South Florida has long been the king of the T-shirt import. No more.
For the past 21 years, on an annual basis, the Miami Customs district, led by Port Everglades and PortMiami, has led the nation in these imports.
While this might not be glamorous, the kind of feat regularly trumpeted in chamber literature, it was the Customs districts’ seventh most important import in 2013, worth $1.34 billion. And, at year’s end, South Florida was still on top.
That’s no longer the case. Through the first seven months of 2014, according to most recent data released by the U.S. Census Bureau that I analyzed, the Los Angeles Customs district has finally dethroned South Florida.
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This is happening in a year when T-shirt imports are on track to set a record.
T-shirt imports into South Florida are down 21.70 percent while imports nationally are up 2 percent. (Relative to the steep decline in South Florida T-shirt imports, all imports into the Miami Customs district are off a far more moderate 4.28 percent.)
Nationwide, T-shirt imports totaled $3.38 billion through the first seven months of 2014. Los Angeles accounted for $750.71 million, or 22.22 percent of the total, while South Florida accounted for $688.96 million, or 20.39 percent.
Predictable as the dethroning was, it is nevertheless telling.
There’s even some surprising, and perhaps slightly unsettling, data underlying Los Angeles’ ascension. Because, while it certainly involves Chinese imports — China has been a big part of South Florida losing ground to several apparel imports over the years, from outerwear (men’s and boys’ suits) to underwear (bras and girdles) — it’s far from the whole story.
In fact, T-shirts were the last holdout.
They are the last stitch of clothing to succumb to the shift of apparel that began when it first moved offshore to a tax-incentivized Dominican Republic and to Central America — creating a substantial import business for South Florida — to Asia and imports into Los Angeles.
While China and Vietnam have accounted for almost half of all T-shirt imports into the Los Angeles Customs district this year, three Central American nations — three important South Florida trade partners — accounted for a record 22.92 percent of those imports.
Nicaraguan T-shirt imports into South Florida are down 66.01 percent this year. They are up 48.32 percent into Los Angeles and worth more than twice the value of those imported into South Florida.
The other two nations that are important importers of T-shirts into Los Angeles are Guatemala and Honduras. For Guatemala, both Customs districts imported about $60 million through July — Los Angeles slightly less and South Florida slightly more. For Honduras, South Florida imports still account for more than four times the Los Angeles total, $170.80 million to $42.78 million. But Honduran imports into South Florida — according to the data at the Customs district level — are down $78.51 million while they are down only $9.87 million into Los Angeles.
The big picture is that T-shirt manufacturing for U.S. consumption is shifting to China and Vietnam and, within Central America, from Honduras to Nicaragua, at least for now.
And, as mentioned, T-shirts are only the last in a long time of items no longer manufactured largely in the Caribbean Basin — the Caribbean Islands and Central America.
Three quick examples:
In 1993 and 1994, the leading importer of men’s and boys’ suits into the United States was the Dominican Republic. Then came the impact of the North America Free Trade Agreement, and from 1995 to 2006, Mexico was overwhelmingly the nation’s leading importer in this category.
The impact of China’s ascension into the World Trade Organization in 2001 wasn’t immediate, but China today accounts for more than twice the total of No. 2 Vietnam and No. 3 Indonesia — and more than 93 times that of the Dominican Republic. Imports from the island nation have fallen from more than $17.72 million in 1993 to $2.62 million in 2013.
The trajectory of the category for bras and girdles — 90 percent is bras — was led by the Dominican Republic from 1993 to 1995, meaning a leading role for South Florida. Mexico, which had been running second those years, led the nation in bra imports from 1996 to 2001, leading to a shift to Laredo and Texas.
Unlike as was the case with suits, which are more complicated to manufacture, bra productions shifted to China almost immediately after it began to enjoy the benefits of WTO membership in 2001. The next year, China was the leading importer, and has been ever since. China now accounts for the majority of bra imports into the United States, something no other nation ever accomplished.
The third example is socks. Jamaica led the nation in these imports from 1993 to 1995, Mexico from 1996 to 2002 — an almost identical pattern as with bra imports — and China has led the world in U.S. imports of socks since 2006. For the first time ever, in 2013 one nation — China — accounted for more than 50 percent of all imports. The total was $1.16 billion. In the 10 years, Jamaica — which once led the nation in this category — has imported socks only one year: $369 in 2010.
So, before you next don that T-shirt, check the label. If it says “Made in Honduras” or Nicaragua or Guatemala, it might be worth holding onto. It might be a collector’s item someday.
Ken Roberts is the founder and president of WorldCity, which focuses on the impact of globalization on local communities through events, publications and www.worldcityweb.com and www.ustradenumbers.com.
Imports of T-shirts by Customs districts
Total U.S. trade
July 2014 YTD
Change in rank
July 2014 YTD
New York City
SOURCE: WORLDCITY ANALYSIS OF U.S. CENSUS BUREAU DATA