US retailers seeking to waylay new rules limiting textile imports

Robin Lanier is telling her friends to buy fall sweaters now, because next fall ''there are going to be fewer sweaters available and at higher prices.'' Ms. Lanier is the legislative representative of the National Retail Merchants Association. This group and other retail and import organizations have brought suit against the federal government to fight pending regulations on textile imports. The suit will be heard today at the United States Court of International Trade in New York. The regulations are scheduled to take effect on Friday.

Although the new rules apply to all garments, in effect they will reduce the amount of sweaters, woven shirts, flannel nightgowns, and parkas coming into the United States, Ms. Lanier says. ''You are going to have trouble finding affordable sweaters, certainly for children and certainly in budget stores (such as Zayre's and K mart).'' Woolens will also be in shorter supply, she says.

The new import rules have taken shape under pressure from American textile manufacturers. The sweater industry has been especially hard hit, with sweater imports accounting for 60 to 65 percent of the US market, according to the National Knitwear and Sportswear Association.

But the textile business here has complained that certain countries get around their export quota restrictions by having their garments altered slightly in another country and shipping from there. For instance, about 90 percent of the sweaters shipped from Hong Kong are actually knitted in China. Many more sweaters can be shipped from Hong Kong, because its quota is larger than China's.

Quotas have been established under the Multifiber Arrangement and are negotiated on a bilateral, or country-by-country, basis. The number of garments let in is determined by where garments come from and the quota of their originating country.

The problem is, ''there are no rules clearly on the books'' explaining country of origin, says Ronald Levin, director of the office of textiles and apparel in the US Department of Commerce. The new regulations clarify this, he says, and are ''consistent with the trend of decisions'' made in the past.

Consider the new rules and how they would affect the Hong Kong example. All those sweaters knitted in China, but shipped under Hong Kong's quotas, would now be considered as originating in China. They can't be shipped from China, though, because of China's small quota. While the new rules don't really explain what a garment's country of origin is, they do explain what it isn't, Mr. Levin says. ''Mere assembly (of a garment) is not it,'' he emphasizes.

The retail industry, which relies heavily on imports, charges that the new rules are not mere clarifications, but violations of the Multifiber Arrangement, drawn up under the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade, which has signatories from 90 countries.

GATT's textile committee called an emergency meeting in Geneva this week. It issued a statement urging the United States to ''withdraw or at least postpone'' application of the new rules, saying they would damage and discriminate against clothing exporters. Although GATT has no power to overturn the rules, its member countries can retaliate with tough trade restrictions of their own if GATT finds the rules break the agreement.

The rules have already been postponed once, allowing most retailers to receive their Christmas shipments, which would not otherwise have been allowed in US ports.

But the retail industry is still ruffled. ''We have another immediate problem ,'' says Ms. Lanier. ''Department stores are sending buyers out now to purchase for the fall of '85, and the foreign markets are in turmoil.'' Buyers now have to ask foreign vendors where the goods come from. At the same time, the buyers aren't sure what the status of the new rules will be - they could change, should the US Court of International Trade issue an injunction or GATT apply enough pressure.

The problem with textile agreements, a US trade spokesman said, is that they can't keep up with the industry. The industry's needs change as fast as fashion. While the big thing may have been synthetics a few years ago, now it's natural fibers. With that change came an entirely different set of circumstances.

The textile committee at GATT will meet again in November for an overall discussion of whether to renew or change the Multifiber Arrangement, which expires in 1986.

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