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Apparel Imports Decline in May

Shipments from Bangladesh and Cambodia fall while imports from Vietnam gain ground.

WASHINGTON — Disruptions in apparel production and concerns over workers’ rights and safety in Bangladesh and Cambodia continued to impact apparel imports to the U.S. in May.

But apparel import declines from those countries were also part of a broader drop off in apparel shipments to the U.S. in May on a year-over-year basis, a Commerce Department’s report showed today.

Overall apparel imports to the U.S. fell 3.7 percent to 1.8 billion square meters equivalents in the month compared with May 2013. Combined apparel and textile imports dipped 0.2 percent to 4.7 billion SME.

China, the top apparel supplier to the U.S., saw its apparel shipments decline 3.2 percent to 726 million SME in the same period. Vietnam appeared to be the biggest winner and posted the largest increase among top 10 apparel suppliers, up 9.1 percent to 208 million SME.

Apparel imports from Cambodia fell 14.7 percent to 63 million SME in May compared with a year earlier, following a year-over year decline of 7.9 percent in April. Months of protests and strikes in Cambodia over the country’s minimum wage and a crackdown by government security forces on striking workers in early January that left five dead have impacted imports from the country. Levi Strauss & Co. recently said it would pull back on orders over concerns of worker’s rights and the Cambodian Commerce Minister recently stated that Target Corp. has also said it was pulling back on business there.

Stephen Lamar, executive vice president of the American Apparel & Footwear Association, said of the falloff in apparel imports from Cambodia: “You are seeing the early impact of strategic and tactical decisions to shift sourcing away from Cambodia and that is a trend that will perhaps deepen as long as the uncertainty persists. Plus you are seeing some of the continuation of actual disruption that has occurred because people are having a hard time moving product into and out of factories.”

Bangladesh is another country beset by problems in its garment sector, which has tried to stabilize in the wake of two factory tragedies that claimed the lives of some 1,240 people. Apparel imports from Bangladesh fell 5.2 percent to 127 million SME in May from a year earlier, despite two major industry-backed initiatives aimed at improving fire and building safety there.

“It suggests to me that the numbers dropping off could reflect some of the business that has been lost in wake of the tragedies there for sure,” said Lamar. “But I don’t think we are queuing up for long-term loss because there is so much activity there to remediate and improve the situation in terms of fire and building safety and worker’s rights issues.”

Julia Hughes, president of the U.S. Fashion Industry Association, said that although there have been two months of year-over-year apparel import declines from Bangladesh, she also does not believe it will be a long-term trend. She pointed to her association’s benchmark survey that showed apparel sourcing executives are not planning to cut back on sourcing from Bangladesh.

“If you put it in the broader context, overall apparel imports are down and all major suppliers, with the exception of Vietnam, were weak in the month,” said Hughes, adding that the decline was “surprising,” but might have stemmed from retailers delaying shipments until closer to the summer and back-to-school seasons.