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SJ Exclusive Interview: Messe Frankfurt’s Olaf Schmidt on Heimtextil 2014

Heimtextil, an international trade show that caters to manufacturers, retailers and designers, is known in the apparel and textile industry as the year’s grand ball, a massive gathering of professionals from every corner of the sector. Organized by Messe Frankfurt, this year’s presentation, its forty-fourth consecutive staging, remained true to form in its ambitious size and scope. Olaf Schmidt, vice president of textiles and textile technologies at Messe Frankfurt, sat down with the Sourcing Journal for an exclusive interview on the scene of the show in Frankfurt.

Mr. Schmidt began by noting that this was a record year for Heimtextil with more than 67,000 visitors from 133 countries, collectively showcasing a staggering 2,718 exhibitions. When asked about the perception that some major retailers had less of a presence this year than previous ones, he pointed out that while that’s true, that didn’t diminish the overall volume of exhibitors or trade that is likely to ensue. In fact, Mr. Olaf said that the overall “buying power” from the U.S. has steadily increased, even if the number of retail representatives has shrunk.

Mr. Olaf attributed the decline in visiting representatives from the U.S. to the global economic climate, generally resulting in tightened travel budgets. But he also noted that the U.S.’s disproportionately small showing could  be the consequence of a cultural divide; trade shows constitute the core of European commerce, while they have always been a peripheral affair for American companies. Also, many American buyers often scout Heimtextil for new business but then only make decisions about who to partner with subsequently, obscuring the fact that the deal originated at the show. Still, he was quick to add that Heimtextil is hardly an E.U. exclusive affair–more than 88 percent of the exhibitors come from outside E.U. territory.

One of the fastest growing trends represented at Heimtextil is the push towards ecological responsibility and production sustainability, Mr. Olaf said. For the sake of educating its visitors about the growth of “green” retail, Heimtextil produced a special directory cataloguing more than 150 companies who pass muster as eco-friendly. And to ensure that the list is only populated by truly sustainable outfits at every link of the supply chain, Messe Frankfurt contracted with an independent auditor that specializes in precisely this brand of assessment. He said the purpose of the directory was not to “shame” companies that didn’t qualify for inclusion but rather educate the industry, raise awareness about the opportunities available for environmental progress and inspire future, like-minded commitments. Mr. Olaf said that while green manufacturing still counts as a “niche” market, its breakneck growth makes it impossible to ignore.

One of reasons cited by Mr. Olaf for the gradual success of green manufacturing is the discovery that social responsibility doesn’t necessarily undermine profitability, a misconception that likely leads to American companies, in particular, to de-prioritize environmental compliance. Many variables contribute to the ultimate price of a product: supply/demand ratio, delivery methods, quality control, marketing, etc. Of course, he conceded, it will always be especially challenging for discount retailers to jump on the green bandwagon since their margins are so unforgivingly tight. However, middle to high-end retailers have much more latitude. Mr. Olaf pointed out that Zara, for example, produces more than half its garments in Europe, though the continent is often stereotyped as exorbitantly expensive.

And what makes Heimtextil an attractive destination for executives in the industry? Mr. Olaf said that that there really is no competition, or another trade show that delivers anything that approximates the comprehensiveness of Heimtextil’s offerings. Covering everything from hats to home textiles or, as Mr. Olaf put it, “from bed linen to wall paper,” Heimtextil remains the one true, global opportunity for one-stop shopping. And to appreciate the breadth of Messe Frankfurt’s reach, he reminded us that that it organizes forty shows annually, worldwide.

More and more, industry experts consider trade shows important instruments to stimulate national apparel industries. Complex regulations at the local and international level often make the expansion of commerce beyond national borders problematic, while trade shows can be uniquely effective in courting business and promoting networking. Heimtextil continues to be the gold standard of trade shows, as was seen by this year’s extravagant spectacle.

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