New AAFA Chairman Pledges Focus on Trade

Rick Helfenbein, president of Luen Thai USA, took over as chairman of the American Apparel & Footwear Association (AAFA) at its Annual Executive Summit in Washington, D.C., earlier this month with a promise to have his "boots on the ground" and to help the 425-member-company organization make a difference in trade. 

Noting that the 113th U.S. Congress has passed just 83 bills in 14 months, and none having to do with trade, Helfenbein told his fellow AAFA members, "You can do something about this."

One of the biggest challenges, said Helfenbein, is that Trade Promotion Authority (TPA) has not been renewed.  Known as fast-track negotiating authority, TPA gives the U.S. president the authority to negotiate international agreements that Congress can approve or disapprove but cannot amend or filibuster. Fast-track negotiating authority is granted to the president by Congress and expired for new agreements on July 1, 2007.

Helfenbein pointed to several trade bills, which he said could improve the competitiveness of the apparel and footwear industry, that are bogged down, including:
  • the Miscellaneous Tariff Bill (which helps U.S. manufacturers compete at home and abroad by temporarily suspending or reducing duties on intermediate products or materials that are not made domestically, or where there is no domestic opposition);
  • the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), an agreement the United States is negotiating with 11 other countries, including Vietnam, designed to enhance trade and investment among the TPP partner countries, promote innovation, economic growth and development, and support the creation and retention of jobs; and
  • Extension of the Nicaraguan Tariff Preference Level (TPL), provided to certain apparel goods imported into the United States from Nicaragua. "They told us this one had outlived its usefulness," said Helfenbein. "They don't get it! And they don't understand that they are hurting our economy."
The chairman also noted that the African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA), is set to expire next year. Signed into law in 2000, this act offers incentives for African countries to continue their efforts to open their economies and build free markets.

In concluding, Helfenbein implored AAFA to take its message to Congress.  "We are dying on the vine because we can't trade. I need you to come with me to tell your story. If we don't do it, nobody will. Don't sit in your ivory tower."

Echoing concerns about stalled trade was AAFA Summit speaker Jon Huntsman, Jr., former Governor of Utah, U.S. Ambassador to both Singapore and China and 2012 Republican presidential nominee. Also citing that the U.S. political system is in "dysfunction," Huntsman said: "I have a gut instinct that we are in trouble as a nation on trade. It strengthens our core as a nation. You [the AAFA] are in the perfect position to voice what this means in terms of our economy, jobs, etc." 

One way AAFA members can be more engaged in grassroots trade advocacy is via a new AAFA mobile app. As previously reported on, members can connect directly with members of Congress via the app, as well as access other resources.

Updated international trade policy
Also at the Summit, the AAFA board of directors adopted an updated international trade policy to support the association's legislative agenda and to guide day-to-day advocacy efforts. Its four main principles are:
  • Secure access to global markets and global supply chains through the elimination or reduction of duties and other trade barriers;
  • Promote best practices to ensure that goods are produced in a socially responsible, safe, and sustainable manner;
  • Ensure that governments take the necessary steps to protect and enforce intellectual property rights; and
  • Foster trade facilitation policies that support transparency, predictability, and harmonization.
Relative to trade, AAFA EVP Steve Lamar said the association wants to embrace export opportunities and also lay the groundwork for future trade agreement opportunities.

Lamar said, "We were pleased to hear the buzz about Africa at the [most recent] Sourcing at MAGIC. People are actually putting resources there."

In other AAFA efforts, Lamar said the association is working to move the Bangladesh government to reduce its duties on fire safety equipment, and it's also working with member firm TEXbase on a new chemical management tool so that "chemicals don't become an obstacle to trade."

New officers
In addition to Helfenbein's assuming the role of AAFA chairman for the next year, Rob DeMartini, president and CEO, New Balance Athletic Shoe Inc., moves to vice chairman; Paula Zusi, EVP and Chief Supply Chain Officer, Ann Inc., becomes treasurer; and Thomas A. Glaser, VP and president, Global Supply Chain, VF Corporation, joins as secretary.

AAFA has hired a search firm to help replace former AAFA CEO and president Kevin Burke, who took another position in January.

Susan S. Nichols is publisher of Apparel and may be reached at [email protected].
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