Despite some gains in textile and apparel exports and new legislation meant to foster job creation, a panel of trade experts who spoke at New York’s Fashion Institute of Technology on Thursday said more could be done to help the U.S. recover from the recession.

This story first appeared in the June 1, 2010 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.

“Trade is defrosting under the Obama administration,” said Stephen Lamar, executive vice president of the American Apparel & Footwear Association, referring to President Obama’s objective to double U.S. exports within five years in order to create two million jobs. “While that’s good, [the President’s objective] is not that complete. Trade promotes job creation.”

Lamar said three pending trade agreements with South Korea, Panama and Colombia that are ready to be introduced by the President will result in export growth and jobs now.

Gail Strickler, assistant U.S. Trade Representative for textiles and apparel, called the President’s objective “paramount” in turning around the economy and also pinpointed potential trade opportunities abroad.

“There is a demand for goods made in the U.S.,” she said. “People are proud to wear our labels all over the world. There are consumers for U.S. goods outside of the U.S.”

The world’s “rapidly growing middle class” gives the U.S. new opportunities to enter foreign markets, Strickler said, pointing to the growth of gross domestic product in China, India and Indonesia. From 2000 to 2008, she said China’s GDP jumped 244.1 percent, followed by respective GDP gains of 124.5 percent and 179.5 percent in India and Indonesia.

The U.S.’ recent trade bill that extended duty free benefits to Haiti is a step in the right direction, as are similar policies with countries such as the Philippines, Cambodia and Bangladesh, said Lamar, adding the government could “get more creative” with such opportunities.

Janet Labuda, the Department of Homeland Security’s director of textile enforcement and operations, said the noncompliance rate for industry imports is about 46 percent, up from 35 percent last year. This includes goods that are fraudulently shipped, mislabeled, undervalued or transshipped. This shows a greater need for trade regulation, especially for countries like China, she said, notably involving intellectual property rights.

Regardless of potential risks, U.S. apparel companies are moving quickly to markets where there is a trade surplus, such as Russia, Canada, the U.K. and Saudi Arabia.

Companies are “looking to export to foreign markets,” said the U.S. Department of Commerce’s senior international trade specialist Anastasia Xenias. “If they haven’t done so already, they are doing it now.”

Xenias helps companies in their export strategies, including due diligence on overseas partners, labeling requirements and trade duties. Although there are many opportunities out there, she advised companies to do their homework and “proceed with caution.”

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