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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