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Fashion’s Future Checklist: Rethink, Remap, Retool

Goods going anywhere in the world will soon have passports outlining their history from production line to delivery. Where they came from, who owns the factory, how much the workers were paid. How much water does the manufacturer use? What’s its carbon footprint? If the information is missing or incorrect, or greenwashed, new regulations—or consumers—will dictate that the manufacturer is out of the game.

According to Paul Magel, president of the applications division of CGS, speaking at last week’s regional meeting of the American Apparel Producers Network, this is fallout from the pandemic. It’s time to rethink, remap, retool, he told participants assembled in Lower Manhattan at the headquarters of the apparel software company, which hosted the event.

“There’s a whole rethink of how we’re doing things,” said Magel. “We need to remap our relationships, remap our connectivity to our supply chain and retool our operations, whether from a process standpoint, or a technology standpoint.”

Technology will be propelled by the rapidly evolving AI landscape. Relations between buyers and suppliers suffered the biggest blow during the pandemic, Magel said, and the business is irrevocably changed. There will be an increase in on-demand manufacturing using AI for planning and forecasting to avoid stock piled in warehouses or worse, landfills. Already happening with a shift to CAFTA-DR countries from China, manufacturing will be brought closer to home. All parties will be able to respond to problems more quickly. Increased visibility of the entire supply chain will lead to buyers and suppliers working more collaboratively.

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According to Jennifer Knight, deputy assistant secretary for textiles, consumer goods, materials, critical minerals and metals at the U.S. Department of Commerce, also speaking at the event, U.S. sourcing in China has already declined by 31 percent over the past couple of years, an indication of where world trade is going. Target alone has invested $2.5 billion in Central America, to be spent over the next decade, while in late 2021 the North Carolina-based Parkdale Mills  invested $150 million in a new yarn spinning facility in Honduras.  

Ambitious sustainability initiatives will be necessary to stay in the game, according to Scott Donachie, CEO and founder of New Jersey-based Companies for Net Zero. He noted how the concept is misunderstood as expensive with little return. He advocates training experts to be placed at the executive level to use the technology available to effect successful sustainability programs, and to start training young people. Currently, most people working in sustainability work on reports and marketing with no operational experience or experience in finance, he said. They certainly don’t have MBAs, he added.

“Companies like Ikea and Heineken have opened up these roles in Europe and they are high-paying jobs,” he said. “There’s a war for talent there now to get people into these positions.” 

This will require a change in the mindset of executives, what Donachie calls “the frozen middle,” the layer that doesn’t understand sustainability and remains inert. It will also require investment to get a return, he said. “It’s the same thing with any business decision: what’s the ROI?,” he said. “If there’s no investment, there’s no return.”

Staff at the granular level is also ripe for investment, according to Sarah Krasley, CEO of Shimmy, industry consultants, and Berkley Rothmeier, director, consumer sectors, for BSR, Business for Social Responsibility.

They advocate upskilling workers from assembly line to technology as the need arises. As jobs shift from strictly manufacturing to circularity, skill sets will also shift from production to include reuse, repair and recycling. “We’re going to need to welcome in some really different folks into our value chain,” she said.

The textile and apparel industries also need to train individuals to rise with the level of the industry in their part of the world. Companies will need appraisers, machine technicians and, importantly, “we have a much higher rate of delivery workers,” she said. “Because most of these new circular models are going to rely on multi-point delivery systems.”

 Rothmeier acknowledged the importance of casual workers, a level of labor that will see an extraordinary amount of job disruption and an increase in wage inequality. She noted serious job quality concerns whether it’s waste picking, home work or migrant labor, that need addressing immediately. “We’re at a unique moment where we have this opportunity to reimagine and rebuild the global fashion system,” Rothmeier said.

It is her desire and that of her cohorts to “put a finger on the scale of a system that works better for everyone involved, and maximizes opportunity and reduces risk and vulnerability across the system,” she said.

Under a program called KWIL, or Keep Workers In the Loop, managers will analyze needs as they change in a given region, and devise a plan to keep workers growing within the system. “Skilling is going to be vitally important to create workers that have the skills we need to ensure [those] workers can remain in the industry if they would like, and ideally transition into higher valued, higher paying roles,” she said.