WASHINGTON — Coach Inc. and other fashion brand officials outlined to the U.S. International Trade Commission on Wednesday how companies would expand sourcing and benefit from the U.S. government making a broad array of travel goods eligible for duty-free treatment under a U.S. trade preference program.
Congress passed legislation last year that removed a 41-year-old statutory prohibition on travel goods under the Generalized System of Preferences program, a move that then allowed companies to petition the government to include imports of certain travel goods for duty-free treatment.
The executives testifying at the ITC hearing represented a small fraction of the fashion brands that have submitted petitions urging the administration to clear the way for travel goods ranging from purses, handbags and wallets to backpacks, laptop cases and phone cases, to be eligible under GSP.
Several fashion companies and retailers have petitioned the government, either individually or as part of coalitions, including Tory Burch, Michael Kors, VF Corp., Kate Spade, Ann Inc., REI and Columbia Sportswear. The GSP program provides duty-free benefits for more than 5,000 types of products from 122 designated countries and territories. While the entire GSP program does not cover most apparel and textile imports to the U.S., it does cover accessories, such as jewelry.
The U.S. Trade Representative’s office has since accepted and begun reviewing 20 petitions from companies, industry associations and some foreign governments in a bid to expand the GSP program to include travel goods for the first time. It will hold two days of hearings on the matter next week.
The estimated amount of U.S. imports of the travel goods covered by the 20 petitions was $9.54 billion in 2014, according to four petitions filed on behalf of several brands and retailers by Sorini, Samet & Associates LLC. Of that total, China accounted for roughly $6.73 billion in travel goods imports to the U.S. China is not eligible for GSP benefits. Vietnam, which is also not eligible for GSP benefits, is the second-largest supplier of those imported travel goods to the U.S, which totaled $855.1 million in 2014.
But the Philippines, India, Indonesia and Thailand — all existing small suppliers of travel goods to the U.S. — are GSP eligible and could benefit significantly if duty-free benefits are granted under the program, according to companies and industry groups. The Philippines was the largest of those four current travel goods suppliers, according to the petitions, but its imports only totaled $140.5 million in 2014.
Stephen Lamar, executive vice president at the American Apparel & Footwear Association, said members of the AAFA, Travel Goods Association and Fashion Accessories Shippers Association support the move.
First, he said the “addition of these products will provide important opportunities for U.S. companies to diversify their sourcing.”
“Such diversification will benefit GSP beneficiary countries, given that most travel goods are currently made in just a handful of countries,” he said. “The top four countries by value — China, Vietnam, Italy and France — account for approximately 86 percent of all U.S. travel goods imports. None of these four are GSP eligible.”
Lamar also argued that the imported goods are not “sensitive,” as there is little U.S. production of these goods.
“Granting these products GSP eligibility will confer important benefits to the U.S. economy,” Lamar said. “Among other things, GSP status for these products for all countries will support the more than 100,000 high value-added travel goods industry jobs in retail, design, brand management and distribution here in the United States; reduce duty costs, freeing up resources that can be used to increase employment; spur innovation or promote competitiveness for our member companies…and third, benefit U.S. consumers through low prices or more choices on such basic everyday items as purses or children’s backpacks.”
Coach is poised to shift a significant amount of production out of China if all GSP countries are granted duty-free benefits, according to Angus McRae, global supply chain officer for Coach.
“Coach estimates that it would shift the majority of its production currently taking place in China to a point where we rely on China for no more than 10 percent of our sourcing of travel goods within a few years,” McRae told the ITC.
McRae said Coach views the Philippines, a GSP beneficiary, as a “major sourcing partner with the potential to grow immediately.”
Coach began to examine other sourcing options about six years ago to diversify out of China, McRae said. It moved some production to Vietnam and also expanded into the Philippines and most recently Thailand, both of which are GSP countries. The company has also expanded in India to include men’s wallets, men’s bags, women’s wallets, belts and other leather products.
“Duty-free for these items would provide a tremendous benefit to Coach, enabling us to expand production in these markets, and grow our American retail business,” McRae said.