U.S. trade agreements.
This year’s benchmarking study was based on a survey of executives at 31 leading U.S. fashion companies from April to June 2021. The study incorporates a balanced mix of respondents representing various types of businesses in the U.S. fashion industry. Approximately 54 percent of respondents are self-identified retailers, 46 percent self-identified brands, 69 percent self-identified importers/wholesalers. Around 65 percent of respondents report having more than 1,000 employees. Another 27 percent of respondents represent medium-sized companies with 101-999 employees.
What do you see as the biggest challenges – and opportunities – facing the apparel industry in 2021?
I see COVID-19 and market uncertainties caused by the contentious US-China relations as the two most significant challenges facing the apparel industry in 2021.
The difficulties imposed by COVID-19 on fashion businesses are twofold. First, with the resurgence of COVID cases worldwide, when and how quickly apparel consumption can rebound to the pre-COVID level remain hard to tell, particularly in leading consumption markets, including the United States and Europe. As the apparel business is buyer-driven, the industry’s full recovery is impossible without a strong return of consumers’ demand. Numerous studies also show that switching to making and selling PPE won’t be sufficient to make up for losses from regular businesses for most fashion companies.
Second, COVID-19 will also continue to post tremendous pressures on the supply side. In the 2020 Fashion Industry Benchmarking Study, which I conducted in collaboration with the US Fashion Industry Association (USFIA), the surveyed sourcing executives reported severe supply chain disruption during the pandemic. These disruptions come from multiple aspects, ranging from a labor shortage, a lack of textile raw materials, and a substantial cost increase in shipping and logistics. Even more concerning, many small and medium-sized (SME) vendors, particularly in the developing countries, are near the tipping point of bankruptcy after months of struggle with the order cancellation, mandatory lockdown measures, and a lack of financial support. The post-covid recovery of the apparel business relies on a capable, stable, and efficient textile and apparel supply chain, in which these SME vendors play a critical role.
In 2021, fashion companies also have to continue to deal with the ramifications of contentious US-China relations. On the one hand, the chance is slim that the punitive tariffs imposed on Chinese products, which affect most textiles and apparel, will soon go away. On the other hand, we cannot rule out the possibility that the US-China commercial relationship will deteriorate further in 2021, as more sensitive, complicated, and structural issues began to get involved, such as national security, forced labor, and human rights. Compared with President Trump’s unilateral trade actions, the new Biden administration may adopt a multilateral approach to pressure China. However, it also means more countries could be “dragged into” the US-China trade tensions, making it even more challenging for fashion companies to mitigate the trade war’s supply chain impacts.
Meanwhile, I see digitalization as a big opportunity for the apparel industry, not only in 2021 but also in the years to come. Fashion brands and retailers will increasingly find digitalization ubiquitous to their businesses—like air and electricity. In 2021, I expect fashion companies will make more efforts to creatively use digital technologies to interact with consumers, make transactions, develop products, and improve consumers’ online shopping experiences. Thanks to the adoption of digital tools, apparel companies may also find new opportunities to improve sustainability, better understand their customers through leveraging data science, and develop a more agile and nimble supply chain.
What’s happening with supply chains? How is the sourcing landscape likely to shift in 2021, and what can apparel firms and their suppliers do to stay ahead, remain competitive and build resilience for the future?
Apparel companies’ sourcing and supply chain strategies will continue to evolve in response to consumers’ shifting demand, COVID-19, and the new policy environment. Several trends are worth watching in 2021:
First, fashion companies’ sourcing bases at the country level will stay relatively stable in 2021 overall. For example, although it sounds a little contradictory, fashion companies will continue to treat China as an essential sourcing base and reduce their “China exposure” further, a process that has started years before the tariff war. Most apparel sourcing orders left China will go to China’s competitors in Asia, such as Vietnam, Bangladesh, and Cambodia. This also means that Asia, as a whole, will remain the single largest source of apparel imports, particularly for US and Asia-based fashion companies. In comparison, still, “near-sourcing” is NOT likely to happen on a large scale, mainly because “near-sourcing” requires enormous new investments to rebuild the supply chain, and most fashion companies do not have the resources to do so during the pandemic.
Second, sourcing diversification is slowing down at the firm level, and more apparel companies are switching to consolidate their existing sourcing base. For example, as the 2020 USFIA benchmarking study found, close to half of the respondents say they plan to “source from the same number of countries, but work with fewer vendors” through 2022. Another 20 percent of respondents say they would “source from fewer countries and work with fewer vendors.” The results are understandable– competition in the apparel industry is becoming supply chain-based. Building a strategic partnership with high-quality vendors will play an ever more critical role in supporting fashion brands and retailers’ efforts to achieve speed to market, flexibility and agility, sourcing cost control, and low compliance risk. Thus, apparel companies find it more urgent and rewarding to consolidate the existing sourcing base and resources and strengthen their key vendors’ relations.
Third, apparel sourcing executives still need to keep a close watch on trade policy in 2021. However, we may see fewer news headlines about trade and more “behind the door” advocacy and diplomacy. Specifically:
US Section 301 actions: While the punitive tariffs on Chinese goods may not go away anytime soon, there could be a fight over whether the new Biden administration should continue granting certain companies exclusions from those tariffs. Further, in October 2020, the Trump Administration launched two new Section 301 investigations on Vietnam regarding its import and use of timber and reported “undervaluation currency.” The case is pending, but the stakes are high for fashion companies —Vietnam is often treated as the best alternative to sourcing from China and already accounting for nearly 20% of total US apparel imports.
CPTPP and RCEP: With the reaching of the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) in November 2020, there are growing calls for the new Biden administration to consider rejoining the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) in some format to showcase the US presence in the Asia-Pacific region. To make the situation even more complicated, China has openly expressed its interest in joining the Comprehensive Progressive Agreement of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP), commonly known as “the TPP without the US.” 2021 will be a critical time window for all stakeholders, including the apparel sector, to debate various trade policy options that could shape the future trade architecture in the Asia-Pacific region.
Brexit: Brexit will enter a new phase in 2021 as the transition period ends on 31 December 2020. On the positive side, we have a playbook to follow—the UK has announced its new tariff schedules for various scenarios, which provide critical market predictability. We might also see the reaching of a new US-UK free trade agreement in the first half of the year, which will be exciting news for the apparel sector, particularly those in the luxury segment. However, as the US Trade Promotion Authority (TPA) is set to expire in July 2021, when and how soon such an agreement will enter into force will be another story. By no means trade policy in 2021 will go boring.
Speaker: Wilson Zhu, the Chief Operating Officer of Li & Fung
The originator of the US-China trade war was not actually about the “trade deficit”, but rather a lack of “trust” between the two countries.
Trade deficit could be a “misleading concept”–while the iPhone was claimed to be “Made in China”, it wasn’t manufactured there at all—instead, China only played the role of a “middle-man of the supply chain.” Such a misunderstanding is within the ancient country of origin rules used in international trade.
The “Made in China” label is becoming “obsolete.” As China continues to expand its supply chain globally, ports in China are evolving into “managers” of products “Made in the world.”
There is still great hope for the global apparel supply chain in the post-Covid world. Less economically developed countries like Vietnam are now mimicking the former industrialization of China in its factories with the help of advanced technology. And, the United States continues to advance the efficiency and sophistication of its textile production. It seems that all in all, the only way to make it through this crisis successfully, is through global collaboration, not conflict.
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.
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.