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Upstream Focus: US Apparel’s Hafiz Mustanser Ahmed on Small Runs, Virtual Samples & Sustainability Costs

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Upstream Focus is Sourcing Journal’s series of conversations with suppliers, associations and sourcing professionals to get their insights on the state of sourcing, innovations in manufacturing and how to improve operations. In this Q&A, Hafiz Mustanser Ahmed, managing director of Pakistan-based denim manufacturer US Apparel & Textiles, explains how his company adapted to clients’ small run needs and why sustainability can’t be cost neutral.

Hafiz Mustanser Ahmed US Apparel
Hafiz Mustanser Ahmed, managing director of US Apparel & Textiles.

Name: Hafiz Mustanser Ahmed

Title: Managing director

Company: US Apparel & Textiles

What’s the number one question you get from your clients now that was never really a consideration before?

As our industry is progressing and sustainability is gaining more roots, clients are now far more focused in learning what “more” can we do in terms of sustainability with minimal cost impact. “Cost neutral sustainable alternatives” is the new buzzword that everybody is using without putting much thought into it.

Another key concern that almost all our customers have is the focus on flexible lead times that can accommodate both fashion and online sale patterns.

Which processes have you put in place due to Covid that you’d like to see continue even after the health crisis is behind us?

The silver lining, if I must consider anything out of this global crisis, is the fast shift toward acceptance and integration of virtual meetings in our business models. The enhanced connectivity and accessibility offered by these virtual meetings is something I would prefer not to lose even when the world resumes normalcy.

Another aspect of technology that has outshined during this crisis is virtual sampling. This was in the pipeline for many customers, but confidence in the technology has improved and customers are even on board to give fit approvals when deadlines are cutting it close.

How are you evaluating potential brand and retail partners differently now compared to before the pandemic?

Post pandemic, the financial health of any customer has become a crucial consideration for us. Also, how brands handled their force majeures—both from financial and ethical standpoints—offers excellent learning for all parties involved to ensure that previous shortcomings are not repeated.

What is the main thing brands and retailers could do (or stop doing) right now that would immediately improve product development?

If brands work towards building more confidence in virtual presentations—especially during concept generation and identification of required sustainability features—it will drastically improve the lead times and be the most impactful sustainable move in product development. This will also result in more focused sampling to help improve product wastage.

How are you adapting your operations to support quick-turn small run orders?

The first and foremost step that we took is molding our mindsets to accommodate these quick-turn, small-run orders. For the longest while, our production favored mass production. Half the task was done once we achieved this acceptance, and we jumped in enthusiastically to fine-tune feasibilities.

We are adjusting our sewing lines to better accommodate smaller quantities, improving our inventory and supply chain management and moving toward full-package products offered by our vertical setups. This ensures shorter lead times best suited to cater to these quick-turn, small-run orders.

In this challenging retail environment, how are you working with clients to balance sustainability needs with cost efficiency?

Let’s completely burst this myth for once and all: Not all sustainable alternatives available in the world can be cost neutral. And demand for cost neutrality is one of the main causes slowing down the growth and integration of sustainability in our industry. The few true patrons of sustainability understood this from the get-go, put their money where their mouth was and are now frontrunners in our desire for a true sustainable fashion denim industry.

True traceable sustainability can only be ensured if we are willing to pay the logical upcharge to the entire supply chain. We need to realize that sustainability is a budding industry at the moment with limited supply available, and to increase this supply, we need to incentivize all stakeholders to invest in sustainable materials alternatives. If we are not willing to pay, we will continue to face greenwashing and debacles like the recent organic cotton scandal.

When it comes to quality and compliance, what are the biggest challenges?

The biggest challenge faced in compliance is the lack of standardization across brands. Every retailer has different requirements, which makes it difficult to get the entire industry on one page.

The biggest obstacle in quality that we are currently facing is the lack of parameter distinction between core and fashion washes at the brands’ ends. Retailers need to understand that they cannot assess core and fashion on one standard due to multiple limitations associated with the latter. Not including the fundamental quality requirements that are ensured at every cost, retailers need to be more considerate of the limitations inherent in the current short-run smaller quantities and even the sustainable alternatives that are now included in the production.

What is the best decision your company has made in the last year?

One of the greatest decisions for us has been our Sustainability Challenge 2022, where we have not shied from being 100 percent transparent and sharing our auditable current sustainability status. I don’t think many manufacturers are brave enough to offer this level of transparency.

Secondly, even when the world was practically at a halt, we successfully managed to keep our facilities afloat. Besides our capital management, another humble achievement for me is how we kept our operations running and workers employed by producing and donating large quantities of masks. We are proud manufacturers of denim, but we didn’t hesitate for a second from switching our gears for the betterment of our employees and community.

What keeps you up at night?

I am up at night with exhilaration and excitement for what more our industry has to offer and how to better accommodate and integrate the rapidly changing business models in my operations. This pandemic has triggered the entire industry to speed their sustainability endeavors. It’s been a great learning curve for me and my company, making us far better equipped to weather any upcoming challenges.

What makes you most optimistic?

The level of commitment that my entire organization has shown during the pandemic and the internal strength and training that we have acquired makes me really hopeful and confident in our abilities to tackle future challenges. Our unwavering commitment to sustainability has invigorated my hopes for a sustainable denim industry.

What’s in store for US Apparel in 2021?

We are all set to venture into new challenges, from backward integration to moderate diversification. We are working toward capacity expansions as well and more integration of technology in our processes. Most importantly, we are ensuring to further our sustainability efforts in 2021 with a key focus on water reduction.