The apparel industry today is driven by price and speed, which brands and retailers are expected to deliver on—all while also adhering to the latest sustainability mandates. And these demands, in turn, put pressure on trim, label and findings suppliers to develop products that tick all of the same boxes.
These companies are keeping in step with the industry by taking the initiative to develop new products and processes that help eliminate pennies, seconds and waste from the supply chain.
“When I first started 35 years ago, I was working in woven labels, and at that point, our lead time was 16 weeks. If I went to anyone today and said ‘I can ship in 16 weeks,’ I’d be out of business,” said Rich Ringeisen, president at Charming Trim, which offers a range of products that includes hangtags and labels. Thanks to improvements in production technology, as well as advanced communication and imaging systems that take much of the groundwork out of the production process, Ringeisen said accelerated production is, now, “part and parcel” of doing business.
To stay ahead, Charming Trim works well in advance to develop production schedules that will fit with brands’ seasonal or short-term needs.
Though they’re often thought of as a finishing touch, findings companies are getting involved in apparel design and production earlier than ever, too, which allows them to explore and sometimes develop product options for apparel customers.
“We’re much more involved early on in the production pipeline now, and that has a lot to do with the technical aspects of design,” said April Spiegel, director of marketing and communications services at Scovill, a fastener and eyelet resource. “It isn’t as much in the hands of marketing and purchasing any more, but the engineering and design teams.”
Spiegel explained that Scovill’s dedicated product specialist works with their engineering team, as well as designers from the apparel brand, throughout the process.
This close collaboration is especially helpful because it can often take some creative problem solving to land on a product that fits a brand’s budget, visual guidelines and other concerns.
“In some cases, we won’t be able to develop within a brand’s price and material needs that’s identical to their inspiration, but the designer will actually like [the trim we end up developing] more than their original design idea,” Spiegel said.
Charming Trim also sees benefits from partnering with brands during the product development process, especially as material innovation presents new challenges and opportunities. The recent preoccupation with performance fabrics is a good example, since some labels or heat transfers might not work well with technical textiles. “It could be the greatest idea in the world but if it doesn’t work, it doesn’t work,” Ringeisen said.
Partnering from the start also helps the company reduce waste since it now only orders to need rather than holding a variety of raw materials in stock—the old practice when apparel companies wouldn’t communicate their needs until just before production started.
Sustainable options are in demand
That eco-advantage is a bonus now that the industry is more aware of its impact on the environment.
In fact, Ringeisen said sustainability is guiding the conversation in many cases these days. “Six years ago was when we started pushing hard into sustainable production, and then, maybe 10 percent of customers would even want to talk about it,” he said. “Now, about 50 percent of customers ask for a sustainable option right away.”
Even something as small as changing the soft-touch laminate on a tag to a water-soluble one allows materials to be recycled.
“It started with companies like Patagonia that were known for sustainability, but in the last five years, it’s become important to brands that aren’t known for it in the consumer world,” Spiegel said. “In some cases, it’s spurred by a corporate initiative, or sometimes brands will do a special collection or sub-brand that focuses on sustainability. It’s coming up more and more.”
Even though apparel brands want to work with sustainable materials and practices, they don’t always know exactly what that looks like. That’s where experts at companies like Scovill and Charming Trim step in. “Most of the feedback we get from brands is them asking us, ‘What sustainable alternatives can you come up with?’ and we find out what’s out there to fit that need,” Spiegel said.
Ringeisen cited a company that did just this—came to the team at Charming Trim and asked for a more sustainable trim option for a product. After considering their options, Charming Trim changed one component from molded PVC to PET, at no cost differential to the customer. According to an analysis by consultants at Shift Advantage, the company recovered 40,000 kilograms of waste from waterways and saved 14 million gallons of gasoline by making the switch.
Beyond finding eco options for traditional labels and trims, the companies are also fine-tuning their tools and processes to help minimize their overall footprints.
“Our engineering team has spent the last five years going through every tool to figure out how to make it create less waste,” Spiegel said. “In our plant in the U.S., any metal scraps are collected, sent back to the supplier, melted down and reused. But in our Japanese factories, we work with plastics, and it’s similar. We use injection molding, and the plastic waste is instantly reclaimed, melted down and recycled, right back into production, in the same factory.” These processes, Spiegel said, keep plastic and metal waste down while also reducing the waste that comes from packaging and transporting new raw materials.
Every little bit helps, Ringeisen said.
“If I could make a comparison, I’d say that broadly it’s similar to the energy sector,” Ringeisen explained. Like alternative energy sources such as wind, solar and hydro that can’t supplant carbon-based energy sources alone, small initiatives, like reducing the size of a hangtag by millimeters or making small changes to woven tag designs, can yield more from materials and reduce cost when used together.
Spiegel and Ringeisen are both confident their industry can keep up with the speed and cost pressures of apparel companies without sacrificing sustainability. “It’s becoming almost expected that it will be eco-friendly,” Ringeisen said. “There are still price pressures, but people are looking for it as a standard offering.”
The emergence of sustainability as a core concern in the fashion industry is just one example of the macro trends that push the trim and label markets forward. Rather than fight these changes, these companies try to stay out ahead, leading their brand partners toward what’s next.
“We’re proactive that way. We’re always preparing ourselves, trying to keep in touch with the customer and the market,” Spiegel said. “There are limits to what we can do now, but we’re focused on doing research in order to give brands more options.”