WASHINGTON — Apparel and textile imports to the U.S. fell 6.4 percent in February to 3.9 billion square meter equivalents from a year earlier, a report from the Commerce Department’s Office for Textiles and Apparel showed Thursday, as the Obama administration continued to tout Made in America and export opportunities.

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On the import front, retailers and brands kept an eye on inventories in February, following a long-term downward import trend.

“I think we’ve had this downward trend that has been continuing since the second half of last year,” said Julia Hughes, president of the U.S. Association of Importers of Textiles and Apparel. “We are definitely seeing some retrenching, and we’re not quite ready for overall growth….A lot of companies are not ordering as much product as they did last year, due to costs, and people don’t want to hold inventory.”

Apparel imports fell 7.1 percent to 1.7 billion SME in February, while textile imports fell 5.9 percent to 2.1 billion SME. The overall trade deficit narrowed to $46 billion in February from $52.5 billion in January.

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Apparel and textile shipments from China, the top supplier to the U.S. that has seen its shipments decline for several months, fell 12.7 percent in February to 1.6 billion SME compared with a year earlier. Combined industry shipments from Vietnam, which had been taking share from China last year but fell in January, dropped again in February by 11.4 percent to 227 million SME. India was one of two key supplier countries that posted an increase in textile and apparel imports. Its shipments rose 14.6 percent to 279 million SME in February compared with a year earlier. Pakistan’s apparel and textile imports gained 0.6 percent to 169 million SME in February.

Cambodia posted the largest apparel import increase of 11.3 percent to 89 million SME, while Bangladesh posted the second-largest apparel increase of 0.55 percent to 139 million SME.

Meanwhile, Made in America and a shift in production back to the U.S. and Western Hemisphere were among the topics discussed at an all-day White House conference on “Connecting the Americas” with business leaders across the country, in advance of President Obama’s participation in the sixth Summit of the Americas later this week in Cartagena, Colombia.

U.S. Trade Representative Ron Kirk said U.S. trade with the Western Hemisphere is roughly $645 billion, out of total trade of $2.1 trillion.

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“We think we can grow that exponentially,” said Kirk, adding that the country is on pace to meet the President’s goal of doubling exports by the end of 2014, based on a record year in 2011. “I can tell you that as I have traveled around the world in my capacity as trade representative, the words ‘Made in America’ are still three of the most treasured words in the world. It is still one of the most powerful brands in the world.”

Small Business Administration administrator Karen Mills said, “This Made in America brand is hot, and we see it in a lot of small businesses all around the country. When I travel around the country, the number-one thing they ask me for is a level playing field.”

Kirk said U.S. trade officials have found that more U.S. companies are relocating back to the U.S. to produce their goods.

“For a period of time 20 years ago, American businesses decided to go to places like China and Malaysia because there were hundreds of millions of workers who would work for $2 a day and transportation costs were cheaper,” he said. “But what we are beginning to find in many cases — and not just China but in many countries — while it is cheaper to get the workers there…our productivity has gone up….Businesses are finally deciding, ‘You know what? I think I’m just going to make this here in North America and in the U.S.’ It is the beginning of a trend.”

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