By  on November 20, 2007

NEW YORK — Apparel importers face myriad challenges in the months ahead, including record high energy prices, intensifying environmental pressures and political uncertainty on global trade.

"Life is not going to get any easier for us as we all hoped when quotas went away," said Laura Jones, executive director of the U.S. Association of Importers of Textiles & Apparel. She spoke at last week's Textile & Apparel Importers Trade and Transportation Conference at the Chelsea Piers Event Center here.

Bob Zane, a recently retired Liz Claiborne sourcing executive and USA-ITA's chairman, said at the Nov. 13 conference presented by USA-ITA and the American Import Shippers Association that there were few issues from which importers and sourcing executives could hide from now or avoid in the future. Apparel producers and retailers this year faced continued consolidation in the department store channel, a depreciating dollar and a widespread problem in the banking and credit markets.

Efforts to reimpose quotas on China and other protectionist measures are likely to be constant threats to the industry in the near term, Zane said. He noted that Chinese-produced goods face the threat of countervailing duties and that subsidies on 73 products have already been alleged. Zane believes it is reasonable to expect that several of those 73 claims will succeed.

"Add to this the prevailing anti-China sentiments throughout Congress, the specter of new or renewed quotas by the end of next year and the vagaries of the U.S. presidential election, and the confusion is compounded," Zane said.

Speakers also noted that shifting global trade volumes, lack of domestic infrastructure investment and stringent new environmental standards being proposed at West Coast ports were likely to disrupt the flow of goods moving into the U.S.

Although trade with Asia is growing at respectable levels, the U.S. is losing ground in trade volume compared with other regions of the world. High fuel prices and a lack of domestic infrastructure expansion are forcing ocean carriers such as Maersk and APL to reorganize operations to focus on more profitable trade lanes between Asia and Europe and within Asia.

"The U.S. has become a smaller portion of trade with Asia because of the size of the growth in the intra-Asia market," said Ron Widdows, chief executive officer of ocean carrier APL and a keynote speaker on transportation. "So, the U.S. importance relative to growth overall has diminished a little bit."

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