At first glance, the fashion and food industries are disparate. But some of the strategic approaches for getting food from farm to table could help inform more sustainable and business-savvy practices in the apparel and footwear sector.
Food retail is focused on moving products quickly through the supply chain so that they don’t spoil before they are sold. Even though fashion is not as perishable as food, the industry could benefit from treating its merchandise with a similar approach when it comes to timeliness, markdowns and waste.
“Apparel does not spoil like bananas, but it certainly goes bad with time,” said David Barach, vice president of lifecycle pricing solutions at Antuit, which develops artificial intelligence solutions for forecasting and merchandising. “Adding the same disciplines around understanding and executing against maximizing the flow and efficiency of inventory is key in apparel as well as food.”
Raw materials and sourcing
Largely because of the health implications of food, the industry is more regulated than fashion.
“The food industry has strong FDA requirements for raw materials and sourcing, which, like it or not, they have no choice but to follow,” said Vikas Argod, director, supply chain operations at Chainalytics, a supply chain consulting and analytics company. “Such regulations bring considerable standardization in supply chains, which makes it easier to create efficient processes and supporting tools.”
Along with regulations, there are also worldwide standards that are widely used. For instance, the Global Food Safety Initiative was launched in 2000 to create benchmarks for sourcing and food handling. “I think [the GFSI] elevated the industry so at least everyone that was certified and that was producing goods that are typically sold in the mainstream retailers had these good practices,” said Vanessa Grondin, vice president, global head of strategy, food and beverage industry at traceability technology firm Optel Group.
There are globalized elements to food supply chains, but for the most part sourcing tends to happen nearer than it does in fashion. The most localized categories are perishable goods such as meat, dairy and produce.
Aside from name brands, food suppliers are also largely commoditized, since there is minimal differentiation between different producers of perishable items. “This season’s peach is next season’s peach, no matter who supplies it,” said Nikki Baird, vice president retail innovation at retail technology company Aptos.
Because of this, retailers tend to have very broad supplier bases for perishable goods. This allows for more flexibility, but it is not something that can be easily copied by apparel brands.
“Broadening the supply base—like in food—would cause significant product quality issues for fashion,” said Argod. “A Hass avocado, for example, may taste the same no matter where it grows; however, the quality of cotton may not be the same if grown in different regions.”
In food, traceability is more driven by regulations and necessity. In much of the world, the basic requirement is to have data such as expiration dates and batch numbers printed on packaging. Because of this, consumers often have more information at their disposal than they would when buying a garment.
While players in the food industry have the imperative to be able to trace the tier of the supply chain directly ahead and behind them, they are taking this a step further beyond what is legally necessary. “What we’re seeing now is that there is a strong will to augment the transparency of the supply chain to dig deeper…to have this end-to-end traceability and transparency of different stakeholders for various business reasons,” said Grondin. “So, I would say that the food supply chain can have more incentives to be more advanced because of the food safety inherent nature of the supply chain.”
Technologies such as RFID and blockchain are catching on to help track both food and fashion through the supply chain, particularly for higher value items. But the applications in the two industries differ. Food producers use chips or tracking to help monitor goods, while fashion labels often use these tools as an added branding boost to prove sustainability and provenance or authenticate products, such as for luxury merchandise.
Compared to the more regulated food industry, fashion’s own transparency efforts stem more from consumer demand. As shoppers increasingly ask for information regarding the origins of their clothing, brands may be more apt to adopt granular traceability.
Optel is developing a solution that would use a photo of an item as a unique identifier, which Grondin believes could have applications for textiles. “If you’re taking a picture of cotton fabric, depending on where you’re going to take the picture of your fabric, it’s going to be unique because it’s a natural fiber,” she said. “So the picture that we’re taking can be also used as a unique level item tracker.”
Supply and demand
While clothing and food both fulfill consumers’ basic needs, the industries diverge when it comes to purchasing drivers. Consumers need to replenish their kitchen inventory on a regular basis, whereas fashion shopping is largely prompted by want rather than necessity. With consumer wallets tightening during the pandemic, this differentiation is even more apparent.
“Ultimately, that customer journey and decision-making is what drives many of the downstream things that retailers need to be able to do, so I do think there is an upper limit on what can be cross-pollinated [from food to fashion],” said Baird. “That said, it’s also a time for retailers to be creative and open-minded, and if there is something wild and crazy to take from food and apply to fashion, then by all means. That could become a differentiator for a vertical desperately in need of continued customer relevancy.”
One aspect that complicates the planning process in fashion is the fact that aside from core basics, SKUs are constantly changing. In contrast, outside of food crazes and seasonal merchandise, grocers are not beholden to trends in the same way that fashion retailers are. This helps to enable longer-term forecasting for sourcing and ordering of raw materials.
However, even though food items may not be following trends, the speedier shelf time for food still necessitates quick feedback loops. Like fashion, the food business is undergoing a digital evolution intended to make this possible.
“There is some lag time between the information that the brand owner is going to get and what the market wants,” said Grondin. “And so, for this reason, there’s much interest in digitizing as much as they can to increase as much as they can the real-time data that we gather to adapt their demand planning.”
Argod noted that it is more common for demand planning in food to be a collaborative approach with suppliers. The process also takes raw material cost into account when making forecasts.
“On the supply side, a huge variation in commodity pricing can impact food demand, and they tend to take such factors into consideration,” said Argod. “Apparel demand planning rarely considers such supply-side factors, but they should.”
Merchandising and marketing
According to experts, one area where food retailers excel is in customer centricity. The shopping habits of an end consumer in a particular neighborhood inform planning such as pricing, promotions and marketing at a store level. Barach sees the potential for apparel to take a similar approach to identify segments of a consumer base at a location to drive strategy.
“Many apparel retailers still consider their customer base a monolithic demand and practice no differentiation of the buying experience,” Barach said. “Even for apparel customers, e-commerce experience is individualized based on data about what the customer has bought or just looked at. But in the store, there is little application of the customer level understanding, they develop demand forecasts aggregated by store.”
Per Baird, fashion stores could also take a more data-driven approach to displaying products by using science of shelf. For instance, grocers test the effects of putting one brand’s product next to another. Higher margin items are also placed more conveniently at eye level to encourage purchases.
Both food and fashion create significant waste. But Argod noted that the problem sits at different points in the supply chain. Fashion creates more of its excess materials during production, while food gets wasted more at the end consumer level.
Fashion has a leg up on food when it comes to tackling waste, since there is the potential for a circular lifecycle. Even if clothing goes out of season, there are more options than the trash. Therefore, when it comes to curbing waste, fashion should go the opposite direction of food.
“I think it’s interesting that luxury is taking a long hard look at the durability of their designs, and trying to get out of the fast fashion-like business of forcing things into obsolescence by rushing after the latest fashion fad,” said Baird. “The food industry can’t stop a banana from expiring, but luxury could potentially make seasons last much longer—and there is a growing resale market to really make fashion items last longer.”