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US Apparel Imports Staged 2021 Comeback

Despite bottlenecks at the ports and continued Covid disruptions, U.S. brands and retailers imported 27.42 percent more apparel in 2021, bringing in 29.47 billion square meter equivalents (SME) worth of goods following a 16.37 percent drop during turmoil of store lockdowns and factory closures in 2020, the Commerce Department’s Office of Textiles & Apparel (OTEXA) reported Tuesday.

Similarly, for the month, apparel imports arriving at U.S. ports of entry rose 33.7 percent compared to December 2020 to 2.51 billion SME.

Bouncing back from a 23.38 decline in 2020 in the height of the global pandemic and despite ongoing tariffs on apparel, imports from No.1 supplier China increased 31.45 percent to 11.13 billion SME, according to OTEXA.

This gave China a 37.8 percent imports market share, up from a 36.6 percent share in 2020. For the month of December, shipments from China were up 39.7 percent from a year earlier to 929.04 million SME.

Vietnam, the No. 2 apparel supplier to the U.S., saw its shipments rise 15.52 percent year over year in 2021 to 4.38 billion SME, picking up the pace after a slowdown during the summer due to Covid-caused factory closures. For the month, imports from Vietnam rose 17.8 percent to 340.73 million SME.

While troubled by labor strife and production inefficiencies, imports from No. 3 supplier Bangladesh jumped 37.85 percent to 2.6 billion SME for the year and increased 76.7 percent for the month to 273.98 million SME. A study from the Bangladesh University of Textiles, which collected data from the value streams of 17 textiles and apparel factories, most of them centered in the capital of Dhaka, found significant amounts of waste and excess inventory in the value chain. Translated into monetary terms using current market prices, every 100 grams of wasted material cost manufacturers between $30 and $177.

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At the same time, the ​​Bangladesh Institute of Labour Studies, a watchdog group for trade union activity, said last month that of the 431 protests that took place over the past year, 172 of them were led by garment workers demanding owed wages or better pay.

Among the rest of the Top 10 Asian suppliers, India and Pakistan posted the largest gains in 2021. Imports from India rose 41.69 percent to 1.28 billion SME, while Pakistan’s shipments increased 41.89 percent to 895 million SME. For the month of December, India’s shipments surged 62.7 percent to 115.14 million SME and Pakistan’s were up 31.1 percent to 86.41 million SME.

Seeing more modest increases were Indonesia and Cambodia, up 20.14 percent last year to 1.11 billion SME and 10.34 percent to 1.24 billion SME, respectively. Year-over-year in December, Indonesia’s imports jumped 52.7 percent to 91.25 million SME, while Cambodia’s fell 5.9 percent to 87.52 million SME.

Rounding out the Top 10 were Western Hemisphere producers Honduras, Mexico and El Salvador. For the year, imports from Honduras rose 28.13 percent to 872 million SME, shipments from Mexico increased 21.52 percent to 826 million SME and El Salvador’s rose 33.23 percent to 656 million SME.

The countries and the region are benefiting from a rise in nearshoring. A McKinsey & Co. survey of 38 chief procurement officers at clothing companies showed 71 percent said they plan to increase their nearshoring share, including 13 percent who expect to do so by more than 10 percent, while 24 percent plan to increase reshoring in their sourcing strategy.

For U.S. companies, Central America ranks highest on the list for future nearshoring activities, with about 80 percent of North American apparel firms planning to increase their company’s sourcing value share in the region.