The United States is a major trading power and has been for many years. As of 2019, the US ranked 3rd in total exports and 2nd in total imports.

International Trade Statistics 2019 (US$ million) – Total product exports

World18,708,559,754
1EU6,108,353,27632.7%
2China2,498,569,86613.4%
3US1,645,174,3358.8%
4Japan705,842,0133.8%
5Korea542,333,3372.9%
6Mexico460,703,8042.5%
7Canada446,562,3112.4%
8Russia422,777,1672.3%
9Singapore390,386,2342.1%
10Taipei329,512,4331.8%
11India323,250,7261.7%

International Trade Statistics 2019 (US$ million) – Total product imports

World19,084,935,199
1EU6,063,219,26331.8%
3China2,068,950,25510.8%
2US2,568,396,44913.5%
4Japan720,964,4453.8%
5Korea503,259,3972.6%
7Mexico455,289,4862.4%
8Canada453,157,2252.4%
15Russia243,780,5531.3%
9Singapore359,008,2561.9%
10Taiwan285,906,2811.5%
6India478,883,7292.5%

Garments is the big exception. As of 2019 the US ranked 10th in garment exports, a little better than Myanmar but not as good as Sri Lanka.

Garment exports 2019 (US$ million)

World470,418,744
1China138,238,44729.4%
2EU134,510,51728.6%
3Bangladesh40,948,1818.7%
4India16,241,8113.5%
5Turkey15,540,1963.3%
6Cambodia8,286,7481.8%
7Indonesia8,237,1341.8%
8Pakistan5,843,2841.2%
9Sri Lanka5,665,0401.2%
10USA5,204,5961.1%
11Myanmar5,027,6541.1%
With imports accounting for over 95% of retail garment sales, the US does not really have a viable garment industry. Why not?

US garment professionals believe that the US cannot have a viable garment industry because the FOB price of Made-in-US garments is too high. Indeed US based importers base their sourcing strategy on this belief. For example, while the EU is the world's second largest garment exporter, US garment imports from the EU have but a 1.3% market share. 

Clearly, as we can see below, FOB prices from the EU are at a premium.

FOB price comparison (EU vs China)

HTSDescriptionFOB EUFOB China=+/- PCT
.6205.20Men's cotton woven shirts$15.11$5.99252%
.6203.31Men's wool jacket$111.31$47.27235%
.6203.41Men's wool pants$40.94$26.11157%
.6203.42Men's cotton pants$16.41$6.51252%
.6204.42Women's dresses$21.93$6.60332%
.6204.61Womens wool pants$51.39$21.62238%
.6204.62Women's cotton pants$14.29$6.04237%
.6109.10Cotton T-shirts$4.18$2.99140%
.6110.10Wool sweaters$41.37$14.75280%
.6610.20Cotton sweaters$11.86$6.68178%

Yet, garment importers the world-over flock to the EU to place their orders. Why the EU and not the US? It cannot be FOB price.

Three factors:

  • A reputation for quality production. Importers work in the EU because it is home to some of the world's most qualified factories with knowledge of fashion and the ability to keep the fashion in the garment.
  • A reputation for great design. Importers work in the EU because it is home to the greatest agglomeration of design of design centres.
  • The world's great brands. Made-in-Italy, Made-in-France, Made-in-Spain, Made-in-Germany – all offer great label cache that the US lacks. Those labels are worth money.

Why is there no US based Zara, H&M, Uniqlo etc?

Why do so many foreign-owned brands and retailers so well in the US, while so many US brands and retailers fail overseas?

Two factors:

  • Low price forces US companies into low-cost garment exporting countries that cannot provide the services, ethical standards and quality requirements needed to meet the demands of fashion consumers.
  • Low price forces US brands and retailers into lowest common denominator design, resulting in boring styles that are of little consumer interest.

The US industry is currently stuck in an industry paradigm that low price equals high value to the consumer. Until that belief changes, the US garment industry will remain in an ongoing state of decline. Regrettably, there appears little appetite for change now or in the future.

There are none so blind as those who will not see.

About the author: David Birnbaum is an internationally renowned garment industry specialist working for major importers, retailers, suppliers, governments and institutions. His latest book The Guide to Cost to Value Analysis is available at Amazon.