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Sharp Import Declines Hit China, Bangladesh

Volatility has crept into the U.S. apparel and textile import market after a long period of stability.

WASHINGTON — Volatility has crept into the U.S. apparel and textile import market after a long period of stability.

Two of the most steady powerhouse suppliers — China and Bangladesh — saw substantial declines in February imports, with market share being taken mostly by Asian neighbors India and Vietnam. China’s declines have been attributed to its desire to manufacture more for its domestic market and the rising costs of sourcing there, while Bangladesh continues to deal with the backlash of factory tragedies over the last 18 months.

Apparel and textile imports to the U.S. from the world fell 4.1 percent to 4.3 billion square meter equivalents in February compared with a year earlier, according to the Commerce Department’s release Thursday. Tepid retail conditions in the U.S. and weak forecasts for the first half played a role, as did the burgeoning Made in America movement biting into imports, experts have noted. Apparel imports fell 4.2 percent to 1.9 billion SME, while textile shipments declined 4 percent to 2.3 billion SME.

Combined imports to the U.S. from top supplier China decreased 10.7 percent to 1.9 billion SME in February compared with a year earlier, its biggest such decline since March of last year. India, a large textile supplier to the U.S., posted the biggest combined gain — a 20.3 percent increase — among the top 10 countries.

Bangladesh, the third-largest apparel supplier to the U.S., saw its apparel imports drop 10.2 percent to 136 million SME. The last time the country’s imports to the U.S. had such a significant drop was April 2012.

According to Nate Herman, vice president of international trade at the America Apparel & Footwear Association, “You have companies with a significant amount of business in Bangladesh like H&M, Gap and Wal-Mart that are committed to staying there, but you also have a lot of companies that were trying out the market for the first time [or had a small percentage of apparel production], and they have since made the decision to pull out until things settle down there.”

The Alliance for Bangladesh Worker Safety, which includes Wal-Mart Stores Inc., Gap Inc., VF Corp. and Target Corp., said Thursday it has added 12 new officials ranging from government and labor to business and international organizations to its board of advisers.

The alliance, with 26 company members, represents one of two industry safety initiatives launched in the aftermath of two factory tragedies in Bangladesh that claimed the lives of more than 1,240 workers and thrust the Asian country’s garment industry and inadequate fire and safety standards into the global spotlight. In recent months, lawmakers and worker and labor rights groups have criticized the alliance for not having labor and union representation on its committees.

Among the new board members are Avedis Seferian, president and chief executive officer of Worldwide Responsible Accredited Production (WRAP), and Rick Darling; executive director of government and public affairs at Li & Fung Trading Ltd.

“The combination of their individual perspectives and breadth of expertise across government, women’s issues, labor and global development will help us implement our comprehensive commitment to a safer ready-made garment industry in Bangladesh,” said Ellen Tauscher, independent chair of the alliance.

The board of advisers will oversee the group’s goals, including inspecting all garment factories its members use by July. To date, more than 40 percent of those 700 factories have been inspected. In addition, training programs have been launched and a worker help line will be rolled out in 50 factories this month. The alliance said it is also providing technical support and has established oversight of the remediation at factories that need to be upgraded and improved.

The overall U.S. trade deficit widened to $42.3 billion in February from $39.3 billion.

Trade was also in the spotlight on Capitol Hill, as House lawmakers focused on the Trans-Pacific Partnership negotiations between the U.S. and 11 countries and voiced concerns to U.S. Trade Representative Michael Froman over Japan’s apparent intransigence to opening its agriculture and automotive markets, arguing it is slowing down the talks.

At a House Ways & Means Committee hearing, chairman Dave Camp (R., Mich.) said Japan is “significantly holding up progress on TPP” and giving other countries such as Canada “an excuse” not to open its market.

“If a country is not ready to make a commitment then, in my view, we should complete the TPP without that country and allow them to join later if and when it is ready to make the necessary commitment,” Camp said.

Froman, seemingly sending Japan a message, said, “We can’t have one country feeling entitled to take off the table and exclude vast areas of market access while the other countries are all putting on the table more ambitious offers. We’re being plenty creative in coming up with ways to ensure comprehensive market access to Japan and addressing political sensitivities as well. It is time for Japan to step up to the plate.”

Lawmakers also reiterated a need for a trade promotion authority bill, which most argue needs to be passed before Congress will take up the TPP trade pact.