New landscape of sourcing
- Sourcing is turning from regional to global. In the past, U.S. apparel companies/fashion brands set up regional offices to handle sourcing. Nowadays, companies are building a global infrastructure to develop, source and market their products around world. Global rather than regional sourcing also allows companies to improve sourcing efficiency and reduce total product and distribution cost while maintaining quality of their product and services.
- U.S. apparel companies/fashion brands are going with fewer but more capable vendors (“super vendors”). For example, executive from a leading U.S. apparel brand said their company has shrunk their sourcing base by 40% in the past few years. At the same time, they now expect their vendors to be able to supply on a global scale, including having multiple manufacturing facilities around the world and being able to provide value added services such as design and product development.
- Related, sourcing is shifting from cut-make-and trim (CMT) to full package. This is consistent with our findings in the latest USFIA benchmarking study which suggests that vendors are highly expected to have the capacity of supplying raw material.
- U.S. apparel companies/fashion brands are also investing to build a more partnership-based relationship with vendors— help vendors reduce cost, become more innovative and have the same vision looking at the whole picture of the supply chain. At the same time, U.S. apparel companies/fashion brands see vendors as their “ambassadors” and want to know more about them—what they believe, what they can bring to the table and how they treat their workers.
- Companies are redefining the role of sourcing in their businesses. Sourcing is no longer treated as a technical function, but an integral part of a company’s overall business strategy.
Made in USA
- There is a noticeable interest in sourcing textiles and apparel “Made in USA” at Magic. A dozen U.S.-based apparel companies attended the Magic show and their booths attracted a heavy traffic. According to representatives from these companies, U.S. consumers’ increased demand for apparel “Made in USA” has been a strong support for their business growth in recent years.
- Nevertheless, apparel “Made in USA” often contain imported inputs today. I specifically asked a few vendors where their fabrics come from. All but one company said fabrics were imported because it was so hard to find domestic suppliers, especially for woven fabrics. Interesting enough, some companies feel OK to label their apparel “Made in USA” even though they use imported fabrics. According to them, apparel can be labeled “Made in USA” as long as “domestic content exceeds 60% of the value of the finished product.”
- At a seminar, some entrepreneurs which make and sell “Made in USA” apparel and accessories said price and production cost remain one of their top business challenges. I asked the panel whether going high-end is the only option for the future of apparel “Made in USA” given the high labor cost in the country. They disagreed—saying technology advancement and design innovation could help reduce production cost. However, all panelists admit they carry some luxury product lines. Additionally, some companies choose to emphasize concepts other than “Made in USA”, such as “hand-made” and “Pride in Seattle”, in order to make their products look more personal to consumers and allow more flexibility in sourcing raw material.
Updates of sourcing destinations
- Ethiopia: as I observe, Ethiopia is THE star at this year’s Sourcing at Magic. The country was repeatedly mentioned by panelists at various seminars as a promising and emerging sourcing destination. Several events at the show were also exclusively dedicated to promoting apparel and footwear “Made in Ethiopia”. A couple of reasons why Ethiopia is so “hot”: 1) the ten year extension of AGOA creates a stable market environment encouraging sourcing from Africa and investing in the region (and for sure the duty free access both to the US and EU market). 2) Located in the middle of Africa, Ethiopia is regarded as a hub that has the potential to take a leadership role in integrating the apparel supply chain in the region. 3) It is said that Ethiopian government is very supportive to the development of the local textile industry. 4) Many U.S. fashion companies feel sourcing from Ethiopia involves less risks of trade compliance than sourcing from some Asian countries such as Bangladesh.
- China: China unarguably remains the No.1 textile and apparel supplier to the U.S. market—in terms of numbers, around 60% vendors at the Magic show came from China. But I notice that booths of Chinese vendors didn’t have much traffic this time, an interesting signal for sourcing trend in the upcoming season. Nevertheless, while U.S. apparel companies/fashion brands are placing more emphasis on supply chain efficiency, quality of products, speed to market and added value in sourcing, “Made in China” will continue to enjoy many unique advantages over other suppliers. Plus, Chinse factories are actively investing overseas, from Southeast Asian countries to Africa. This makes Chinese factories likely to grow into “super vendors” that western fashion brands/retailers are looking for. To certain extent, macro trade statistics alone may not be able to fully reveal what is going on in apparel sourcing and trade.
- Vietnam: Regarding the future of Vietnam as a sourcing destination for U.S. apparel companies/fashion brands, somehow I hear more concerns than excitements at Magic. The uncertainty surrounding the ratification of TPP by the U.S. Congress definitely has made some companies hold back their investment and sourcing plan in Vietnam. Another big concern is Vietnam’s labor shortage and limited manufacturing capacity: apparel factories in Vietnam are already competing with electronic industry for young skilled workers. US companies also have to compete with their EU counterparts for orders in Vietnam. The newly reached EU-Vietnam Free Trade Agreement (EVFTA), which is very likely to be implemented earlier than TPP, provides Vietnam duty free access also to the EU market. And EVFTA adopts a much more flexible rule of origin than TPP, making it easier for Vietnam factories to actually use the agreement.
The awareness of social responsibility and sustainability has much improved: everyone in the industry is talking about them and have a view on them. On a voluntary basis, some companies are making efforts to improve traceability of their products, i.e. to help consumers know exactly where their clothing comes from and what is happening at the upstream of the supply chain. Yet, how to encourage factories to share their information and control tier 2 and tier 3 suppliers remain a challenge.
by Sheng Lu
Note: Sourcing at Magic is one of the largest and most influential annual textile and apparel sourcing events hosted in the United States. Special thanks to the Center for Global and Areas Studies at the University of Delaware for funding the trip.