Apparel shipments into the US from Vietnam have fallen for the first time in 29 months

Apparel shipments into the US from Vietnam have fallen for the first time in 29 months

February is historically the slowest month when it comes to US apparel imports, but attempts to bring forward deliveries of spring merchandise amid ongoing disruptions at US West Coast ports led to a rebound this year. While five of the top ten supplier countries booked gains, including China and Bangladesh, the surprise performance was from Vietnam, whose shipments slipped for the first time in more than two years.

The latest figures from the Department of Commerce's Office of Textiles and Apparel (OTEXA) show the volume of US apparel imports from all sources edged up 0.2% year-on-year in February, rebounding from a 4.2% fall in January. Imports amounted to 1.99bn square metre equivalents (SME), up from the 1.98bn SME in February last year.

When it comes to individual supplier countries, there was a marked difference in the performance of the top three. While shipments from China - the largest supplier of apparel to the US – increased 2.1% to 770m SME in February, those from nearest rival Vietnam fell 1.5% to 222m SME, compared to a year earlier. This represented the country's first decline since September 2012, when it reported a 3.9% drop.

Bangladesh, meanwhile, saw its apparel shipments increase 13.9% to 155m SME, also bouncing back from the 8.4% decline recorded in January - although this was, in turn, below the 20% increase in December. India also booked double-digit growth (+10.3%) to 91m SME, and was up on the 4.4% gain in the prior month.

El Salvador and Pakistan saw apparel shipments grow 7.4% to 64m SME and 4.8% to 44m SME, respectively. But at the other end of the scale, there were significant declines from Indonesia (-10.6%), Honduras (-5.4%), Cambodia (-20.2%) and Mexico (0.6%).

Facts behind the figures
China continues to remain a compelling source for apparel buyers as rising prices are largely being offset by productivity gains. There is also the fact that no country can match China in terms of the size of its supply base, its range of skills, its quality levels, its product variety and the completeness of its supply chain.

Despite its February decline, Vietnam has benefited as both producers and buyers diversify their supply chains. The country's apparel business is also being buoyed by the expected benefits of the proposed Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade treaty with countries including Canada and the US.

India may also have benefited from orders diverted from China and Bangladesh during the month, as well as the recovering US economy.

Cambodia, however, continues to face criticism over working conditions in garment factories, including allegations published in March that labour rights abuses are rife thanks to an inadequate and corrupt inspection system and widespread subcontracting by suppliers.

While monthly trade data is often volatile, with big swings from one month to the next, a broader view of the year so far shows total US apparel and textile imports fell 2.9% in the two months to February to 9.12bn SME from 9.4bn SME in the same period of last year. Within this, textiles climbed 0.2% to 2.38bn SME, while apparel shipments dropped 2.1% to 4.04bn SME.

Movement within the top three apparel supplier countries during the two months shows imports from China have fallen 3.3% to 1.62bn SME, and Vietnam edged down 0.3% to 462m SME. In contrast, the volume of imports from Bangladesh rose 1.6% to 307m SME.

Other positives included a 3.6% gain in apparel imports from Honduras to reach 157m SME, a 7.4% increase to 177m SME from India, and an 8.8% rise from El Salvador to 112m SME.

Declines were recorded by Indonesia (-11.5% to 207m SME), Cambodia (-13.6% to 150m SME), Mexico (-2.7% to 142m SME), and Pakistan (-4.5% to 95m SME).