Sustainability and the Digitization of the Apparel Supply Chain
By Debbie McKeegan, Textintel
As the apparel industry struggles to absorb the disruptive impact of the Covid-19 pandemic, the management of the supply chain has never before been under such global stress and microscopic scrutiny. Supply chain management has a communication problem.
The fashion industry has for some time been well aware of the need to embrace its digital future. For those businesses that have already invested in the integration of PLM software, the agility and transparency delivered by real-time data has without question enabled those utilizing digital process alongside information software to flex at speed and to meet the unprecedented challenges of the current pandemic.
PLM was once simply defined as an electronic workbook—used in-house to design, plan, source and manage inventory—but the industry now needs a much more complex, multifunctional production platform that offers transparency and traceability across all stakeholders, and on a global network. To enable such integration, the supply chain must be simplified and streamlined. Online, or even offline, PLM relies on transparent, factual, real-time data—and for that, external partners must be collaborative while using cloud-based technologies and affiliate integrations.
The apparel business dashboard has experienced a major reset—as has the fashion industry as a whole. The pandemic continues to accelerate the adoption of information technology. The fashion industry is as complex as its supply chains and must now react at speed to serve a new generation of consumers and to adopt a new strategic sourcing behavior.
During the pandemic, virtual has become the only method of communication and the industry has adapted fast. Conversations have replaced needless journeys, design and sampling are increasingly virtual, and information has become more electronic. All these elements have in the past slowed the design and manufacturing process; moving online into PLM frees the system of unnecessary waste—of information, samples, or time to regenerate the fashion development and production cycle.
Supplier relationships are paramount and it’s in testing times that the strength of the supply chain is often pushed to breaking point—as witnessed in the far east. Corporate social responsibility must be recognized and deployed if we are to build a vibrant, sustainable apparel industry post-Covid-19.
To deliver a sustainable supply chain, all stakeholders now need to be aligned and connected to a highly efficient digital information system. Digitizing the supply chain must now be a priority if we are to implement technologies that, in unison, can deliver fashion a sustainable future. It is equally important that the industry also implements a digital strategy in order to become risk-averse post-pandemic.
Inventory is the industries’ biggest issue, and controlling stock is literally a burning issue. Taking back control of the supply chain, in a digital format and in tandem with retail data and AI, delivers operational efficiency from within the brands themselves, enabling them to order on demand and, importantly, in-line with consumer trends. Ordering fast fashion on a seasonal cycle at scale is no longer viable.
Many predict a new chapter for the fashion industry, where nearshoring is used to increase agility and profitability—finally ending the culture of discounting by reducing stock and by delivering the garments that the consumer requires, when required. Manufacturing close to the consumer offers increased sustainability and environmental benefits.
So how does the fashion industry digitize the next decade and face the big reset?
Using PLM, the apparel sector must also embed AI to generate retail data and accurate stock forecasting. Information technology has the power to transform the supply chain to ensure that overstocks are minimized, and instore stocks are replenished on demand—therefore reducing inventory and costly sell-outs. Doing so releases energy and allows the apparel designer to design products created against proven sales data.
Digital technologies within the retail supply chain must be used to enable on demand manufacturing. Nearshoring offers not only profitable sales, but also dramatically reduces the environmental impact of the apparel industry. This is no overnight fix—investment is required in regional manufacturing facilities. These smart hubs, or micro-factories as they are often called, free the retailer from the shackles of an extensive supply chain.
Retailers must work transparently with multiple vendors to build intelligent fulfillment partnerships that can replenish inventory locally or globally with agility and efficiency. This hybrid business model offers speed and dexterity—a multi-functional platform for collaborative apparel production. Core lines and high-volume selling items can therefore be sourced globally with extended lead times, while using nearshore manufacturing to top-up or trial new collections and deliver unproven new lines or close outs.
To enable all of the above, the apparel industry must embrace digitization and move to a digital, and, importantly, a transparent platform. The relationship with all stakeholders is vital—transparency is essential for success.
Controlling inventory is just one step towards a sustainable future for the apparel industry. Doing so will deliver profitable business for the retailer. In truth, only when the fashion industry is restored to a viable, profitable footing can we then expect to scale the sourcing routes for sustainable fashion.
Digital manufacturing technology for the mass production of printed apparel and the wider adoption of sustainably sourced, circular-designed products is steadily advancing production capabilities. Just as PLM offers transparency and agility, software developments within the manufacturing sector continue to drive change. When used together, they deliver a powerful retail production engine.
“The digitization of the manufacturing workflow is essential for print on demand. The solution is best implemented throughout the workflow, front-end and back, from the moment the sale is received directly through production and onto dispatch to the reap full benefits,” says Guy Alroy of Early Vision. Early Vision is a tech start-up providing software that simplifies the production workflow.
Simplifying the production workflow requires an end-to-end solution. The recent acquisition of Custom Gateway by Kornit Digital, a global leader in digital textile printing solutions, is another example of the power of information technology.
“This highly strategic acquisition accelerates our organic development effort and, when combined with Kornit’s technologies, will bring to the market a unique offering for end-to-end management of sustainable on-demand textile production” Ronen Samuel, CEO of Kornit Digital.
To unlock profitability and reduce the environmental impact of the fashion industry, we must first work in collaboration with all partners and stakeholders to implement sustainable manufacturing. Only then can we hope to accelerate sustainable change and restore the apparel industries environmental integrity.
About the Author: With 25+ years of professional multi-disciplinary experience in design and textile manufacturing, Debbie McKeegan serves as an expert authority on digital disruption. As a digital print pioneer, she has participated in the reform of the print industry and continues to devote her career to digital technologies and their application across the entire textile space.