Garment-making countries had a number of hurdles to overcome in 2011, ranging from the Arab Spring revolts to natural disasters like floods striving to disrupt supply chains. But while some buckled under the weight of this pressure, others really came into their own.


Of all the countries disrupted by the Arab Spring revolts in 2011, Tunisia liberated itself in the swiftest and most business-friendly fashion. This key European supplier rid itself of despotic President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali on 14 January, and one week later, its textile and clothing sector was back at work. While companies reported problems getting their products to market, there was no overwhelming chaos or shut-downs they say, despite the mass protests that brought down the government. Looking ahead, with business freed from the corrupt Ben Ali regime, European investment is expected to flood into Tunisia, a country that was already the European Union's (EU) fifth largest supplier of textiles and clothing.

Vietnam's clothing and textile sector saw steady progress in 2011. A EUR3m (US$4.3m) Italy-funded project helped 34 Vietnam textile and clothing firms with training in design, marketing, pattern making and product development. Gap opened its first Vietnam stores in October and a Vietnam Banana Republic branch will be opened in 2012. Also, leading Vietnamese fibre manufacturer Century Synthetic Fiber Corporation opened its second fibre plant for $31.7m with a planned capacity of 21,000 tonnes. Looking ahead, Vietnam has been negotiating membership of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) free trade agreement, which could open markets to its exports, notably the US. That said, government plans to increase the minimum wage worried some manufacturers.

China's not a rock-bottom cheap supplier anymore - everyone knows that. It was confirmed by a Global Sources poll of 385 buyers found a majority paid higher prices for Chinese products, undermining competitiveness particularly for low-end products. But export statistics show that the world still loves to buy Chinese clothes and textiles. A study by the Trade Development Council noted that China in 2010 accounted for 38% of US garment imports, while the second largest supplier, Vietnam, accounted for just 7.8%. That's a lot of ground to make up. "Which other country has the manpower or competitive potential to take up the slack if exporters did need or want to dilute their reliance on China?" David Dodwell, CEO of Strategic Access Ltd, asked a Hong Kong conference.

The low cost production centre had an encouraging year, with India offering its manufacturers duty free access for 46 kinds of garments to the vast Indian market. This followed the decision to invest $581.2m to improve Bangladesh's unreliable energy supplies, long criticised by clothing manufacturers. The government also signed a US$120m credit agreement with the World Bank to fund investment in new special economic zones, where clothing manufacturing is strong. And Pakistan manufacturers voiced plans to relocate to Bangladesh. These advances could enable Bangladesh to improve its reputation for poor labour and environmental standards, although there were still strikes reported in 2011 and protests at key manufacturer Grameen Knitwear.

Brazil's clothing and textile industry saw significant expansion in 2011. South Korean yarn producer Hyosung launched production of its Creora spandex fibre at a new $100m plant in the Santa Catarina region; chemicals giant BASF invested more than EUR500m (US$723m) to set up a world-scale acrylic acid complex in Brazil, supplying acrylic resins for textiles; among other plant launches. Meanwhile, the government released customs reform regulations aimed at reducing illegal and irregular imports of textiles and apparel.


Egypt had a tougher and more protracted struggle than Tunisia against its resident despot President Hosni Mubarak. Egypt's US$2bn a year garment export industry initially struggled with a daily 17-hour curfew, protests prevented employees from getting to work, and the ports were closed. Then after Mubarak resigned, the industry was hit by strikes with workers demanding better pay and conditions. A summer rise in the minimum wage worried managers. And the spinning sector was then hit by a quadrupling in price of locally-produced yarn from January to June - causing some 51% of textile factories in the Nile delta city of Al Mahalla el-Kobra to stop work. However, Egypt's liberalised garment industry is well-positioned to prosper in 2012, as long as there is political stability.

Cambodia again provided an object lesson in the perils of bottom-line outsourcing. Labour campaigners pointed to alleged incidents of mass faintings at clothing factories. Examples were at a Puma plant in April, an H&M unit in August and at the Hung Wah (Cambodia) Garment Manufacturing factory in June. A probe of the Puma incident blamed excessive overtime, poor chemical storage and heat for the faintings. Meanwhile, a Yale Law School report criticised the widespread use of short-term contracts in Cambodia's apparel sector.

Rising input costs caused a lot of pain in India's clothing and textile industry in 2011. India's largest listed retailer, Pantaloon Retail, warned in February rising costs would inflate its fashion prices by 18% for mid-2011 and that "inflation will continue to be a permanent reality." And to compound matters, garment manufacturers staged a two-day strike to protest against a proposed 10% levied excise duty on branded India-made ready-to-wear garments. In May, India's spinning mills said they would cut production by around a third to reduce stockpiles.

Tough times in the largest central American textile and clothing producer. The government's 14.8% minimum wage increase combined with cost inflation to make manufacturers sweat about their future. Their industry association predicted 6,000 jobs would be lost this year or 10% of its workforce. Domestic consumers remained unwilling to pay more, and weak American demand means Guatemalan cost increases lost companies export sales. And then, in August, the US government requested an arbitration panel ruling under the Dominican Republic-Central America-United States Free Trade Agreement (DR-CAFTA), over claims Guatemala was breaking labour relations commitments under the deal.

Turkey showed an uncharacteristic lack of confidence this year by flirting with protectionism, introducing safeguard duties on some woven fabric, apparel and accessory imports. This was intended to help local textile producers. But the move was being questioned by domestic apparel manufacturers and brands who think that Turkey does not need input protection, especially with comparatively rich European markets continuing to buy Turkish exports. They could point at Italian luxury clothing company Loro Piana's ideas of using Turkey as a key distribution hub.