Fashion is perhaps the most dynamic industry of this modern age. We are living in an era of fast fashion where trends come and go, and where product is being regarded more and more as a disposable item. Speed is taking over all aspects of the fashion supply chain and many of the everyday features of life, in particular with regard to the way the consumer communicates.
The traditional practice of retailers following trends emerging from the catwalk has had to be completely rethought. Designers now show collections that will be available in stores the next day, instead of the previously accepted method of delivering goods six months later. A celebrity can post an Instagram picture or a comment on Twitter about his/her latest fashion purchase, which may reach a global audience of many millions and spark an overnight trend.
Retailers face increased competition as each vie to offer the latest twists in fashion trends and to have products in stores in the fastest possible time to maximise shelf-life and profit, leading to increased pressure on the manufacturers to reduce their lead-times.
We have also witnessed an invasion of technologies and smart gadgets that have changed significantly the shopping habits and demands of consumers. In addition, we see the growth in smart supply chain management including access to Big Data, automation, robotics, etc. Maximising efficiency is at the core of these evolutions. It plays a fundamental role in the race towards increasing sustainability and speed of product delivery to market.
What impact does speed have on the manufacturers of apparel in a third-world country such as Bangladesh? The global fashion industry is highly fragmented, with design taking place in one part of the world and materials being procured and assembled in another part. Finally, the product is delivered to another country. For the manufacturers, the most common source of pressure is lead time. While the designers in the Western world are forecasting fashion trends—innovating colours, designs, construction, materials, patterns and styles—for the year 2020 or beyond, the manufacturers are left with the challenge to catch up with the pace and improve the lead-time from order placement to shipment.
Efficiencies in operation, procurement and movement of raw materials, and the continuing demand to fill up the shelves of stores in an increasingly shorter lead time (in some cases, within impossible deadlines!) are giving headaches to the factory owners and managers in Bangladesh. Starting from sample developments and approvals through to fabric procurement, lab dips, and shipment, in every phase we find that the realities are quite different from the expectations of the buyers. The factories have to utilise all of their skills and occasionally have to go beyond their limit in order to meet customer demands and shorten the delivery timeline.
There are several issues that contribute to this situation: a) reliance on imported fabrics for higher-value products; b) poor infrastructure and connectivity (there are occasions when the port efficiency abruptly goes down, causing delays in shipments and added pressure on suppliers); c) weaker financial ability of the factories for advance procurement and additional financing costs not to be borne by the buyers; d) lack of accurate order forecasting by buyers, leading to sudden bottlenecks in the supply chain; e) lack of relationship with buyers, allowing factories to develop an understanding of the customers' needs and to be able to forecast and support their demands; f) lack of professionalism in the mid-level management causing inefficient use of time; and g) lack of the use of modern manufacturing technologies, with heavy reliance on manual labour, and smart supply chain management system.
So who is paying the cost ultimately? When things run smoothly, it is a win-win situation for all concerned. Unfortunately, there is a culture of take-it-or-leave-it when buyers are placing orders and applying pressure to achieve the best lead-times. There are huge risks for the factories accepting orders with unrealistic lead-time targets, which can sometimes lead to drastic situations such as penalty discounts for late deliveries, or in extreme cases, bankruptcy!
Where are the things going wrong? Is it always the unrealistic pressure from the buyers? Or is it the failure of the factories (for not having a close enough relationship with their customer, and not adopting the latest technology and best working practices to enhance their competitiveness)? In many cases, it is a combination of all these factors. How then should we overcome these issues and move the industry forward?
Some of the answers to this dilemma lie in: a) developing closer, meaningful relationships with the customers to enable greater understanding of their needs, and for them to gain a greater insight into the problems being faced—a problem shared is a problem halved; b) employing the latest technology that is available to improve all areas of production; c) ensuring that the middle-level management is well versed in their roles and approaches any issues at hand in a professional manner; d) developing closer relationships with local fabric suppliers (where possible) to shorten lead-time for fabrics developing programmes so that goods are available from stock for particularly important customers; e) manufacturers looking to upgrade their product so that it is not just perceived as “fast fashion” or a commodity item, but one that has credibility and which the buyer feels needs to be purchased from the manufacturer in question.
At the end of the day, it must be a hand-holding approach where all parties win. There are solutions that can be reached through advanced cooperation and interaction between buyers and suppliers, and for some issues we need the government to play a part.
Most importantly, we need to be realistic about the improvements in “speed”. What can be achieved in both the short- and long-terms? What investment is required both in machinery and training of staff? And ultimately, what are the benefits to be gained for the manufacturers in particular and Bangladesh as a whole? Once we have addressed these questions, we will have a clear picture and understanding of the value of speed.
Mostafiz Uddin is the Managing Director of Denim Expert Limited, and Founder & CEO of Bangladesh Apparel Exchange (BAE).