GuestDecember 6, 2023 AATCC Newsletter

During the pandemic, the frailties of traditional supply chains were clearly exposed, resulting in significant disruptions across almost all industries around the globe. As we exited the pandemic, brands and retailers were still struggling to find a balance between time, cost, and quality as they worked to restructure supply chains and bring their infrastructure into a stronger position.

In a recent study conducted by software company Aptean, 104 decision makers and key influencers in the textile and apparel industry were asked how they have responded to supply chain challenges. They offered a range of actions, including more than 60% of respondents indicating they are working to improve forecasting to better predict demand, using more technology to drive supply chain viability, adding new suppliers, improving production scheduling and more. While 60% indicated they are increasing the use of local suppliers, and 33% indicated they are planning to do so within the next year, this was at the bottom of the list of actions planned or being taken.

While the survey also addressed automation, and touched on using local suppliers, it did not delve into key elements such as manufacturing on demand or made-to-order solutions using digital textile printing—understandable, since Aptean is a software company. Rather, the focus was on process automation—important, but arguably a step change, not a revolutionary change. Obviously, automating the software infrastructure is an important element of a more sustainable future. But we need to go beyond that in terms of how we think about the supply chain.


How Reshoring, Nearshoring, and Friendshoring Can Help Boost Sustainability

While better forecasting and inventory management can help reduce waste in the textiles and apparel industry, it can be argued that an increased focus on bringing production closer to the point of sale can have dramatic effects on productivity and sustainability in the industry. Research indicates that transport accounts for 13% of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions in the apparel industry, production accounts for 60% of GHG emissions—including emissions from energy consumption, water usage, and waste generation—and distribution accounts for 12% of GHG emissions in the apparel industry. This includes emissions from transportation of finished goods to retailers.

Bringing production closer to sales to better address the significant sustainability issues the industry has, beyond what the software industry can do, includes:

  • Reshoring—bringing production back to the region where the products will be sold;
  • Nearshoring—bringing production back to an international location closer to the point of sale;
  • Newshoring—bringing in new ways of manufacturing goods using new technologies to facilitate reshoring and nearshoring; and
  • Friendshoring—a business strategy that involves shifting production and sourcing to countries that are considered to be geopolitical allies as opposed to simply looking for lower labor costs or other economic advantages.

Each of these strategies has a place in the future of the textile and apparel industry. While the ideal situation would be having everything made to measure and on demand close to the point of need, the reality is that shift will take a long time to happen. It’s like packaging—more and more packaging is produced on demand, but you still have all those Cheerios boxes that need to be produced in bulk. The same is true in the textile and apparel industry. The bottom line, though, is that, just like in packaging, migrating as much as possible to digital, on-demand production will make a difference for the planet.


Sewing Skills: The Last Mile Barrier

In many developed countries, one of the key barriers to bringing textile manufacturing closer to the point of sale is a lack of scale in cut-and-sew operations. The term “last mile” came into use in telephony as more fiberoptic cable was being installed—bringing fiberoptics to the doorstep was the last mile in that industry. In many developed countries, the last mile analogy applies to the lack of sewing talent at scale. The key objection to reshoring or nearshoring is often, why print locally when the fabric will just have to be sent to Asia for cut and sew? Why indeed?

The Sewn Products Equipment & Suppliers of the Americas association (SPESA) is sponsoring one initiative to help mitigate this issue. SPESA President Michael McDonald is undertaking an ambitious effort to map cut-and-sew resources. This has turned out to be more of a challenge than expected.

He says that, as a pilot, he worked to map cut-and-sew operations in San Diego, CA, USA—not a big apparel manufacturing hub. He notes, “We spent about a month on this. At first look, there were 76 factories, and 30 of them were Etsy shops, mostly one sewing machine in a garage. And 20 of them had been out of business for several years. So, by the time we got to the bottom of it, there were seven manufacturers left in San Diego. This effort reinforced the fact that trying to map the industrial base of cut-and-sew operations in the US, let alone the world, is a real challenge. But if we know where they are, then we can really work on strengthening supply chains. It’s baffling how little we know about our domestic manufacturing base.”

It Takes a Village

Realizing the scope of the project, McDonald turned to his member base of equipment suppliers to help identify where these resources are located. To this end, he has started creating a database of databases. One of the largest, he notes, is a database called Textile Connect, started by North Carolina State University, and has 1,200 to 1,400 records 90% of which are located in North Carolina. He is also working with the Office of Textile and Apparel (OTEXA) in the US government’s Department of Commerce, which lists about 600 facilities. McDonald adds, “I’ve been pushing everything in that direction. There is a lot of red tape, as a government institution. Every single listing has to get approved. But if they are listed in that database, they are probably legitimate.”

McDonald notes that where the database resides is not as important as having it in the first place, so he is hopeful that the effort can gain some traction within the Department of Commerce. One outcome of this work has also been the identification of hubs where there is significant sewing talent. He says, “Finding the hubs has been a fascinating aspect of the last five years. It’s always exciting when I discover a new hub, for example, Columbus, OH, USA.” Some of the other US hubs include Detroit, New York State, St. Louis, Los Angeles, Puerto Rico, and others. In terms of nearshoring or friendshoring, there are hubs of talent in Latin America and Eastern Europe as well.

A Viable Path to a More Sustainable Future for the Textile and Apparel Industry

All of this ‘shoring is not a fad. As McDonald points out, it will take time to compile a full database of the existing resources and then work to get them to scale. SPESA’s efforts to map the resources in the US are a good starting point, but to achieve greater sustainability goals, more effort needs to be expended by brands and retailers in moving at least some production to on-demand, taking advantage of reshoring, nearshoring, and friendshoring across the globe.

But perhaps even more importantly, to really compete on a global scale, companies need to leverage their technological expertise and innovative thinking to create new products, reduce time to market and transportation costs, and take a fundamentally different approach to apparel manufacturing—in other words, newshoring. Benefits include the creation of a much more efficient supply chain that is resistant to the kinds of trauma the pandemic brought upon us.


About the Author

Cary Sherburne writes for What They Think and other publications, and has written several feature articles for AATCC, especially concerning digital printing and new technologies.

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