WASHINGTON— China, the number one supplier of apparel and textile imports to the U.S., posted the largest increase in combined shipments among the top 10 suppliers in March compared with a year earlier, as Vietnam also notched strong double digit growth, the Commerce Department’s monthly trade report showed Tuesday.
Apparel and textile imports to the U.S. from the world rose 9.7 percent to 4.1 billion square meter equivalents in March from a year earlier. Apparel imports rose 8 percent to 1.8 billion SME, while textile imports gained 11 percent to 2.3 billion SME.
China, which has been losing some market share to other Asian suppliers because of rising costs, came back strong in March, posting an 18 percent increase in apparel and textile imports to 1.4 billion SME. Apparel imports from China were up 11 percent to 503 million SME, while textile imports increased 22 percent to 983 million SME.
In February, combined imports from China saw a 10.7 percent year-to-year decline.
“January and February are often disrupted months and aren’t setting the trends because of the Chinese New Year, and a lot of people plan business before and after the Chinese New Year,” said Julia Hughes, president of the U.S. Fashion Industry Association. “That appears to be what is happening here.”
Hughes noted that while rising costs in China continue to shift some business away from the country, it does still control a 47 percent share of the U.S. apparel and textile import market.
Vietnam, the second largest supplier to the U.S., delivered a 15 percent year-to-year increase in apparel and textile imports to the U.S., with combined shipments of 309 million SME.
Hughes said there is a “renaissance” in Vietnam today. While many companies are anticipating potential benefits in an eventual Asia-Pacific free trade agreement between the U.S. and 11 other countries, including Vietnam, Hughes said the business today stems more from Vietnam’s proximity to China.
“While China remains the strongest supplier, increased costs across the board in China have prompted many companies to look elsewhere and for those doing business in Asia, Vietnam makes a lot of sense when shifting production out of China,” Hughes said. “Most everyone in the industry understands that TPP isn’t going into effect for several years and they are instead very much focused on the next season and quarter more than the long term.”
Bangladesh, the third largest apparel supplier to the U.S., which saw a sharp decline in year-over-year apparel imports to the U.S. of 10.2 percent in February, stabilized somewhat in March, posting just a 1.7 percent decline in the category.
Despite the global scrutiny associated with factory tragedies there over the last 18 months, industry officials continue to maintain that large apparel brands and retailers are committed to keeping their apparel production in Bangladesh and improving building and fire safety for garment workers.
“It looks like the numbers are flattening for Bangladesh,” said Stephen Lamar, executive vice president at the American Apparel & Footwear Association. “It shows that they are perhaps rebounding off of the initial declines [in February]. All of the activity you see on the social responsibility front with building and fire safety is going to be reflected in the ongoing volume of product that comes out of Bangladesh. Given the number of companies and the volume they represent and the commitment they have made to be in Bangladesh, I would be surprised if you saw any real drops coming out of Bangladesh [in the future].”
On the apparel import side, India was the surprise story. Apparel imports from India rose 22.3 percent in March compared with a year earlier.
“I do think probably some of this is explained by [some shifts out of] Bangladesh, although probably not all of it,” said Hughes. “There has been a lot of buzz about India, but we haven’t seen it in the data until now.”
Hughes said there were large increases in key apparel categories from India, including women’s woven blouses, which jumped 59 percent, and across the board increases in synthetic apparel, which has until now not been a big product category for India.