Op-Ed | Reshoring Garment Manufacturing is Viable and Scalable

There is a real opportunity to rebuild local manufacturing in a commercially viable and scalable way, argues Janice Wang.

A workshop at Fashion Enter, a manufacturing and training enterprise based in London | Source: Fashion Enter

LONDON, United Kingdom — In a recent Op-Ed (‘Made in the USA is More Hype Than Reality’) Edward Hertzman of Sourcing Journal used national labour cost comparisons and skill shortages to support his argument that US apparel manufacturing “won’t work at scale because of simple economics.” I agree that volume production is best sourced offshore. However, I think Mr Hertzman underestimates the commercial potential of local manufacturing and the political will of brands and retailers to make re-shoring a reality. In fact, they are crying out for responsive and flexible local manufacturers who can deliver short runs of quality apparel.

Furthermore, while Mr Hertzman marshalls an impressive array of facts and figures, they do not tell the whole story. As any retailer or brand will tell you, the true cost of manufacuring a garment extends well beyond labour costs alone. Working with overseas suppliers has numerous cost implications, rooted in things like access to raw materials, protracted customs procedures and unreliable energy supplies; managing inconsistent quality issues and industrial unrest; and implementing ethical health and safety codes; to say nothing of the fluctuating cost of oil and the environmental impact of transporting garments thousands of miles. All of these factors add delay and significant cost to the process of manufacturing apparel offshore.

A recent UK apparel supply chain study by Kurt Salmon has shown that decisions on fabric, colour, silhouette and quantity made closer to sale improve margins and speed to market. Indeed, the study found that every eight weeks of time saved generates a two per cent improvement on retained margin, a real commercial reason to source from local manufacturers whenever possible.

Furthermore, our industry is blighted by oversupply. Some 60 percent of the garments we supply are sold at discount, which means we are making too much of the wrong thing. Local sourcing allows retailers to be more responsive to actual customer buying behaviour. Styles can even be adapted in-season and delivered to stores while consumers still want to buy them. And, at the end of the day, smaller runs of garments that sell at full-price are better than volume runs of garments that have to be sold at discount.

It is for these reasons that many of the largest and most influential retailers and brands on the planet are actively looking to re-build local manufacturing capabilities and capacities. But there are serious challenges to overcome and it will take time and commitment from every player along the supply chain.

First off, we have to make manufacturing sexy to a whole new generation of workers. The skill shortage in the US, UK and Hong Kong is undoubtedly a real issue. By way of example, the UK’s fashion and textile manufacturing sector employed an estimated 100,000 people in the first quarter of 2014 compared to 800,000 in the late 1980s.

In truth, manufacturing and the technical skills involved in delivering commercial fashion have never been perceived as the ‘sexy’ elements of the fashion business. Rather, the marketing and communications focus has been firmly on design, designers, brands and retailers. As an industry, we have to acknowledge the crucial role played by manufacturing if we are to revivie our local factories. Yes we have great designers, but they are nothing unless we create and support great pattern cutters and sewers.

How can this be achieved? Look no further than Fashion Enter, a manufacturing and training enterprise based in Haringey, North London. Jenny Holloway, founder and CEO of Fashion Enter established her first production site back in 2006 when the conventional wisdom was to manufacture as much as possible offshore. She has overcome the skills shortage by setting up a programme of accredited apprenticeships that give young unemployed people an opportunity to attain tangible qualifications and skills in sewing. Backed by Haringey Borough Council, she lobbied and won the support of retail heavyweights like ASOS, John Lewis and Marks & Spencer, all of whom have invested in both the production site and apprenticeship schemes. Crucially, they also place significant orders for quality, on-trend garments with Fashion Enter’s production facility, The Factory.

Fashion Enter now employs 84 people (up from just eight people in 2008) and produces over 7,500 garments a week. This number is set to double when Fashion Enter expands its premises early next year with investment from ASOS and Haringey Borough Council.

Jenny Holloway and her team work tirelessly with local schools and colleges, inviting young people to visit Fashion Enter’s production site with the sole aim of opening their minds to the possibility of pursuing apprenticeships in the garment industry. But creating a new generation of workers must also be a priority for national governments, which should reinstate sewing in school curriculums and invest in nationwide apprenticeship programmes. Influential fashion organisations such as The British Fashion Council must also do more to acknowledge the role of manufacturing in the creation of fashion. The Council of Fashion Designers of America has seen the light and is leading the way with its Fashion Manufacturing Initiative (FMI) aimed at restoring “the lost art of sewing and technical skills” to its New York City-based production hub.

Of course, companies across the supply chain also need to play their part to make re-shoring a success. Within my company, Alvanon, I have launched a “Fashion Fit Movement” that donates tools and consultancy to local manufacturing centres in the UK, US and Hong Kong.

The media also has a crucial role to play. Editors and journalists writing about the fashion business can play a hugely supportive role in generating awareness of the manufacturing sector and in making it appealing to a new generation of garment workers. Collaboration is the key. Together, various elements of the industry can make reshoring actually happen and silence the sceptics.

Janice Wang is CEO of global apparel fit and sizing specialist Alvanon.

The views expressed in Op-Ed pieces are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Business of Fashion.

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10 comments

  1. Re-shoring, in most cases, does not make any sense for advanced economies. In the UK or USA for example we should be encouraging young people to train for high end jobs and careers in fashion not making and assembling items in low tech industries such as the garment industry. Manufacturing is old tech. The future lies in robotised automation and in certain industries in promoting artisanal techniques to serve the needs of affluent buyers who can afford luxury.

    Tim De Rosen from Spain
  2. Great article, bravo for addressing today’s reality. Who wants to sell at discount anyway? Why bother? I have manufactured profitably in the USA since 1980, w/ great profit margins, never any sale merchandise, my sell through was always at full price and I never had trouble finding or keeping qualified sewing operators, and always paid my employees well. The race to the bottom needs to end, it’s unsustainable and destructive to all economies as well as the global environment. The 3rd world does not exist simply to be exploited as a cheap labor pool.The reality is there is no such thing as cheap clothes or cheap food. I have never heard a customer ask for cheaper, they ask for more value, no matter what their budget is. Who wants to wear cheap schmatte anyway? It feels bad, does not fit, looks cheap, does not last etc……this is not desirable or meaningful fashion which should serve the customer’s needs. Cheap is just that, cheap.

    Sandra Garratt from Palm Springs, CA, United States
  3. It’s very refreshing to see a piece written about a growing trend in manufacture that IS working and reaping rewards for those who make the investment
    I’m sick of all the fluff written by people who don’t even have a clue as to how to run a profitable domestic manufacture business and are (misleadingly) giving the general public the impression that it can’t be done (just because THEY don’t know how to do it)

    Thank you BOF for always giving us unbiased opinions!

    Rocio Evenett from United States
  4. It’s really great to see the demand of interest going into bringing manufacturing back to Britain. It is shocking to see the statistics and skillsgap within the industry, one of the sectors of the industry that really does demand a lot of particular skill.

    Zoey B from London, London, United Kingdom
  5. Ms. Wang nicely details one of the three principles for success in competing with overseas manufacturers: FEWER, FASTER & FINER.

    The “Fewer” principle means shorter, and/or more customized production runs. Keep in mind that the China manufacturing business model was built on the concept of long runs of commodity products. However, today’s B2B buyer wants to minimize parts inventory to keep costs lower, and today’s consumer wants a product more tailored to her own individual preferences. A small domestic manufacturer who can cater to the desire for smaller or more customized orders in a B2B or consumer environment creates a competitive advantage that an overseas manufacturer cannot match. The use of 3-D printers is an extreme example of the “Fewer” principle in action.

    The “Faster” principle simply means quick turns on product orders. If it takes an overseas manufacturer three months to ship a product, you must find a way to ship it in three weeks, for example. This allows the customer to maintain lower inventory levels and maximize their cash cycle. And if you are making a consumer product, being “Faster” allows you to satisfy the consumer’s desire for instant gratification.

    The “Finer” principle simply means manufacturing safe, high quality products.

    Of course, it is most effective if a manufacturer implements all three principles. Given the competitive situation, two out of three may not be enough.

    Michael Woody from United States
  6. Tim thank you for your comments but manufacturing is not old tech! It’s a skill and in the UK we have a skill shortage. This is exactly why our Stitching Academy and soon to be opened Fashion Technical Academy is so important. Not every operation can be automated especially when you are dealing in fine silks. Manufacturing is fun! I was previously a senior buyer but manufacturing “gets under your skin!” I love it. I love the challenges of each docket and seeing the development of a garment on the line. It’s the same for our learners – seeing them progress from a complete beginner in stitching then offering them an apprenticeship with companies such as M and S and asos.com is so rewarding. We need to be proud of our manufacturing prowess in all countries. Grateful thanks to Janice for this article too -wonderful to have such support.

    Jenny Holloway from Worcester Park, Sutton, United Kingdom
  7. It is really encouraging to see that Jenny Holloway of Fashion Enter has pursued her passion in bringing garment manufacture back to the UK and has gained so much funding to support both the production and apprenticeship training programmes. It is great to see Made in the UK labels back in our stores.

    Sue Faulkner from London, London, United Kingdom
  8. A constant frustration I have with this site (and many other commentators), is the argument that UK and European factories are inherently more ‘ethical’ or produce better quality than those in Asia. This is totally false. Some of the least compliant factories I have ever seen were in London, some of whom were employing illegal immigrants at half the minimum wage in horrendously unsafe conditions (I know this is still going on).
    Now working in Bangladesh, I am working with some spectacular factories which are equipped with facilities and machinery which most UK factories could not dream of, at quality levels European factories could never achieve.

    As a seperate note it is clear that there is room for UK manufacturing, however in the foreseeable future, it will always be fast turn-around or small volume, which is a limited market.

    Peter James from Bangladesh
  9. My team also believes that local production has a ripple effect that can save significant time and money. I am developing a targeted data tool that accomplishes various points you make in this article – re design decisions closer to sale and allowing designers to gather data to react mid-season. Dr. Wang’s ethos of evolution is how our nascent platform was born.

    Andrew Levy from United States
  10. I maintain a constantly updating facebook community page…

    https://www.facebook.com/pages/Technical-Outdoor-and-Cycling-Gear-Made-in-USAMade-in-Canada/1474798352733265?ref=hl

    …that highlights US and Canadian outdoor gear manufacturers (those that produce their goods domestically). Some are relative new comers while others are veteran manufacturers who never exploited a desperate labor force located in some despotic country rife with little or no environmental or labor protections.

    I have chosen for years to support these companies over their sweatshop counterparts and not necessarily because their products tend to be exceptional (which they overwhelmingly are) but because I believe in putting my money where my mouth is. I want to live in a vibrant community alongside happy healthy people who can afford to support themselves and those around them. The race to the bottom that’s represented by the current global marketplace runs contrary to this goal so instead I chose to support local producers wherever and whenever possible. Our dollars are our power and if enough of us consumers get behind domestic production we will be able to literaly change the global paradigm overnight.

    In my experience domestically produced goods (and Western-produced goods in general) are often less expensive than their sweatshop alternatives and/or are of such exceptional quality that any extra cost at the front-end is recouped through the superior quality/longer life of the product on the back-end. Check out my list and you will see that given the plethora of domestic producers in existence (and growing), comparable (or/or superior) quality, and very competitive pricing almost nothing justifies the continued purchasing of sweatshop goods. Support your neighbor and get something exceptional in return.

    Kai Mikkel Førlie from Mexico