U.S. textile and apparel imports have been rising this year as a result of growing confidence among importers that U.S. consumer demand is recovering.
In February 2011, combined imports rose 5.8 percent year-over-year, to 4.1 billion-square-meter equivalents, the highest level for any February since 1989, according to OTEXA, the U.S. Commerce Department’s Office of Textiles & Apparel. Apparel imports set the pace, increasing 7.8 percent in February year-over-year to 1.9 billion SMEs, while textile shipments gained only 4.1 percent in the same period to 2.2 billion SMEs.
“The import numbers are up because retailers and brands are betting the economy will continue to improve,” said Julia Hughes, president of the U.S. Association of Importers of Textiles & Apparel. “Spring sales, warmer weather sales and a late Easter this year are driving these numbers.”
China remains the leading source by far, with combined textile and apparel shipments to the U.S. rising 12.4 percent in February to 1.8 million SMEs. Combined imports from Vietnam, the second-largest supplier to the U.S., rose 19 percent to 256 million SMEs, but from a much smaller base than China. Worse, combined imports from India, the third-largest supplier to the U.S., fell 4 percent in February year-over-year, to 156 million SMEs.
Some of the other top 10 suppliers enjoyed significant growth in their shipments to the U.S.: Bangladesh, with a 16.5 percent increase; El Salvador, with a 13.6 percent gain; and Indonesia, up 13.5 percent.
According to OTEXA, the top apparel suppliers through February 2011 were China, Vietnam, Bangladesh, Indonesia and Honduras. China was also the top textile supplier, followed by India, Pakistan, Mexico and Canada.
Six years after the establishment of the Central America Free Trade Agreement, that pact has disappointed its proponents.
The free trade accord was launched when quotas on imports of Chinese apparel were disappearing, with the hope that Central American suppliers soon would replace Chinese sources. But only two of the six Central American countries in CAFTA — Honduras and El Salvador — now are among the top 10 apparel suppliers to the United States. “CAFTA is holding its own, but they still have a long way to go,” Hughes said.
The trend is moving gradually in Central America’s favor, however. Over the past year or so, many low-wage apparel workers in China have begun to move into higher-paying jobs in other sectors, or remain in their hometowns to work in the rapidly growing service sector. Several major apparel makers in turn are ramping up operations in Central America aimed at exporting to the United States.
For example, Denimatrix, Guatemala’s largest blue-jeans maker, ramped up production to 180,000 pairs a week, compared with only 150,000 pairs a year ago. The plant supplies fashion jeans for such retailers as Abercrombie & Fitch, Gap, Urban Outfitters and American Eagle Outfitters.
Elsewhere, Darlington Fabrics in Rhode Island recently opened a manufacturing facility for warp-knit stretch fabric in El Salvador. “El Salvador is becoming the synthetics hub of Central America,” said Steve Perry, Darlington’s senior vice president.
Other companies boosting their exports to the U.S. from Central America include Nylontex, which makes seamless products such as leggings, leotards, panty hose, body shapers and underwear in Guatemala.
To facilitate textile trade with Central America, the U.S. Department of Commerce, in cooperation with the Inter-American Development Bank and the National Council of Textile Organizations, is building an online database of certified factories in Central America and a list of products they manufacture. “This will help with speed-to-market,” said Gail Strickler, assistant U.S. trade representative, who announced the idea at a recent show in Guatemala.
Contact Alan M. Field at email@example.com.