US-China Tariff War and Apparel Sourcing: A Four-Year Review

On September 2, 2022, the Office of the US Trade Representative (USTR) announced it would continue the billions of dollars of Section 301 punitive tariffs against Chinese products. USTR said it made the decision based on requests from domestic businesses benefiting from the tariff action. As a legal requirement, USTR will launch a full review of Section 301 tariff action in the coming months.

In her remarks at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace on Sep 7, 2022, US Trade Representative Katharine Tai further said that the Section 301 punitive tariffs on Chinese imports “will not come down until Beijing adopts more market-oriented trade and economic principles.” In other words, the US-China tariff war, which broke out four years ago, is not ending anytime soon.

A Brief History of the US Section 301 tariff action against China

The US-China tariff war broke out as both unexpected and not too surprising. For decades, the US government had been criticizing China for its unfair trade practices, such as providing controversial subsidies to state-owned enterprises (SMEs), insufficient protection of intellectual property rights, and forcing foreign companies to transfer critical technologies to their Chinese competitors. The US side had also tried various ways to address the problems, from holding bilateral trade negotiations with China and imposing import restrictions on specific Chinese goods to suing China at the World Trade Organization (WTO). However, despite these efforts, most US concerns about China’s “unfair” trade practices remain unsolved.

When former US President Donald Trump took office, he was particularly upset about the massive and growing US trade deficits with China, which hit a record high of $383 billion in 2017. In alignment with the mercantilism view on trade, President Trump believed that the vast trade deficit with China hurt the US economy and undermined his political base, particularly with the working class.

On August 14, 2017, President Trump directed the Office of the US Trade Representative (USTR) to probe into China’s trade practices and see if they warranted retaliatory actions under the US trade law. While the investigation was ongoing, the Trump administration also held several trade negotiations with China, pushing the Chinese side to purchase more US goods and reduce the bilateral trade imbalances. However, the talks resulted in little progress.

President Trump lost his patience with China in the summer of 2018. In the following months, citing the USTR Section 301 investigation findings, the Trump administration announced imposing a series of punitive tariffs on nearly half of US imports from China, or approximately $250 billion in total. As a result, for more than 1,000 types of products, US companies importing them from China would have to pay the regular import duties plus a 10%-25% additional import tax. However, the Trump administration’s trade team purposefully excluded consumer products such as clothing and shoes from the tariff actions. The last thing President Trump wanted was US consumers, especially his political base, complaining about the rising price tag when shopping for necessities. The timing was also a sensitive factor—the 2018 congressional mid-term election was only a few months away.

President Trump hoped his unprecedented large-scale punitive tariffs would change China’s behaviors on trade. It partially worked. As the trade frictions threatened economic growth, the Chinese government returned to the negotiation table. Specifically, the US side wanted China to purchase more US goods, reduce the bilateral trade imbalances and alter its “unfair” trade practices. In contrast, the Chinese asked the US to hold the Section 301 tariff action immediately.

However, the trade talks didn’t progress as fast as Trump had hoped. Even worse, having to please domestic forces that demanded a more assertive stance toward the US, the Chinese government decided to impose retaliatory tariffs against approximately $250 billion US products. President Trump felt he had to do something in response to China’s new action. In August 2019, he suddenly announced imposing Section 301 tariffs on a new batch of Chinese products, totaling nearly $300 billion. As almost everything from China was targeted, apparel products were no longer immune to the tariff war. With the new tariff announcement coming at short notice, US fashion brands and retailers were unprepared for the abrupt escalation since they typically placed their sourcing orders 3-6 months before the selling season.

Nevertheless, Trump’s new Section 301 actions somehow accelerated the trade negotiation. The two sides finally reached a so-called “phase one” trade agreement in about two months. As part of the deal, China agreed to increase its purchase of US goods and services by at least $200 billion over two years, or almost double the 2017 baseline levels. Also, China promised to address US concerns about intellectual property rights protection, illegal subsidies, and forced technology transfers. Meanwhile, the US side somewhat agreed to trim the Section 301 tariff action but rejected removing them. For example, the punitive Section 301 tariffs on apparel products were cut from 15% to 7.5% since implementing the “phase one” trade deal.

Trump lost the 2020 presidential election, and Joe Biden was sworn in as the new US president on January 20, 2021. However, the Section 301 tariff actions and the US-China “phase one” trade deal stayed in force. 

Debate on the impact of the US-China tariff war

Like many other trade policies, the US Section 301 tariff actions against China raised heated debate among stakeholders with competing interests. This was the case even among different US textile and apparel industry segments.

On the one hand, US fashion brands and retailers strongly oppose the punitive tariffs against Chinese products for several reasons:

First, despite the Section 301 tariff action, China remained a critical apparel sourcing base for many US fashion companies with no practical alternative. Trade statistics show that four years into the tariff war, China still accounted for nearly 40 percent of US apparel imports in quantity and about one-third in value as of 2021. According to the latest data, in July 2022, China accounted for 43% of US apparel imports in quantity and 27.2% in value, far exceeding any other sources. Studies also consistently find that US fashion companies rely on China to fulfill orders requiring a small minimum order quantity, flexibility, and a great variety of product assortment.

Second, having to import from China, fashion companies argued that the Section 301 punitive tariffs increased their sourcing costs and cut profit margins. For example, for a clothing item with an original wholesale price of around $7, imposing a 7.5% Section 301 punitive tariff would increase the sourcing cost by about 5.8%. Should fashion companies not pass the cost increase to consumers, their retail gross margin would be cut by 1.5 percentage points. Notably, according to the US Fashion Industry Association’s 2021 benchmarking survey, nearly 90 percent of respondents explicitly say the tariff war directly increased their company’s sourcing costs. Another 74 percent say the tariff war hurt their company’s financials.

Third, as companies began to move their sourcing orders from China to other Asian countries like Vietnam, Bangladesh, and Cambodia to avoid paying punitive tariffs, these countries’ production costs all went up because of the limited production capacity. In other words, sourcing from everywhere became more expensive because of the Section 301 action against China. 

Further, it is important to recognize that fashion companies supported the US government’s efforts to address China’s “unfair” trade practices, such as subsidies, intellectual property rights violations, and forced technology transfers. Many US fashion companies were the victims of such practices. However, fashion companies did not think the punitive tariff was the right tool to address these problems effectively. Instead, fashion brands and retailers were concerned that the tariff war unnecessarily created an uncertain and volatile market environment harmful to their business operations.

On the other hand, the National Council of Textile Organizations (NCTO), representing manufacturers of fibers, yarns, and fabrics in the United States, strongly supported the Section 301 tariff actions against Chinese products. As most US apparel production had moved overseas, exporting to the Western Hemisphere became critical to the survival of the US textile industry. Thus, for years, NCTO pushed US policymakers to support the so-called Western Hemisphere textile and apparel supply chain, i.e., Mexico and Central American countries import textiles from the US and then export the finished garments for consumption. Similarly, NCTO argued that Section 301 tariff action would make apparel “Made in China” less price competitive, resulting in more near sourcing from the Western Hemisphere.

However, interestingly enough, while supporting the Section 301 action against finished garments “Made in China,” NCTO asked the US government NOT to impose punitive tariffs on Chinese intermediaries. As NCTO’s president testified at a public hearing about the Section 301 tariff action in 2019,

“While NCTO members support the inclusion of finished products in Section 301, we are seriously concerned that…adding tariffs on imports of manufacturing inputs that are not made in the US such as certain chemicals, dyes, machinery, and rayon staple fiber in effect raises the cost for American companies and makes them less competitive with China.”

Mitigate the impact of the tariff war: Fashion Companies’ Strategies

Almost four years into the trade war, US fashion companies attempted to mitigate the negative impacts of the Section 301 tariff action. Notably, US apparel retailers were cautious about raising the retail price because of the intense market competition. Instead, most US fashion companies chose to absorb or control the rising sourcing cost; however, no strategy alone has proven remarkably successful and sufficient.

The first approach was to switch to China’s alternatives. Trade statistics suggest that Asian countries such as Vietnam and Bangladesh picked up most of China’s lost market shares in the US apparel import market. For example, in 2022 (Jan-July), Asian countries excluding China accounted for 52% of US apparel imports, a substantial increase from 41% in 2018 before the tariff war. In comparison, unlike what US textile manufacturers had expected, there was no clear sign that the tariff war had resulted in more apparel sourcing from the Western Hemisphere.  

The second approach was to adjust what to source from China by leveraging the country’s production capacity and flexibility. For example, market data from industry sources showed that since the Section 301 tariff action, US fashion companies had imported more “Made in China” apparel in the luxury and premium segments and less for the value and mass markets. Such a practice made sense as consumers shopping for premium-priced apparel items typically were less price-sensitive, allowing fashion companies to raise the selling price more easily to mitigate the increasing sourcing costs. Studies also found that US companies sourced fewer lower value-added basic fashion items (such as tops and underwear), but more sophisticated and higher value-added apparel categories (such as dresses and outerwear) from China since the tariff war.

China is no longer treated as a sourcing base for low-end cheap product
More apparel sourced from China target the premium and luxuary market segments

Related, US fashion companies such as Columbia Sportswear leveraged the so-called “tariff engineering” in response to the tariff war. Tariff engineering refers to designing clothing to be classified at a lower tariff rate. For example, “women’s or girls’ blouses, shirts, and shirt-blouses of man-made fibers” imported from China can tax as high as 26.9%. However, the same blouse added a pocket or two below the waist would instead be classified as a different product and subject to only a 16.0% tariff rate. Nevertheless, using tariff engineering requires substantial financial and human resources, which often were beyond the affordability of small and medium-sized fashion companies.

Third, recognizing the negative impacts of Section 301 on US businesses and consumers, the Office of the US Trade Representative (USTR) created a so-called “Section 301 exclusion process.” Under this mechanism, companies could request that a particular product be excluded from the Section 301 tariffs, subject to specific criteria determined at the discretion of USTR. The petition for the product exclusion required substantial paperwork, however. Even companies with an in-house legal team typically hire a DC-based law firm experienced with international trade litigation to assist the petition, given the professional knowledge and a strong government relation needed. Also of concern to fashion companies was the low success rate of the petition. The record showed that nearly 90 percent of petitions were denied for failure to demonstrate “severe economic harm.” Eventually, since the launch of the exclusion process, fewer than 1% of apparel items subject to the Section 301 punitive tariff were exempted. Understandably, the extra financial burden and the long shot discouraged fashion companies, especially small and medium-sized, from taking advantage of the exclusion process.

In conclusion, with USTR’s latest announcement, the debate on Section 301 and the outlook of China as a textile and apparel sourcing base will continue. Notably, while economic factors matter, we shall not ignore the impact of non-economic factors on the fate of the Section 301 tariff action against China. For example, with the implementation of the Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act (UFLPA), only 13.5% of US cotton apparel imports came from China so far in 2022 (Jan-Jul), the lowest in a decade.  As the overall US-China bilateral trade relationship significantly deteriorated in recent years and the friction between the two countries expanded into highly politically sensitive areas, the Biden administration could “willfully” choose to keep the Section 301 tariff as negotiation leverage. Domestically, President Biden also didn’t want to look “weak” on his China policy, given the bipartisan support for taking on China’s rise.

by Sheng Lu

Suggested citation: Lu, S. (2022). US-China Tariff War and Apparel Sourcing: A Four-Year Review. FASH455 global apparel and textile trade and sourcing. https://shenglufashion.com/2022/09/10/us-china-tariff-war-and-apparel-sourcing-a-four-year-review/

What Do Fashion Companies Say about China As an Apparel Sourcing Base? (Updated June 2022)

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 25 leading fashion companies’ public corporate filings (i.e., annual or quarterly financial reports and earnings call transcripts) submitted from January 1, 2022 to June 15, 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 did not mention China as their leading apparel sourcing destination at all, “For fiscal 2021, 30% of NIKE Brand apparel was manufactured in Vietnam, and 24% of NIKE Brand footwear and less than 12% of NIKE Brand apparel was manufactured in Indonesia.”

Meanwhile, fashion companies still heavily use China as a sourcing base for textile raw materials (such as fabrics). For example:

  • Columbia Sportswear says, “in China where a large portion of the raw materials used in our products is sourced by our contract manufacturers.”
  • Lululemon says, During 2021, approximately 48% of our fabrics originated from Taiwan, 19% from China Mainland, 11% from Sri Lanka, and the remainder from other regions.”
  • Likewise, Puma says, “90% of our recycled polyester comes from Vietnam, China, Taiwan (China) and Korea.

Second, fashion brands and retailers express serious concerns about China’s COVID policy and government lockdown measures. Companies say such measures have affected their businesses negatively, from supply chain disruptions and shipping delays to lost sales in the China market. For example:

  • Levi’s says,” The other issue that we’ve been watching real closely is the impact that of COVID shutdowns in China has had on ports there. China, which is only 3% of our total business, was down mid-single-digit as growth in e-commerce was more than offset by declines across other channels due to COVID-related lockdown.”
  • Guess says, “closure of less than 2% of our directly operated stores as of April 30, 2022, mostly in China… Approximately $4.0 million was driven by the lower profit in China due to the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic
  • G-III apparel adds, “The Company’s fiscal year 2023 guidance contemplates the expected impact from the current supply chain conditions, including the current lockdowns in China, expected increased shipping costs and delays in receipt of goods.
  • Columbia sportswear says, “At varying times, government efforts to control the spread of COVID-19 impacted our stores in China.”
  • PVH says, “COVID-related pressures have continued into the first quarter of 2022, although to a much lesser extent than in the prior year period in all regions except China, as strict lockdowns in China have resulted in temporary store closures and have also impacted certain warehouses, which has resulted in the temporary pause of deliveries to the Company’s wholesale customers and from its digital commerce business.”
  • When discussing their outlook for fiscal year 2023, Under Armour says, “approximately three percentage points of (revenue) headwinds related to our strategic decision to work with our vendors and customers to cancel orders affected by capacity issues, supply chain delays, and emergent COVID-19 impacts in China.

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, some fashion companies still see China as a promising sales market with growth potential. Localizing the supply chain (i.e., made in China for China) could be an increasingly popular practice for these 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, “Consumer interest in our core categories is growing and we’re committed to continued expansion in China and across Asia-Pacific. Our confidence in the momentum of such key growth engines as our Outdoor & Action Sports businesses and our brands in China is evidenced by our plans to further increase investments in 2022 behind very targeted marketing and brand-building initiatives in these businesses.

by Sheng Lu

US-China Tariff War During COVID-19—Discussion Questions from Students in FASH455

Steve Lamar, President & CEO, American Apparel and Footwear Association

#1 Studies show that the Section 301 punitive tariff on imports from China hurts both US fashion retailers and ordinary consumers. But why doesn’t President Biden announce to remove the tariffs and stop the trade war?

#2 It doesn’t seem the tariff war with China has brought more apparel manufacturing back to the US. Is this result expected or surprising? How does the outcome of the trade war support or challenge the trade theories we learned in the class (e.g., mercantilism, absolute advantage, comparative advantage, and factor proportion theories)?

#3 The U.S.-China tariff war continues during the pandemic, resulting in higher sourcing costs for US fashion brands and retailers, which have been struggling hard financially. In such a case, if you were the CEO of a leading US fashion brand, why or why not would you pass the tariff burden to consumers, i.e., ask consumers to pay a higher price?

#4 Why or why not do you think the tariff war with China has fundamentally shifted US fashion companies’ sourcing strategy?

#5 What’s your take on “tariff engineering” adopted by fashion companies? A smart idea? Loophole? Controversial? Need to be encouraged/discouraged? And Why?

#6 Any reflections on the video discussion (above) regarding the US apparel industry’s view on the impact of the tariff war during the pandemic?

(Welcome to our online discussion. For students in FASH455, please address at least two questions and mention the question number (#) in your reply)

[Discussion is closed]

Textile and Apparel Products Covered by the U.S.-China Tariff War Reference List (updated December 2020)

This blog post is also available in PDF

Suggested citation: Lu, Sheng. (2020). Textile and Apparel Products Covered by the U.S.-China Tariff War Reference List (updated December 2020). Retrieved from http://www.shenglufashion.com

by Sheng Lu

Battling the Trade War and COVID-19: Rethinking Global Supply Chains in a Time of Crisis

Speaker: Wilson Zhu, the Chief Operating Officer of Li & Fung

Event summary:

  • 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.”
  • Despite the tariff war and the pandemic, interestingly enough, it seems some apparel sourcing orders are returning from India and Vietnam to China. Further, China’s emergence as a lucrative apparel consumption market implies huge business opportunities for fashion brands and retailers.
  • 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.

(summarized by Andrea Attinello)

Examine the US-China Tariff War from a Theoretical Perspective: Discussion Questions from Students in FASH455

#1 In class, we discussed that trade always creates both winners and losers. So who are the winners and losers in the US-China tariff war? Also, why should or should not the government use trade policy to pick up winners and losers in international trade?

#2 Why do you think U.S. fashion brands and retailers oppose Section 301 tariffs on apparel imports from China, whereas the National Council of Textile Organizations (NCTO), which represents the US textile industry, supports Trump’s tariff action?

#3 The U.S.-China tariff war continues during the pandemic, resulting in higher sourcing costs for U.S. fashion brands and retailers, which have been struggling hard financially. In such a case, if you were the CEO of Macy’s, why or why not would you pass the tariff burden to consumers, i.e., ask consumers to pay a higher price?

#4 Why or why not do you agree with the Trump Administration to lift the Section 301 tariffs on PPE imports from China? Isn’t a high tariff typically protects the domestic industry and would incentivize more U.S.-based PPE production?

#5 Most classic trade theories (such as the comparative advantage trade theory and the factor proportion trade theory) advocate free trade with no government interventions. However, international trade in the real world has been so heavily influenced by government policy, such as tariffs. How to explain this phenomenon? Are trade theories wrong, or is the government wrong?

[Anyone is welcome to join the online discussion. For students in FASH455, please address at least two questions in your comment. Please also mention the question number in your comment]

2020 USFIA Fashion Industry Benchmarking Study Released

The 2021 USFIA Fashion Industry Benchmarking Study is Released

The full report is available HERE

Key findings of this year’s report:

Impact of COVID19 on Fashion Companies’ Businesses

The overwhelming majority of respondents report “economic and business impacts of the coronavirus (COVID-19)” as their top business challenge in 2020. The business difficulties caused by COVID-19 will not go away anytime soon, and U.S. fashion companies have to prepare for a medium to the long-term impact of the pandemic.

COVID-19 has caused severe supply chain disruptions to U.S. fashion companies. The disruptions come from multiple aspects, ranging from a labor shortage, shortages of textile raw materials, and a substantial cost increase in shipping and logistics.

COVID-19 has resulted in a widespread sales decline and order cancellation among U.S. fashion companies. Almost all respondents (96 percent) expect their companies’ sales revenue to decrease in 2020.

As sales drop and business operations are significantly disrupted, not surprisingly, all respondents (100 percent) say they more or less have postponed or canceled sourcing orders. Nearly half of self-identified retailers say the sourcing orders they canceled or postponed go beyond the 2nd quarter of 2020. Another 40 percent expect order cancellation and postponement could extend further to the fourth quarter of 2020 or even beyond. The order cancellation or postponement has affected vendors in China, Bangladesh, and India the most.

Impact of COVID-19 and US-China Trade War on Fashion Companies’ Sourcing

As high as 90 percent of respondents explicitly say, the U.S. Section 301 action against China has increased their company’s sourcing cost in 2020, up from 63 percent last year.

COVID-19 and the trade war are pushing U.S. fashion companies to reduce their “China exposure” further. While “China plus Vietnam plus Many” remains the most popular sourcing model among respondents, around 29 percent of respondents indicate that they source MORE from Vietnam than from China in 2020, up further from 25 percent in 2019.

As U.S. fashion companies are sourcing relatively less from China, they are moving orders mostly to China’s competitors in Asia. All respondents (100 percent) say they have “moved some sourcing orders from China to other Asian suppliers” this year, up from 77 percent in 2019.

However, no clear evidence suggests that U.S. fashion companies are sourcing more from the Western Hemisphere because of COVID-19 and the U.S.-China trade war.

Emerging Sourcing Trends

Sourcing diversification is slowing down, and more U.S. fashion companies are switching to consolidate their existing sourcing base. Close to half of the respondents say they plan to “source from the same number of countries, but work with fewer vendors,” up from 40 percent in last year’s survey.

China most likely will remain a critical sourcing base for U.S. fashion companies. However, non-economic factors could complicate companies’ sourcing decisions. Benefiting from U.S. fashion companies’ reduced sourcing from China, Vietnam and Bangladesh are expected to play a more significant role as primary apparel suppliers for the U.S. market.

Given the supply chain disruptions experienced during the pandemic, U.S. fashion companies are more actively exploring “Made in the USA” sourcing opportunities to improve agility and flexibility and reduce sourcing risks. Around 25 percent of respondents expect to somewhat increase sourcing locally from the U.S. in the next two years, which is the highest level since 2016.

US-Mexico-Canada Trade Agreement (USMCA)

For companies that were already using NAFTA for sourcing, the vast majority (77.8 percent) say they are “ready to achieve any USMCA benefits immediately,” up more than 31 percent from 2019. Even for respondents who were not using NAFTA or sourcing from the region, about half of them this year say they may “consider North American sourcing in the future” and explore the USMCA benefits. Some respondents expressed concerns about the rules of origin changes. These worries seem to concentrate on denim products in particular.

African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA)

Close to 37 percent of respondents say they have been sourcing MORE textile and apparel from sub-Saharan Africa (SSA) since the latest AGOA renewal in 2015, a substantial increase from 27 percent in the 2019 survey. More than 40 percent of respondents say AGOA and its “third-country fabric provision” are critical for their sourcing from the SSA region. More than 40 percent of respondents say AGOA and its “third-country fabric provision” are critical for their sourcing from the SSA region.

However, respondents still demonstrate a low level of interest in investing in the SSA region directly. Around 27 percent of respondents say the temporary nature of AGOA and the uncertainty associated with the future of the agreement have discouraged them.

With AGOA’s expiration date quickly approaching, the discussions on the future of the agreement and the prospect of sourcing from SSA begin to intensify. Among the various policy options to consider, “Renew AGOA for another ten years with no major change of its current provisions” and “Replace AGOA with a permanent free trade agreement that requires reciprocal tariff cut and continues to allow the third-country fabric provision” are the most preferred by respondents.

U.S. Textile and Apparel Industry is NOT Immune to the U.S.-China Tariff War

The full article is available HERE

This article tries to evaluate the potential impact of the U.S.-China tariff war on the U.S. textile and apparel (T&A) industry, including manufacturing and related trade activities.

The quantitative evaluation conducted is based on the Global Trade Analysis Project (GTAP) model. Data came from the latest GTAP9 database, which covers trade, employment and production in 57 sectors in 140 countries. In correspondence to the recent development of the U.S.-China tariff war, the analysis focuses on the following three scenarios:

  • Scenario 1: 10% punitive tariff + base year tariff rate in 2017 applied to products traded between the U.S. and China, except textiles and apparel
  • Scenario 2: 10% punitive tariff + base year tariff rate in 2017 applied to products traded between the U.S. and China, including textiles and apparel
  • Scenario 3: 25% punitive tariff + base year tariff rate in 2017 applied to products traded between the U.S. and China, including textiles and apparel

Three findings are of note:

First, the tariff war with China will increase the market price for T&A in the United States and consequentially incentivize more production of T&A “Made in the USA.” As shown in Figure 1, the annual U.S. T&A production will increase when the punitive tariff is imposed on textile and apparel imports from China. The most significant increase will happen in scenario 3 (textile output expands by US$8,829 million and apparel output expands by US$6,044 million) when a 25 percent punitive tariff is imposed and the market price of T&A in the U.S. also correspondingly goes up by nearly 1.5% compared with the base year level in 2017.

Second, the tariff war with China will hurt U.S. textile exports. The results show that the tariff war will increase the production cost of “Made in the USA,” and result in a decline of U.S. textile exports due to reduced price competitiveness. This is the case even in scenario 1 when the tariff war does not target T&A directly, but nevertheless, raises the price of intermediaries for producing textiles in the United States. The results further show that the annual U.S. textile exports will suffer the most significant decline in scenario 3 (down US$1,136 million), especially to China and other Asian countries where U.S. textile products are facing intense competition from local suppliers. In comparison, U.S. textile exports to the Western Hemisphere will suffer a loss as well in the tariff war, but to a much less extent due to the strong supply-chain relationship with the region.

Third, the trade diversion effect of the tariff war will bring in more apparel imports to the U.S. market from Asian suppliers other than China. As shown in the figure above, when the punitive tariff imposed on textile and apparel products, the value of U.S. apparel imports from China will decline ranging from US$4,573 million (10 percent punitive tariff imposed) to US$8,858 million (25 percent punitive tariff imposed) annually compared with the base year level in 2017. This result reflects U.S. apparel importers and retailers’ mounting concerns about sourcing cost in the setting of the tariff war. However, apparently, the tariff war will do little to help U.S. domestic apparel manufacturers reduce the competitive pressure with imports. Particularly, in scenario 3, U.S. apparel imports from suppliers other than China will increase as much as US$10,400 million, worsening the U.S. trade deficit in the apparel sector further.

by Sheng Lu

How Has the Apparel Trade Flow Reacted to the Section 301 Tariff Action against China? (updated November 2018)

While apparel products are not subject to the Section 301 tariff yet, the trade action nevertheless has created huge market uncertainties for U.S. fashion brands and apparel retailers. Here is how the monthly trade flow of U.S. apparel imports has reflected the impacts of the U.S.-China tariff war:

First, U.S. companies did NOT stop importing from China. Seasonally adjusted data shows that between January and September 2018, the value of U.S. apparel imports from China decreased by 0.6 percent in volume and 0.05 percent in value year on year. Despite the decline, China remained the No.1 apparel supplier for the U.S. market in the first nine months of 2018, accounting for 32.3 percent market share in value and 41.3 percent shares in quantity, only marginally dropped by 1 and 0.7 percentage points from a year earlier respectively .

Second, apparel “Made in China” are becoming even cheaper. Notably, the average unit price of U.S. apparel imports from China dropped from $2.5/SME in 2016,$2.38/SME in 2017 to $2.36/SME in the first nine months of 2018. On the one hand, this result suggests that cost concern is not the most influential factor that drives U.S. companies to source less from China. However, it is also likely that Chinese exporters are intentionally reducing their price to keep their orders and overcome the challenges caused by the Section 301.

Third, there is no perfect replacement for “Made in China”. In response to the market uncertainty created by the Section 301 trade action, U.S. apparel importers are diversifying their sourcing base. That being said, it is difficult to identify a single largest beneficiary–notably, the market shares of apparel exports from Vietnam, Bangladesh, NAFTA, and CAFTA regions only marginally increased in the first nine months of 2018 compared with a year ago.

Additionally, it remains unclear whether the section 301 trade action has benefited U.S. textile and apparel manufacturing. Data shows that in the first ten months of 2018, the production index (2012=100) of textile manufacturing in the United States slightly increased from 92.8 in 2017to 94.3. However, over the same period, the index of apparel manufacturing decreased from 73.6 to 72.4.

Looking ahead, the volume of US textile and apparel imports from China is likely to increase in the short run since U.S. importers are eager to complete their sourcing orders before the new tariff hit.  Usually, companies place sourcing orders several months ahead of the selling season. However, it will be interesting to see if the trade data in the first half of 2019 will reveal the negative impact of the Section 301 action on China’s apparel exports to the U.S. market.

Data source: Office of Textiles and Apparel (OTEXA), US Department of Commerce

by Sheng Lu

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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