China and Its Place in a Changing U.S. Market II: PRODUCT

Much has been written about the underlying causes of China garment export declines.  Garment industry specialists and economists point to macro-economic factors, such as currency revaluation, rising labor costs and labor shortages as well as trade subsidies and inflation, just to name a few.  However, while these are important to China’s exports in general, their effect on China’s garment industry is overrated.

The garment industry is different because the garment industry is all about product.

To understand the problem we must recognize that the garment industry consists of literally thousands of separate products each fundamentally different than the other and each subject to individual changing customer demand.

To the economist the garment industry has but a single product — garments —which includes different models each differentiated only by design and price. To the economist, there is no difference between the garment industry and the automobile industry where trucks, cars and SUVs are simply different models of a single automobile product. The economist certainly accepts that there are manifest differences between a Ford Fiesta and a Rolls Royce Phantom. For example, the Fiesta costs $15,000 while the Phantom costs $450,000.  The Fiesta is produced in hours using robotic equipment, while the Phantom requires months using highly skilled craftsman.   The Phantom is much larger and much more comfortable than the Fiesta.  The Fiesta has no built-in champagne storage rack

However, to the economist these are not fundamental differences but rather differences in degree.

Ø    They both use the same materials.  Steel, aluminum, carbon fiber, microprocessors, etc.

Ø    The manufacturing process is virtually the same. Build the chassis, construct the engine and the body and assemble the lot.

Ø    The Phantom may indeed cost 30 times more than the fiesta, but that too is only a difference in degree.

The difficulty is that the single-product concept that works so well in the automobile industry, falls apart in when applied to garments.

Consider an item:  knitted pullover tops. This item includes garments as far apart as  a Haynes cotton t-shirt and an Armani cashmere sweater.  Unlike the Phantom/Fiesta comparison, the differences between the cotton T-shirt and cashmere sweater go well beyond degree.  They are fundamental.

Ø    They are constructed of very different materials.  The Haynes T-shirt is made of cotton. The Armani sweater is made of cashmere.

Ø    The process is entirely different.  The T-shirt is cut from fabric which is then sewn to produce the garment. The Sweater uses no fabric whatsoever. It is knit directly to the shape of the garment pieces which are then linked together.

Ø    The Haynes cotton T-shirt is available at WalMart for $5.50, the Armani cashmere sweater is available at Giorgio Armani for $2875 — 553 times the cost of the Haynes T-shirt.

In the automobile industry, if SUVs are not selling well you can convert the SUV factory to produce trucks or cars.  In the garment industry, if sweaters are not selling well, you close the factory. There can be no conversion to T-shirts because, other than the raw space, none of the existing plant and machinery can be used to produce any product other than sweaters.

The key to understand China’s falling market share is in the product.  The economist assumes that rising macro-economic costs have driven the customer elsewhere. However, when we factor in the products, we can see that the main problem facing China is not the customer that ran to another supplier, but rather the customer that disappeared altogether.

For example, China has always been the world’s largest producer of silk garments as well as garments made from what we call “other vegetable fibers”  (OVF) including linen, ramie, jute etc.

Between 2007 and 2011, U.S. imports of silk garments declined by -40.6% while at the same time OVF garment imports declined by -42.9%.  As a direct result China’s exports of these two groups declined by -$1.3 billion. Add to that the additional loss of $510 million resulting from declining demand in 39 other products we have a cumulative loss $1.8 billion. Had U.S. demand for these products continued unchanged, China’s 2011 recorded market share of 37.8% would have risen to 40.2%, an all time record.

The decline in demand for Silk and OVF garments also goes a long way to explain China’s reduction of average FOB prices compared to its competitors.  In 2011 FOB prices rose world-wide.  However, prices for made-in-China garments showed a lower rate of increase.  As of December 2011 FOB prices were at a discount of -9.7% to world average compared with a discount of -4.5% for the same period in 2010.  Most professionals assume that, China’s ability to maintain lower prices was due to export subsidies, currency manipulation, etc.  While these are doubtless important factors they are secondary to the changes in  product  mix.

Going back to the silk and OVF example we can see that the reduction of exports for these products would have a serious effect on China’s average price, since price of a silk garment was 4 times and an OVF garment 1.6 times, China’s average FOB price


U.S. Imports 2011:  China: FOB Prices

FOB Prices PCT Difference








Changing product mix has affected China’s exports in another more fundamental way.  Four basic commodity products — cotton t-shirt, cotton casual trousers, cotton woven shirts, underwear — account for 40%-45% of total U.S. garment import.  Typically, when a country enters the global industry they concentrate their production in one or more of these products.  As their industry develops, they diversify into more difficult higher value added products.

China has always been the exception.  In the past its product mix was always diversified.  Twenty years ago China’s top 5 export products were OVF sweaters, silk blouses, silk shirts, synthetic dresses and sports vests. During the same period the big-4 products accounted for 14.7% of total garment exports.  Ten years ago, China’s top 5 export products were babywear, silk knit blouses, silk woven blouses, OVF sweaters and synthetic dresses.  During the same period, the big-4 products decreased to 12.6% of total garment exports  China was always the consummate niche supplier because it dominated all the niches, leaving the rest of the world to fight over the big-4 commodity products.

The past five years has brought a singular change to China’s product mix.

The importance of the big-4 products has little changed over the past twenty years. As of 2011they still accounted for 40%-45% of total garment imports. On the other hand, with the exception of Bangladesh, the industries in most exporting countries have become more diversified.

In this regard, China is big exception Ten years ago the big-4 products accounted for 12.6% of China’s garment exports.  Five years ago that figure rose to 18.9%; and in 2011 to 28.9%.  Between 2007 and 2011 China’s reliance on the big 4 basic commodity styles increased by over 53%.


Cotton T-Shirt Cotton Trousers Cotton Shirts Underwear TOTAL
2007 2011 2007 2011 2007 2011 2007 2011 2007 2011 PCT Chg
World 19.9% 18.5% 17.0% 15.9% 3.4% 3.8% 4.2% 4.5% 44.5% 42.7% -4.1%
China 7.6% 11.9% 7.8% 11.9% 2.0% 2.9% 1.5% 2.1% 18.9% 28.9% 53.1%
CAFTA 37.4% 37.0% 13.3% 8.5% 1.5% 1.9% 13.5% 13.3% 65.8% 60.8% -7.6%
Vietnam 26.2% 23.0% 17.8% 14.1% 3.2% 2.9% 0.7% 4.3% 47.8% 44.3% -7.3%
Bangladesh 10.3% 8.5% 34.0% 39.2% 12.1% 12.2% 5.3% 4.6% 61.7% 64.5% 4.4%
Indonesia 21.3% 24.7% 16.1% 12.4% 6.1% 5.3% 2.2% 1.5% 45.7% 43.9% -3.9%
Cambodia 33.0% 26.5% 28.1% 24.3% 1.0% 0.5% 3.1% 3.1% 65.3% 54.5% -16.6%
Mexico 15.8% 12.3% 40.1% 40.9% 1.0% 1.5% 2.2% 1.9% 59.1% 56.6% -4.3%

It is this move away from its previously successful strategy of diversity that is the root cause of the decline of China’s garment export industry. While it is undeniably true as we have seen above in the case of silk and OVF, much of this change is due to factors beyond its control, the move from  high quality niche to basic commodity mainstream is based on the decisions of factory management.

It would appear that the average price of made-in-China garments is falling relative to its competitors not because Chinese factories are charging less for their products but rather because Chinese factories are making cheaper commodity products


This leaves us with a true enigma. Why should a sophisticated profitable industry choose to move away from fashion goods towards cheap relatively unprofitable commodity garments?

One possible answer lies in the nature of China’s garment industry.

In fact, China is home to two separate garment industries.

The first include the  Chinese state owned enterprises (SOE) which produce low cost commodity garments while the second consists of mostly foreign owned transnational factories which account for most of the higher quality fashion goods.

In the past both SOEs and transnational factories produced of  silk and OVF garments with the SOE’s concentrating on commodities while the transnationals made the higher quality fashion goods. When demand for these prodcuts fell, the SOEs returned to producing the big-4 commodity products, while the transnationals returned to producing the higher quality fashion goods.

When costs began to rise, the transnationals began shifting production to their branch factories located outside of China. The SOEs, however, having few if any overseas factories, continue to produce the same cheap commodity goods.

China’s garment export industry faced a double loss.  Changing fashion caused some of China’s customers to disappear, while changing costs have caused some of China’s factories to go off-shore


To the degree this analysis is correct, China faces a serious long term problem.  As China’s economy develops, costs invariably rise making labor-intensive production unprofitable. In this sense China is now facing the problem common to all industrialized countries, including the United States, Western Europe and Japan.

In every instance production moved off-shore hollowing-out the industry.

As outsiders, our mistake was to assume that China was unique in that their export Juggernaut would be an ever increasing force, destroying everything in its path, unstoppable until China controlled the world economy.

We have forgotten that many countries, each in its own time has been in the same dominant position.  There is nothing unusual about China’s current place in the global economy  or the challenges China fasces.

Clearly China must undergo serious structural and systemic change, if they maintain the levels of growth necessary to satisfy their people.  In this regard past successes may yet prove to be obstacles to making  the necessary changes.

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