Outlook 2018: Apparel Industry Issues in the Year Ahead

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In January 2018, Just-Style consulted a panel of industry leaders and scholars in its Outlook 2018–Apparel Industry Issues in the Year Ahead management briefing. Below is my contribution to the report. All suggestions and comments are most welcome!

1. What do you see as the biggest challenges – and opportunities – facing the apparel industry in 2018, and why?

One of the biggest opportunities facing the apparel industry in 2018 could be the faster growth of the world economy. According to the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the global growth forecast for 2018 is expected to reach 3.7 percent, about 0.1 percent points higher than 2017 and 0.6 percent points higher than 2016. Notably, the upward economic growth will be broad-based, including the United States, the Euro area, Japan, China, emerging Europe and Russia. Hopefully, the improved growth of the world economy will translate into increased consumer demand for clothing in 2018.

Nevertheless, from the macroeconomic perspective, oversupply will remain a significant challenge facing the apparel industry in 2018. Data from the World Bank and the World Trade Organization (WTO) shows that, while the world population increased by 21.6 percent between 2000 and 2016, the value of clothing exports (inflation-adjusted) surged by 123.5 percent over the same period. Similarly, between 2000 and 2016, the total U.S. population increased by 14.5 percent and the GDP per capita increased by 22.2 percent, but the supply of apparel to the U.S. retail market surged by over 67.8 percent during the same time frame. The problem of oversupply is the root of many challenges faced by apparel companies today, from the intense market competition, pressure of controlling production and sourcing cost, struggling with excessive inventory and deep discounts to balancing sustainability and business growth.

2: What’s happening with sourcing? How is the sourcing landscape likely to shift in 2018, and what can apparel firms and their suppliers do to stay ahead?

The 2017 US Fashion Industry Benchmarking Study, which I conducted in collaboration with the US Fashion Industry Association (USFIA) earlier this year, provides some interesting insights into companies’ latest sourcing strategies and trends. Based on a survey of 34 executives at the leading U.S. fashion companies, we find that:

First, most surveyed companies continue to maintain a relatively diversified sourcing base, with 57.6 percent currently sourcing from 10+ different countries or regions, up from 51.8 percent last year. Larger companies, in general, continue to have a more diversified sourcing base than smaller companies. Further, around 54 percent of respondents expect their sourcing base will become more diversified in the next two years, up from 44 percent in 2016; over 60 percent of those expecting to diversify currently source from more than 10 different countries or regions already. Given the uncertainties in the market and the regulatory environment (such as the Trump Administration’s trade policy agenda), companies may use diversification to mitigate potential market risks and supply chain disruptions due to protectionism.

Second, although U.S. fashion companies continue to seek alternatives to “Made in China” actively, China’s position as top sourcing destination remains unshakable. Many respondents attribute China’s competitiveness to its enormous manufacturing capacity and overall supply chain efficiency. Meanwhile, it is interesting to note that the most common sourcing model is shifting from “China Plus Many” to “China Plus Vietnam Plus Many” (i.e. China typically accounts for 30-50 percent of total sourcing value or volume, 11-30 percent for Vietnam and less than 10 percent for other sourcing destinations). I think this sourcing model will likely to continue in 2018.

Third, social responsibility and sustainability continue to grow in importance in sourcing decisions. In the study, we find that nearly 90 percent of respondents give more weight to sustainability when choosing where to source now than in the past. Around 90 percent of respondents also say they map their supply chains, i.e., keeping records of name, location, and function of suppliers. Notably, more than half of respondents track not only Tier 1 suppliers, suppliers they contract with directly, but also Tier 2 suppliers, i.e., supplier’s suppliers. However, the result also suggests that a more diversified sourcing base makes it more difficult to monitor supply chains closely. Making the apparel supply chain more socially responsible, sustainable and transparent will continue to be a hot topic in 2018.

3: What should apparel firms and their suppliers be doing now if they want to remain competitive further into the future? What will separate the winners from the losers?

I assume many experts will suggest what apparel firms should change to stay competitive into the future. However, the question in my mind is what should companies keep doing regardless of the external business environment? First, I think companies should always strive to understand and impress consumers and control their supply chains. Despite the growing popularity of e-commerce and the adoption of transformative new technologies, the fundamental nature of apparel as a buyer-driven business will remain the same. Second, companies should always leverage their resources and stay “unique,” no matter it means offering differentiated products or value-added services, maintaining exclusive distribution channels or keeping the leadership position in a particular niche market. Third, apparel firms should always follow the principle of “comparative advantage” and smartly define the scope of their core business functions instead of trying to do everything. Additionally, winners will always be those companies that can take advantage of the mega-development trends of the industry and be willing to make long-term and visionary investments, both physical and intangible (such as human talents).

4: What keeps you awake at night? Is there anything else you think the apparel industry should be keeping a close eye on in the year ahead? Do you expect 2018 to be better than 2017, and why?

I think the apparel industry should keep a close eye on the following issues in 2018:

  • The destiny of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA): The potential policy change to NAFTA means so much to the U.S. textile and apparel industry as well as suppliers in other parts of the world. Notably, through a regional textile and apparel supply chain facilitated by the agreement over the past 23 years, the NAFTA region has grown into the single largest export market for U.S. textile and apparel products as well as a major apparel sourcing base for U.S. fashion brands and retailers. In 2016, as much as half of U.S. textile and apparel exports went to the NAFTA region, totaling US$11billion, and U.S. apparel imports from Mexico and Canada exceeded US$3.9billion. Understandably, if NAFTA no longer exists, sweeping changes in the trade rules, such as import duties, could significantly affect the sourcing and manufacturing behaviors of U.S. textile and apparel companies and consequentially alter the current textile and apparel trade patterns in the NAFTA region. For example, Mexico’s focus on basic apparel items suggests that U.S. importers could quickly source from elsewhere if duty savings under NAFTA are eliminated.
  • The possible reaching of the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP): Even though RCEP is less well-known than the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), we should not ignore the potential impact of the agreement on the future landscape of textile and apparel supply chain in the Asia-Pacific region. One recent study of mine shows that the RCEP will lead to a more integrated textile and apparel supply chain among its members but make it even harder for non-RCEP members to get involved in the regional T&A supply chain in the Asia-Pacific. This conclusion is backed by the latest data from the World Trade Organization (WTO): In 2016, around 91 percent of Asian countries’ textile imports came from other Asian countries, up from 86 percent in 2006. The more efficient regional supply chain as a result of RCEP will further help improve the price competitiveness of apparel made by “factory Asia” in the world marketplace. Particularly in the past few years, textile and apparel exports from Asia have already posted substantial pressures on the operation of the textile and apparel regional supply chain in the Western Hemisphere.
  • Automation of apparel manufacturing and its impact on the job market: Recall my observations at the MAGIC this August, several vendors showcased their latest technologies which have the potential to automate the cut and sew process entirely or substantially reduce the labor inputs in garment making. The impact of automation on the future of jobs is not a new topic, but the apparel industry presents a unique situation. Globally, over 120 million people remain directly employed in the textile and apparel industries today, a good proportion of whom are females living in poor rural areas. According to the World Trade Organization (WTO), for quite a few low-income and lower-middle income countries such as Bangladesh, Gambia, Pakistan, Madagascar, Sri Lanka, and Cambodia, as much as over 70 percent of their total merchandise exports were textile and apparel products in 2016. Should these labor-intensive garment sewing jobs in the developing countries were replaced by machines, the social and economic impacts will be consequential. I think it is the time to start thinking about the possible scenarios and the appropriate policy responses.
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CRS Releases Report on NAFTA Renegotiation and US Textile Manufacturing

23120124_10155817882672812_4644791366056415981_oKey findings:

U.S. textile and apparel trade with NAFTA members

  • The United States maintains a bilateral trade surplus in yarns and fabrics ($4.1 billion in 2016) as well as made-up textiles ($720 million in 2016) with NAFTA members.
  • Regarding apparel, the United States had a trade surplus with Canada of $1.4 billion and a trade deficit with Mexico of $2.7 billion in 2016.

Impact of NAFTA on employment and production in the U.S. textile and apparel industry

  • The effects of NAFTA are NOT straightforward, and the drop in U.S. domestic textile and apparel production and jobs cannot be blamed solely on NAFTA.
  • The U.S. International Trade Commission (USITC) concluded that imports of textiles had a tiny effect on U.S. textile industry employment (a 0.4% decline) from 1998 to 2014, which covers most of the period since NAFTA’s enactment. However, the collapse of the U.S. domestic apparel industry and changing clothing tastes may have had a more significant impact on domestic textile production.
  • There is little evidence that NAFTA was the decisive factor for the loss of jobs in the U.S. apparel manufacturing sector, given that the major growth in apparel manufacturing for the U.S. market has occurred in Asian countries that receive no preferences under NAFTA.

Impact of the Tariff Preference Level (TPL) in NAFTA

  • In nearly every year since 2010, Mexico has come close to exporting the maximum allowable amount of cotton and man-made fiber apparel with duty-free foreign content. Canada’s TPL fill rates are typically highest for cotton and man-made fiber fabric and made-up products but are not usually fully filled.
  • It is not clear that eliminating the TPL program would result in a substantial return of textile production or jobs to the United States; if it were to raise the cost of Mexican apparel production, it could instead result in imports from other countries displacing imports from Mexico.
  • Other than U.S. fashion brands and retailers, Mexico and Canada reportedly oppose the elimination of the NAFTA TPL program too.

 Possible Effects of Potential NAFTA Modification

  • Mexico’s focus on basic apparel items suggests that S. importers could quickly source from elsewhere if duty savings under NAFTA are eliminated. However, even now, some U.S. fashion companies say the duty savings are not worth the time and resources required to comply with the NAFTA rules of origin and documentation requirements. In 2016, roughly 16% of qualifying textile and apparel imports from NAFTA failed to take advantage of the duty-free benefits and instead paid applicable tariffs.
  • Whatever the outcome of the NAFTA renegotiation, in the medium and long run, the profitability of the North American textile and apparel industry will likely depend less on NAFTA preferences such as yarn forward and more on the capacity of producers in the region to innovate to remain globally competitive.
  • One change in NAFTA proposed by the United States would require motor vehicles to have 85% North American content and 50% U.S. content to qualify for tariff-free treatment. If auto manufacturers were to import more passenger cars from outside the NAFTA region and pay the 2.5% U.S. import duty rather than complying with stricter domestic content requirements, automotive demand for U.S.-made technical textiles could be adversely affected.
  • If the TPP-11 countries strike a trade deal, one possible effect is that Canada and Mexico may import more textile and apparel products from other TPP countries, including Vietnam. This could ultimately be a disadvantage for U.S.-based producers. How the inclusion of Canada and Mexico in a fresh TPP-11 arrangement would affect their participation in NAFTA is unknown.

The full report can be downloaded from HERE

NAFTA Renegotiation and Textile-Specific Rules of Origin in Free Trade Agreements: Discussion Questions from FASH455

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(Photo credit: Steve Lamar, AAFA)

#1 The US textile industry and the fashion retailers/brands/importers have very different priorities regarding modernizing and updating NAFTA. Do you believe that a compromise acceptable to both sides can be found? If so, what do you believe that compromise can be?

#2 Overall, why or why not do you think the U.S. textile and apparel industry is a beneficiary of NAFTA over the past decade? From the perspective of the U.S. textile and apparel industry, should or should not reducing the U.S. trade deficit be a prioritized objective in the NAFTA renegotiation?

#3 What will happen to the U.S. textile and apparel industry if NAFTA is gone? How should U.S.-based textile and apparel companies respond to NAFTA’s termination?

#4 In your view, why or why not the “yarn-forward” rules of origin are outdated in today’s global-based textile and apparel supply chain?

#5 Why do you think the “yarn-forward” rules of origin vary from free trade agreement (FTA) to FTA? Do you think there’s a way to make a universal “yarn-forward” rule for all U.S. FTAs?

#6 Why are the textile-specific rules of origin under free trade agreements so complex? What potential issues do you think can arise because of the complexity of these rules?

(Please feel free to join our online discussion. In your comment, please mention the question #)

NAFTA Members’ Applied MFN Tariff Rates for Textile and Apparel in 2017

If the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) is terminated by President Trump, the immediate impact will be an increase in tariff rate for textile and apparel (T&A) products traded between the three NAFTA members from zero to the most-favored-nation (MFN) rates applied for regular trading partners. In 2017, the average applied MFN tariff rates for textile and apparel were 7.9% and 11.6% respectively in the United States, 2.3% and 16.5% in Canada and 9.8% and 21.2% in Mexico (WTO Tariff Profile, 2017).

Below is NAFTA members’ average applied MFN tariff rate in 2017 for chapters 50-63, which cover T&A products:

tariff

US export to mexico

US export to canada

US import from Mexico

US import from Canada

Data source: World Trade Organization (2017); US International Trade Commission (2017)

by Sheng Lu

Related article: What Will Happen to the U.S. Textile and Apparel Industry if NAFTA Is Gone?

Mexico’s Apparel Exports Continue to Rely on the U.S. Market Heavily

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Mexico’s textile and apparel (T&A) exports totaled USD$6,441 million in 2016, fell by 5.1% from 2015. Around 63% of these exports were apparel (or USD$4,061 million), and 37% (or USD$2,379 million) was textiles.

Could be negatively affected by the appreciation of the Mexican Peso against the U.S. dollar, plus the uncertainty associated with the renegotiation of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), Mexico’s apparel exports further went down 7.2% in the first half of 2017 compared to 2016.

In 2016, the United States remains Mexico’s top T&A export market with an 87.3% share (up from 87.0% in 2015, 86.7% in 2014 and 84.7% in both 2013 and 2012), followed by Canada with a 1.9% share (up from 1.6% in 2015). Overall, Mexico was the sixth largest T&A supplier for the U.S. market, accounting for 4.3% of the market shares measured by value in 2016.

Nevertheless, Mexico’s T&A exports to the United States fell by 4.7% between 2015 and 2016 (from USD$5,902 million to USD$5,625 million). Product categories that suffered the deepest drop include cotton hosiery (down by 57.3%), men’s and boys’ wool suits (down by 35.9%), manmade fiber underwear (down by 29.0%), and men’s and boys’ cotton woven shirts (down by 27.9%).

Overall, Mexican T&A exporters feel relieved that the United States has decided to withdraw from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). However, without TPP, the Mexican T&A industry is still expected to face an increased competition from Vietnam and China both in the leading export markets (such as the United States and Canada) and the domestic market. Notably, the Mexican government has decided to lower the Most Favored Nation (MFN) import duty rates on the 73 clothing items and seven made-up textile items effective in January 2019.

References: Textile Outlook International (October 2017)

US Tables Proposal Aimed at Limiting the Yarn-Forward Exceptions in NAFTA Renegotiation

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According to Inside US Trade, in the third round the NAFTA renegotiation (September 23-27, 2017), the United States has put forward several possible changes to the existing rules related to textile and apparel in the agreement:

  1. USTR proposes to eliminate the tariff preference level (TPL) in NAFTA. The goal of eliminating TPL is to limit the exceptions to the yarn-forward rules of origin and “incentivize” more production in the NAFTA region as advocated by the U.S. textile industry.
  2. As a potential replacement for TPL, USTR also proses to add a short supply list mechanism to NAFTA, but details remain unclear (e.g., whether the list will be temporary or permanent; the application process).
  3. USTR further proposes a new chapter devoted to textile and apparel in NAFTA in line with more recent agreements negotiated by the U.S.. The current NAFTA does not include a textile chapter.

USTR’s proposal to remove TPL in NAFTA has met strong opposition by the U.S. apparel industry, fashion retailers, and brands as well as their partners in Mexico and Canada. According to these industry groups:

  • Eliminating TPLs would disrupt supply chains that have been in place for more than two decades.
  • Eliminating TPLs would not move production back to the U.S. but would instead further incentivize sourcing from outside the NAFTA region and put textile and apparel factories in the region out of business. For example, some apparel factories remain production in the NAFTA region largely because TPL allows them to use third-party textile inputs and the finished goods can still be treated as NAFTA originating.
  • Without the TPL, companies would opt to produce textile and apparel products in the least expensive way possible, likely outside the NAFTA region, and ship items into North America despite being hit with most-favored-nation (MFN) tariffs.
  • A short supply list would not ease the supply chain disruptions that would result from the removal of the TPLs because there is no guarantee products formerly subject to the TPL would make it onto a new NAFTA short supply list.

A potential compromise could involve a reduction in Canadian and Mexican TPLs to the U.S. and an increase in the U.S. TPLs to Mexico and Canada, which could boost the U.S. trade surplus in textiles and apparel with its NAFTA partners and throw a bone to the U.S. textile industry by ostensibly incentivizing domestic production.

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Fact-check about TPL

TPL was included in NAFTA as a compromise for adopting the yarn-forward rules of origin in the agreement. Before NAFTA, the US-Canada trade agreement adopted the less restrictive fabric-forward rules of origin.

The TPL mechanism has played a critical role in facilitating the textile and apparel (T&A) trade and production collaboration between the United States and Canada, in particular, the export of Canada’s wool suits to the United States and the U.S. cotton or man-made fiber apparel to Canada. Statistics from the Office of Textiles and Apparel (OTEXA) show that in 2016 more than 70% of the value of Canada’s apparel exports to the United States under NAFTA utilized the TPL provision, including almost all wool apparel products. Over the same period, the TPL fulfillment rate for U.S. cotton or man-made fiber apparel exports to Canada reached 100%, suggesting a high utilization of the TPL mechanism by U.S. apparel firms too (Global Affairs Canada, 2017). Several studies argue that without the TPL mechanism, the U.S.-Canada bilateral T&A trade volume could be in much smaller scale (USITC, 2016). Notably, garments assembled in the United States and Canada often contained non-NAFTA originating textile inputs, which failed them to meet the “yarn-forward” rules of origin typically required for the preferential duty treatment under NAFTA.

Related articles:

 

Trade Issues Facing the U.S. Apparel and Retail Industry

Panel:

  • Steve Lamar, Executive VP at the American and Apparel Footwear Association (AAFA)
  • Jon Gold, VP of Supply Chain and Customs Policy at the National Retail Federation (NRF)
  • Robert Antoshak (Host), Managing Director at Olah Inc.

Topic discussed

  • Renegotiation of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA)
  • Trump’s trade policy agenda
  • What’s going on in the retail market?
  • Technology and the future of apparel supply chain
  • US labeling requirements and a return of Made-in-USA