NCTO Advisory to the Trade — April 4, 2019
Free Trade Agreement Benefits and YOU

Free Trade Agreement Benefits and YOU


The United States has 14 free trade agreements (FTAs) with 20 nations. Two — NAFTA with Mexico and Canada, and DR-CAFTA with six Central American/Caribbean partners — are regional.  The rest are bilateral, meaning they each are between the U.S. and one partner nation. All but two — the agreements with Israel and with Jordan — contain a yarn forward rule of origin that promises, and delivers, potential benefits to U.S. fiber, yarn, and fabric producers who understand the complex rules of each agreement.

This brief paper is intended to give an overview of U.S. free trade agreements as they relate to textile and apparel products. The information presented is meant to serve as a guide. Only the agreement text and the customs regulations issued to implement the agreement are definitive. For complex issues or where interpretation is required, U.S. exporters or importers should seek professional assistance or an advanced ruling from the customs administration in the country to which they are exporting.

Understanding and Benefiting from FTAs

1. First, you must understand that each agreement has its own set of rules, and even within a regional agreement such as NAFTA, the rules may vary slightly from nation to nation. When considering participation in an FTA sourcing program do not assume that because a particular model works within one FTA that it will work in another. For example, say you have been shipping U.S.-made fabric to Colombia for assembly into apparel that will enter the U.S. duty-free. You have been using third-country rayon filament yarn, which is exempt from the yarn forward requirement because no one makes it in the region. Now, say your customer wants to move that operation to Mexico. The apparel would not quality for duty-free entry under NAFTA, because NAFTA has no such exemption for rayon filament. (By the way, the new USMCA, which NCTO supports, amends the rule to reflect the current state of unavailability of filament rayon in the region.)

2. Next, understand that each agreement is a “silo,” with limited exceptions; there is no “mix and match.” For example, you may ship U.S.-made fabric of U.S.-made yarn to Mexico for assembly into tailored apparel containing a lining fabric made in Canada, and that apparel will enter the U.S. duty free. But if you try to do that in, say, the Dominican Republic, the apparel will not qualify for DR-CAFTA because Canada is not part of that agreement.

3. Setting aside the agreements with Israel and Jordan, all the rest of the U.S. FTAs have the yarn forward rule of origin. However, it is important to know (a) how the yarn forward rule applies and (b) what, if any, exceptions there are.

(a) In all cases the yarn forward rule applies to the single fabric component that determines the tariff classification of the article in question. This is referred to as the essential character fabric.  Beyond that, some agreements have additional requirements relating to secondary textile components such as linings, narrow elastic fabrics, pocketing, and sewing thread. These rules can vary from agreement to agreement, so never assume that what is permissible in one agreement will be permissible in another. Further, as agreements are revisited to update them for changes in trade flow, and to reflect knowledge gained from seeing how other agreements have worked, these rules may be modified. For example, NCTO was successful in improving the USMCA over NAFTA by adding narrow elastic, pocketing, and sewing thread requirements. These concepts were first introduced in later agreements like CAFTA and have proven to benefit the regional supply chair, including U.S. textile producers.

(b) Each agreement has its own, unique list of exceptions to the yarn forward rule. In “trade-speak” we call them “derogations.” Derogations from the rules of origin may include such things as a cut-and-sew rule for certain very specific articles of apparel, tariff preference levels for a limited quantity of otherwise non-qualifying trade, cumulation with non-partner countries for specific inputs (such as the rule allowing certain nylon filament yarn from Canada, Israel, or Mexico in some FTAs), and a de minimis allowance for a small amount of non-originating fiber or yarn.

Why all this Complexity?

While in some ways it might appear easier to have the same rules for each agreement, there are very sound reasons for this complexity. Each agreement is the result of the compromises reached between the U.S. and the member partner(s); perhaps the U.S. decided to grant a particular concession to one nation in order to bring the negotiation to completion, or as a reflection of historic bilateral trading patterns, that certainly does not justify granting the same concession in another FTA merely for the sake of uniformity. Uniformity would, almost certainly, result in settling on the lowest common denominator and would erode hard-fought gains to require, as much as practical, regional, including U.S.-made, textile inputs to products enjoying FTA benefits.


The United States is especially well-positioned globally in fiber, yarn, fabric, and non-apparel sewn products markets; it was the world’s second largest individual country exporter of those products in 2018.  The most important U.S. export markets by region are our FTA partners, NAFTA ($11.7 billion in U.S. exports) and DR-CAFTA ($3.5 billion in U.S. exports).

NCTO has long supported the yarn forward rule for textiles and apparel, with extremely limited derogations, as the key to creating opportunities for producers throughout the supply chain and reserving the benefits of a given FTA for its signatories. The regional fiber, yarn, fabric, to finished product supply chain offers U.S. textile producers significant opportunities to sell U.S.-made product into FTA markets — provided U.S. textile manufacturers learn how to use these agreements to their advantage.