WASHINGTON — The U.S. International Trade Commission has formed a snapshot of the domestic performance outerwear industry amid questions about whether trade restrictions in the category should be eased.
The new research shows there are just 13 U.S. manufacturers of outerwear such as ski pants and jackets for firefighters. Both sides in the debate, importers and domestic producers, seized on the data to support their positions.
Importers argue that, in the absence of a commercially viable U.S. performance outerwear industry, trade barriers such as tariffs should be brought down to ease the flow of commerce. However, textile lobbyists contend that a small but important band of producers are hanging on and need support in the form of import restrictions.
"We want to be in there and make it clear...that we now have verifiable data that shows this is a separate kind of product," which should be excluded from restrictions, said Alexander Boian, legislative affairs associate for the Outdoor Industry Association, representing importers.
Exceptions have already been made for performance outerwear. In 2005, U.S. and Chinese negotiators excluded ski pants and similar products from an agreement that imposed quotas on 34 types of imports from China through the end of 2008.
According to the commission's study, which drew on industry information collected through questionnaires and interviews, the 13 companies that produced performance outerwear pants and jackets saw production slide 28.1 percent last year to 650,000 pieces. The value of those shipments was placed at about $52 million. More than half of the shipments went to the military or U.S. government, which is, in some cases, legally bound to look first to domestic producers to meet their needs.
"We have a sense that there is something out there — it's small, but it's still an industry in the United States," said Scott Quesenberry, special textile negotiator in the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative. "The fact that it's small doesn't indicate either way, in terms of protecting it or not protecting [it]."
Often made of highly technical fabrics, performance outerwear is designed to protect the wearer from the elements during outdoor activities such as skiing or hiking, or from the extremes encountered in fighting fires, cleaning up chemical spills and so forth."They showed there are U.S. apparel producers and I didn't know any existed," said Cass Johnson, president of the National Council of Textile Organizations. "If they were to put in a bill or to say, 'We want the tariffs removed,' all we'd have to say is, 'Just look at this report. There are producers both on the apparel side and the fabric side.'"
A spokesman for the American Manufacturing Trade Action Coalition said trade policies are leaving these U.S. producers with a tenuous business model too dependent on military orders.
"These are critical companies that we need to make sure stay in business and we need to make sure that more of this business comes back to the Western Hemisphere," he said.
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