PARIS — As Europe’s apparel firms count down to the end of the quota regime, they are still debating what the effects will be — and how fast they will come.

They’re not expecting a Big Bang event. Though few sourcing executives contest the inevitability of major production consolidation to facilities in Asia, particularly in China, many question the judiciousness of committing to big strategic shifts now.

“No one is sure what will happen,” said Reiner Seiz, general manager of global sourcing at Puma.

Keith Jacobson, head of strategic sourcing projects at Adidas-Salomon AG, said, “It is difficult to know how fast to go and how fast things will change. The single biggest risk over the next year is that the U.S. decides to use its safeguard provision.”

While apparel and textile quotas will be lifted next year among World Trade Organization members, China will be handled differently. That nation joined the WTO in 2001, after the quota phaseout had been agreed to. As part of its accession agreement, China accepted a measure called safeguard quotas, which importing nations can use to limit Chinese shipments. The safeguard quotas can be imposed for up to three years in categories where Chinese shipments cause “market disruption.”

Executives said there is reason to expect that disruption standard to be met.

Experts expect China’s apparel exports to soar 150 percent in 2005, making it by far the world’s leading apparel exporter, with 47 percent of the market, according to a World Bank study. In Europe, a study from Paris’ Institute Française de la Mode projected that 40 percent of the trading zone’s apparel imports will be from China by 2010. That compares with 17 percent of all EU apparel imports coming from China in 2002.

Hennes & Mauritz, the Swedish fast-fashion giant, isn’t taking lightly the possibility of the EU imposing safeguards on China.

“It’s still too early to tell,” said a spokeswoman. “We could see EU action. We can’t be sure how sourcing will change for the moment.”

Even if questions linger about exactly when the last vestiges of the quota system will end, European companies anticipate 2005 to be the beginning of significant consolidation. Most said they have been preparing for years for this event, building their presence in China with new sourcing offices.

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