The Global Textiles and Apparel Industry – 8 Things to Think About

Devangshu Dutta

April 2, 2008

I had the privilege of bringing the Prime Source Forum in Hong Kong (April 1-2, 2008) to a close.  As in the previous year, the Forum had senior executives from companies based in the Americas, Europe, and Asia, as well as government officials and highly respected academics. The discussions covered wide-ranging topics, and with the variety of people on the panels, there was also some amount of difference in opinion.

8 issues came to my mind as key themes for the global industry, as I was preparing my closing speech, and I thought that those who were not present at the event may also be interested in these. Some of these are views expressed in the panel discussions, others are just my musings. Hopefully thinking through these 8 things can improve the fortunes of the industry around the world (8 being a lucky number in China). 

1. Costs vs Prices – Rising costs were a big theme, running through the various panels.  Chinese labour costs, power costs, the increasing costs of fuel, new costs of doing business (compliance) – more cost heads were discussed than I can possibly remember.

Once upon a time prices used to go up when costs went up. But that has not been the case for at least the last couple of decades. Even as costs have climbed, retail prices and FOBs have remained steady or even declined. Clearly, the question is whether this is a sustainable situation – though consumers and retailers have been winners so far, how long can factories and labour be squeezed without impacting the very survival of the business?

The interesting contrast is luxury goods, where production costs have come down due to outsourcing and manufacturing in low labour cost countries. (So even in that area, prices and costs don’t show a correlation!)

2. Where next? – Dr. William Fung (Li & Fung) clearly struck a note with most of the audience in his opening keynote address, as he tackled the BIG question: with costs significantly rising in China, and the risks of a concentrated sourcing basket, which other countries could companies look to. According to him, “within the next 3 years, the follow-up country to China is…China”.

After all, which other country’s industry has poured billions of dollars in up-to-date manufacturing capacity and supply chain infrastructure? So even while the Chinese government’s move to push factories to the north and west of China may be producing results as quickly as they may have hoped, buyers clearly have limited options on the table.

Certainly, other countries such as India and its neighbours, as well as Indonesia, Vietnam etc. are an option, but a lot more needs to be pushed through.  According to Dr. Fung, India shows higher product differentiation and development skills that make it a logical place for buyers to invest time and energy.

I believe that what buyers did in China 15-20 years ago, is probably what is needed in South Asia and other supply bases now.  At that time, China had neither the production capacity nor the supply chain and other infrastructure that it has now. But intrepid buyers opened the Chinese frontier and created the demand pipeline which pulled the supply base up. Would retailers have a similar focus on the other supply bases today, to balance their exposure in China? This is not a new question – in fact, in the last few years it has come up several times when there has been a hurdle or barrier to cross with China (quotas, SARS etc.).  But now, with the Chinese government also wanting to turn the industry’s focus away from low-value products such as clothing and textiles, could this be the opportunity for buyers to push their initiatives in other countries ahead?

3. Fashion is about change…but are we prepared for change? – Speed to market is not just about producing quickly and shipping fast, it is about responding to change in the market. The very nature of the fashion business is “change”.

Though benchmarks of 2-week turnaround and even 2-day turnaround exist, by and large the industry works over a lead time of months rather than weeks. We know that it is humanly impossible for even the best buyer to predict with 100% accuracy as to what will sell 6-12 months in the future.

So the answer, especially in these uncertain market conditions, is to take product decisions closer to the sell-date, rather than try and forecast accurately. The only way to reduce the risk is to respond to market needs, rather than to try and predict what the market will need in the future.

4. Neither free nor fair! – There was enormous debate (although mostly in polite terms), about whether free trade and fair trade meant anything.  

What is very clear is that trade barriers continue to exist. Even as import tariffs fall, non-tariff barriers remain in place. While thousands and tens of thousands of people around the world are actively working to bring trade barriers down in all countries, within their own markets there are others who are actively lobbying to keep trade barriers up, or to erect new ones.  A very interesting perspective shared by one of the panelists was that to a protectionist, “protectionism” isn’t a dirty word! Such a person will have a clear justification for keeping or putting up trade barriers.

So while the vision is that of free trade between nations, we are probably some way off from that.

5. CSR & compliance pressures – “Compliance pressures” are here to stay. Yet, even after years of debate and discussion, it is evident that there are wide gaps between the perceptions of the various players.

Ever since the industrial revolution in the 1800s, talk of more humane conditions in factories has been prevalent. It took European and American companies decades (at the very least) to move up health & safety and labour standards. However, the industries in the current supply countries do not have that luxury any more, since the pressure on prominent brands and the risk to their image is too high – whether you like it or not, compliance standards are being and will be pushed through aggressively.

The key is to understand how to do it most efficiently, and a critical element in getting there would be to have a set of common standards and database of audits and certifications.

However, let’s not underestimate the challenge in getting diverse interests and competitors to agree to sign on to common standards, and to share information about their suppliers.

6. Consolidation (?) – Consolidation may be a model among mature retailers and mature suppliers, but there is enough organic growth in the market to attract and sustain smaller companies, especially in the case of the “emerging economies”.

Developing markets are breeding grounds for new businesses, each of which feels that they can be the next big thing, and in such an environment, being acquired by another company is the farthest thought from the management’s mind.

Another factor against consolidation on the supply end, comes from the inherent development-oriented nature of fashion products – excellent and innovative product development is not the privilege of large companies, and the cost of entry remains low. So we should question the logic of viewing consolidation as an unstoppable juggernaut.

7. Vertical Integration / Control (between suppliers, brands and retailers) – When companies sit across the negotiating table, they are clearly vying to gain the most margin. Retailers are closest to the consumer, and they have the most margin. The downside is that they also bear the most risk or markdown. So when manufacturers look at becoming brands, and brands look at becoming retailers, they need to keep in mind, there is a cost to moving downstream, even with the extra margin being available.

Over the last few decades retailers have also tried to grow their private label to gain extra margin (in effect, to replace some of their suppliers) – but there is a cost to doing that as well. It is not as simple as just stripping out an intermediary’s cost, since the product development and sourcing operation still needs to be managed.

Vertical integration is the holy grail – perfect vertical integration is what people wish for, but it’s impossible to achieve. The best one can hope for is as much vertical control as possible over the chain from raw material to consumer.

8. Victims of our own success – We treat globalisation as a new phenomenon – the fact is that many thousands of years ago, the Egyptian civilization was trading with the Indus Valley civilization, the Chinese and the Romans had discovered each other way before US department store buyers landed in Hong Kong and Korea.

As Nayan Chanda describes in his excellent book – Bound Together – traders, preachers, adventurers and warriors have created bridges across continents for tens of thousands of years. So retailers and importers in the west, are only following in the footsteps of those pioneers, albeit helped by the communications and travel revolution in the last 30 years.

However, lately, companies’ business models are victims of their own success.

Too much has been outsourced too far. Where earlier, buyer and supplier were next to each other, today there is a physical and cultural distances between them, that sometimes seems impossible to bridge. Where earlier, a buyer and designer could pop around the corner to the pattern room to check the fit, and discuss the quality with the factory, today they sit at opposite ends of the earth, and work in a phase difference of day and night.

The costs related to bringing the skills back certainly are prohibitively high. But clearly bridges do need to be built.

Recreating or transferring the skills that have been lost, or are being lost in the US and Europe is absolutely vital for the industry to survive profitably.

Through training & education, through more frequent travel, through internships and gaining work experience in each other’s environment, or through technology, buyers and suppliers need to invest in reaching something of the sort of understanding and close collaboration that used to exist when buyers and suppliers lived in the same city.

A lot to chew on, and many unanswered questions, which I am sure will bring hundreds of industry executives together again next April at Prime Source Forum 2009 in Hong Kong.

The Brave New (Old) World

Devangshu Dutta

October 11, 2000

Over the past few years, the Internet has been revolutionising the way we interact with each other, as individuals, as companies or corporate entities, providing a mass of information keeps growing with no end in sight. With cheap and direct access, we can quite simply move around with a few clicks, most of the time locate what we want, make an informed (and even comparison-based) decision, and exit. Surely, as many pundits forecast, the Internet should bring an end to intermediation of any sort. Well, yes. And no.

Yes, the Internet makes information more easily accessible to everyone. Every week there are literally thousands of websites, hundreds of portals and at least a few dozen exchanges that spring up. These get hit upon either directly, or via the many search engines that, in turn, are also constantly updating and fine-tuning their search algorithms, pushing to create sensible shortlists that are useful for the researcher. One is even named after the butler created by P. G. Wodehouse, with the implicit claim that it will anticipate your needs even before you know of them! However, these are only attempts at generating intelligence (at best), more often just information, quite a lot of which is unintelligible, and very far from the “knowledge” that we human beings seem to create in our minds quite automatically as we go about doing our tasks. Just a few days ago, I was searching for hotels in the US – what I downloaded was a morass of information, and I spent a whole day sorting through it. In this case I could have just as well requested a trusted travel agent to come up with a few appropriate options for me, from which I could have booked my choice.

Our minds are, yet, the best-known computer to man, in terms of versatility. Our minds can store enormous amounts of data – a surprising amount remains in long-term memory (despite the fact that often we can’t seem to remember the name of the person that we just met in the lift!). More importantly, we can connect and inter-relate seemingly unrelated items of information, for example, creating travel itineraries covering flights, hotels and various other details into a plan that is most effective and efficient keeping in mind the time constraints, costs and our objectives for travelling. We are still not fully-there from robot programmes which will automatically find you the best prices, and the most convenient locations or times, let alone do that for hotels AND flights AND trains and any other items that your itinerary contains. Travel is actually probably one of the simpler examples – you could still create parameters which, provided the base information about price, time or location is provided by the service providers, can be used in programmes that can analyse patterns of new and past data, and revert with some shortlisted options.

Let us think of a more complex example – the textile and apparel supply chain. It is one of the most fragmented industries, and possibly one of the most global in terms of trade flows. There are multiple layers of raw materials and intermediate products, most of which pass through some sort of intermediaries (such as commission agents, stockists, importers etc.). In such a form the industry is a prime candidate for opening out to the Internet, where suppliers can create their websites, or store their information through other platforms (such as “exchanges”) which can be accessed by buyers from around the world – easy to set up, independent of time zones and very very low cost. Get rid of the multiple layers that mostly add costs, book orders directly, get rid of stocks… sounds like a heaven-sent opportunity!

Well, that is how it is being seen by the 70-80 exchanges that have come up around the world, or are in various stages of being set up. Some of these have been set up by existing industry players, some by technology companies, and yet others by people who have set up exchanges in other sectors who believe that similar business principles can be applied to the textile and apparel supply chain as they have applied in the other sectors. This should dramatically raise the direct access between suppliers and customers – be the end of agents and other intermediaries – and basically make millions for the companies promoting the exchanges!

Yet, around the world, retailers and brands that buy finished products and raw material do not seem to be rushing to stake any significant proportion of their purchases to web-based sourcing. And there are multiple reasons for that.

Firstly, such a proliferation of exchanges seems to be only a reflection of the fragmentation, and there does not seem the likelihood that any clearly dominant player will emerge in the next few months. There is little or no differentiation between most of these exchanges – most of them offering a sophisticated yellow pages capability, while others offer possibly a few add-ons such as functionality that allows buyers to bid for stocks, or suppliers to quote for products.

Secondly, in certain areas, buyers or suppliers themselves have got involved in setting up exchanges. Some of these are private web-based initiatives (such as Wal-Mart or Littlewoods on the retail end, or or on the supply side), while others apparently are more public and collaborative, such as World-Wide Retail Exchange.

Closed web-based systems are excellent for the company that is initiating it, because it enables the company to streamline operational processes. However, it does create another platform for people to adapt to, though web-based systems are less painful certainly than EDI or other proprietary systems, which require specific investments. Also, occasionally it brings up the question of conflict of interest. For example, how comfortable would one supplier feel in sharing internal information with another supplier who has taken on an additional role?

Other initiatives, such as the WWRE, have got off to a good start, but here internal stumbling blocks are inevitable due to the composition of the groups. Consider the WWRE: 27 retailers currently, in four separate areas of operation (as diverse as food and clothing), with different geographical bases, which make the business imperatives very different for the various participants. Add to that the fact that people are loath to share knowledge that is considered proprietary by them, whether process knowledge or supplier contacts. It is a long-drawn process of consensus management in such a large initiative.

Thirdly, what kind of a service offer is the best? As of now, there is are options available from various B2B service providers, offering varying areas of benefit, from listing services to “software solutions” for various applications, to loose working relationships. Not only do the service offerings actually vary, there are varying degrees of claims and counterclaims that muddy the waters further.

The scenario is actually as confusing as it seems to be – players, whether exchanges, portals or any other kind of company, are dynamically evolving their business models, with changes seemingly almost every week, and new players emerging all the time. In such a scenario, buyers (who are early-adopters) will get into as many exchanges as possible to get the maximum choice, and to hedge their bets. On the other hand, the majority – which comprises of buyers who adopt new technologies later – will hold back to see which exchanges come up as the most widely accepted or most appropriate for them.

Finally, whether we like it or not, textile and apparel products are inherently emotional products. They are, of course, driven by specifications, and those specs can be defined fairly precisely. But what the specifications cannot ever completely convey is how a buyer feels instinctively about including a product in a range. Or, indeed, what the impact would be of making some minor adjustments that can be visualised, discussed and decided in an interactive session between a buyer and a supplier. Or, for that matter, what is the best way to reconfigure a supply chain, under pressure of a new order, or an unforeseen delay in the process. Intermediation is something that has become ingrained in the textile and apparel supply chain.

In such a scenario, it is unlikely that intermediaries will disappear immediately. What is certainly happening, however, that while previously buyers were willing (or forced) to pay for having access to information, pure information itself is being made a commodity. In this frame of reference, companies are seeking out “genuine value-for-money” before they will shell out a buying or selling commission. Process or domain knowledge is an absolute must – only this can enable web-based companies to create unique and genuine value-adding web-solutions. Simply putting up a ‘telephone directory on the web’ will fetch very little in return. Even though a telephone directory has hundreds thousands of entries, how much do you pay for it? Relationship-management and process-management capability will remain in demand, and many of the existing intermediaries certainly show a lot of that.

Vertical integration

One of the most important developments that will certainly be an accelerated outcome of the internet, will be the vertical integration of the textile and apparel supply chain. While, in the past, the very diverse nature of the stages of the supply chain has created and maintained multiple layers, web-based technologies are now enabling companies to structure and manage the apparel supply chain from as early a stage as they wish to, be that fabric, yarn or even fibre. It is more feasible to exert control, without actually physically owning the different bits of the supply chain.

Breaking down size barriers

Another significant outcome is that the web breaks down “size” barriers. Large retailers typically bought from large suppliers, while small retailers typically did business with small suppliers. Any “criss-crossing” (i.e. small companies dealing with larger companies) needed middlemen – individuals or companies that broke bulk or consolidated orders, for small or large retailers, respectively. This had more to do with operating systems, management capabilities and the scale needed for relationship management than it did with actual barriers. Now, however, web-based systems can allow some parity between organisations of different size, because at a low cost the same level of functionality is available to companies of all sizes, This is significantly changing the balance of power, and the overall structure of the industry. Scale was never the only surrogate measure of capability in this industry, but the correlation between actual scale and perceived or actual capability is getting even more vague over the Internet.

The impact of the web on the textile and apparel industry is not going to be immediate – it will take a while to permeate the hundreds of thousands of companies that make up the supply chain – so there is some breathing space.

But surely, in the next five years, the textile and apparel supply chain that we shall be seeing, will be structured quite differently from the existing supply chain. There will certainly be some casualties. What is important is that you – whether you are a supplier or a retailer – should start taking cognisance of the changes to come, and begin changing your own business to avoid being one of the casualties.