Free trade agreements (FTAs) are arrangement among two or more countries under which they agree to eliminate tariffs and non-tariff (NTB) barriers on trade among themselves (Cooper, 2014). Theoretically, companies shall be interested in increasing imports from FTA regions because of the duty free treatment (i.e. trade creation effect). Particularly not paying import tariff duty can be a great cost advantage for textile and apparel (T&A) companies given the fact that the average US import tariff rate was still as high as 8% for textiles and 11.6% for apparel in 2016 (WTO, 2017).
Despite the potential benefit of using FTAs, data from the Office of Textiles and Apparel show that 85.7% of US T&A imports came from non-FTA regions in 2016. Interesting enough, although more FTAs have taken effect in the United States, T&A imported under FTA as a percent of total T&A imports dropped from 15.1% in 2008 to 14.3% in 2016.
Among the FTAs in force, the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and the Dominican-Republic-Central America Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA-DR) altogether accounted for 75.9% of the value of total U.S. T&A imports under FTAs in 2016.
Statistics further reveal that sometimes companies did not claim duty free benefits of FTAs even though they imported T&A from the FTA region. For example, in 2016 about 29.9% of U.S. T&A imports from South Korea, 24.3% from CAFTA-DR and 16.3% from NAFTA and 12.9% from Columbia did not enjoy the duty free treatment granted by the respective FTAs.
Some industry experts say the complex T&A rules of origin is a major factor why US T&A companies are not using FTAs enough. According to the Office of Textiles and Apparel (OTEXA), there are more than 20 different tariff lines dealing with various T&A rule of origin situations under respective FTAs.
Additionally, U.S. T&A importers seem to use the “short supply list” mechanism–an exception to the yarn forward rules of origin under FTAs, more actively. For example, in 2016 around 2.4% of US T&A imports under FTAs took advantage of the “short supply list” mechanism, increased from only 1.2% in 2008. Similarly, a record high of 6.2% of U.S. T&A imports under the CAFTA-DR used the short supply list in 2016.