By  on March 11, 2012

WASHINGTON — Apparel and textile imports to the U.S. fell 0.1 percent in January to 4.4 billion square meter equivalents from a year earlier, a report from the Commerce Department’s Office of Textiles and Apparel showed Friday.

Retailers and brands continued to play it safe on inventories in January, following a 2011 in which apparel and textile imports fell 3.1 percent in a slowly recovering economy. Apparel imports in January were virtually flat at 1.98 billion SME, while textile imports fell 0.2 percent to 2.46 billion SME. The overall trade deficit widened to $52.6 billion in January from a revised $50.4 billion in December.

Apparel and textile shipments from China, the top supplier to the U.S., rose 4.1 percent to 2.1 billion SME compared with January 2011, after declining for several months. Apparel shipments from China were up 3.6 percent to 834 million SME, while textile imports gained 4.5 percent to 1.3 billion SME on a year-over-year basis.

Combined industry imports from Vietnam, which was posting solid gains last year and taking market share from China, fell 3.1 percent to 257 million SME. Apparel imports, which represent the bulk of imports from Vietnam, rose 5.9 percent to 196 million SME, while textile shipments fell 24 percent to 61 million SME.

Apparel imports from Honduras, the fifth-largest apparel supplier to the U.S., posted the biggest decline of 18.5 percent to 62 million SME in January. Apparel imports from the entire Central American region declined 6 percent to 178 million SME in January compared with January 2011.

“It was surprising to see that large of a decline from Honduras,” said Nate Herman, vice president of international trade at the American Apparel & Footwear Association. “Guatemala has had a lot of political issues, gang violence and kidnappings. Honduras has also had some of those issues to a lesser degree.”

Herman said Vietnam and Bangladesh are “poised for growth,” while India and Pakistan will likely lose business because of political instability in Pakistan and infrastructure issues in both countries.

He also pointed out that the industry is concerned about losing a third-country fabric provision, set to expire at the end of September, under the African Growth & Opportunity Act. Congress has not moved to extend the provision that allows companies to use fabrics from outside of sub-Saharan Africa and still qualify for duty free benefits when shipped to the U.S. Herman said companies are already pulling business out of sub-Saharan Africa, fearing they will lose the preference. Apparel imports from sub-Saharan Africa fell 6.2 percent to 17.5 million SME in January compared with a year earlier. A coalition of industry groups sent a letter Friday to the chairmen and ranking members of the two key committees overseeing trade, urging them to extend the provision they said has helped U.S. retailers “achieve lower costs and diversify their supply chains.”

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