The AP also found that tons of Ivanka Trump clothing were exported from 2013 to 2015 by a company owned by the Chinese government, according to public records and trade data. It is unclear whether the brand is still working with that company, or other state-owned entities. Her brand has pledged to avoid business with state-owned companies now that she's a White House adviser, but contends that its supply chains are not its direct responsibility.
Ivanka Trump's brand doesn't actually make its products directly. Instead, it contracts with licensees who oversee production of her merchandise. In exchange, those licensees pay the brand royalties. The AP asked Ivanka Trump's brand for a list of its suppliers. The company declined to disclose them. The clothing, footwear and handbag licensees contacted by AP also declined to reveal source factories.
Abigail Klem, president of IT Operations, which manages Ivanka Trump's brand, said the company does not contract with foreign state-owned companies or benefit from Chinese government subsidies. However, she acknowledged that its licensees might.
"We license the rights to our brand name to licensing companies that have their own supply chains and distribution networks," Klem said in an email. "The brand receives royalties on sales to wholesalers and would not benefit if a licensee increased its profit margin by obtaining goods at a lower cost," she added.
But Michael Stone, chairman of Beanstalk, a global brand licensing agency, said lower production costs for licensees would ultimately benefit Ivanka Trump by freeing up money for marketing or lower retail prices, both of which drive sales.
"It gives her a competitive advantage and an indirect benefit to her financially," Stone said. "The more successful the licensee is the more successful Ivanka Trump is going to be."
The AP identified companies that sent Ivanka Trump products to the United States by looking at shipment data maintained by ImportGenius and Panjiva Inc., private companies that independently track global trade. Panjiva's records show that 85 percent of shipments of her goods to the U.S. this year originated in China and Hong Kong, but beyond that, it's becoming more difficult to map the brand's global footprint.
The companies that shipped Ivanka Trump merchandise to the U.S. are listed for just five of 57 shipments logged by Panjiva from the end of March, when she officially became a presidential adviser, through mid-September. Panjiva collects data from U.S. Customs and Border Protection, which did not immediately release the missing data to AP.
While in many cases the manufacturer ships goods directly, merchandise can also be made by one company and shipped by another trading or consolidation company.
There used to be more visibility. Last year, 27 percent of the companies that exported Ivanka Trump merchandise to the U.S. were identified in Panjiva's records, and back in 2014 a full 95 percent were named. For two of Ivanka Trump's licensees — G-III Apparel and Marc Fisher Footwear — the number of shipments appears to plunge in 2015, likely because they "requested to hide" their shipment activity, according to Panjiva records. Neither company responded to AP's questions.
The brand declined to comment on the growing murkiness of its supply chain.
Chris Rogers, an analyst at Panjiva, said any company can ask customs authorities to redact its information for any reason. About a quarter of companies request anonymity, he said, but the majority don't mind disclosing who they're doing business with.
"A lot of companies have said, 'yes there might be a commercial disadvantage, but we want to be transparent about our supply chain,'" he explained. "'Why would we want to cover up the fact that we're working with this particular company?'"
While ethics lawyers may see disclosure as the best antidote to conflict of interest, many brands see it as a tool to keep supply chains scandal-free. Public outcry over sweatshop conditions and worker suicides prompted companies like Nike Inc. and Apple Inc. to disclose the names and addresses of their manufacturers, and a growing number, including Gap Inc., the H&M Group, New Balance Athletics Inc., Adidas AG and Levi Strauss & Co., publicly identify their suppliers.
Ivanka Trump should do the same, said Allen Adamson, founder and CEO of BrandSimple Consulting. "It's a missed opportunity to lead by example."
What shipping records do show is that a company called Zhejiang Tongxiang Foreign Trade Group Co. Ltd., a sprawling conglomerate once majority-owned by the Chinese state, sent at least 30 tons of Ivanka Trump handbags to the U.S. between March 2016 and February.