The humble T-shirt is a great way to tell the story of the shifting tides of globalization. For South Florida, you could say there’s a happy ending, particularly if you like the ring of “T-shirt Importing Capital.”
We have led the nation in T-shirt imports for 20 straight years. That’s a lot of T-shirts. For men, boys, girls and women; in V-neck, scoop-necked and round-collared; tank tops or sleeves; made of cotton, synthetic fabrics, wool and silk; in white, black, blue, green, yellow and red and more.
T-shirts are South Florida’s eighth most valuable import so far in 2015, according to the most recent U.S. Census Bureau data, which is through July. This is a continuing series of stories looking at South Florida’s top 10 imports.
U.S. rank: Yes, South Florida has led the nation for two decades. But 21 years ago, New York City led the nation for T-shirt imports. Turkey and India were the two top sources.
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South Florida’s first year on top was in 1995, led by a surge of imports from Jamaica and, to a lesser extent, Honduras, El Salvador and the Dominican Republic. The Caribbean Basin Initiative, passed in the mid-1980s, helped those countries, which in turn helped South Florida. New York City imports still grew, just not as rapidly as South Florida’s, and it ranked second with Los Angeles ranked third.
Just a couple of years previously, the North America Free Trade Agreement, which largely liberated trade among Mexico, the United States and Canada, had gone in to effect. Negotiated in the final years of the George H.W. Bush administration and signed into law during the early tenure of President Bill Clinton, it shifted T-shirt manufacturing toward Mexico. Consequently, a relatively small border crossing, Laredo, Texas, was on the rise. In 1995, it passed Los Angeles to rank second for T-shirt imports and, in 1996, it surpassed New York City.
And then China entered the World Trade Organization in 2001, and everything changed. It put China on a more equal footing with other WTO nations. That wasn’t good news for Mexico or, by extension, Laredo. In 2002, imports into Laredo fell more than $100 million while imports into Los Angeles, the primary U.S. gateway for trade with China, rose more than $60 million. The next year, Los Angeles imports rose another $60 million while Laredo’s fell a similar amount.
Fast forward to the present, and South Florida and Los Angeles have each imported more than $1 billion in T-shirts for five consecutive years. Through the first seven months of the year, the two have captured 41.07 percent of all imports. Laredo ranks seventh among the nation’s Customs district, with 3.75 percent of the total.
South Florida trade: T-shirts, while South Florida’s eighth most important import through July, are accounting for a lower percentage of all imports in any year in the last dozen, with the exception of last year.
They last accounted for more than 4 percent through the first seven months of 2002 and last accounted for more than 3 percent in 2011. So far in 2015, the percentage is 2.69 percent. In 2002, T-shirts were South Florida’s second most valuable import, trailing only men’s or boys’ suits. (Higher-value apparel, like suits, slacks and jackets, largely left for China. The category now ranks No. 19 among South Florida imports.)
Where it originates: South Florida’s T-shirt imports come from pretty much where they came from in 1995, when it first ranked as the nation’s top Customs district, with one exception: South Florida has not imported any T-shirts from Jamaica since 2013. Honduras has been the leading source for more than a decade, but its market share has dipped from a high of 38.36 percent in 2008 to 26.28 percent this year. Other key sources for T-shirt imports are, in order, Haiti, the Dominican Republic, El Salvador, Guatemala and, increasingly, Nicaragua.
South Florida competition: Yes, South Florida and Los Angeles account for more than 40 percent of all imports. But that’s not the whole story. South Florida is accounting for a lower percentage of all T-shirt imports in 2015 than any year in more than a decade with one exception: last year. Last year at this time, Los Angeles was importing more T-shirts than South Florida, though it fell back into second place by year’s end.
Gaining market share at the expense of South Florida the last several years have been the Customs district led by the Port of Savannah, Georgia, and Wilmington, North Carolina. While Savannah’s imports are coming from India, Bangladesh and Vietnam, Wilmington’s top sources are Nicaragua, Haiti, Honduras and the Dominican Republic, in that order.
As South Florida’s market share has diminished in recent years, as the Los Angeles Customs district has crowded ever closer to the nation’s “T-shirt Importing Capital,” it has had to rely on both Port Everglades and PortMiami to top the Port of Los Angeles for T-shirt imports.
Alone, the Port of Los Angeles has imported more T-shirts than Port Everglades, which ranks second, or PortMiami, which ranks third in the nation, since 2006. That is because since 2009, with only one exception, China has been a larger source of T-shirt imports into the United States than Honduras, which has ranked second all those years, with one exception. (At this time in 2011, Honduras ranked No. 1.)
Can South Florida remain the nation’s leading T-shirt importer much longer? Between competition from seaports in Los Angeles, Savannah and Wilmington, as well as manufacturers in China, Vietnam, India and Bangladesh, it will be quite the challenge.
Coming next: Sweaters are, with T-shirts, the last remnants of South Florida’s prowess as an apparel-importing hub — and its ninth most valuable import so far this year.
Reach Ken Roberts, president of World City, at firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter: @tradenumbers.
Two decades at the top for South Florida
July 2015 YTD
New York City
SOURCE: WORLDCITY ANALYSIS OF U.S. CENSUS BUREAU DATA