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How Standards Will Transform The Apparel Industry

The imposition of industry wide standards is sometimes interpreted an obstacle to profit, rather an instrument of it. However, both smaller and larger nations are increasingly adopting more rigorous standards voluntarily as a way to gain a competitive edge. This rush to innovate in the area of standards promises not only to change the way they are formulated and adopted, but also the shape of business itself.

Trinidad and Tobago provides an illustrative example of this new attitude towards standards. Unable to match the productive capacity of a manufacturing colossus like China, or to undercut the bargain basement prices of Bangladesh, the Trinidad and Tobago Bureau of Standards (TTBS) has aggressively sought to improve their shipping rates and times, as well as their quality control, through the expansion of their existing standards regime.

And now the most current research confirms what recent history attests to–the new emphasis being put on standards. According to a report issued by Capgemini Consulting in conjunction with GS1 and The Consumer Goods Forum, the transformation of standards will be a principal ingredient in the future of retail. The crux of the study is two-pronged: first, future standards can be significantly improved by reinforcing those already in existence. The report labels this the “back to basics approach.”

The second pillar will be a radical expansion of standards to properly cover new innovations, both in consumer behavior and the retail response to it. These revisions will focus on the growing centrality of omnichannel access, or the continued emphasis on new, technologically evolving retail platforms.

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First, let’s assess the back to basics approach. The central idea is that existing standards often suffer not from an inability to meet the new challenges of a changing business environment, but from inadequate enforcement. With respect to apparel retail, the proliferation of small-scale formats, especially with the explosion of e-retailers, has made the universal application of standards problematic.

With respect to manufacturing, smaller suppliers are often under-educated about existing standards, at least in part because they’re too small to have had a role in their formulation. Disenfranchisement from the process of creation can lead to either ignorance of standards or a lack of respect for them. As consumers become more and more fixated on issues like product origin, environmental impact and fair labor practices, the industry-wide codification of standards is going to be of paramount importance.

Moving forward, the future of standards will largely be determined by the shifting winds of consumer behavior. The emergence of the internet as a platform for consumption, the popularity of smart phones and social media, demands that companies focus on omnichannel strategies. While shoppers want greater convenience, they also want easy access to more information about a product, and real-time updates on price, availability and shipping. The apparel industry has always been a leader in selling direct to customers but now has to modernize that model to remain relevant.

And consumers now consider a product’s safety and ecological sustainability central components of its overall value. Standards governing a product’s impact on the environment will have to become further codified.

While standards have the potential to become a lynchpin of economic growth for apparel retail, there are reasons to believe the industry will struggle to move quickly enough to take advantage of the opportunities. For example, with respect to omnichannel access, the possibilities seem boundless. Still retailers are struggling to keep apace with their customers’ breakneck adoption of technology. According to a new study issued by Edgell Knowledge Network (EKN), stores are considerably less nimble than their patrons, modernizing their sales techniques far slower than consumers are updating their buying habits. So omnichannel could be a goldmine, but  it could also spell trouble for retailers if they continue to lag behind the more robust pace of their customers, squandering opportunities to capture new, more cost efficient strategies.

The other hurdle for the apparel industry is its global character. It’s not easy to create or apply univocal standards for an industry so vast and diffuse, that involves so many complex relations between export and import traffic and that often relies upon winding, multifaceted supply chains. While the future of standards is becoming progressively more clear, the future of the apparel industry’s ability to accommodate the seismic shifts remains uncertain.