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Why Tech is Critical to Advancing the ‘Relay Race’ of Fashion Supply Chains

The complexity of the apparel supply chain and the need to call on technology to make it more cost-effective and expedient have been coming together for several years and have been put in the spotlight during the COVID-19 crisis.

Flora Davidson, co-founder of SupplyCompass, a product development and production management platform for fashion brands and manufacturers, and Christos Chamberlain, who is responsible for freight forwarder Flexport’s U.K. business, put the evolution into perspective in a webinar Thursday titled, “Fashion Supply Chains: Leveraging Technology to Make Better Decisions.”

“Freight forwarding is like a relay race, so if you’re moving goods from a supplier in China to, let’s say, a retailer in the U.K., the documents and the physical goods themselves might be passed on between something like 14 different parties before they get from their origin to their destination,” Chamberlain said to illustrate the complexity. “The challenge…is that relay race happens in a black box, and what that means for fashion brands who are very often the importers in this scenario is that they get very little visibility into what’s really going on in that supply chain.”

He explained that Flexport has taken a different approach to execute this process, which is on a digital backbone. What that means is that its clients gain greater visibility into what is going on in this process.

“They get better data to make decisions with and that enables things like better counts on inventory, or being able to prioritize shipments to hit product launch dates,” Chamberlain said.

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SupplyCompass’ role, Davidson said, is for companies to get access to trusted, vetted supply chains around the world.

“If you work with our supply chain partners, then it gets managed by our team of experts with a kind of outsource-on-demand production expertise that goes into the platform,” she said. “The key part is for manufacturers, and this is really what has been missing in the industry for so long, is a collaboration tool between sides…I don’t need to tell everyone that managing production is extremely complex, particularly when you’re producing globally…with very little standardization and across many mediums. So really the key challenges that are key for us to tap into is collaboration and communication.”

These will enable companies to be leaner but deliver products faster with real-time collaboration and cost savings, Davidson said. Also important is that SupplyCompass has access to new partners with sustainable credentials.

“I think the last three months has really shown, and I’ve had so many more businesses come to us during this period realize, is that it’s no longer just nice to have the right technology, it’s really important,” she said. “The fashion industry is a very creative industry and we work heavily with designers, and getting retailers and design teams to understand that technology can be an enabler of creativity and they should embrace it.”

Chamberlain agreed that the current situation in the fashion industry, with China shutting down, and then on the demand side with lock downs, “are kind of shocks that are like not good for supply chains, especially when things tend to be set up for high efficiency.”

“At the heart of this kind of rebuild and emergence at the back of this three-month period that we’ve been through is we’re starting to see people experiment with digital,” he said. “When I talk about technology, I’m also not just talking about process and communication, but also technology in terms of digital products, and people creating digital samples and testing those, and then actually making the physical product.”

Davidson and Chamberlain both stressed that leveraging technology in a supply chain is not just one company making an investment to improve the way it operates, but about changing fundamentally how companies work together.

Chamberlain used the example of fast fashion, where companies react to consumer trends quickly and “do amazing things like turnaround designs in a week, get them airfreighted over from a manufacturer in China and fulfill them.” That has generally required air freight, he noted, but that mode of transportation has been highly disrupted by the pandemic.

“So now you’ve got a situation where that world is far less stable and you have to find other solutions,” he said. “And you have to be a little more detailed about what’s really going on in that supply chain because it’s not that sort of ready flow that’s built in.”

That has generally meant switching over to ocean freight or looking at what an equivalent cost of ocean freight might be and pairing it with air freight that’s available. Having the proper technology allows for fast and accurate analysis and the ability to give vendors options, he stressed.

Davidson said transparency and traceability have become increasing important and are “something that we are working toward.”

“It comes back to getting the basics right in order to easily map the supply chain and it needs to have a digital core because finding, authenticating and being sure really does come from technology,” she said. “Otherwise, to have that with every single product with every single supply chain with every connection that one brand makes is too costly and too time consuming. Technology is the thing that allows a lot of the key requirements within sustainability to be affordable.”

She said sustainability also means establishing good buying practices like ensuring no last-minute changes once a fabric has been set and consistency in working with particular factories.

“In order to kind of be more sustainable you have to be transparent about it,” Chamberlain said. “What we’ll want to calculate for our clients and show is the overall carbon footprint from shipping.”

For example, in ocean shipping it is important to utilize the containers properly and efficiently. Similarly, Davidson, noted, companies must buy fabrics properly to avoid waste.

“The range of decisions that you can make without having that data is overwhelming,” Chamberlain said. “But ultimately, it may be a bit of short-term pain or learning something new, with the long-term benefit that of being in control of everything.”