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Jennifer Marks

The gloves are coming off

As the 2004 race for the White House heats up, and the upcoming round of primaries promises to narrow the Democratic field, executives from the textiles and fiber industries gathered last week in South Carolina to outline their terms for support. Very simply, they boil it down to this: slam the door on increased imports from China.

No doubt the South Carolina setting was intended to send a message to Mssrs. Kerry, Dean, Clark, Edwards et al., given the state's status as an important primary battleground.

The industry group vowed to reach every textiles and fiber worker registered to vote and get them to the polls to support "any candidate that makes an ironclad commitment on maintaining quotas on imports from China." The group also vowed to work against candidates who fail to make the pledge.

The sad irony, of course, is that there aren't many candidates who qualify for that support.

Bill Clinton taught Democrats they could embrace free trade without losing their immortal souls. And one only need consider the recent implosion of long-time trade-agreements-foe Dick Gephardt's presidential prospects to be reminded that protectionism makes for a flimsy campaign plank.

A list of four demands pitched at both the current administration and the candidates was presented last week by an industry coalition, which includes the National Textile Association, American Yarn Spinners Association, American Fiber Manufacturers Association, Nation Cotton Council of America, the American Manufacturing Trade Action Coalition and the American Textile Manufacturers Institute.

Their requirements for support: continued quota restraints on Chinese textiles imports, the extension of federal buy-American purchase requirements to additional national security agencies, opposition to all trade agreements carrying loopholes that allow Chinese goods to slip in through the back door, and an end to further textiles tariff reductions under the WTO.

Ironically, the person most likely to act on any of this is President George W. Bush, now very much in Santa Clause mode with an eye toward November.

Already, retailers and importers lobbying the U.S. Customs Department to create some kind of carry-forward provision for 2004 on quotas have met with resistance.

And China is becoming too hot an all-around issue for the administration not to make at least a token effort to demonstrate some compassion for lost manufacturing jobs.

Chinese manufacturers, by the way, have expressed skepticism about quota elimination for some time now. Most continue to do so, including the managing director of Li & Fung, the $4.8 billion sourcing behemoth.

If they're correct, then all the uncertainty that hangs over sourcing strategies for 2004 will live on into 2005 — and possibly beyond.

A group of powerhouse sourcing, apparel and financial leaders, who addressed a Financo-sponsored meeting last month on the 2005 issue, predicted a period of chaos, confusion and multi-country sourcing networks.

As Li & Fung's William Fung noted succinctly, "It's a bad time to make sourcing decisions." Which may make it a good time for the U.S. industry groups to squeeze out some sort of government concession on imports, if only temporarily.

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