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The Key to Supply Chain Agility: Go Lean on Product, Long on Materials

Apparel brands are notorious for being slow to adopt contemporary production practices, and most would point to cost as the number one reason for holding tight to outdated habits. However, the cost of failing to innovate is even higher, and it’s growing every year. The supply chain may be the best place to make changes and reduce waste, but brands continue to balk at changes that could be revolutionary for their profit margins.

“Most brands think only about the cost of their product, but we can all learn from fast fashion brands, where the cost saving comes more from the business operation end,” said Boaz David, founder and CEO of Human B, a design, development and production company serving small and mid-sized fashion brands. “The supply chain is the most complex and vulnerable part of a business, but flexibility can turn it from an Achilles’ heel into an advantage.”

The success of a flexible production strategy, David said, requires a commitment from the brand to an overhaul of the traditional manufacturing process. “The ultimate cost savings is producing what you need by going lean on product and long on materials. Imagine if you could commit to consistent, smaller production batches throughout a season instead of placing one big order,” David said. “A staggered production process will help brands to better address their customer’s needs, and generating data from those customers can help them build a robust supply chain that will show real results.”

The factories Human B works with in the Dominican Republic focus primarily on swimwear, performance wear and lingerie, categories with precise fit and materials needs. Rather than producing huge batches every season, those factories operate in modules that produce a certain number of units per week—only a few thousand pieces of each design. “Since we can produce as needed and ship as needed, we have a more agile operation, and can fix sizing issues or alter design details immediately,” David said. “This way, if there’s a problem with a garment, the remainder of the production is saved, and if needed we can make improvements based on customer feedback as the season moves along.”

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Small-batch, staggered production schedules also give companies more financial stability, a huge boon for small or mid-sized companies looking to scale up, David said. “In a production with 20,000 units in one order, the company pays for the order and hopes to gain the investment back in sales,” he added. “Whereas producing 2,000 units weekly instead means that by week three or so, the company has already cashed in on their first few thousand units sold, and can fund the rest of production from sales rather than their own pockets.”

Converting from a traditional production schedule to a modern, flexible one can be tricky. Boaz advocates starting by studying customer feedback and sales data, and letting that data drive materials purchases, making sure to have a variety of staples on-hand. “Be knowledgeable about your inventory of materials. Order the fabrics you use most in bulk, and store them in the factory,” David said. “If you have raw materials that are of good quality, you can always find ways to use them or make them fresh with trendy designs.”

David is also a fan of nearshoring, a practice that continues to grow in popularity especially as global economics fluctuate. “Location allows companies to be more efficient in managing the production process, which is good for the bottom line,” he said. He pointed out that when companies centralize their design, production and logistics teams, not only does it reduce friction and wasted time between different teams, but it also expedites the sampling and shipping processes, leading to quicker fulfillment and happier consumers. Being in the Dominican Republic allows the companies Human B works with to keep up with consumers’ interest in specific products, and that equates to preservation of momentum that’s particularly valuable for trend-driven companies.

Using shorter development calendars can vastly expedite speed to market, but David said many companies are reluctant to overhaul their production, even if it can produce tangible results. “Sometimes, companies try to find a magic bullet that will shorten their production timeline in one go. That doesn’t exist,” he said. However, David believes that eventually, staggered production timelines will become the norm, and companies that start integrating the practice piecemeal today are set up for extremely positive change in the future. “A lot of businesses view the supply chain as a point of weakness,” David said. “But leveraging the supply chain to be fast and lean is the quickest way to stand out from the rest of the market.”