WASHINGTON — As trade ministers from 12 nations convene in Maui this week in an effort to conclude negotiations on the high-stakes Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement, fashion industry executives will be on hand to try to exert influence over the rules of a deal that could impact sourcing strategies for years to come, and that the Obama administration views as crucial to its legacy.
With billions of dollars in trade at stake, company executives and trade association officials have logged thousands of miles across several continents to attend negotiating rounds and meetings in the past five-plus years — from Auckland, New Zealand and Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, to Lima, Peru, Dallas and Chicago — in the hope of grabbing face-time with U.S. and foreign trade negotiators.
In the first half of 2015, retailers, brands and trade groups spent millions of dollars lobbying on a wide range of issues in addition to TPP, according to Congressional records. While it is impossible to determine how much each company or group has spent on TPP, most executives said it is a top priority, an indication that a good portion of their budgets have been dedicated to shaping the rules of the deal.
TPP is considered a major market-opening opportunity for companies doing business in the 12 countries involved in the negotiations: the U.S., Japan, Mexico, Canada, Vietnam, Malaysia, Peru, Singapore, Brunei, Australia, New Zealand and Chile.
But it is also viewed with caution by many domestic sectors, including the textile industry, which creates a major drama in final rounds of any trade negotiations.
For the year through February, imports of apparel, textiles and footwear to the U.S. from all countries party to the TPP grew 24.6 percent to $22.1 billion, according to a table compiled by International Development Systems. Combined U.S. exports to the countries were $14.25 billion.
Debbie Mesloh, vice president of global government and public affairs at Gap Inc., said in an interview: “Our top government affairs goal has been working with the administration on developing the best possible package, a balanced package, and then to help in any way we could with the passage of Trade Promotion Authority and with TPP.”
She said Gap has been sourcing from Vietnam since 2001 and hopes to expand on its exports from there, which currently total more than $1.5 billion annually from the country. Two Gap executives will be in Maui this week for the talks, according to Mesloh.
“Vietnam is a very significant sourcing country for us,” she said. “That’s what we’ve been working hand in hand with USTR on, trying to provide the best possible data that we can on what is going to really drive that investment into the Vietnamese apparel industry.”
Several outstanding issues will confront negotiators in Maui, and textiles and apparel are among them. The U.S. has proposed a strict yarn-forward rule of origin that requires apparel to be made of fabric and yarns supplied by the U.S. or other TPP partner countries to qualify for duty-free benefits when shipped back to the U.S. Importers have opposed the rule, but American textile producers claim they need it to compete.
According to industry officials, Mexico and Peru are said to support a yarn-forward rule, while Japan, Vietnam, Malaysia and Australia (for wool) are said to be looking for more flexibility.
The fashion industry contingent plans to meet with negotiators this week to lobby on behalf of their interests.
Hun Quach, vice president for international trade at the Retail Industry Leaders Association, said retailers need to be flexible to make the TPP work. She noted that the industry estimates a small percentage of current apparel and textile production in Vietnam would qualify for duty-free benefits, largely because Vietnam imports much of its textiles from countries such as China, which would not qualify under TPP.
“We’re looking for increased opportunities across the TPP region, but particularly in Vietnam, so we’re working very closely with all of the various countries to make sure there are as many flexible opportunities in TPP,” she said, noting that she will be in Maui for the chief negotiators meeting and ministerial with a delegation from Gap, Wal-Mart and Target. “We’ll be talking to not only USTR, but other countries as well, to make sure our interests are being conveyed in the negotiations.”
Julia Hughes, president at the U.S. Fashion Industry Association, said, “There have been thousands of hours and dozens of meetings with administration officials to share our perspectives, make recommendations and provide detailed analysis. The industry has been very engaged in what we see is necessary to make TPP a truly 21st-century agreement. So far, the administration is still pushing a lot of concepts that we think are not particularly 21st century, especially a very restrictive rule of origin and also a very lengthy market access offer. How much flexibility will there be? That’s the battle and debate that is ongoing right now.”
Stephen Lamar, executive vice president at the American Apparel & Footwear Association, who will travel to Maui, said he and other trade groups will be pushing for an “agreement with built-in flexibilities that we have used in previous free-trade agreements.”
A coalition of four industry groups recently outlined their priorities to U.S. Trade Representative Michael Froman — immediate duty-free treatment for a minimum of 75 percent of current trade, a minimum 50 percent duty cut on sensitive products, a single transformation rule for important categories and flexibility to the “short supply” list that allows designated products duty-free treatment if they are not made in the U.S. in commercially meaningful quantities.
“We want to make sure enough of the agreement has flexibilities so that our members are able to take advantage of it in a way that creates the trade links we are trying to stimulate,” Lamar said.
The U.S. textile industry, on the other hand, will press negotiators to maintain a yarn-forward rule and secure a long phaseout of tariffs, particularly on sensitive products. Augustine Tantillo, president of the National Council of Textile Organizations, who will be in Maui with a group of textile executives, said TPP is “absolutely the number-one priority for NCTO and the domestic textile industry. It is consuming a big amount of our resources and energy. Obviously, there are a handful of countries that have signed up fully for a yarn-forward concept and a handful who haven’t. So we’re going to have to bridge that gap, along with finalizing market access positions, and it is a top-tier issue for Maui.”
The AFL-CIO has voiced strong concern about the human and labor rights record of some of the TPP countries, including Vietnam, Mexico, Brunei and Malaysia, and lobbied for strong labor protections.
“TPP seems to be going in the wrong direction,” said Celeste Drake, a trade and globalization policy specialist at the AFL-CIO, who has attended several TPP negotiating rounds in the U.S. and abroad. “We continue to push that it have enforceable currency disciplines and we continue to say that the investor-state dispute settlement mechanism is a huge mistake…We also continue to push for clear and enforceable labor standards since the enforcement record in prior agreements has been deplorable and not achieved the level playing field we continue to seek.”