Byline: Joanna Ramey

WASHINGTON — After a two-month hiatus, imports of apparel and textiles in January resumed their aggressive march forward, increasing 15.6 percent against year-ago levels, the Commerce Department reported Tuesday.
The return to double-digit increases follows no-growth in December and single-digit gains in November. Previously, imports had been surging forth with double-digit increases over the last four years.
“There’s a real question here where textile and apparel growth is going,” said Donald Foote, director of the Agreements Division at Commerce’s Office of Textiles and Apparel.
Apparel imports in January increased 22 percent, to 1.39 million square meters equivalent, while textile imports grew by 10 percent, to 1.45 million SME.
January’s growth touched most textile and apparel categories. Mexico, Indonesia and China accounted for 27 percent of the combined textile-apparel increase. Of note, import growth among Caribbean Basin countries in January posted only a 9 percent year-over-year increase, despite being under a new duty-free trade regime, since October, that gives breaks mainly to garments made from U.S. textiles.
“The transition — educating companies to the new benefits and getting people to place orders under the program — is slower than anyone had anticipated,” said Julie Hughes, vice president of international trade with the U.S. Association of Importers of Textiles and Apparel.
Hughes also said companies, in some instances, may be holding back on Caribbean Basin orders until the U.S. Customs releases its final interpretation of legislation granting the trade breaks. Among their findings will be whether apparel made from U.S. textiles, that are dyed or finished in the Caribbean Basin, qualify for duty-free treatment.
Charles Bremmer, director of international trade at the American Textile Manufacturers Institute, blamed the surge in January’s imports on the fact that quota limits start anew on Jan. 1. He questioned, however, whether the increases can be sustained if retail sales are declining.
“Haven’t they heard there’s an economic slowdown ?” asked Bremmer.
For his part, Foote said his analysis shows quotas didn’t have “any significant impact” on January’s import growth.