Smaller countries such as Sri Lanka and Singapore have found success by uniting their apparel industries around campaigns. Sri Lanka, for instance, has tried to make its experience in ethical sourcing a selling point to brands.
In 2006, Sri Lanka launched the independently monitored Garments Without Guilt program under the leadership of Kumar Mirchandani, chief executive officer of apparel at producer Favourite Group and an advocate of the country’s fashion industry. The stakes are high for the small country.
“This industry is a huge part of Sri Lanka’s economy,” Mirchandani said. “It’s almost 10 percent of our [gross domestic product]. It’s the highest employer.”
The program encourages ethical treatment of workers and environmentally conscious production. Mirchandani said Sri Lanka was doing its part, but added retailers need to be aware of the impact lastminute changes to orders can have on factory conditions and suggested that stores begin to look more closely at their interaction with factories.
“True partnerships are still very hard to find,” he said.
The issue is made harder by a consumer who is only partially engaged in the issue of ethical sourcing.
Mark Lee, Apparel Singapore brand ambassador and ceo of SL Global Ltd., said one of the keys to survival has been efforts to expand services over the years to include providing design solutions, trend research and supply chain management.
“In terms of raw materials, some of us, either we’ve invested in fabric mills or we’ve actually already gone totally vertical, meaning that we’ve tied up close to 30 to 40 percent of our raw materials with one fabric source,” said Lee. “Just as you have consolidated your vendors, we have also consolidated our raw material purchases.”
Lee said brands and retailers have moved away from a country-centric approach to sourcing. Instead they’re focusing more on suppliers who are financially stable, have a proven track record of delivering high-quality product and have made the necessary investments in research and development and machinery.
In some cases, Lee said brands and retailers looking to source in a low-cost country such as Bangladesh are partnering with suppliers in other countries to set up new facilities there.
“As a partner, I want to go into Bangladesh,” he said. “Are you willing to hedge that risk together with us? This is when we go in.”
Lee believes suppliers will not be able to survive long if they’re simply working for one order at a time.
“As a supplier, to build a sustainable relationship, we have to guarantee that product all the way to the consumer,” he said. “That is the new model that we have to work together with you.”
Caterina Conti, chief administrative officer and general counsel for Anvil Knitwear Inc., said the company formalized its efforts to become more sustainable in 2007. The T-shirt manufacturer produces 70 million units a year, but eco products now represent 15 percent of the product line.
“There really is an economic case for sustainability that does impact your price whether you’re a buyer, retailer or a brand,” said Conti.
Working more closely with suppliers has been key to the company’s efforts. Conti said she’s even in contact with the cotton farmers who supply Anvil, and working with all aspects of the supply chain have allowed changes to be instituted that are affordable.
Susan Olivier, director of industry market development for retail, footwear and apparel at Dassault Systemes, noted product life cycle management tools also can help foster a collaborative platform technology that can cut costs and speed up lead times.
“You’re looking at different ways of connecting people globally and getting faster time to market and better product innovations,” said Olivier.
Photo By Dan D'Errico