Donald Trump and Joe Biden have secured their parties’ presidential nominations for November’s presidential election so what would a win for either candidate mean for the apparel sector?

With ongoing debate about de minimis and enforcement of the Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act, relations between the US and China look set to once again dominate debate.

While Trump has suggested introducing tariffs of up to 60% on goods imported from China, Biden’s intentions are perhaps less clear, having so far neglected to lift any of the tariffs introduced by his predecessor.

Biden’s Administration did bring into effect the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework (IPEF), which came into force on 24 February 2024. The deal aims to strengthen ties between the US and countries in the region. The initiative does not include lowered tariffs, but some experts believe the deal could evolve into a more substantial trade agreement.

Here are some expert views on how the 2024 US election could shape the apparel sector in the coming years:

Biden versus Trump on trade and tariffs

Julia Hughes, president of United States Fashion Industry Association (USFIA) tells Just Style trade policy is rarely a major issue during presidential campaigns, however she says it is important to talk about the positions of the two candidates.

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Dr Sheng Lu, associate professor at the Department of Fashion and Apparel Studies at the University of Delaware has been tracking Trump’s and Biden’s major trade policy actions since they took office on day one.

He states: “While the two candidates fundamentally disagree on many critical issues, their philosophies on trade and specific trade policies are much closer than we thought.”

In particular, Dr Lu reveals: “Many significant trade actions initiated by Trump have continued during the Biden administration, from Section 301 tariffs against imports from China to strengthening forced labour enforcement.”

Likewise, he’s found that similar to Trump, the Biden administration has refrained from pursuing traditional free trade agreements or negotiations. Instead, it has emphasised the non-economic goals of trade, such as national security and geopolitics.

Steve Lamar, President and CEO at the American Apparel & Footwear Association (AAFA) agrees with Dr Lu that a 2020 rematch does suggest we will get more of the same.

But, he adds this “is not what our industry or our stakeholders need to succeed”.

Lamar states: “One candidate has proposed to deepen the trade damage he caused more than five years ago. The other has allowed that damage to persist while missing opportunities to forge and update new trade agreements. Neither vision works.”

Neil Saunders, retail managing director analyst at GlobalData joins the consensus that both Trump and Biden will become more hawkish on tariffs, especially on goods from China.

However, he points out Trump is much more protectionist and so may enact a tougher tariff regime which could impact imports.

Robert P. Antoshak, partner at Gherzi Textil Organization is keen to highlight the overall political situation in the US remains polarised, but trade remains the exception.

Antoshak joins Lamar and Saunders by stating high tariffs on textile and apparel imports from China is what Donald Trump and Joe Biden have in common.

He adds: “Sure, Trump slapped Section 301 tariffs back in 2018, but Biden has left those mostly in place.”

Hughes says the USFIA is already concerned about the outlook for trade and that’s before the campaign moves into high gear.

“During President Biden’s first term, the Administration focused on what they call worker-centered trade policy and dismissed trying to increase market access and lower tariffs. There are several multilateral negotiations that offer promise for serious and substantive trade deals in a second Biden Administration,” notes Hughes.

She adds: “However, we know they missed opportunities to help fight inflation and lower costs for American families. Remember that tariffs on apparel are as high as 32% and as high as 64% on footwear. They also missed an opportunity to eliminate the Trump China tariffs – which did nothing to curb China’s unfair trade practices but, according to a case study on the impacts of the Section 301 tariffs on apparel, footwear, travel goods and furniture by Trade Partnership Worldwide LLC, harmed US companies and American families with higher costs and caused employment in the apparel production industry fell by 13,000 people since the implementation of the Section 301 tariffs—a 12% reduction in the total workforce.

“On the other hand, if Donald Trump is elected to a second term, he has promised more trade wars and higher costs for American consumers.”

Hughes shares that in an interview with Fox’s Sunday Morning Futures on 4 February, he confirmed that he wants to impose tariffs of 60% or higher on Chinese goods and a blanket additional 10% tariff on all US imports.

Trump’s US Trade Representative said he wants to eliminate permanent normal trade relations (PNTR) for China, but Hughes is concerned that level of trade war would be devastating to the economy. 

Lamar: adds “Our next President needs to advance a predictable trade policy that opens markets, enables investment, builds sustainable partnerships, enforces smartly, empowers American consumers, and supports American workers.”  

Biden versus Trump on policymaking and predictability

Dr Lu explains one primary concern for the fashion apparel industry is the uncertainty associated with the election — while it doesn’t seem the China tariff will be removed anytime soon, will any new tariffs be imposed? Will new trade-restrictive measures be proposed to restrict de minimis entries? Will a government shutdown or budget cut create new challenges for UFLPA enforcement?”

Similarly, Hughes says predictability is essential for successful companies and for consumers, however when she thinks back to the Trump Administration, she recalls uncertainty: “There’s a lot of nervousness that a second term could mean a return to making policy pronouncements via social media and more impulsive policymaking.”

Biden versus Trump on manufacturing

The USFIA is also concerned that when Trump says he wants to “build America into the manufacturing superpower of the world,” his Administration would divert resources to trying to move apparel cut-and-sew jobs back to the US while putting tariffs on our Free Trade Agreement partners.

Biden versus Trump on apparel retail

Neil Saunders, retail managing director analyst at GlobalData believes a win for Donald Trump might provide a boost to spending, including on apparel, as his general inclination would be to cut taxes to boost the economy.

He’s also notes that Trump would be eager to roll over the tax cuts he made during his first time in office as these expire at the end of 2025.

He thinks Biden would be much less likely to maintain these, however, he adds: “All of this would be dependent on cooperation from Congress.”

Saunders believes the de minimis rule, under which fast fashion players like Shein can send products under $800 into the US without checks or tariffs, will also come under more scrutiny.

He shares: “Trump is likely to be more aggressive here, but Biden may also look to close the loophole.”

For Antoshak what will be interesting to see during the run up to the election later this year are the campaign promises or policy actions that further restrict apparel imports from China.

He states: “With de minimis and enforcement of the UFLPA still dominating trade circles, it’s more likely than not that some new actions, particularly focused on China, will be thrown into the mix of the election as both candidates vie for the presidency.”