When it comes to sourcing children’s garments, children’s apparel business consultant Caletha Crawford says, “It is still all about China.”
And the numbers back her up.
According to OTEXA, China was responsible for roughly half of the $2.4 billion worth of baby garments imported into the U.S. in 2013–a staggering number despite the increasing buzz surrounding the benefits of organic cotton for babies, mommy bloggers’ love for lauding Made in USA brands, and the consistent flow of press coverage for product safety recalls.
“If you ask any parent they will say they prefer to buy organic or Made in the USA garments, but the sticker price tends to shock, and in the end cost trumps all other purchasing decisions,” Crawford said.
The same could be said for sourcing children’s apparel. “Cheap” is the key word nowadays, Yaprak Yilmaz, director of Londonist Textile Agency, said. It is also why she believes the children’s garment industry is not unlike sourcing men’s and women’s apparel. “The industry has seen remarkable changes in the past few years, but the garment manufacturing industry is still on the look-out for cheap garment production,” she said. “And China is still the preferred country for cheap children’s textile and apparel sourcing.”
Crawford added, “China has the expertise and structure in place and work in a manner that Western companies are comfortable with. It’s just obviously difficult for up-and-coming brands to work through that channel because the minimums are too high.”
Emma Wilson, clothing product development and sourcing expert at Smartway Consulting, recommends China to her larger clients–especially those steeped in the world of wholesale. “They are looking for a keen price. If we need that lower price we almost always go to China,” Wilson said.
Anjana Eapen-Sathaye, CEO of children’s brand The Dragon and The Rabbit, said she sees more Chinese products hitting the trade show floor, and retailers–from departments to boutiques–are not shying away. “It’s hard to make a generalization about an entire country,” she said. “But we’re seeing a lot of people in the children’s market moving back to China. The prices are just too good and now with so much attention being paid to compliance issues in that country, people are feeling confident again.”
But according to Hearts-Hunters Consulting CEO Valerie Cooper, that may all change soon. “China is on the verge of pricing themselves out of children’s wear because they are losing their skilled workforce. The next generation does not want to work in a non-technical industry,” she said.
For those reasons, JoJo Maman BÃ©bÃ© head of international trade Mark Jeynes says the company has sourced from a mix of countries including China, India, Portugal and Peru for the last 20 years. With a product range that spans basic cotton one-pieces and women’s maternity apparel to more intricate girls’ dresses, Jeynes said China has been essential for producing their mass-market volumes. However the company seeks small, established factories in India and Peru to produce more complicated designs in limited and exclusive quantities. “Not all countries are geared up to that,” Jeynes said.
What India lacks in infrastructure, Crawford said they more than make up for in skillful handiwork and bead work. Wilson agreed: “India excels in hand embroideries, trims, patchworks and appliquÃ©s. You could never achieve that type of detail in Europe and it is much more cost effective to source it from India.”
The downside, Wilson said, is that brands need to have another resource in India to ensure their factories deliver on quality control and enforce the best practices in manufacturing. “It is very difficult to be confident that all goods are passing through a metal detector, that all buttons are attached by machine and it is hard to maintain shipping dates because a lot of the work is done by hand,” she explained.
Brands are getting increasingly savvy by outsourcing quality managers or putting their own teams on the ground. As a specialty girls’ brand known for its handloom fabrics and embellishments, Cupcakes & Pastries co-founder Sumit Khanna said India was a natural choice. Aside from a few materials imported from Japan or China each season, the company sources all of its fabrics from India and keeps a staff on the factory premises for what Khanna described as “a hands-on approach to make sure everything from raw materials to the final product is of top quality.”
Khanna has experienced delays, primarily due to materials arriving late, but he believes the positives of working in India outweigh the negatives. “We might get 80 percent of an order on time and the other 20 percent a week later. It’s a domino effect,” he revealed. “But the key to on time product in India is to give its factories a lot more lead time, than say, a factory based in Los Angeles.”
Eapen-Sathaye visited 15 factories in India before selecting one that specialized in exporting children’s wear to Italy, Scandinavia and Germany. “We wanted to work in India because the country has a deep stock of fabric choices. They’re a great supplier of high quality cotton, and as a brand interested in natural fibers, we saw that there was a lot of opportunity in India to even find quality filler fabrics to enhance the line,” she said.
With the most Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS)-certified facilities in the world at 1,029, GOTS North American representative Sandra Marquardt said India is “far and away” the leader in producing organic fabrics and children’s apparel. “India is the primary supplier of organic cotton, so it makes a lot of sense to produce everything in one country,” she said.
Eapen-Sathaye works with a testing facility in India to make sure all of the company’s products meet U.S. standards, but few issues arise, she reported. “All of the factories are GOTS-certified, so they follow all of the other government standards,” she said. “The country is very strict and thanks to internal pressure and demand from overseas, India’s standards are improving.”
As interest in organic cotton grows in overseas markets, Eapen-Sathaye predicts there will be even more interest in sourcing children’s wear from India. “Right now organic prices are too high to go mainstream, but as demand increases I think we’re going to see minimums lowered and I’m looking forward to that,” she noted.
In regard to producing GOTS-certified products, Marquardt said Turkey is ”hot on the heels” of India. “If Turkey can expand its expertise in home textiles like blankets and bathrobes, to apparel, then its factories have a chance to capture a major piece of children’s apparel manufacturing business,” she added.
Yilma named Turkey as a country to watch as children’s apparel manufacturers and traders invest more in the region. As a mother and a sourcing professional, Yilma said she regards Turkey as one of the best sources for quality apparel. “When it is about kids’ wear, you have to factor in the health and safety aspects of manufacturing–that’s one of the advantages of Turkey,” she explained. “Its manufacturers comply with internationally accepted ecological standards. The laws band the use of carcinogenic AZO dyes in clothing and fabric manufacturing, unlike some Far East and Asian manufacturers who still use these materials liberally. At this point, without hesitation, Turkey is the best option.”
Premium brands tend to look to Portugal for sourcing the most, Wilson said, noting that the country is confident in children’s apparel and also follows regulations strictly. “I know that when I send an order to Portugal, the quality is going to be great,” she said. However, Wilson said the country could take a customer service lesson from its closest rival, Turkey.
“Portugal and Turkey are very similar in terms of prices and quality, but Turkey’s response time tends to be faster. They just have a different attitude about business that makes them slightly more reliable, especially when it comes to delivery dates,” Wilson revealed.
For Jeynes at JoJo Maman BÃ©bÃ©, which also sources from Turkey, an open line of communication is an essential factor when choosing a factory. The company prefers to work directly with factories rather than through supplier groups or overseas agents.
“Can we communicate well with the owners and staff we need to speak to? Do we like them as people? Do we feel they take pride in their work and do we trust them to make good quality clothes for us and to be honest and open,” Jeynes said of the company’s vetting process. “Clothing production is a difficult process and there can be delays and problems, but we look for factories that will be honest with us and try to find solutions to move forward,” he noted.
In regard to convenience, South American suppliers are advantaged by their proximity and close time zones to the U.S. Peru continues to be the go-to source for pima cotton, but according to Crawford, the material doesn’t hold the same cache it once held in the U.S. infant apparel market. “It is still very expensive, despite the fact that so many companies have jumped on the pima cotton bandwagon,” she explained. However, if you have Spanish-speaking staff members, Crawford said working with Peruvian manufacturers can run considerably smoother and offset the added cost.
JoJo Maman BÃ©bÃ© purchases some handmade knitwear from a Peruvian women’s co-operative for select collections, but as business grows in the United States and Canada, the company plans to look deeper at more sourcing opportunities in Latin America to reduce transportation and lead times. The company has already met with factories in Brazil and Columbia, Jeynes reported.
Columbia as a source for children’s garments might be lesser known, but as Crawford explained, the country’s factories already have strong relationships with both the major and small brands. “Columbia has their own expertise in quality and handiwork such as smocking and other traditional elements prevalent in children’s fashion,” she said.
Going forward experts agreed that ethical sourcing will increasingly impact decisions, especially in children’s wear. “You’re going to see a lot more brands focused on quality control and how workers are being treated. As news about dangerous factories and unsatisfactory worker treatment seep into consumer consciousness, there will be more pressure to take these factors into consideration,” Crawford added.
“There’s been a lot of vigilance to make the industry more transparent. We’ve all seen the bad press when children’s products are recalled and no one wants to be on the receiving end of that attention,” Cooper said, adding that brands are being pressed to validate everything from social to safety certification on their labels. As a result, Cooper said brands are bound to make more sourcing decisions based on individual factories’ safety record, as opposed to the country’s record.
Getting there won’t be easy, Jeynes stated. While JoJo Maman BÃ©bÃ© audits each factory before producing with them to ensure they adhere to the brand’s ethical standards, Jeynes said regulations for compliance in each country are getting more complicated. “The testing involved in selling around the world is becoming unworkable. The industry would greatly benefit from a worldwide collaboration to agree on a standard that could cover each area of concern and be recognized by different countries,” he offered.