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Potential impact of trade policy on the consumer products industry

How the industry can prepare and adapt

Consumer products organizations can—and should—be taking steps to prepare for potential changes to US trade policy, most notably the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and the US-China Trade Agreement.

The United States—A global leader in imports and exports

Through a complex network of trade agreements with a wide range of countries across the globe, the United States is a global leader in imports and exports.

To help ensure a free, fair, and orderly execution of trade deals, the United States has enacted many trade agreements, including the commonly talked about NAFTA with Canada and Mexico and the bilateral trade agreement with China.

At present, there is much discussion on potential modifications to US trade policies. Consumer products (CP) companies that rely on trade to produce and market their products may be impacted by these potential changes. To strategize for the uncertainties ahead, it is important for the CP companies to understand the pros and cons of their particular circumstances with regards to the significant agreements the United States has entered. Outlined in the discussion that follows are high-level details on NAFTA and the US-China Trade Agreement.

To better prepare for potential changing trade policies, CP companies would likely benefit by developing a number of interdependent strategies such as:

  • Staying nimble through scenario planning by developing processes to be able to quickly respond to changes in trade agreements. This can be accomplished by deploying special teams to continuously monitor shifts in tariffs, identifying alternative sources for raw materials and alternative markets for US exports as well as working toward developing more competitive labor costs.
  • Investing in automation to better manage US production and labor costs.
  • Investing in STEM talent to facilitate automation and smart manufacturing.
  • Optimizing supply chain by continuously scouting for more cost‑effective and reliable alternatives to their existing supply chain.
  • Investing in innovation to help reduce US dependence on trade and foreign-made products.

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Fundamentals of trade agreements

To help ensure most favored nation trading status, the United States has a range of trade agreements in place. Trade agreements help ensure that nations have access to each other’s markets with an objective of increasing trade and economic growth of the participating nations. A typical trade agreement consists of five thematic areas that include:

  1. Eliminating tariffs and trade taxes
  2. Refraining from unloading cheap products
  3. Refraining from using unfair subsidies
  4. Standardizing and implementing trade policies, labor standards, and environmental protections
  5. Adhering to patents, copyrights, and intellectual property rights

The benefits and downsides of trade agreements

Trade plays an important role in the prosperity of the United States in terms of fueling economic growth, creating jobs, and raising the standard of living of its people.1 For example…

  • Approximately 41 million American jobs are dependent on trade.
  • US trade is responsible for the growth in real manufacturing output, which has grown by 80 percent over the last 25 years.
  • US exports of manufactured goods for 2016 were at $1.3 trillion, accounting for nearly 60 percent of overall exports, while US exports of services were at $750 billion, making the United States the largest exporter of services.
  • America’s farmers and ranchers are greatly dependent on exports. About one in three acres of farms in America is planted for exports. More than half of crops like wheat and almonds are sold outside of the United States and about 25 percent of US farm produce by value is exported each year.2

On the other hand, there have been consequences to economic trade related to the loss of American jobs, unfair pricing practices that favor foreign products, and the mounting US trade deficit.

Lower-cost labor and its impact on the United States
Because countries such as Mexico and China can generally produce finished products at a lower cost primarily due to lower-cost labor, the US exports raw materials such as iron, steel, and clothing material to these countries, then imports finished products made from these materials, including cars and apparel. Some of these transactions have led to the loss of US jobs as well as to concerns that these countries often sell their products directly to US consumers, thus undercutting the cost of similar products made in the United States. This can result in the depression of the costs of US goods, which curtails the ability of companies to reinvest in their products, hire new employees, and give back to their shareholders.

The US trade deficit
The United States is one of the largest “consumption economies” and the demand for products catering to the consumption needs of the US population is high. This has translated into dependence on foreign imports to meet the demand. For more than three decades, US imports have consistently exceeded US exports resulting in a trade deficit.

  • In 2017, the trade deficit for goods and services was $566 billion with imports at $2.895 trillion and exports at $2.329 trillion.3
  • The trade deficit for goods alone was $810 billion with imports at $2.361 trillion4 and exports at $1.551 trillion.5

Some concerns about the growing US trade deficit center around the United States being highly dependent on importing goods from other countries while exports have not grown at the same pace. Further, the trade deficit is often financed by debt, which is a great concern to fiscal conservatives. This has contributed to trade policies that aim to shut out unfair imports and renegotiate existing US free trade agreements like NAFTA. This principle also applies to recent tariffs on specific items that China exports to the United States.

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NAFTA is between the United States, Canada, and Mexico, and is the world’s largest free trade agreement. The gross domestic product of its three members is estimated to be more than $20 trillion. In force since 1999, NAFTA is the first time two developed nations (United States and Canada) signed a trade agreement with an emerging market (Mexico).6

There have been many positive outcomes and negative consequences from the United States’ involvement in NAFTA. As such, there has long been talk of the need to renegotiate the agreement with Mexico in light of the fact the United States has one of the highest trade deficits with Mexico, second only to China.7

Positive outcomes of NAFTA

  • Rapid growth in trade: From 1993 to 2017, trade between the three members quadrupled from $297 billion to $1.17 trillion.8
  • Lower grocery prices: Food imports totaled $39.4 billion in 2013, up from $28.9 billion in 2009. Food imports with lower tariffs under NAFTA helped in lowering the prices of fresh vegetables, chocolate, fruit (except bananas), and beef. This helped in reducing overall US grocery prices.9

    NAFTA was successful in increasing US farm exports because it helped eliminate high tariffs in Mexico, which happens to be the top export destination for US beef, rice, soybean meal, corn sweeteners, apples, and beans. That boosted economic growth, profits, and jobs for all three countries. In the long run, it also helped lower food and grocery prices for consumers.
  • Increased economic growth: NAFTA is estimated to have resulted in an increase in US economic growth by about 0.5 percent a year. Sectors benefitting the most were agriculture, automobiles, and services. Canada and Mexico emerged as two of the largest farm export destinations for the United States, with total farm exports of $39.4 billion in 2015. From 1992 to 2007, US farm exports to Canada and Mexico grew 156 percent compared to an increase of about 65 percent in farm exports to the rest of the world.10
  • Job creation: US exports to Canada and Mexico under NAFTA are estimated to have created 5 million new US jobs. Most of those jobs went to 17 states, but all states saw some increases.11
  • Increased foreign direct investment (FDI): Since NAFTA was enacted, US FDI in Canada and Mexico has more than tripled, reaching $452 billion by 2012 (latest statistics available). This helped boost profits for many US businesses by giving them more opportunities to develop and more markets to explore. Canadian and Mexican FDI in the United States grew to $240.2 billion in 2012, up from $219.2 billion in 2007. Most of this additional investment went into US manufacturing, insurance, and banking companies.
  • Reduced government spending: NAFTA allowed firms in member countries to bid on all government contracts. That created a level playing field for all companies within the agreement’s borders. It cut government budget deficits by allowing more competition and lower‑cost bids.12

Negative consequences of NAFTA

  • US jobs lost to lower-cost labor: Within the NAFTA domain, Mexico offers lower-cost labor, which resulted in many manufacturing industries withdrawing their US operations and moving them to Mexico. Between 1994 and 2010, it is estimated that more than 600,000 jobs moved. Approximately 80 percent of these jobs were in the manufacturing sector.13
  • Lowering of US wages: One consequence of moving many manufacturing jobs to Mexico has been the lowering and suppression of US wages. For US companies that continued to manufacture locally, it was typically necessary to cut down on their labor costs to match the lower costs associated with relatively cheaper labor in Mexico and to stay competitive.14

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US-China trade agreement

In 1999, the United States and China signed the World Trade Organization (WTO) agreement focused on reducing tariffs on industrial products as well as agriculture products such as pork, cheese, poultry, wine, grapes, and beef. Since the signing of this agreement, both countries have experienced a boom in bilateral trade:

  • From 1999 to 2017, US exports to China increased tenfold, from $13.1 billion to $130.4 billion.15
  • During the same time, US imports from China increased sixfold, from $81.8 billion to $505.6 billion.16
  • Between 2007 and 2017, US agricultural exports to China more than doubled from $8.3 billion to $19.6 billion.17

Just as with NAFTA, however, there have been both positive and negative consequences.

Positive outcomes of US trade agreement with China
China is a major export and import market for the United States:

  • In 2016, China was the third-largest goods export market for the United States. The top categories exported to China were agricultural products, aircraft, electrical machinery, and vehicles.18
  • As of 2016, China was the second-largest export market for US agricultural products, which includes soybeans, corn, hides and skins, pork and pork products, and cotton.19
  • China was the largest US supplier of imports in 2016. The top import categories in 2016 were electrical machinery, furniture and bedding, toys and sports equipment, and footwear.20
  • China was the third-largest supplier of agricultural imports for the United States after Canada and Mexico in 2016. Leading agricultural product categories that China exports to the United States include processed fruit and vegetables, fruit and vegetable juices, snack foods, fresh vegetables, and tea.21

Negative consequences of US trade agreement with China
Just like Mexico, China possesses the ability to produce consumer goods at a lower cost than most other countries due to the availability of lower-cost labor. Consequently, many US companies are unable to compete, and US manufacturing jobs have been lost to China.22 Further, the growing trade deficit with China has cost 3.4 million US jobs between 2001 and 2015. Nearly 2.6 million (three-fourths) of such jobs lost were in the manufacturing sector during this period.23 In addition, Chinese imports to the United States have far exceeded exports, resulting in an increase in the trade deficit—in 2017, the US trade deficit with China reached $375 billion.24

As a result of these issues, talk of a “trade war” with China escalated in the first quarter of 2018. As of this writing, both countries continue to negotiate future trade agreements, while in the interim, either enacting initial tariffs or proposing significant changes in their trade agreements. The outcome of extensive talks between the countries’ presidents has yet to produce an agreement that both countries would be happy with.

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New or proposed tariffs between the US and China
  1. In February 2018, the US administration imposed tariffs and quotas on imported solar panels and washing machines.25
  2. A month later (March 2018), a 25 percent tariff on steel imports and 10 percent on aluminum imports were imposed on China, whose economy depends heavily on steel exports.26
  3. In response, China imposed tariffs worth $3 billion on US fruits, nuts, pork, and wine.27
  4. The United States followed up by identifying about 1,300 Chinese exports in the area of industrial technology, robotics, aerospace, transport, and medical products that could face additional tariffs amounting to $50 billion.28
  5. China quickly followed up with tariffs on more than 100 US products including soybeans, cars, and whiskey that could amount to $50 billion annually, although the timeline for implementation of the tariffs has not been laid out.29

How can the CP industry prepare and adapt to changing trade policies?

Many CP companies are currently operating with a high level of uncertainty as the national conversation focuses on debates pertaining to renegotiating or pulling out of NAFTA as well as changes in the US-China trade agreement. This is especially true for CP companies with significant parts of their supply chain dependent on trade with these countries. Such companies would likely benefit from a short-term strategy of maximizing on the existing trade arrangements with these countries because they offer lower‑cost labor and an ever-expanding market for US exports.

However, in the medium to long term, CP companies would likely benefit by focusing on a complex set of interdependent strategies, which can include:

Staying nimble through scenario planning

CP companies would likely benefit by being hypervigilant through:

  • Developing complete transparency around physical trade flows in their supply chain
  • Monitoring potential changes in tariffs with the countries they trade with

To potentially lessen overall increases in production costs (related to supply chain, labor, etc.) that may result from any changes to the status quo, CP companies could prepare mitigation strategies through scenario planning such as customs value planning, tariff engineering, bonded regime utilization, or preferred sourcing options. This can be accomplished by:

  • Deploying special teams to continuously monitor changes in tariffs
  • Identifying alternative sources for raw materials and alternative markets for US exports
  • Working toward developing more competitive labor costs

The inputs from the special team and scenario planning could allow CP companies to focus on the highest value-add activities such as:

  • Plan proactively to reduce duties and operational burdens
  • Support sales through certification of products or satisfying government programs
  • Help CP companies understand the cost of cross-border supply chains

For example, recently the United States was able to identify alternative markets for exports. Traditionally, the bulk of US soybean exports went to China.30 Following the announcement of tariffs on soybean by China in March 2018, it was assumed that a large surplus of the soybeans would go to waste, negatively impacting farmers who rely on exports to China. However, a number of European countries have stepped forward to purchase soybeans from the United States, averting the potential glut of soybeans and its negative impact on farmers.

Investing in automation to optimize both manufacturing and trade processes

As it relates to the manufacturing of consumer products, CP companies wishing to reduce manufacturing of finished products outside the United States and minimize dependence on foreign labor can invest in automation and advanced production processes for operational efficiencies.

To provide better line of sight to the impact of changes in trade policy, automation can monitor the movement of products across markets and to costs associated with current and future tariffs. For example, automation can be used to support tariff classification assignment processes, particularly in the consumer products and retail sectors where companies are managing large volumes of product SKUs on an ongoing basis. Robotics can be used to support various free trade agreement documentation processes, such as requesting and receiving documentation from suppliers.

Deloitte’s publication Industry 4.0: Are You Ready? addresses in more detail how the onset of the fourth industrial revolution (Industry 4.0) is changing the way businesses function. Smart, connected technologies are helping transform how parts and products are designed, made, used, and maintained. Productivity improvements are often the most visible and are driven by maximizing asset utilization, minimizing downtime, driving labor efficiency, and better managing supply chain networks. Industry 4.0 helps ensure risk reduction through raw material availability and mitigating geographical risks. Incremental revenue growth can be ensured through growing revenue streams, deepening customer understanding and insights, and creating new products and services.31

Investing in STEM talent to facilitate automation and smart manufacturing

As manufacturers develop and deploy automation and production processes (to better manage costs of goods and labor costs and to monitor the cross-border movement of products), it is becoming increasingly important for CP companies to invest in recruiting and training existing science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) talent to help enable them to work with technology and machines and improve productivity. Increasingly, US youth are preferring careers in the service sector vs. in manufacturing.32 This trend has helped impact CP companies, often forcing them to outsource a part of the manufacturing process to more cost‑efficient locations such as China and Mexico. Advanced industries that deploy a large proportion of workers with STEM talent have witnessed a faster rate of growth than other industries that do so to a lesser extent.33 In the United States, STEM fields are projected to drive the US economy and grow by 18 percent by 2018 compared to other fields, which are only projected to grow by 9 percent.34

Optimizing supply chain

CP companies could benefit by continuously scouting for more cost‑effective and reliable alternatives to their existing supply chain. In addition to the soybean example previously cited in which several European markets stepped in to purchase products typically sold to China, tariffs on steel and aluminum have resulted in unexpected cost savings. Following the announcement of tariffs on steel and aluminum, a number of US food, beverage, and beer companies were concerned that it would lead to a rise in packaging costs. However, companies sourcing steel and aluminum within the country have found the cost to be as much as three percent lower. Further, a number of countries with a surplus in steel and aluminum have stepped forward to export to the United States, thus reducing the market rate.

Investing in innovation

To help reduce US dependence on foreign-made products, CP companies would likely benefit from further investments in innovation, in part facilitated by the strategies outlined above. Investment in innovation potentially will have a ripple effect upon the US economy and job creation. As discussed in Deloitte’s 2018 Consumer Products Industry Outlook, in today’s marketing environment innovation is often achieved through newer and bolder strategies in addition to the classic approaches followed by many CP companies.35

And lastly, CP companies could potentially focus on innovation by deploying their STEM talent to solely focus on research and development of new products dependent on efficient and cost‑effective manufacturing processes.

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Closing thoughts

If changes in trade policies occur, being proactive and agile are keys to competitive success in this dynamic situation. Taking this approach will likely benefit CP organizations and their global trade departments who are tasked with the dual roles of both carrying out strategic trade and duty planning as well as overseeing the day-to-day regulatory compliance issues associated with importing and exporting goods through automation, robotics, and strong processes. The good news is that with advancements in supply chain management and data analytics, there is a proliferation of insights to optimize planning and management around trade issues, helping CP companies manage through this period of transition.

To learn more download the report, Changing trade regulations: Their potential impact on consumer product companies.


1 Office of the United States Trade Representative, “Benefits of Trade,”‑us/benefits‑trade, accessed March 2018.

2 Chamber of Commerce of the United States of America, “The Benefits of International Trade,‑policy/benefits‑international‑trade, accessed March 2018.

3 United States Census Bureau, “U.S. International Trade in Goods and Services” (Exhibit 1),, accessed April 2018.

4 United States Census Bureau, “U.S. Imports of Goods by End-Use Category and Commodity” (Exhibit 8),, accessed April 2018.

5 United States Census Bureau, “U.S. Exports of Goods by End-Use Category and Commodity” (Exhibit 7),, accessed April 2018.

6 Kimberly Amadeo, “What is the North American Free Trade Agreement? Six things NAFTA does,” The Balance, updated April 24, 2018,‑definition‑north‑american‑free‑trade‑agreement-3306147, accessed April 2018.

7 Sarah Gray, “These are the biggest U.S. trading partners,” Fortune, March 8, 2018,, updated April 2, 2018.

8 James McBride and Mohammed Aly Sergie, “NAFTA’s Economic Impact,” Council on Foreign Relations, updated October 4, 2017,, accessed March 2018.

9 Kimberly Amadeo, “Six Advantages of NAFTA–The hidden benefits of NAFTA,” updated February 21, 2018, The Balance,, accessed March 2018.

10 United States Department of Agriculture, Foreign Agricultural Service Fact Sheet, “North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA),” January 2008,, accessed March 2018.

11 Kimberly Amadeo, “Six Advantages of NAFTA.”

12 Ibid.

13 Ibid.

14 Ibid.

15 United States Census Bureau, “1999: U.S. trade in goods with China,”, accessed March 2018.

16 Ibid.

17 United States Department of Agriculture, Foreign Agricultural Service, Data and analysis–Exports to China,, accessed March 2018.

18 Office of the United States Trade Representative, The People’s Republic of China, “US‑China Trade Facts,”, accessed March 2018.

19 Ibid.

20 Ibid.

21 Ibid.

22 United States Census Bureau, “Trade in Goods with China,”, accessed March 2018.

23 Economic Policy Institute, “The growing trade deficit with China cost 3.4 million U.S. jobs between 2001 and 2015” (press release), January 31, 2017,‑growing‑trade‑deficit‑with‑china‑cost‑3‑4‑million‑u-s-jobs-between-2001-and-2015/, accessed March 2018.

24 United States Census Bureau, “Trade in Goods with China,”, accessed March 2018.

25 Office of the United States Trade Representative, “President Trump approves relief for U.S. washing machine and solar cell manufacturers” (press release), January 2018,‑us/policy‑offices/press‑office/press‑releases/2018/january/president-trump-approves-relief-us, accessed March 2018.

26 Kimberly Amadeo, “U.S. trade deficit with China and why it’s so high–The real reason American jobs are going to China,” The Balance, updated May 30, 2018,‑s‑china‑trade‑deficit‑causes‑effects‑and-solutions-3306277, accessed March 2018.

27 Daniel Shane, “China hits the United States with tariffs on $3 billion of exports,” CNN, April 2, 2018,‑us‑tariffs‑trade/index.html, accessed April 2018.

28 Wendy Wu and Sarah Zheng, “China targets US soybeans, cars, planes with new 25 per cent tariffs, but leaves room for negotiation,” South China Morning Post, updated April 5, 2018, diplomacy‑defence/article/2140263/china‑strikes‑back‑25pc‑tariffs‑106‑us‑imports‑all‑out, accessed April 2018.

29 Sam Meredith, “China announces new tariffs on 106 US products, including soy, cars and chemicals,” CNBC, April 4, 2018,‑new‑us‑tariffs‑including‑soy‑cars‑and‑chemicals.html, accessed April 2018.

30 Karl Plume, “As U.S. and China trade tariff barbs, others scoop up U.S. soybeans,” Reuters, April 8, 2018,‑usa‑trade‑china‑soybeans/as‑u‑s‑and‑china‑trade‑tariff‑barbs‑others‑scoop‑up-u-s-soybeans-idUSKBN1HF0FQ, accessed April 2018.

31 Mark Cotteleer and Brenna Sniderman, “Forces of change: Industry 4.0,” Deloitte Insights, December 18, 2017,, accessed March 2018.

32 Craig Giffi, “2017 US perception of the manufacturing industry – Manufacturing matters to the American public,” Deloitte,, accessed March 2018.

33 Mark Munro, Jonathan Rothwell, Scott Andes, Kenan Fikri, and Siddharth Kulkarni, America’s advanced industries – What they are, where they are and why they matter, The Brookings Institution, February 2015,
https://www., accessed March 2018.

34 Anna Powers, “The secret to future economic growth and prosperity? More women in STEM,” Forbes, August 29, 2017,, accessed March 2018.

35 Barb Renner, “2018 Consumer products industry outlook–Newer approaches and bolder moves in consumer goods,” Deloitte,, January 2018.

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