WASHINGTON — Apparel and textile imports from China and several other top-10 suppliers flooded the market in March, as cargo that was backed up for months at West Coast ports due to a protracted labor contract dispute finally cleared, the Commerce Department’s trade report showed Tuesday.
Combined apparel and textile imports from the world to the U.S. jumped 30.7 percent to 5.4 billion square meter equivalents in March compared with a year earlier. Apparel imports rose 24.5 percent to 2.2 billion SME, while textile imports gained 35.5 percent to 3.2 billion SME.
Apparel imports from China, the number-one supplier to the U.S, soared 54.5 percent to 777 million in the month compared with a year earlier, as textile imports from China rose 65.5 percent to 1.6 billion SME.
Vietnam, the U.S.’s second largest apparel supplier, posted a 42.8 percent gain to 295 million SME against March 2014. Bangladesh, the third largest supplier, posted a 17.7 percent increase to 171 million SME in March.
Textile imports from India, the second largest textile supplier to the U.S., rose 25.6 percent to 327 million SME, while apparel imports rose 8 percent to 109 million SME.
Slowdowns and congestion at the West Coast ports in January and February, in particular, caused a severe backup at the docks. The Pacific Maritime Association and International Longshore and Warehouse Union negotiated for more than nine months on a new labor contract, resulting in backlogs at 29 West Coast ports. The two sides reached a deal in late February, but the backup of cargo from container ships waiting in line caused surges in shipments entering the U.S. in March, industry officials noted.
The West Coast ports handle most of the trade from Asia, and the double-digit import surges came from the region in March.
“We’re still running into problems with the impact of the port dispute,” said Nate Herman, vice president of international trade at the American Apparel & Footwear Association. “The March-to-March data is still really skewed because they are still clearing the backlog.”
Herman said the year-to-date data through the first quarter of this year could provide a more accurate picture of sourcing shifts. Apparel imports from China rose 10 percent for the year-to-date through March, while apparel shipments from Vietnam were up 13 percent and imports from Bangladesh increased 7 percent.
“Vietnam’s continued the growth it has experienced over the past five or six years, and China, even though costs have definitely gone up, is still a reliable supplier and people are going back there,” Herman said.
Herman said companies are committed to sourcing in Bangladesh, particularly those participating in two industry-led consortia formed in the aftermath of two tragedies that claimed the lives of more than 1,230 people. Apparel imports from Cambodia, however, fell 6.5 percent for the year-to-date.
“There is still concern over the political situation there,” Herman said. “I think that will switch gears, though, as we watch throughout the year.”
Julia Hughes, president of the U.S. Fashion Industry Association, said China’s year-to-date apparel import increase “may be a reflection of a trend we are going to see as sourcing returns to China because of the ease of doing business.”
Hughes said China continues to attract some new sourcing even though its imports do not receive duty-free benefits when shipped into the U.S. and wages are rising in China.
“You know you are going to get product you want delivered on time,” Hughes said. “That is a strong selling point in China.”
Hughes said Vietnam continues to “consolidate its reputation as a strong contender for sourcing apparel to the U.S. market.”
“I think you are also seeing a positive story for Western Hemisphere sourcing, as well,” Hughes said, pointing to an increase in apparel imports from Honduras, Mexico, El Salvador and Guatemala in the first quarter.