Understand West Africa as an Emerging Apparel Sourcing Hub and Its New Sustainable Development Model: FASH455 Exclusive Interview with Kekeli Ahiable

(photo courtesy: Kekeli Ahiable)

Kekeli Ahiableis a private sector development Advisor with the Tony Blair Institute’s Industrialisation Practice. Working with industry leaders over the past 10 years, she has facilitated business and job creation opportunities in the trade infrastructure, supply chain, and manufacturing sectors across four continents.

In her current technical support role at TBI, she manages the Institute’s regional textile and apparel (T&A) project which aims to support the development of a best in class, sustainable, and circular cotton-to-apparel manufacturing hub across five West African countries.

She holds a Master of Public Policy (MPP) from the University of Oxford, with a focus on trade policy and economic development.

Interview Part:

Sheng: Thank you so much for speaking with us, Kekeli. First of all, would you please tell us a little about the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change (TBI) and your involvement with the textile and apparel (T&A) industry in West Africa?

Kekeli: Sure! The Tony Blair Institute for Global Change (TBI) is a not-for-profit organization that offers strategic advice and practical support to political leaders and governments so they can deliver reforms that raise standards and transform lives. Our work includes advising on a range of sectors including industrialization, energy, and technology. We currently work in 17 African countries.

Since 2019, we have been working with several governments in West Africa – specifically Cote d’Ivoire, Ghana, and Togo – to support the development of a best-in-class and sustainable textile and apparel sector that meets the needs of British, European, and North American retailers and consumers.

Our role has centered around supporting our partner governments to:

  • prepare for doing business; work with them to develop relevant sector strategy & review policy, etc.
  • design attractive investment incentives
  • attract interest in the region from relevant fashion trade actors

For instance, we facilitated a week-long investor roadshow to the three countries in 2019, with participation from three of the largest global apparel brands together with their mills and manufacturers (with a combined turnover of over US$ 70 billion). This was co-sponsored under the banner of Amcham Hongkong.

Covid-19 naturally impacted our physical scoping events and so we moved the conversations to virtual roundtable forums. Last December, eight of the UK’s biggest retailers, plus several European retailers, attended a session we organized, led by Rt Hon. Tony Blair. Representatives from the three main governments and other non-governmental groups involved in developing textiles and apparel in the region were also present to engage in discussion with the investors. We have also worked with the American Apparel and Footwear Association (AAFA) and the United States Fashion Industry Association (USFIA) to update US brands and retailers on West Africa’s potential as a nearshore sourcing destination for the North American market.

In summary, TBI is very much to help create top-of-mind awareness about West Africa’s suitability to grow a viable T&A sourcing hub and ultimately facilitate investment into the priority countries.

Sheng: What is the current state of the textile and apparel (T&A) industry in West Africa? What are the key development trends? How about the impact of COVID?

Kekeli: West Africa’s T&A market is rapidly expanding. Although considered nascent when compared to Asia’s more developed markets, its many greenfield opportunities also mean there are fewer legacy challenges to contend with. This offers a ripe opportunity for investors and manufacturers to start from an almost clean slate, which is crucial as the apparel industry makes strides toward a more environmentally sustainable footprint.

The region also has numerous natural and competitive advantages for textiles and apparel manufacturing and has seen increased interest from global actors, brands, manufacturers, infrastructure developers, development finance institutions, etc., over the last few years.

Key development trends

Recognizing shifting patterns in global T&A trade and the immense value in domestic processing of abundantly available raw materials, West African governments are demonstrating an ambition to harness their competitive advantages and expand their T&A sectors.

The governments of Cote d’Ivoire, Ghana, and Togo especially, are walking the talk. Togo’s agile government closed a ground-breaking €200 million investment deal with Arise IIP, in August 2020. The deal included building a 400-hectare eco-industrial park dedicated to textiles and apparel manufacturing. Apart from the park, the Arise group is investing into vertically integrated (fiber to fashion) knit apparel units which will start commercial operations in mid-2023.

Ghana has the most advanced industrial base of the three highlighted countries and hosts DTRT Apparel, which has been running its operation in Ghana for the past 7 years and is currently the largest apparel exporter from West Africa. As a further boost towards vertical integration, in March, they partnered on a co-creation deal with the International Finance Corporation (IFC) to jointly develop setting up a synthetic fabric mill in the region. Meanwhile, Northshore Apparel, another garment actor, recently began constructing a 10,000-worker garment factory in Ghana. To attract more foreign direct investment (FDI), the government is drafting a new T&A sector policy and incentive framework under the UK’s Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office (FCDO) funded £16 million-pound JET Programme.

In a similar vein, Cote d’Ivoire, Africa’s second-largest cotton seed grower, is carrying out sector reforms and strategy development aimed at facilitating the domestic transformation of at least 50% of their annual cotton output.

Altogether, it is an exciting time to be developing the T&A sector in West Africa. We are excited to contribute towards this vision to create a best in class, vertical and sustainable manufacturing hub in the region, and help to create 500k direct and indirect jobs.

Impact of COVID

Most existing garment manufacturers pivoted to producing PPE for both domestic and international markets. For instance, DTRT is making this a permanent feature of their production, although orders have resumed from their traditional apparel buyers.

We have also witnessed a stronger resolve from governments to support their domestic T&A manufacturing sectors’ growth.  The Togo deal, for instance, happened at the height of covid lockdowns. Some countries also offered waivers on value-add tax for their textile and apparel manufacturers and used the time to restructure their labor codes to meet international standards.

Sheng: How to understand West African countries’ competitiveness as an apparel-sourcing base for western fashion companies?

Kekeli: First, there is an immense opportunity to vertically integrate the T&A manufacturing value chain. The region produces around 1.5 million metric tons of cotton annually, which represents about 60% of Africa’s total output and 15% of global exports. The vast majority of this is exported unprocessed. Farming methods feature rain-fed irrigation with harvest done by handpicking, leading to 80% being labeled as preferred, sustainable cotton under Better Cotton Initiative (BCI) and Cotton made in Africa (CmiA) standards.

Secondly, its geographical location means it offers a natural nearshore market to Europe and US markets – literally less than two weeks away from Europe by sea.

Note: transit times are shorter depending on the shipping line. Transit references for the US are New York and Charleston, Antwerp and Hamburg for Europe, and Hangzhou for China/Asia. Source: Freightos, Bollore Africa Logistics interviews

Other benefits include an abundant trainable labor force, cost savings to manufacturers under favorable trade instruments like African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA), EU’s Economic Partnership Agreement (EPA)/Everything But Arms (EBA) program, etc., as well as consolidated political stability in all three countries. Moreover, there is strong potential for developing a circular textile economy facilitated by green manufacturing and initiatives like our West Africa Regeneration Zone (WARZ) initiative, on which TBI is collaborating with key brands and figures from the industry.

Apart from the main retail regions, there is a growing online retail market in Africa – estimated to increase to $75 billion by 2025 with projected $3.4 trillion aggregate GDP under African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA). As we have seen with recent moves to the continent by Twitter, Google, and others, there is large scope for fashion retailers to use manufacturing in West Africa as a launchpad into this growing continental market, with free movement of goods and services under AfCFTA.

These are attractive propositions for buyers and manufacturers looking to diversify their supply chains and leave a greener carbon footprint in the process.

Sheng: It is of concern that used clothing exports from developed countries to Africa hurt the local textile and apparel industry. What is your assessment?

Kekeli: That is correct. The reality is that there is strong consumer demand for second-hand clothing, due to the cheap prices and readily available clothing for re-use. This is the main reason why the supply chains are routing the bales to other markets, including Africa. Most consumers in Africa rely heavily on the second-hand clothing markets. In this configuration, it is difficult for local players to compete and attract the same consumers’ appetites.

Moreover, this is quite complex, especially in an era of global value chains and [free] trade pacts that enjoin countries to offer some levels of reciprocity in their trade relations. Governments wishing to partake in international trade cannot simply ban imports of goods to protect their local industries. It is, therefore, crucial to explore practical win-win solutions.

For instance, there is a fast-growing global market for fabrics made from recycled materials as brands and manufacturers are taking steps to make their footprint greener. Receiver countries of second clothes could develop other business opportunities from the materials that arrive, with funding from relevant partners. Take Ghana as an example – its Kantamanto market, arguably the world’s largest reuse, repair, and upcycle market, process hundreds of tons of clothing each week. A large percentage of what comes to the market however ends up as landfilled waste due to various reasons.

One remedy is recycling, which ploughs back the many unsold and non-reusable clothes into the textile manufacturing economy. This not only reduces the need for virgin fibers but with the scale envisioned for the West Africa T&A manufacturing project, it increases the fabric feedstock available for domestic Cut, Make, Trim (CMT) manufacturers thus supporting to differentiate the region as a destination for circular apparel sourcing. Managed properly, we envision this would have positive spillover effects on the domestic market. At TBI, we published a piece on tackling Ghana’s textile waste which can be read here for a deeper dive into the subject.

Sheng: How does the textile and apparel industry in West Africa embrace sustainability?

Kekeli: The strongest aspect is from an environmental perspective. With rain-fed irrigation, around 80% of the region’s cotton is labeled as preferred cotton. Vertically integrating the cotton value chain by processing within one geographical area supports a lower carbon footprint of each final product.

West Africa’s geographical proximity to main buyer markets also increases its environmental sustainability credentials as a nearshore market.

Moreover, circularity is part of the culture in this part of the world – people reuse and pass on clothes to other family relations after use, with very little going to waste. We see an opportunity to scale this with the West Africa regeneration (WARZ) initiative. The WARZ initiative aims to support the development of a sustainable and circular textile and apparel supply base in West Africa where post-consumer textile waste is recycled at scale and becomes feedstock for making new apparel. This would be underpinned by disruptive recycling and traceability technology.

In our role as non-vested convenors and facilitators, we have convened a consortium of international and domestic stakeholders to develop a pilot project in Ghana, which is the world’s number two importer of second-hand clothing. Preliminary scoping puts the entire project size at over US$500 million with the potential to generate over 60K jobs along the value chain over the next 5-10 years. The following image depicts the initial concept for the regeneration zone project:

Relatedly, to demonstrate emerging support at the continental level, the African Development Bank recently approved the establishment of a €4 million Africa Circular Economy Facility to drive integration of the circular economy into African efforts to achieve nationally defined contribution targets.

Sheng: How important are trade preference programs like the African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA) to the development of the textile and apparel industry in West Africa? Do you think AGOA should be extended after 2025? Should the agreement keep the liberal “third-country fabric” rules of origin? Why or why not?

Kekeli: Trade preference programs are extremely important to facilitate the growth of Africa’s manufacturing and export capacity. As fundamentals like infrastructure tend to be less developed on the continent, preferential regimes like AGOA serve as a key enabler for manufacturing FDI. The T&A industries in countries like Kenya, Lesotho, and Madagascar have grown tremendously in the past few years thanks to AGOA’s tariff-free concessions. West Africa’s T&A industry is now in the beginning stages of development and needs an extension of AGOA to grow.

I believe in the short-medium term, maintaining third-country fabric rules is also crucial (note: Third-country fabric rules allow for apparel made with fabrics sourced from outside the AfCFTA/Sub-Saharan Africa region to qualify for duty-free access). The simple reason is that West Africa’s cotton value chain needs support to develop. While countries have ambitions for vertical integration by processing cotton within the region, these backward linkages will take time to develop.

A phase-out period may be negotiated to further incentivize accelerating the move towards domestic production of fibers that qualify to be used by CMT manufacturers in the [sub]-region.

Sheng: What does the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA) mean for the textile and apparel industry in West Africa? 

Kekeli: The AfCFTA pact aims to form the world’s largest free trade area by connecting almost 1.3bn people across 54 African countries. The goal is to create a single market for goods and services to deepen the economic integration of Africa, with a combined GDP of around $3.4 trillion.

Historically, the most developed world regions have been those that have figured out and developed strong regional value chains. The EU, which is the world’s largest regional trade agreement (RTA) by value has over 64% of trade taking place within the regional block. Similar cases pertain in the US-Mexico-Canada (USMCA) and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) free trade areas.

Intra-Africa trade on the contrary is currently under 20%, with strong potential for growth. Trade figures show that when African countries trade with each other, it is mostly intermediate or finished goods, which naturally have more value. The goal is to encourage more of this.

Textiles and apparel development in West Africa has strong potential to become a flagship example of what AfCFTA implementation could practically look like. In the next couple of years, I envision fabrics from Cote d’Ivoire, Benin, being exported to Ghana duty-free to feed apparel factories, designers from Cote d’Ivoire offering their expertise across the sub-region with no restrictions on their movement, textiles from Ghana being traded in Nigeria, etc. The possibilities are truly endless. 

–END–

FASH455 Earth Day Reading (April 2022)

Trade and sourcing play a critical role in building a more sustainable fashion apparel supply chain. Below are recent FASH455 blog posts addressing climate change, sustainability, recycling, and transparency issues. Feel free to join our online discussion and share your ideas on improving sustainable, ethical, and more socially responsible sourcing.

Other recommended readings

A New Strategy for the European Textiles and Apparel Industry – EURATEX perspective

Speaker: Dirk Vantyghem / Director General, European Apparel and Textile Confederation (EURATEX)

Topics covered

  • Macro-economic development of the EU textile and apparel industry
  • Impact of COVID-19 on the EU textile and apparel industry
  • The EU trade policy context
  • Key elements of EU textile and apparel industry’s post-COVID development strategy

Additional reading:

The Changing Face of Textile and Apparel “Made in Asia” (Updated February 2022)

Video 1: Asian garment and textile industry seeks a path to a bright and sustainable future

Video 2: Smart tech at E China clothing factory

Video 3: Vietnam’s textile and apparel industry amid the pandemic

Video 4: Fashion has a sustainability problem – here’s how TAL is tackling it

Discussion questions:

  1. How are textile and apparel “Made in Asia” changing its face? What are the driving forces of these changes?
  2. What are the examples of the “flying geese model” in the videos? Overall, why or why not do you think this pattern is still valid today?
  3. How to understand COVID-19’s impact on Asia’s textile and apparel industry? What strategies have been adopted by garment factories in Asia to survive the pandemic? What challenges do they still face?
  4. What is your evaluation of Asia’s competitiveness as a textile and apparel production and sourcing hub over the next five years? Why? What factors could be relevant?  
  5. Anything else you find interesting/intriguing/thought-provoking/debatable in the video? Why?

Note: Everyone is welcome to join our online discussion. For students in FASH455, please address at least two questions. Please mention the question number # (no need to repeat the question) in your comment.

Video Discussion: Levi’s CFO Harmit Singh on Bloomberg Chief Future Officer

Discussion questions for FASH455:

  1. Regarding Levi’s “new normal” for apparel sourcing and supply chain management, what is Harmit Singh’s vision? Why or why not do you agree with him?
  2. How could Levi’s digital transformation plans affect its sourcing practices?
  3. What is your evaluation of Levi’s “tailor shop” program?
  4. What is the rationale behind Levi’s “buy better and wear better” initiative?
  5. What is a chief financial officer (CFO)’s role in helping Levi’s achieve its sustainability goals?
  6. Anything else you find interesting/intriguing/new/inspiring from the video and why?

About Levi’s

Levi’s supplier map (source: Open Apparel Registry)

Levi Strauss & Co is a global apparel company rooted in the jeans category. Its brand portfolio consists of Levi’s brand, Levi’s Signature, Dockers, and Denizen. In 2020, Levi’s global sales exceeded $7.1 billion. The United States is Levi’s largest market, accounting for about 41% of its sales in 2020, followed by Mexico. As of June 2021, Levi’s sources its apparel products from around 350 factories located in about 30 countries.

Years before the pandemic, Levi Strauss has begun to reduce its reliance on wholesalers and instead expand its direct-to-consumer (DTC) business. In response to COVID-19, Levi Strauss has increased flexibility and resilience through diversification across geographies, categories, genders, and distribution channels. Levi’s is also well-known as a leader in sustainability, particularly reducing chemical and water use in products.

What Is the Apparel Industry Doing To Tackle Climate Change? An Analysis of Corporate Filings

By leveraging the GlobalData Apparel Intelligence Center’sCompany Filing Analytics” tool, we took a detailed look at apparel companies’ latest efforts on addressing climate change.  Specifically, we conducted a content analysis of annual and quarterly filings (e.g., 10-Q report and corporate annual report) submitted by over a hundred leading apparel companies worldwide from June 2020 to September 2021. 

Key findings:

First, addressing climate change has become a more critical topic for apparel companies over the past five years. The percentage of apparel companies that mention “climate change” in their corporate filings nearly doubled from 43% in 2016 to 80% in 2020. Notably, different from the public perception, fast fashion brands like Inditex and H&M were among apparel companies that most frequently mentioned “climate change” in their corporate reports over that period.

Second, many apparel companies see their business risks associated with climate change growing. Results from GlobalData show that apparel companies are particularly concerned about potential supply chain disruption caused by climate change. Apparel companies are also concerned that climate change could increase their sourcing and production costs and hurt financials. As a leading fashion brand noted, “Disasters, climate change…may cause escalating prices or difficulty in procuring the raw materials (such as cotton, cashmere, down, etc.)”. Another added, “In the long term, the broader impacts of climate change may impact the cost and accessibility of materials used to manufacture products or other resources needed to operate business.

Third, an increasing number of apparel companies have incorporated climate change into their corporate strategies or long-term business visions. Some apparel companies also established a dedicated office or governance structure to address climate change.

Further, apparel companies call for more detailed and transparent regulatory guidelines that can help them combat climate change. As one leading fashion brand commented, “Any assessment of the potential impact of future climate change legislation, regulations or industry standards, as well as any international treaties and accords, is uncertain given the wide scope of potential regulatory change in the countries in which we operate… As a result, the effects of climate change could have a long-term adverse impact on our business and the results of operations.

In conclusion, addressing climate change is no longer a topic apparel companies can only ignore or treat as a marketing slogan. Instead, we are likely to see companies allocate more dedicated resources to this area in the long run, from human resources to research & development (R&D) spendings. Meanwhile, apparel companies may find it necessary and beneficial to effectively communicate their efforts and needs to address climate change with key stakeholders like consumers and public policymakers.

Full article: Sheng Lu (2021). Apparel supply chains tackling climate change. Just-Style.

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2021 WTO Public Forum Session 105: Develop a more sustainable and transparent apparel supply chain in the Post-COVID world

Panelists:

  • Julia Hughes, President, United States Fashion Industry Association
  • Matthias Knappe, Senior Officer and Program Manager for Cotton, Fibers and Textiles, International Trade Centre
  • Avedis Seferian, President & CEO, Worldwide Responsible Accredited Production (WRAP).
  • Anna Walker, Vice President of Public Policy, Levi’s Strauss Co.
  • Dr. Sheng Lu, Associate Professor, Department of Fashion & Apparel Studies, University of Delaware

Event summary:

Apparel is a $2.5 trillion global business, involving over 120 million workers worldwide and playing a uniquely critical role in the post-COVID economic recovery. The session intends to facilitate constructive dialogue regarding the progress, challenges, and opportunities of building a more sustainable and transparent apparel supply chain in the Post-COVID world, which matters significantly to ALL stakeholders, from fashion brands, garment workers, policymakers to ordinary consumers.

The panel shared their valuable insights about the impacts of COVID on the world apparel trade patterns and how to make the apparel supply chain more sustainable and transparent in the post-COVID world. Specifically:

First, panelists agree that COVID-19 has resulted in unpresented challenges for apparel sourcing and trade, from supply chain disruptions, cost increases to market uncertainties.

Second, despite the mounting challenges and financial pressures caused by COVID-19, the apparel industry as a whole is NOT ignoring sustainability and social responsibility. Some leading fashion brands and retailers allocate more resources to strengthen their relationships with key vendors during the pandemic. The shifting business environment and the adoption of digital technologies also allow apparel companies to explore new business models and achieve more sustainable and socially responsible apparel production and trade.

Third, the apparel industry is attaching greater importance to supply chain transparency. Today, fashion brands and retailers typically track their tier 1 and tier 2 suppliers. A growing number of companies also start to understand who is making the textile raw materials (i.e., fibers and yarns). To improve supply chain transparency further, panelists suggest more traceability technologies, building trust between importers and suppliers and creating a clearer regulatory framework. Trade policy can also have a crucial role to play in the process.

Other 2021 WTO Public Forum sessions: https://www.wto.org/english/forums_e/public_forum21_e/pf21_programme_e.htm

Understand Fashion Companies’ Merchandising and Marketing Strategies for Clothing Made from Recycled Materials

Abstract

With consumers’ increasing awareness of sustainability and building a circular economy, more and more fashion retailers carry clothing made from recycled materials. This study aims to explore U.S. fashion retailers’ detailed merchandising and pricing strategies for clothing made from recycled material to provide more business insights into this fast-growing market.

By leveraging StyleSage, a big data tool for the fashion industry, we checked millions of clothing items (at the Stock Keeping Unit, SKU level) made from recycled materials available in the U.S. retail market from June 2018 to June 2021. The results show that:

  • First, top U.S. sellers of clothing made with recycled materials include BOTH sustainability-based brands and fast-fashion brands.
  • Second, the most utilized recycled textile fibers include Polyester, Nylon, and Cotton.
  • Third, U.S. retailers adopt unique product assortment strategies for clothing made from recycled material. Recycled clothing, in general, carry more “Shorts” and “outerwear, coats, and jackets,” and fewer “Sleepwear” and “dresses.”
  • Fourth, U.S. retailers adopt unique color strategies for clothing made from recycled materials, using “black” more often but using “Neutral color” much less.
  • Fifth, U.S. retailers typically price clothing using recycled materials at least 50% lower than regular new clothing. The price difference for “Bridal”, “Suits”, “Causal jackets and blazers” and “Outerwear, coats, and jackets” was particularly notable.

The study’s findings confirm that clothing made from recycled materials is a critical market to watch with growing business opportunities. The findings also suggest that U.S. fashion retailers adopt unique merchandising and pricing strategies for recycled clothing, affected by the product supply and consumers’ preferences. Additionally, the study’s findings call for more exploration of leveraging recycled clothing to achieve sustainability and lower sourcing costs.

By Ally Botwinick (2021 UD Summer Scholar, Fashion merchandising and Management Major); Faculty advisor: Dr. Sheng Lu

Full article: Ally Botwinick & Sheng Lu (2021). Market promising for clothing made from recycled materials. Just-Style

This research was presented at the 2021 University of Delaware Undergraduate Research Symposium on August 12, 2021.

What Affects the Patterns of Used Clothing Exports?

Used clothing trade patterns (data source: UNComtrade (2021)

This study intends to explore the key factors that affect the volume of a country’s used clothing exports. Notably, the world’s used clothing exports (defined as the Harmonized System code 6309) substantially increased from only $2.5 billion in 2009 to over $4.2 billion in 2019, or up 63.4% (UNComtrade, 2021). While numerous studies have explored the patterns of used clothing imports and their social-economic impacts on the importing countries, what drives a country’s used clothing exports remains largely unknown.

In the study, we conducted a regression analysis of 37 countries’ used clothing exports in 2019 (or over 90% of the value of the world’s used clothing exports that year) (UNComtrade, 2021). The explanatory factors we considered include new clothing sales (2018-2019), new clothing retail price (2018-2019), population (2019), and country classification (developed or developing in 2019). The results show that:

  • First, there is a strong positive relationship between a country’s new clothing sales and its used clothing exports. On average, a 1% increase in new clothing sales would result in a 0.85% increase in used clothing exports when holding other factors constant.
  • Second, as new clothing gets cheaper in the retail market, a country would export more used clothing and vice versa. Specifically, when the retail price for new clothing decreases by 1%, the value of used clothing export could increase by 1.2% on average when holding other factors constant.
  • Third, when holding other factors constant, used clothing exports from developed countries were 56% higher than in developing economies. Lower-income levels and various other social-economic factors (such as the awareness of sustainability and used clothing collection mechanism) could be the factors behind the phenomenon.
  • Fourth, the size of the population has NO significant impact on a country’s used clothing exports. This explains why a developed economy with a relatively small population (such as the Netherlands and Canada) exported far more used clothing than a populous developing one (such as India and Indonesia) in 2019 (Uncomtrade, 2021).

The study’s findings create new knowledge about the primary factors affecting the patterns of used clothing exports and have several important implications. First, the results suggest that we can do more on the supply side to curb the surge of used clothing exports, given the rising concerns about its controversial impacts on the developing world and the environment. Particularly, encouraging consumers to purchase fewer new clothing and shop more “slowly” can be among the most effective ways to reduce the supply of used clothing. Second, echoing the finding of existing studies, the results confirm the significant price impact on the generation of used clothing exports. Notably, the result reminds us about the enormous social-economic and environmental “cost” of selling new clothing too cheaply. Additionally, the findings suggest that developed countries have a crucial role in addressing the used clothing export problem, even those with a relatively small population.

By Aline Gomes Siqueira and Dr. Sheng Lu

Note: The study will be presented at the 2021 International Textile and Apparel Association (ITAA) Annual Conference in November.

ModCloth Sourcing and Supply Chain Strategies during the Pandemic

Credit: Apparel and Textile Sourcing Tradeshow

Speaker: Linda Ollmann, Director – Sourcing Operations, ModCloth

Event summary

ModCloth is a womenswear company that strives to empower women along every step of their manufacturing process. The customer loves the clothing and the pieces can be utilized in many different ways throughout many different seasons.

As of right now, ModCloth does most of their sourcing partnerships with vendors in China, largely because vendors in China were able to give ModCloth the most efficient price point at the shortest lead time. However, ModCloth did start to look for vendors outside of China in countries such as Vietnam, Sri Lanka, and India, but they found that the lead times were still the shortest when they sourced with vendors in China.

While ModCloth wants to continue having short lead times to satisfy their customer, they have some new sourcing strategies that they are going to be implementing in the near future. One thing they are going to do is find the best suppliers possible to get their fabric from so that their customers are happy and can even possibly love the company even more than they already do. In addition to this, ModCloth is dedicated to pursuing sustainable practices and this includes within the factories that they partner with. They also want to find a way to continue having a shorter lead time from the time customers order a garment to the time it gets delivered at their doorstep, all while having a low carbon footprint and being as environmentally conscious as possible.

Just like every other company in the world, ModCloth was impacted by COVID-19. However, since ModCloth started out as an entirely ecommerce brand they were able to adapt to the new virtual norm very well. They decided that with the pandemic slowing everything down, it was important that they focus on improving the company from the inside out. This helped them become more stable internally so they could inevitably build the brand up again on the outside. People have been primarily shopping online due to the closure of brick and mortar stores, so ModCloth did not see too much of a dip in their sales.

ModCloth is very interested in what their customers want and need. Their customers have expressed a need for more sustainable clothing and fabrics and this is exactly what ModCloth wants to give to them. It was mentioned in the webinar that it is easy to put information about the sustainability of a garment in the product description on their website which helps the customer really understand where the piece of clothing they are about to purchase is coming from. This will help customers remain faithful in the brand as well as help the customer feel connected to the brand

Summarized by Lexi Dembo (FASH455 spring 2021)

Apparel Industry and Trade as an Economic Development Tool: Discussion Questions from Students in FASH455

The apparel sector remains a key economic growth engine for many developing countries in the world today. Data source: World Bank (2021)

#1: In history, the garment industry helps many developing countries start the industrialization process. Given the situation described in the case study, why or why not do you think the Eastern African countries are following the same development path? Should they?

#2: Notably, very few used clothing exported from the United States to EAC countries were actually “Made in USA”—they were originally imported from Asian countries such as China, Vietnam, and Bangladesh. Also, most U.S. used clothing exports to EAC were “free giveaways” by U.S. consumers. Is it ethical for SMART to oppose the used clothing import ban so that its own can make a profit? What is your evaluation? If you were the president of SMART, how would you respond to the ethical concerns?

#3: As we are talking about the opportunities associated with the circular economy, why or why not do you think accepting used clothing imports will lead to a sustainable economic development path for EAC countries?

#4: To which extent do you think automation in garment manufacturing will challenge the conclusions of the textile and apparel stages of development theory we discussed in the class?

#5: If automation can only create “factories without workers” in the US and resulting in more garment workers in the developing countries lose their jobs, should we still support the efforts and make it happen? What is your assessment?

(Welcome to our online discussion. For students in FASH455, please address at least two questions and mention the question number (#) in your reply)

Which Apparel Sourcing Factors Matter?

Key findings:

The apparel sourcing formula is getting ever more sophisticated today. US fashion brands and retailers consider a wide range of factors when deciding where to source their products. The long list of sourcing factors includes #1 Capacity, #2 Price & tariff, #3 Stability, #4 Sustainability, and #5 Quality (see the table below).

When evaluating the world’s top 27 largest apparel supplying countries’ performance,  no souring destination appears to be perfect. In general, fashion brands and retailers have many choices for sourcing destinations that can meet their demand for production capacity, price point, and quality. However, fashion companies face much more limited options when seeking an apparel sourcing destination with a stable financial and political environment and a strong sustainability record.

When we compare the trade volume and the performance against the five primary sourcing factors:

  • Apparel sourcing today is no longer a “winner takes all” game. Notably, the factor “Capacity” is suggested to have limited impacts on the value of apparel imports from a particular sourcing destination.
  • Apparel sourcing is not merely about “competing on price” either--the impact of the factor “Price & tariff” on the pattern of apparel imports statistically is not significant.
  • Improving financial and political stability as well as product quality can help a country enhance its attractiveness as an apparel sourcing base. In particular, American and Asia-based fashion companies seem to give substantial weight to the factors of “Stability” and “Product quality” in their sourcing decisions.
  • Fashion companies’ current sourcing model does not always provide strong financial rewards for sustainability. Interestingly, the result indicates that a higher score for the factor “sustainability” does NOT result in more sourcing orders at the country level. Behind the result, fashion companies today likely consider sustainability and compliance at the vendor level rather than at the country level in their sourcing decisions. It is also likely that sustainability and compliance are treated more as pre-requisite or “bottom-line” criteria instead of a factor to determine the volume of the sourcing orders. 

In conclusion, fashion companies’ sourcing decisions seem to be more complicated and subtle than what is often described in public.

By Emma Davis and Sheng Lu

Further reading: Emma Davis & Sheng Lu (2021). Which apparel sourcing factors matter the most?. Just-Style.

Textiles and Apparel – Being Responsible Stakeholders

Panelists:

  • Anna Ashton– US-China Business Council (USCBC)
  • Amy Lehr – Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS)
  • Nate Herman – American Apparel and Footwear Association (AAFA)
  • John Foote – Baker McKenzie

Related readings

New Report: Fashion’s New Must-have—Sustainable Sourcing at Scale

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The study was based on a survey of 64 sourcing executives from vertical apparel retailers, hybrid wholesalers, and sportswear companies, with a total sourcing volume of $100 billion. Below are the key findings of the report:

  • More sourcing executives now focus on process improvements in their companies, such as sustainability and transparency (56% of respondents), digitalization of sourcing process and related areas (45% of respondents), consolidation of supplier base (42% of respondents), end-to-end process efficiency (41% of respondents) than shifting sourcing countries (20% of respondents). Related, as cost gaps between sourcing destinations are narrowing, apparel companies are shifting from minimizing the price of supply to a focus on customer-centric, agile product development to meet customer demand. Digitalization, such as intelligent sourcing, is one of the most promising areas.
  • Affected by the on-going U.S.-China tariff war, two-thirds of surveyed companies expect their overall sourcing cost to increase in the years ahead, including 37.5% expecting a 2-4% increase and 25% expecting 1-2% increase. However, only 3.1% of respondents expect a significant cost increase (>4%).
  • Echoing the findings of other recent studies, respondents plan to source relatively less from China through 2025. Bangladesh, Vietnam, Myanmar, and Ethiopia are among the top alternative sourcing destinations. Meanwhile, more companies are considering near-sourcing. The biggest challenge, however, is limited fabric production capacity, NOT higher wages.
  • Sustainable apparel sourcing is regarded as a must—70% of EU companies and 35% of North American companies surveyed say “responsible and sustainable sourcing was on the CEO agenda.” Top challenges to achieve sustainable apparel sourcing include “no common, objective industry standard on sustainable sourcing”, “consumers lack a clear picture of what sustainable fashion is all about”, “mixed influence of the sourcing function in company-wide sustainability strategy.” Further, more companies prioritize environmental-sustainability initiatives (issues such as sustainable material, recycled material, traceability, and packing) than social sustainability initiatives (issues such as) fair on living wage and decent work). Additionally, respondents hold competing views on whether sustainability will increase sourcing costs overall. Around 58% of respondents see additional costs for sustainable sourcing between 1% and 5%.
  • Sustainability will play an increasingly important role in how apparel companies select their suppliers. Some surveyed apparel brands and retailers say they have upgraded their supplier ratings over the last couple of years, moving away from viewing sustainability simply as a compliance-based hygiene factor and instead embracing criteria that are more sophisticated.
  • There is also a need to shift from the transactional-based, season-by-season and the low-commitment relationship between apparel companies and their vendors to strategic partnerships between the two. Around 73% of respondents plan to consolidate their supplier base by at least 5% over the next few years. Related, apparel companies increasingly empower suppliers for self-auditing with tools like the Higg Index.

Resources for Learning about Cotton: FASH455 Exclusive Interview with Shannon Brady, CottonWorks™ Student Ambassador

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The picture above: Shannon Brady, Junior, UD Fashion Merchandising Major (Fourth one from the left in the front row) visited Cotton Inc together with other Cotton Student Ambassadors.

Question: What is the CottonWorks™ Ambassador program about and what is your role as an ambassador?

The CottonWorks™ ambassador program is a program where students in fashion and apparel related majors get to promote CottonWorks™ on their college campuses. Ambassadors are charged with helping faculty and students understand the resources available through CottonWorks™ as well as promote this resource through social media. This semester there are twelve ambassadors (including myself) from 12 different schools across the country.

My role as an ambassador is to raise awareness about CottonWorks™ on campus as it is a new program here at the University of Delaware. In January of this year, I had the opportunity to visit the Cotton Incorporated Headquarters in Cary, North Carolina. I, along with other CottonWorks™ ambassadors participated in an all-day CottonWorks™ training as well as a tour of the production facilities at Cotton Incorporated. I got to see everything from raw cotton to state-of-the-art laser finished denim. It was a unique experience and such a cool way to see the material I learned about in class come to life. 

Question: Cotton Incorporated recently launched a new CottonWorksTMprogram to help industry professionals and emerging professionals (like our FASH students) know more about cotton. Can you give us an overview of the program, particularly the learning resources related to the sourcing of cotton products?

CottonWorks™ is a free website where students and professionals can access a multitude of resources about cotton and the fashion and apparel industry.  The site offers many learning resources. Detailed guides are offered on topics such as sourcing and manufacturing, retail and marketing, fabric and technology, fashion and trend, and sustainability. These topics really apply to the fashion curriculum at UD. Additionally, the site offers a mobile-friendly textile encyclopedia where students can look up any textile related word anytime, anywhere.

However, the site offers more than just learning resources. CottonWorks™ is a great supplemental learning tool, but the site also offers emerging professionals ways to get engaged with their industry. Free webinars and workshops are offered through the website and are a great way to engage with industry professionals and learn about the issues pressing the industry right now. Their next webinar is on Tuesday 24 April 2018 registration is open on the CottonWorks™ website, and the topic of discussion is Cotton’s Biodegradability in Aquatic Environments.

Particularly regarding learning resources on sourcing cotton products, the sources and manufacturing topic on the website offers dozens of guides all kinds of cotton products, ranging from denim to cotton nonwovens.

Last but not the least, the Executive Cotton Update and Monthly Economic Letter, both posted every month at cottonworks.com/news are great resources for students and industry professionals interested in knowing what is happening in the U.S. and world cotton industry.

Question: Developing a sustainable supply chain is critical for the textile and apparel industry. So how is cotton related to sustainability? What are the facts important to know?

Cotton Incorporated is committed to being at the forefront of cotton sustainability, and the CottonWorks™ site offers many resources on how cotton is related to sustainability, including guides on responsible cotton production and manufacturing because sustainability happens throughout the lifecycle of cotton.

Cotton is a natural fiber, unlike some manmade fibers such as polyester it can biodegrade. If you log on to CottonWorks™ website you can view a recap of their webinar last month that went in depth about cotton’s biodegradability in soil and septic environments.

Additionally, CottonWorks™ has information on campaigns such as Cotton LEADS™ and Blue Jeans Go Green™ to promote the sustainability of cotton. Cotton LEADS™ is a joint program with Australia and the United States that supports a reliable and responsible cotton supply chain through five core principles of sustainability, use of best practices and traceability in the supply chain. Blue Jeans Go Green™ initiative collects denim sent to landfills and recycles it in partnership with Bonded Logic Inc. You can learn more about both these initiatives on the CottonWorks™ site at cottonworks.com/topics/sustainability.

Question: What are the opportunities for our FASH and UD students to get involved with CottonWorks™ and learn more about cotton?

Students can get started today! By registering for a free account on cottonworks.com, they have access to all of the amazing resources I touched on and many more. Additionally, they can follow @cotton_works on Instagram and Twitter to learn more about cotton and get cotton inspiration for their projects. 

I will also be hosting a tabling event where students can learn more about these resources, talk to me, and win free food and prizes on Thursday 19 April 2018 in Perkins! There will be more tabling events in the future that I will be posting about in my social media as well.

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Gail Strickler, Former Assistant US Trade Representative for Textiles, on Trump’s Trade Policy

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Gail Strickler, Assistant U.S. Trade Representative for Textiles (2009-2015), who negotiated the textile chapter under the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), visited UD on April 13 and delivered a public lecture on The Global Apparel Industry – Style and Substance. The event is part of the Fashion and Diplomacy Lecture Series sponsored by the Institute for Global Studies and the Department of Fashion and Apparel Studies.

During the talk, Gail made a few comments regarding trade policy in the Trump administration:

First, Gail believes that the existing U.S. free trade agreements (FTAs), trade preference programs (PTAs) and the U.S. commitments at the World Trade Organization (WTO) are unlikely to be undone by President Trump because retaliatory actions from other trading partners would be inevitable.

Second, regarding the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), Gail doesn’t think the proposed renegotiation would threaten the benefits presently enjoyed by the U.S. textile and apparel industry. Gail also thinks the Central America Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA-DR) is a lifeline for the U.S. domestic textile manufacturing sector. Notably, NAFTA and CAFTA-DR together account for almost 70% of U.S. yarn and fabric exports.

Third, as observed by Gail, Wilbur Ross, the Commerce Secretary, has been given an expanded role in trade in the Trump Administration. Gail believes Ross’s appointment is likely to bode well for NAFTA and CAFTA-DR on textiles because Ross until recently owned the International Textile Group (ITG), which has significant investments in Mexico and relies heavily on CAFTA-DR for its textile sales.

However, Gail doesn’t think concentrating on trade deficits to define trade policy is a very “good method” of navigating the trade world. Interesting enough, last time when the U.S. trade deficit significantly shrank was during the 2008 financial crisis.  

Gail is also a strong advocator of sustainability in the textile and apparel sector. She believes that trade programs can play a vital role in encouraging sustainable development, improving labor practices and facilitating sustainable regional supply chains. According to Gail, powerful the labor provisions in trade programs can be if strong incentives are coupled with a credible threat of rapid enforcement – little evidence of effectiveness if only one (or fewer) of these conditions is met. However, comparing with enforcing labor provisions, Gail finds promoting and enforcing environmental sustainability standards through trade agreements is much more complex in the textile and apparel sector and will require creativity and strong participation from private sectors and consumers.

Before the public lecture, Gail visited FASH455 and had a special discussion session with students on topics ranging from the textile and apparel rules of origin in TPP, NAFTA renegotiation, AGOA renewal and state of the U.S. textile and apparel industry.

The 2 Euro T-shirt

 

This video is a great reminder of the impact of our fashion apparel industry, in particular through trade and sourcing. One key learning objective of FASH455 is to help students get aware of those critical global agendas that are highly relevant to the textile and apparel sector.

Discussion Question: After watching the video, do you have any new thoughts about how you can contribute to the building of a better world as a FASH major?

Global Trade of Used Clothing (Updated: October 2015)

Please also check the updated study: Why is the used clothing trade such a hot-button issue?

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GlobalMapUSedClothing

United States

  • Generates 1.4 million tons of used clothing annually
  • Exports 800,000 tons of used clothing annually
  • 20% of used clothing sold domestically in thrift stores
  • Non-wearable material of used clothing is reprocessed into fibers for upholstery, insulation, soundproofing, carpet padding, building and other materials.

 Central and South America

  • Very large used clothing market in most countries
  • Imports of used clothing mostly come from the United States
  • Cotton wipers made from used clothing are exported back to the United States

Europe

  • Generates 1.5-2 million tons of used clothing annually
  • Large used clothing sorting centers located in Western and Eastern Europe
  • 10-12% used clothing (only those top quality) sold in local secondhand shops

Africa

  • One of the largest used clothing markets in the world
  • 80% of population wear secondhand clothes
  • Most used clothing imported from the United States, Europe, India and Pakistan

East Asia

  • Most used clothing is collected in Japan, South Korea and Taiwan
  • Countries in the region also import used clothing from the United States, Europe, India and Pakistan
  • Some large used clothing sorting centers are located in Malaysia and Philippines.

India and Pakistan

  • Residual used clothing are imported and sorted by grading companies
  • Wearable used clothing is extracted from “mixed rags” and sold locally or shipped to Africa
  • Recycled yarns are used to make new sweaters
  • Cotton wipers made from used clothing are exported to the United States

Australia

  • Used clothing is collected and sold through local shops and exported

Source: Planet Aid (http://www.planetaid.org); UNComtrade (2015)

EU Commission: Skills for Jobs in the EU Textile and Clothing Industry to Evolve

In a recent analysis report, the EU Commission foresees that skills needed by jobs in the EU textile and clothing industry will continue to evolve from 2013 to 2025. Specifically, the report argues that:

First, employment in the EU textile and clothing sector is forecast to decline by 13.4% from 2.5 million in 2013 to 2.1million in 2025. Even with shrinking employment levels, because of the need to replace nearly 1 million workers forecast to retire or leave the sector, about 611,000 job openings are anticipated from 2013 to 2025.

Second, employment in the EU textile and clothing sector is no just declined, but also evolved. From 2013 to 2025, demand for “crafted and related occupations” as well as “plant and machine operators and assemblers” will decline 34% and 13% respectively, whereas job openings for “technician and associated professional occupations” are estimated to grow at a modest rate. Among the estimated 611,000 job openings, 93% will require high or medium level qualifications.

Third, in terms of specific skills needed by the EU textile and clothing sector based on where the sector might progress towards 2020:

1) Technical production competencies will remain central to recruitment with increased focus on the demand for versatile staffs that can operate across different workstations.

2) Supply chain management, business, sales and marketing skills (including the skills in international trade) are growing in importance. For many EU textile and clothing companies, “trade has taken place of production”.

3) The EU textile and clothing industry is further expecting skills on technology, innovation and sustainability. Leading technology-led areas include mass customization, 3D body measurement, advanced CAD and eCommerce technologies, internet infrastructures for custom-tailored clothing and business-to-consumer eCommerce among retailers.

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Outlook of the U.S. Textile Industry in 2013

The latest industry outlook proposed by the Textile World argues that in 2013 the U.S. textile industry will improve industry strategy and planning in the following areas:

  • increased management emphasis in such areas as sourcing, inventory control
  • use of more flexible and efficient machinery and equipment
  • new and upgraded consumer products,
  • more ecologically friendly offerings
  • more Made-in-USA labels

 Don’t misunderstand/misinterpret these terms. The proposed strategies actually tell us:

1. the U.S. textile industry will become even more capitalized in production (as the result of “using more flexible and efficient machinery and equipment”).

2. the success of the U.S. textile industry relies on import (that’s why “management of sourcing” is suggested to be emphasized), despite the intension to promote “made in USA” label which has more to do with the current “rules of origin” defining the nationality of the products.

3. the softgoods industry (textile, apparel and related retailing) is a highly buyer-driven industry. Even textile mills have realized the importance of understanding and directly reaching the consumers.

4. sustainability is a major factor driving technical reform and upgrading in the textile industry. Other than the environmental concerns, there is another strategy behind the efforts: when the U.S. textile industry is fully ready to “be able to produce in a sustainable way”, it will ask for legislation support to require “everybody”(including imported products) to meet the same environmental standards(professionally, we call it “technical barriers of trade”). Developing countries can compete on price, but definitely cannot compete on technology and capital which are the basis of achieving “sustainability”.  Bu then, you will see sustainability becomes a real game changer.     

 Another relevant forecast made by the article “But holding these costs down through efficiency gains can also have a negative impact —namely, a smaller industry workforce. In the textile sector, for instance, squeezed by productivity gains, overall employment should drop from 232,000 in 2012 to near 209,000 by 2015.” As we menioned in the class, technology kills jobs too, although new types of jobs will be created at the same time–but with totally different skill requirements.

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