Forget inflation. The Red Sea shipping chaos could make your next fashion outfit just a couple weeks out of date

With delays of up to two weeks, “fashionably late” might be too generous to describe the shipping delays that several fast fashion companies now face as global shipping companies continue to avoid the shaky waters of the Red Sea.

Loads of apparel companies including Ralph Lauren, Lululemon, H&M and Zara could face weeks long delays due to attacks on shipping vessels from Yemen’s Houthi group, called Ansarullah, which seeks to deter military shipments bound for Israel. Companies that depend on quick, on-trend deliveries now face a stormy horizon clouded with higher shipping and fuel costs as vessels reroute on lengthy trips around Africa’s southern tip. Retailers face hefty price increases while customers may feel the strain in clothes that arrive out of fashion.

Trouble for retailers who depend on quickly delivered, trendy clothes 

Rerouting around South Africa’s Cape of Good Hope can take weeks longer and cost up to $1 million extra in fuel costs for each round trip, Reuters reported. 

Many companies, especially those whose sales depend on fast fashion trends and speedy deliveries, will find themselves forced to choose between delivering trends on time by expediting their packages through expensive routes, like air freight, or accepting delayed shipments as an uncontrollable factor. 

Chris Rogers, the head of supply chain research at S&P Global Market Intelligence, explained that if the disruptions last beyond the next few weeks, “which we expect they will, then seasonal deliveries will need to depart two weeks earlier than normal,” to keep up with companies’ design and sales models. He warns that this “could be disastrous for businesses that rely on an eight-to-10-week turnaround time from design to sale.” Many will “need to consider alternative transportation routes like air freight,” he said.

Several brands have already announced shipping delays, like IKEA, which wrote in a statement to Fortune that the company does not own its own shipping vessels and that its partners have decided to re-route vessels around Africa. “The situation in the Red Sea will result in delays,” the company wrote, and added that it is “in close dialogue with our shipping partners to ensure the safety of people working in the IKEA value chain.” Despite the situation, the company said it doesn’t “expect any availability constraints for the time being.” 

Apparel brand Abercrombie & Fitch announced late last month that it is considering using air freight, which can cost up to 16 times more than cargo ships, to avoid significantly delayed shipments, according to Bloomberg. A company spokesperson wrote in a statement to Fortune that the shipping disruptions have reminded the company of how interconnected the global shipping industry is, and that they “shift transportation modes and shipping lanes when warranted to maintain the flow of goods.” The company also stated that it “looks forward to stability returning as quickly as possible in the Red Sea.” 

An H&M spokesperson told Fortune that the brand doesn’t “foresee any significant disruptions” in its supply chain but it continues “following the situation closely.” 

VF Corporation, the parent company of brands Vans, The North Face, Timberland and Dickies, and Adidas declined Fortune’s request for comment.

Not-so-fast fashion 

South Asia is a major hub of the U.S fast-fashion economy, and retailers that manufacture there will be “impacted the most” by delays and higher shipping prices according to Jonathan Gold, the vice president of supply chain and customs policy at the National Retail Federation. In 2022, about 45% of American apparel imports came from Asia. 

According to a Statista report, the huge Southeast Asia market for apparel is projected to generate over $50 billion this year. The most profitable section is for women’s apparel, which is expected to generate almost half of the market’s revenue this year, and 93% of apparel sales from the region are non-luxury items. Some of the countries that make up this sector include India, China, Bangladesh, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka, according to Vinod Sinandi, a consultant who specializes in South Asia. 

Inditex, the owner of H&M and Zara, relies on shipments to Europe for about 60% of its sales, and H&M, which depends more on Asian markets, may face more shipping related problems, according to the Wall Street Journal.

Why supply chain experts are concerned 

The NRF’s Gold explained that the disruptions are already costing companies money, and could get even pricier. Factors like drought in the Panama Canal are compounding the already extended times for shipping vessels to return and be reloaded, contributing to higher costs for shippers and retailers, he said. 

“When vessels that were destined for the Suez Canal or the Red Sea are re-routed, they’re now taking longer to return to shippers as empty vessels,” Gold said. The longer trips mean the vessels are “off their rotation schedules,” which adds pressure as shippers can’t reliably expect when they’ll be empty and free to reload again. 

The delays also put pressure on other markets that aren’t used to receiving shipments, like the U.S. west coast. Beyond that, the higher costs of travel and fuel mean that shipping companies are negotiating additional charges for their customers. These special emergency charges could cost retailers between hundreds and thousands of dollars per shipment. 

Timing is also not on shoppers’ side, Gold said. Contract rates between retailers and shippers typically expire between April and May, and discussions on what terms–and costs–should be in the new ones are underway. “Retailers are looking for solutions like trying to ship earlier and using air freight, but they all come at a cost,” he said. “This is having an impact. Companies are trying to mitigate it but it’s uncertain.”

U.S. customers who are buying clothes have yet to feel the price pinch, Gold said, and added that “retailers are doing everything they can to avoid empty shelves and price increases.” Customers might still face pricier clothes “dependent on how long the situation continues,” he said, adding that European fashion consumers could feel more of a price increase as that market is more dependent on the Red Sea trade lane. 

The disruption in global trade

About 12% of global trade sails on the Red Sea each year. According to a report released by freight platform Xeneta, shipments from Asia account for almost 20% of all imports to the eastern coast of the U.S., and apparel comprises about 58% of those shipments.

Shipping rates from East Asia to North Europe have surged 235% since the middle of December, pricing a standard, 40-foot shipping container at $5,106, according to Xeneta. Still, according to a report by S&P Global Market Intelligence earlier this month, the elevated price is still well below the peak shipping price of the pandemic, which hit $18,000 per shipping container in September 2021. 

International shipping company Maersk, which provides shipping for more than 100,000 customers and 130 countries, announced in mid-December that it would pause all vessels bound for the Red Sea following a “near-miss incident,” and “another attack on a container vessel,” later that week. 

Earlier this week, Maersk announced that explosions in the area forced two ships, operated by the company’s U.S. subsidiary and carrying military supplies, to turn around. The company also ships for brands like PUMA, Vans, Timberlands, Jansport and more. 

Rainer Horn, a senior press officer at Maersk, wrote to Fortune in an email that the company ships “virtually everything that you can think of.” From Asia, he said, products include “a lot of clothes, shoes, sneakers and sports goods,” and between Europe and Asia, “a lot of machinery, chemicals, western lifestyle articles like spirits, wine and beer.” 

How the Red Sea crisis started

At the end of last year, the Houthis, an Iranian-backed militia in Yemen, began striking ships bound for Israel in response to the state’s catastrophic assault on Gaza, which experts say is one of the deadliest wars of this century. The militia has launched more than 30 attacks in commercial shipping lanes since November. No serious injuries have been reported. 

Since then, the U.S. and United Kingdom have carried out airstrikes on Houthi targets, including the country’s capital city of Sana’a and the city’s international airport. Since Jan.12, the U.S. has bombed Yemen eight times, hitting more than 28 locations and over 60 targets, according to the Associated Press. Last month, the Biden administration announced plans to redesignate the Houthi militia as global terrorists, which humanitarian experts fear will cut more vital aid to Yemenis, where the poverty rate is over 85%, after the UN World Food Programme decided to pause food distribution to northern Yemen in December. 

Despite it all, the Houthi militia insists that assaults on shipping vessels will continue. Hussein al-Ezzi, a member of the group’s foreign ministry, warned that “America and Britain will undoubtedly have to prepare to pay a heavy price and bear all the dire consequences of this blatant aggression,” according to AP News.

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