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The Apparel Industry Has Shifted Drastically—But have Supply Chains Really Changed?

Dramatic change can hardly take shape in the midst of like-minded people still surrounded by outmoded ideals.

Like a Democratic or Republican rally, a fraternity or a group of Gen Z BFFs, these cohorts validate one another’s ideas, growing more confident in their singular way of thinking.

Change comes from different perspectives and from stepping outside of comfort zones, and the failure to embrace these two efforts is where the apparel supply chain has gone wrong.

Though the industry—whether at sourcing conferences, trade shows, during executive pitches and the like—has embraced all the right buzzwords that lend the appearance of evolution and advancement, few have quite unlocked the key to retail as they believe they have.

Really, sourcing executives are afraid to change.

What if they invest too heavily in data and technology and don’t see a return? What if they bring in the wrong service provider? Or move production to the wrong country?

The more pressing question among these, however, is: what if they don’t?

Is it better to watch yourself be replaced by new, innovative companies, while at the same time creating processes and paperwork to give the illusion of change and innovation when in actuality, the status quo has solidified its place in your business?

Deepak Chopra would say, “Every great change is preceded by chaos.” And the supply chain’s current chaos, whether companies are willing to embrace it or not, must at least be acknowledged and accordingly accommodated.

The sourcing sector’s current corporate culture hasn’t adequately embraced or acknowledged the chaos that comes with necessary change.

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John Kenneth Galbraith, famed Canadian-born economist, may have put it best when he said, “Faced with the choice between changing one’s mind and proving that there is no need to do so, almost everyone gets busy on the proof.”

That ethos, unsurprisingly, isn’t serving the industry.

When business goes awry, sourcing executives are always quick to point fingers at their factory partners. It’s either that the factory can’t accommodate the need for more SKUs or fewer pieces per style or a quicker turnaround.

But how often have we flipped the script and heard from factories on where the actual breakdown in the supply chain lies? How can multiple brands work in the same factory and some have agile and efficient supply chains, while their counterparts are still operating like it’s 1995? It’s time to hear from factories and for brands to understand why they’re pointing the finger at everyone but themselves.

When it comes to trade, the ongoing war between the U.S. and China have occupied headlines for more than a year. All we talk about in the U.S., is how existing tariffs have damaged the industry and how potential additional tariffs stand to deepen the wound. On the flip side of that, though, are we asking factories in China how the trade war has impacted their supply chains?

On tech, which has fueled the need for change in global supply chains, the U.S. has largely been focused on its Big 4: Apple, Google, Amazon and Facebook. Increasingly, these tech giants are controlling how we shop, consume and communicate. And while their moves are worth watching and navigating, there’s a world of other leaders in tech whose strides will take the sector by storm while we sleep if we aren’t careful.

Alibaba and WeChat are just two China-based enterprises that are changing retail, manufacturing and logistics. To gloss over them is shortsighted and, really, foolish if we’re being frank.

At the upcoming Sourcing Summit: Hong Kong, “Accelerating Change,” on May 8, we’ll be flipping the script on the sourcing conversation in order to advance change in a real way.

We’ll hear from the factory floor about where the bottlenecks to supply chain success are, we’ll find out what the U.S.-China trade struggle means for modern factories on both sides of the Pacific, learn where China is leading on future-facing tech, and uncover how the sourcing sector’s key leaders are changing the paradigm in the face of apparel’s new world order.

It’s clear our industry is slow to adapt, but let’s stop defending or pretending we know our customers or have changed our business models. Let’s start accepting our marketing positions, learn from as many insiders and outsiders as possible and be the change agents the industry really needs.

See you in Hong Kong.

Edward Hertzman is the founder and president of Sourcing Journal.