2015 US Fashion Industry Benchmarking Study Released

[Note: The 2016 U.S. Fashion Industry Benchmarking Study has been released]

UntitledThe U.S. Fashion Industry Association (USFIA) released its 2015 benchmarking study today. The report examines the industry’s business environment and outlook, sourcing practices as well as U.S. fashion companies’ viewpoints on critical trade policy agendas. Among the key findings:

  • Overall, respondents remain optimistic about the five-year outlook for the U.S. fashion industry. Like last year, they are most concerned about increasing production or sourcing costs, but they expect increases to be more modest this year.
  • Consistent with our 2014 findings, U.S. fashion companies are NOT moving away from China, and Bangladesh remains a popular sourcing destination with high growth potential, though not quite as high as last year.
  • Companies continue to diversify their sourcing, though free trade agreements (FTAs) and preference programs remain underutilized.
  • The U.S. fashion industry is a critical Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) stakeholder, as close to 80 percent of respondents expect implementation will impact their business practices. However, the restrictive rules in the agreement limit the potential.
  • U.S. fashion companies continue to express interest in expanding sourcing in the United States in the next two years as they further diversify their sourcing. However, there is no evidence that companies are shifting their business models back to manufacturing.

This benchmarking study was based on a survey of 30 executives at the leading U.S. fashion companies from March 2015 to April 2015. The findings well reflect the views of the most influential players in the U.S. fashion industry, with 90 percent of respondents having more than 100 employees (including 60 percent with more than 1,000 employees).

The full report can be downloaded from HERE.

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Two Years after the Rana Plaza Tragedy: What Has Changed?

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Note: the followings updates are compiled based on the 2015 Bangladesh Development Conference held from June 5th to 6th at the Harvard University. The conference attracted over 100 attendants and speakers from various aspects of the apparel industry, government agencies, international organizations, non-government organizations and academia.

1. Overall, the industry side argues that tremendous efforts have been made to improve work safety in the Bangladesh apparel industry and things are gradually improving. However, representatives from some labor unions say that changes are not happening fast enough as they should.

2. Indeed, as one of the most noticeable changes after the Rana Plaza tragedy, the Bangladesh apparel factories are now facing more frequent safety inspection and audit from various parties:

  • In addition to the regular inspection conducted by individual fashion brand or retailer, the Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh (the Accord) and Alliance for Bangladesh Worker Safety (the Alliance) were established in 2013 respectively (mostly funded by western apparel brands sourcing from Bangladesh) to maintain minimum safety standards in the Bangladesh apparel industry.
  • The Accord has a total five-year budget of $50 million to be used on factory safety inspection and improvement. However, it is far from being clear what will happen after the Accord agreement expires in 2018 and whether the inspection achievements can be maintained afterwards.
  • The International Labor Organization and International Finance Corporation launched the “Better Work” program in collaboration with Bangladesh government, apparel factory owners, workers, fashion buyers and other relevant stakeholders. The program intends to provide assessments of factory compliance with national law and core international labor standards, paired with transparent public reporting on findings.
  • Nevertheless, some people argue that audit itself is not the answer to the problem, just like “a pig will not gain weight simply by weighting it; instead, we have to feed it.” Reflecting on the limitation of inspection and audit, they refer to compliance as just a piece of paper whereas ethics is something that keeps people awake in bed.

3. Some foreign governments also have responded to the Rana Plaza tragedy, although in different ways:

  • Stick: the U.S. government decided to suspend Bangladesh’s Generalized System of Preferences (GSP) status in 2013 as a response to the Rana Plaza tragedy. Because textile and apparel are excluded from GSP, this measure has no direct impact on Bangladesh’s apparel exports to the United States. But the movement is symbolic and significantly increases the publicity of corporate social responsibility (CRS) issue in the Bangladesh apparel industry.
  • Carrot: in comparison, the European Union chooses to continue providing Bangladesh its GSP benefits. As a GSP beneficiary, Bangladesh’s apparel exports to EU can enjoy duty free treatment when competing with other Asian suppliers such as China and India. According to EU, from 2008 to 2012 EU28 imports from Bangladesh increased from €5,464 million to €9,212 million (+69%), which is more than half of Bangladesh’s total exports. While granting Bangladesh the benefit, EU also launches the GSP Action Plan and the Sustainability Compact to encourage responsible businesses in Bangladesh.

4. Training has been provided for Bangladesh officials to help them better understand building safety requirements.

5. More apparel factories in Bangladesh now have their own labor unions. According to the local law, 30 percent of the labor force in a factory can form its own labor union, meaning theoretically one factory can have up to three different unions. There has been more open discussions on “worker/women empowerment”, “social dialogue” and “stakeholder engagement” in the Bangladeshi society as well.  

6. Some creative financial incentive mechanisms are suggested to improve the situation, such as offering factories with better compliance record with more attractive interest rate for bank loans; and adding building safety clauses in factory insurance contract.  

7. Academia is actively engaged in finding a solution for improving the CRS practices in the Bangladesh apparel industry as well:

  • Based on analyzing the factory inspection data, some scholars start to evaluate the effectiveness of the current inspection system (eg: does who pay for the inspection matter for the result? Does violation go down overtime in inspection? What is the role of on-going people to people relationship in inspection?).
  • Some projects intend to develop an estimate of the true size of the Bangladesh apparel industry, given the fact that the worst work condition may exist in those undocumented factories. As a matter of fact, even the Bangladesh government doesn’t know how many garment factories they have in the country.
  • Some scholars propose the idea of linking a company’s social compliance data with its business financial data to evaluate the business implication of CRS practices.
  • Some studies compare the labor practices between Bangladesh and other developing countries in South Asia such as Cambodia and Sri Lanka.
  • Some people suggest using case studies to develop hypotheses for a policy change.
  • More and more studies are now conducted based on field trip and interview in Bangladesh.

8. Criminal charges recently are filed against a dozen individuals and companies identified responsible for the Rana Plaza tragedy.

9. Response to the Rana Plaza tragedy has further led to a discussion on the broader economic, social and political reform in Bangladesh.

Sheng Lu

Think Big about International Trade

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I hope you all enjoy the guest lecture given by Ambassador Friedrich Löhr on his global travel stories as a career diplomat over the past 37 years. Actually, topic of our class is closely connected with “international relations”. As observed by Michael Forman, US Trade Representative, “trade is what most of international relations are about and trade policy is national security policy”; “leaders have come to see the economic clout that trade produces as more than merely a purse for military prowess; they now understand prosperity to be a principal means by which countries measure and exercise power”.

Several readings/case studies/discussions in our class have touched the strategic aspects of international trade in the 21st century. For example, I hope at this point you not only understand the technical aspects of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) such as “yarn-forward” and “short supply list”, but also can see TPP as a strategic movement for the US to become more deeply embedded in the Asia-Pacific region. Similarly, the Trans-Atlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (T-TIP) is a free trade agreement, but a successful conclusion of T-TIP will also send “an unmistakable signal to the world about the strength of the US-EU bond—a timely reminder as the crisis in Ukraine has triggered deep unease across the continent.”

The strategic aspects of international trade can also be understood from the development perspective. There is a direct correlation between integration into the multilateral trading system and economic growth and between growth and poverty reduction. What then UN Secretary Kofi Annan said remains very true “The main losers in today’s very unequal world are not those who are too much exposed to globalization. They are those who have been left out”. No example can be more convincing than the case of textile and apparel (T&A) to illustrate this point. In many low-income countries in the world, T&A accounts for two-thirds of local employment and over 60 percentage of total merchandise exports. This is why trade preference programs such as AGOA, GSP and HOPE play a critical roles in providing greater market access opportunities to those most vulnerable countries.

To understand the strategic aspects of trade, you may further recall our case study 2 and the discussions on the necessity of maintaining a sound operation of the GATT system in the setting of 1970s. Without a rule-based multilateral trading system, international trade simply couldn’t happen. Yet the current multilateral trading system established shortly after World War II needs an update to better reflect the changing nature of world economy and format of trade. This is why so much attention has been given to mega-trade agreements such as TPP and TTIP. These free trade agreements will have a huge impact shaping the future rules of the game, no matter in terms of adding new agendas such as state-owned enterprises, digital trade and facilitating supply chain, or more effectively establishing a level playing field for issues such as environmental and labor standards.

So think strategically about international trade and think big about the impact of our T&A industry in the 21st century global economy.

EURATEX Raises Concerns about Pakistan’s Membership in the EU GSP+ Program

In a statement released on November 4, 2013, the European Apparel and Textile Confederation (EURATEX) openly expressed their opposition to the proposed “unique delegated act” for the EU Generalized Scheme of Preferences plus (GSP+) program. Specifically, the EURATEX strongly questioned Pakistan’s qualification as a beneficiary of the GSP+ , saying that “Pakistan has a poor record in matters related to Human rights and in particular to the protection of religious minorities, women and children .”

As put by Mr. Alberto Paccanelli, president of the EURATEX: “During the recent GSP revision it was repeatedly stated by the EU Commission that one of the main objectives of the new regime was to ensure that preferences were given to the countries that need them and in the case of GSP+ to countries that are promoting high Human, Social and Environmental standards.”

The GSP system is an EU trade policy tool specifically designed to help developing countries expand exports to the European Union markets. Beneficiaries of the GSP program can enjoy special favorable market access conditions such as tariff reduction and quota elimination.  For example, the EU charges an average 6.2% and 11.2% tariff rate for textile and apparel imports respectively from most sources, but the rates are lowered to 5.0% and 9% respectively for imports from GSP beneficiaries.

As part of the GSP system, the GSP+ program provides additional market access preferences to those economically and socially vulnerable countries under the condition that these countries will “implement core human rights, labor rights and other sustainable development conventions.” For example, textile and apparel imports from beneficiaries of the GSP+ program will be waived for import tariffs in the EU market. This will substantially improve the price competitiveness of products from the GSP+ beneficiary countries when competing with Asian suppliers such as China and India.

Despite the emphasis on Pakistan’s human right practices, the real factor driving EURATEX’s opposition to Pakistan’s membership in the GSP+ program could be market competition.  Pakistan is one of the most competitive textile and apparel exporters among the GSP beneficiaries. Data show that Pakistan’s textile and apparel exports to the EU market enjoyed robust growth over the past decade, causing the EU domestic textile & apparel manufacturers to become nervous about import competition.  The EURATEX, which represents the commercial interests of the EU local textile & apparel industry, has consistently opposed EU’s duty free access to Pakistan’s textile and apparel products.

Moreover, under the EU GSP system, there is a mechanism called “graduation of competitive sector”, under which imports of particular groups of products originating in a given GSP beneficiary country will lose GSP preferences once the average imports of this particular sector exceed 15% of GSP imports of the same products from all GSP beneficiary countries (12.5% for textile and clothing). However, the “graduation of competitive sector” mechanism will not be applied to GSP+ members. This means that if Pakistan becomes a GSP+ member, the EU domestic textile and apparel manufacturers may have to face increasing import competition from Pakistan but can do little about it.  

The most critical yet controversial part of the debate is, to which extent, the GSP system can be built into an effective and balanced development tool. According to a 2012 World Bank study, “the textile and apparel sector is THE most important manufacturing sector of Pakistan, which generated one-fourth of the country’s industrial value-added, recruited more than 40% of industrial labor force, contributed 8% of the country’s overall GDP and accounted for about 60% of Pakistan’s total merchandise exports.”  That being said, allowing Pakistan to export more textiles and apparel to the EU market is one of the very few ways to make the GSP system work and bring actual benefits to the country. Yet, the EU domestic textile and apparel industry can also cite statistics, arguing the necessity of protecting the domestic textile mills and saving the jobs there by resisting as many textile and apparel imports as possible.

On the other hand, the GSP system needs to take into consideration the benefits of all beneficiaries, especially to avoid creating “losers” and “winners” within the group. This is the philosophy behind the introduction of the “graduation of competitive sector” mechanism so that the interests of those “small countries” can be particularly taken care of. For example, when Pakistan is gaining additional market shares in the EU textile and apparel import market because of the GSP+ status, other less competitive developing countries may see decline of their exports. The textile and apparel industry is as important to these “losers” as it is to Pakistan.

Overall, the GSP debate reflects the significance and the complexity of the textile and apparel sector in the 21st century global economy.  Particularly, trade policy will continue playing a key role in improving the situation, yet it calls for courage and wisdom of policymakers.

by Sheng Lu

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