Dr Sheng Lu reveals the main US apparel import patterns of 2022 and the critical issues to watch in 2023 based on the latest trade data released by the Office of Textiles and Apparel (OTEXA) and the US International Trade Commission (USITC).
2022 marked the third year since the global pandemic. While the impact of Covid showed signs of abating in areas such as supply chain disruptions, the US and the world economy encountered substantial new obstacles, and geopolitical tensions escalated further.
So, what happened to US apparel imports in the past year? How have fashion companies adjusted their sourcing strategies in response to the shifting business environment?
Based on the latest trade data from the Office of Textiles and Apparel (OTEXA), associate professor in the Department of Fashion and Apparel Studies at the University Delaware, Dr Sheng Lu, provides a comprehensive statistical review of US apparel import patterns in 2022. The findings hopefully will uncover critical US apparel import trends and shed light on key sourcing issues to watch in the year ahead.
Additionally, given many
economic uncertainties, leading economic agencies, such as the World Bank and
the International Monetary Fund (IMF), predicted US GDP growth to be 0.5%-1.4%
in 2023, much lower than 2.1% in 2022.
This suggests that 2023 could be another challenging year for US apparel
sourcing, with relatively low growth for the total import volume.
Numerous studies suggest that US fashion companies leverage sourcing diversification and sourcing from countries with large-scale production capacity in response to the shifting business environment. For example, according to the 2022 fashion industry benchmarking study from the US Fashion Industry Association (USFIA), more than half of surveyed US fashion brands and retailers (53%) reported sourcing apparel from over ten countries in 2022, compared with only 37% in 2021. Nearly 40% of respondents plan to source from even more countries and work with more suppliers over the next two years, up from only 17% in 2021.
Trade data confirms the trend. For example, the Herfindahl–Hirschman index (HHI), a commonly-used measurement of market concentration, went down from 0.110 in 2021 to 0.105 in 2022, suggesting that US apparel imports came from even more diverse sources. However, on the other hand, Asia as a whole continued to serve as the dominant source of US apparel imports with no sign of decline. For example, measured in value, about 73.5% of US apparel imports came from Asia in 2022, up from 72.8% in 2021. Likewise, the CR5 index, measuring the total market shares of the top five suppliers—all Asia-based, i.e., China, Vietnam, Bangladesh, Indonesia, and India, went up from 60.6% in 2021 to 61.1% in 2022. Notably, the CR5 index without China (i.e., the total market shares of Vietnam, Bangladesh, Indonesia, India, and Cambodia) enjoyed even faster growth, from 40.7% in 2021 to 43.7% in 2022.
Additionally, facing growing market uncertainties and weakened consumer demand amid high inflation pressure, US fashion companies may continue to prioritize costs and flexibility in their vendor selection. Studies consistently show that Asia countries still enjoy notable advantages in both areas thanks to their highly integrated regional supply chain, production scale, and efficiency. Thus, US fashion companies are unlikely to reduce their exposure to Asia in the short to medium term despite some worries about the rising geopolitical risks.
Several factors affected US apparel sourcing from China negatively in 2022. One was China’s stringent zero-COVID policy, which led to severe supply chain disruptions, particularly during the fall. As a result, China’s market shares from September to November 2022 declined by 7-9 percentage points compared to the previous year over the same period. The second factor was the implementation of the Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act (UFLPA) in June 2022, which discouraged US fashion companies from sourcing cotton products from China. For example, only about 10% of US cotton apparel came from China in the fourth quarter of 2022, down from 17% at the beginning of the year and much lower than nearly 27% back in 2018. The third contributing factor was the US-China trade tensions, including the continuation of Section 301 punitive tariffs. Industry sources indicate that US fashion companies increasingly source from China for relatively higher-value-added items targeting the premium or luxury market segments to offset the additional sourcing costs.
Further, three trends are worth watching regarding China’s future as an apparel sourcing base for US fashion companies. One is the emergence of the “Made in China for China” strategy, particularly for those companies that view China as a lucrative sales market. Recent studies show that many US fashion companies aim to tailor their product offerings further to meet Chinese consumers’ needs and preferences. Second is Chinese textile and apparel companies’ growing efforts to invest and build factories overseas. As a result, more and more clothing labeled “Made in Bangladesh” and “Made in Vietnam” could be produced by factories owned by Chinese investors. Third, China could accelerate its transition from exporting apparel to providing more textile raw materials to other apparel-exporting countries in Asia. Notably, over the past decade, most Asian apparel-exporting countries have become increasingly dependent on China’s textile raw material supply, from yarns and fabrics to various accessories.
With growing concerns about US-China trade tensions and geopolitical risks in Asia, US fashion companies have been actively exploring sourcing diversification and bringing the supply chain closer to home. For example, the 2022 Fashion Industry Benchmarking Study indicates that more than 60% of surveyed US fashion companies planned to increase apparel sourcing from members of the Dominican Republic-Central America Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA-DR) through 2024. Another 48% of respondents planned to increase apparel sourcing from Mexico (or US-Mexico-Canada Trade Agreement members, USMCA).
However, trade data suggests a mixed picture of near-shoring in 2022. For example, CAFTA-DR and USMCA members accounted for a declining share of US apparel imports in 2022, measured in quantity and value. While CAFTA-DR and USMCA members showed an increase in their market share of US apparel imports in the fourth quarter of 2022, reaching 10.7% and 3.1%, respectively, this growth was not accompanied by an increase in trade volume. Rather, US apparel imports from these countries decreased by 11% and 15%, respectively, compared to the previous year. CAFTA-DR and USMCA members’ gain in market share was simply due to a sharper decline in US apparel imports from the rest of the world, which decreased by over 25%.
Trade data also suggests two other bottlenecks preventing more US apparel sourcing from CAFTA-DR and USMCA members. One is the lack of product diversity. For example, the product diversification index consistently shows that US apparel imports from CAFTA-DR members and Mexico concentrated on only a limited category of products, and the problem worsened in 2022. The result explained why US fashion companies often couldn’t move souring orders from Asia to CAFTA-DR and USMCA members.Another problem is the underutilization of the trade agreement. For example, CAFTA-DR’s utilization rate for US apparel imports consistently went down from its peak of 87% in 2011 to only 74% in 2021. The utilization rate fell to 66.6% in 2022, the lowest since CAFTA-DR fully came into force in 2007. This means that as much as one-third of US apparel imports from CAFTA-DR did NOT claim the agreement’s preferential duty benefits.
It is important to recognize
that taking advantage of the preferential duty benefit is one critical
incentive for US fashion companies to source from free trade agreement areas,
such as CAFTA-DR. In other words, not being able to enjoy the
duty-saving benefits would discourage fashion companies from expanding sourcing
from CAFTA-DR and lead to sourcing orders being potentially shifted to other
regions in the long term. Thus,
regarding how to practically grow US fashion companies’ near-shoring, we could
expect more public discussions and debates in the new year.
By Just Style