President Trump’s trade war with China has thrown apparel sourcing into chaos, but Kurt Cavano, founder of the platform now known as GT Nexus, an Infor Company, says companies began their exodus from the manufacturing powerhouse nation well before “tariffs” became a recurring theme in the 24-hour news cycle.
“What Trump did only accelerated something that was already happening,” said Cavano, who’s set to retire from Infor at the end of the year after nearly two decades serving the apparel sourcing industry.
Rising competition from China’s own domestic brands forced many of the biggest apparel players to look elsewhere for manufacturing, Cavano said, as Chinese consumers’ appetite for Made in China goods grows. Plus, large factory groups have branched out from exclusively manufacturing for Western clients to producing their own brands destined for consumption in China and throughout Southeast Asia, he noted.
“The smart executives were already moving their supply chains [from China]. Now everyone else doesn’t have a choice,” Cavano said. “Yes, there always will be manufacturing in China, maybe in lower cost areas. But more sourcing will happen in Vietnam, Bangladesh—and even Africa.”
In fact, Cavano added, the continuing specter of tariffs coupled with industry-wide supply chain rationalizations “could be a boon for Africa,” where Tanzania, Madagascar and Ethiopia attract interest with the developing infrastructure and increasingly skilled labor forces.
However, Sub-Saharan Africa is the region to watch, according to Cavano, with more than a billion populating the world’s second-largest continent and a middle class growing by the year.
Cavano questioned whether the era of apparel mega-corporations is drawing to a close and giving way instead to “micro brands” like Everlane and Madewell that are engaged in “a great conversation with the customer.” As startup brands chose ethical factories and proudly share their supply chain stories with consumers, apparel manufacturing might finally leave its sweatshop image behind, Cavano noted.
“There are some really beautiful factories being built,” he added. Sri Lanka, home to the MAS manufacturing giant, springs to mind when the topic of responsible production comes up but now even countries like Honduras are becoming part of that conversation.
Construction is nearing completion on a $73-million synthetic yarn production facility, the Elcatex-owned United Textiles of America Co. (Unitexa), in Honduras, Cavano said, which when finished will expand Central America’s capacity by 25,000 tons. The Central American Free Trade Agreement’s yarn-forward stipulation has made spinning and knitting synthetics a challenge in the region, he added, meaning the new mill could help brands bring production closer to home—especially those in the red-hot activewear sector.
In fact, brands like Wear It to Heart, the Los Angeles-based workout brand has been taking advantage of Central America’s proximity to the U.S. market since its founding 2011. Producing a colorful array of dye-sub printed leggings, bra tops and other gear in El Salvador—using eco-friendly processes—means product can be shipped to New York City in as little as a week, Cavano said. Some Pelaton instructors are decked out in Wear It to Heart duds when teaching classes broadcast to stationary cyclists around the globe, giving customers a valuable opportunity to see for themselves how the clothing looks and order it on the sport—right there mid-cycle on a bike priced close to $2,000. The brand known for eye-catching prints is yet another example of a company with “an interesting supply chain model” and focused obsessively on perfecting the customer experience, he said.
If nearshoring trends upward in the years ahead, it will not be attributable to Trump’s tariffs, said Cavano, but instead because apparel brands realize the value of producing close to their customer base, no doubt added by regional investments like Unitexa or microfactories cropping up around the U.S. But the future of apparel production could look entirely different from the mills and machinery that characterize the industry today.
Today, the biofashion movement conjures up textiles from the likes of orange waste, pineapple leaves, mushrooms and kelp—which for many is hard enough to fully grasp. Cavano, who serves as an advisor to New York City’s XRC retail tech and innovation accelerator, thinks fashion could be even more radical and unrecognizable in just a few decades. Maybe garments will be created by spraying liquid nanoparticles that dry into wearable form on an adjustable mannequin, and can be easily destroyed and re-created in a zero-waste, closed-loop process in virtually any town anywhere.