Automation Comes to Fashion

Video Discussion Questions:

#1 Why do you agree or disagree with the video that automation will post a significant challenge to garment workers in developing countries such as Bangladesh? How should policymakers react to the challenges?

#2 Can automation be a permanent solution to the social responsibility problem in the garment industry?

#3 In your view, how will automation affect the big landscape of apparel sourcing and the patterns of world textile and apparel trade?

#4 Why or why not do you anticipate a sizable return of apparel manufacturing to the United States if apparel production can be largely automated?

Additional reading: The robots are coming for garment workers. (WSJ, 2018)

Please feel free to share your views and join our online discussion!

Outlook 2018: Apparel Industry Issues in the Year Ahead

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In January 2018, Just-Style consulted a panel of industry leaders and scholars in its Outlook 2018–Apparel Industry Issues in the Year Ahead management briefing. Below is my contribution to the report. All suggestions and comments are most welcome!

1. What do you see as the biggest challenges – and opportunities – facing the apparel industry in 2018, and why?

One of the biggest opportunities facing the apparel industry in 2018 could be the faster growth of the world economy. According to the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the global growth forecast for 2018 is expected to reach 3.7 percent, about 0.1 percent points higher than 2017 and 0.6 percent points higher than 2016. Notably, the upward economic growth will be broad-based, including the United States, the Euro area, Japan, China, emerging Europe and Russia. Hopefully, the improved growth of the world economy will translate into increased consumer demand for clothing in 2018.

Nevertheless, from the macroeconomic perspective, oversupply will remain a significant challenge facing the apparel industry in 2018. Data from the World Bank and the World Trade Organization (WTO) shows that, while the world population increased by 21.6 percent between 2000 and 2016, the value of clothing exports (inflation-adjusted) surged by 123.5 percent over the same period. Similarly, between 2000 and 2016, the total U.S. population increased by 14.5 percent and the GDP per capita increased by 22.2 percent, but the supply of apparel to the U.S. retail market surged by over 67.8 percent during the same time frame. The problem of oversupply is the root of many challenges faced by apparel companies today, from the intense market competition, pressure of controlling production and sourcing cost, struggling with excessive inventory and deep discounts to balancing sustainability and business growth.

2: What’s happening with sourcing? How is the sourcing landscape likely to shift in 2018, and what can apparel firms and their suppliers do to stay ahead?

The 2017 US Fashion Industry Benchmarking Study, which I conducted in collaboration with the US Fashion Industry Association (USFIA) earlier this year, provides some interesting insights into companies’ latest sourcing strategies and trends. Based on a survey of 34 executives at the leading U.S. fashion companies, we find that:

First, most surveyed companies continue to maintain a relatively diversified sourcing base, with 57.6 percent currently sourcing from 10+ different countries or regions, up from 51.8 percent last year. Larger companies, in general, continue to have a more diversified sourcing base than smaller companies. Further, around 54 percent of respondents expect their sourcing base will become more diversified in the next two years, up from 44 percent in 2016; over 60 percent of those expecting to diversify currently source from more than 10 different countries or regions already. Given the uncertainties in the market and the regulatory environment (such as the Trump Administration’s trade policy agenda), companies may use diversification to mitigate potential market risks and supply chain disruptions due to protectionism.

Second, although U.S. fashion companies continue to seek alternatives to “Made in China” actively, China’s position as top sourcing destination remains unshakable. Many respondents attribute China’s competitiveness to its enormous manufacturing capacity and overall supply chain efficiency. Meanwhile, it is interesting to note that the most common sourcing model is shifting from “China Plus Many” to “China Plus Vietnam Plus Many” (i.e. China typically accounts for 30-50 percent of total sourcing value or volume, 11-30 percent for Vietnam and less than 10 percent for other sourcing destinations). I think this sourcing model will likely to continue in 2018.

Third, social responsibility and sustainability continue to grow in importance in sourcing decisions. In the study, we find that nearly 90 percent of respondents give more weight to sustainability when choosing where to source now than in the past. Around 90 percent of respondents also say they map their supply chains, i.e., keeping records of name, location, and function of suppliers. Notably, more than half of respondents track not only Tier 1 suppliers, suppliers they contract with directly, but also Tier 2 suppliers, i.e., supplier’s suppliers. However, the result also suggests that a more diversified sourcing base makes it more difficult to monitor supply chains closely. Making the apparel supply chain more socially responsible, sustainable and transparent will continue to be a hot topic in 2018.

3: What should apparel firms and their suppliers be doing now if they want to remain competitive further into the future? What will separate the winners from the losers?

I assume many experts will suggest what apparel firms should change to stay competitive into the future. However, the question in my mind is what should companies keep doing regardless of the external business environment? First, I think companies should always strive to understand and impress consumers and control their supply chains. Despite the growing popularity of e-commerce and the adoption of transformative new technologies, the fundamental nature of apparel as a buyer-driven business will remain the same. Second, companies should always leverage their resources and stay “unique,” no matter it means offering differentiated products or value-added services, maintaining exclusive distribution channels or keeping the leadership position in a particular niche market. Third, apparel firms should always follow the principle of “comparative advantage” and smartly define the scope of their core business functions instead of trying to do everything. Additionally, winners will always be those companies that can take advantage of the mega-development trends of the industry and be willing to make long-term and visionary investments, both physical and intangible (such as human talents).

4: What keeps you awake at night? Is there anything else you think the apparel industry should be keeping a close eye on in the year ahead? Do you expect 2018 to be better than 2017, and why?

I think the apparel industry should keep a close eye on the following issues in 2018:

  • The destiny of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA): The potential policy change to NAFTA means so much to the U.S. textile and apparel industry as well as suppliers in other parts of the world. Notably, through a regional textile and apparel supply chain facilitated by the agreement over the past 23 years, the NAFTA region has grown into the single largest export market for U.S. textile and apparel products as well as a major apparel sourcing base for U.S. fashion brands and retailers. In 2016, as much as half of U.S. textile and apparel exports went to the NAFTA region, totaling US$11billion, and U.S. apparel imports from Mexico and Canada exceeded US$3.9billion. Understandably, if NAFTA no longer exists, sweeping changes in the trade rules, such as import duties, could significantly affect the sourcing and manufacturing behaviors of U.S. textile and apparel companies and consequentially alter the current textile and apparel trade patterns in the NAFTA region. For example, Mexico’s focus on basic apparel items suggests that U.S. importers could quickly source from elsewhere if duty savings under NAFTA are eliminated.
  • The possible reaching of the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP): Even though RCEP is less well-known than the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), we should not ignore the potential impact of the agreement on the future landscape of textile and apparel supply chain in the Asia-Pacific region. One recent study of mine shows that the RCEP will lead to a more integrated textile and apparel supply chain among its members but make it even harder for non-RCEP members to get involved in the regional T&A supply chain in the Asia-Pacific. This conclusion is backed by the latest data from the World Trade Organization (WTO): In 2016, around 91 percent of Asian countries’ textile imports came from other Asian countries, up from 86 percent in 2006. The more efficient regional supply chain as a result of RCEP will further help improve the price competitiveness of apparel made by “factory Asia” in the world marketplace. Particularly in the past few years, textile and apparel exports from Asia have already posted substantial pressures on the operation of the textile and apparel regional supply chain in the Western Hemisphere.
  • Automation of apparel manufacturing and its impact on the job market: Recall my observations at the MAGIC this August, several vendors showcased their latest technologies which have the potential to automate the cut and sew process entirely or substantially reduce the labor inputs in garment making. The impact of automation on the future of jobs is not a new topic, but the apparel industry presents a unique situation. Globally, over 120 million people remain directly employed in the textile and apparel industries today, a good proportion of whom are females living in poor rural areas. According to the World Trade Organization (WTO), for quite a few low-income and lower-middle income countries such as Bangladesh, Gambia, Pakistan, Madagascar, Sri Lanka, and Cambodia, as much as over 70 percent of their total merchandise exports were textile and apparel products in 2016. Should these labor-intensive garment sewing jobs in the developing countries were replaced by machines, the social and economic impacts will be consequential. I think it is the time to start thinking about the possible scenarios and the appropriate policy responses.

The State of the Apparel Supply Chain

  • What is the biggest hurdle to “speed to market”?
  • What’s more important these days? Dollars or days?
  • Is mass customization a nice to have or a need to have?
  • How are companies fostering better partnerships with vendors?
  • How much has your company been impacted by the “Trump effect”?
  • Industry buzzwords: Amazon, sustainability, digitalization, transparency, on-demand manufacturing, data analytics.
  • How well are companies executing on their data?
  • 2017 is the year of _________? And What will 2018 be known for?

2015 Top Markets Report for Technical Textiles and Apparel Released

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The U.S. Department of Commerce recently released its first-ever market report for technical textile and apparel, covering product categories including: non-wovens, specialty and industrial fabrics, medical textiles and protective apparel. According to the report:

  • The U.S. exports of technical textiles totaled $8.5 billion or 46% of U.S. textile mill product exports in 2014.
  • By size, the top 10 export markets for U.S. technical textiles from 2015 to 2016 include: Mexico, Canada, China, Germany, Japan, Hong Kong, United Kingdom, Belgium, Brazil and Honduras.
  • North America is the largest regional consumer of technical textiles due to the presence of the majority of end-use industries. Europe and Asia Pacific follow North America in terms of current consumption; however, development in emerging markets including India, China, Japan, Korea and Taiwan is expected to increase overall technical textile demand. Among the best prospect in the emerging markets for U.S. companies are Vietnam, India, Taiwan and Brazil.
  • Major challenges facing U.S. technical textile exports include: 1) trade protection such as high tariffs and non-tariff barriers, such as import license requirements; 2) foreign competition and continual investment in research and development in many developing countries; and 3) lack of transparency by foreign customs agencies which could slow the flow of trade and lead to processing delays.

Eight country studies are provided by the report, including: Brazil, Canada, China, India, Korea, Mexico, Taiwan and Vietnam.

The full report can be downloaded from HERE.

The German Textile and Apparel Industry supports T-TIP?

Discussion:

  • Why do you think the German textile and apparel (T&A) industry supports the Trans-Atlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (T-TIP)? Should they?
  • Should the U.S. textile industry worry about the competition from Germany after T-TIP?
  • What strategy should the U.S. textile industry adopt in response to T-TIP?

Background: the German textile and apparel industry

  • Similar as the case in the United States, the German T&A industry has significantly shrunk in size over the past few decades. In particular, employment and total industry output were only a fraction of what they were in the past.
  • At the same time, the German T&A industry has undergone tremendous structural changes. While most simple production has gone overseas, German companies remain global leaders in the technical textile sector. Statistics show that the production of technical textiles in Germany went up by 40 percent from mid-1990s to 2011. Manufacturers of technical textiles in particular are benefiting from the increasing use of their products in new fields of application (e.g. vehicle construction, building industry, energy sector, medical technology and functional clothing).
  • Additionally, German T&A companies in general support trade liberalization. On one hand, imported T&A components are of great importance for German T&A companies to get access to needed raw material today. On the other hand, German T&A companies are eager to explore export opportunities in many fast-growing emerging markets in the world. In 2011, Germany’s top export market for textiles were Poland, France, Italy and Austria. The United States was the largest non-European export market. Germany’s largest export market for apparel in 2011 include Austria, Netherlands, France, Switzerland and Poland.

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Lectra Report: The Need for Transformation-An Analysis of the Fashion and Apparel Industry’s Evolution

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As the saying goes, change is the only constant in the fashion apparel industry. According to a newly released market report by Lectra*, “the pace of fashion has never been faster and neither has the pace of change”.

Lectra’s report highlights a few factors driving the changes in the fashion apparel industry:

1. Consumers

Consumers has much more control than in the past, implying the fashion industry can no longer define what to make and sell without taking consumers’ inputs into consideration. Some companies have alter their business models to be completely demand-driven, i.e. allowing integrating all their resources to meet the customized needs of all consumers.

Social and economic changes like internet access and growing prosperity, have also spurred the growth of new fashion markets in emerging countries that had typically been only supplier region, creating new opportunities for western fashion brands and retailers to expand business.

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2. Globalization

Historically, local brands dominate local market. However, because of the strategies of geographic expansion and international growth of many fashion brands, in more and more markets, local brands have to face competition from foreign brands. (for example: the Australian fashion industry is worried about the competition from H&M).

But globalization does not reduce diversity and localized consumer preferences. On the contrary, increased internationalization means that populations are more heterogeneous than in the past and retailers have to bring a localized response to individual markets.

3. Technology

New social media and mobile technologies have given consumers the power of instantaneous sharing and buying without restriction of time, place and in many cases, price. The availability of new technologies such as RFID, product life cycle management (PLM) and many other supply chain management tools have also enabled brands, retailers and manufacturers to reduce product development cycle, improve efficiency and better collaborate across the global process.

For example, digital prototyping gives companies the agility they need to adapt to changes in the market and test new products before they start to incur real production costs. PLM facilities the collaboration between design and development departments and breaks the silo mentality that has reigned for so long in the fashion and apparel industry, eliminating bottle- necks that resulted from outdated linear processes and increasing decision making power earlier on in product development.

4. Change of Business models**

In response to the application of new technologies and consumers’ updated demand, companies start to seriously reconsider their business models, especially the process of design, product development, production and distribution. As noted in the report, fashion brands, which have traditionally gone through retailers who sell on their behalf, have developed retail operations with the purpose of capturing a higher percentage of the final sale price and achieving complete control over the presentation, distribution and final price of their merchandise. Many retailers, however, also start to offer more and more private brands and exclusive products that can more effectively segment market and attract targeted consumers.

The traditional manufacturers are also looking for ways to cut costs and increase efficiency because of the pressure from retailers/brands. Manufacturers also have realized that selling directly to the end consumers is the most powerful way to protect revenue. As quoted by the report, roughly 60% of Chinese apparel manufacturers have launched their own brands. Armed with all that know-how, a growing number of Chinese manufacturers are now turning their efforts toward developing an offer for the domestic market and some are even setting their sights abroad. (recall the topic of “upgrading” in our lecture)

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*: Lectra is a company which provides fashion-focused technology solutions such as the CAD system and the product life-cycle management (PLM) system.

**: Corporate business strategies of fashion apparel companies in the 21st century world economy is specifically addressed in TMD432 (Fashion Retail Supply Chain Management).

What does Vietnam’s Textile Factory Actually Look Like?

Vietnam attracts a lot of attention these days in the textile and apparel world. But what does Vietnam’s textile and apparel factory actually look like? 

This video features PPC (Phong Phu Corporation), one of the largest textile mills in Vietnam. It is said that PPC accounts for over 50% of Vietnam’s total textile exports.

  • Anything in the video interests you or surprises you?
  • How is PPC different from textile mills in the US?( You may think about the video we watched in class about the textile mills in NC. For example, are there any differences in working environment, the facility, what it is producing, required labor skills, efficiency and productivity?)
  • How should the US textile industry treat Vietnam? A competitor? A threat? A potential partner? or a great opportunity for investment?

Please feel free to share your thoughts.

[Please leave no more comment for this post unless you have NEW ideas to share]