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Upstream Focus: Alpine Group’s Ashok Mahtani on Samples, Shorter Supply Chains & Scaling Sustainability

Upstream Focus is Sourcing Journal’s series of conversations with suppliers, associations and sourcing professionals to get their insights on the state of sourcing, innovations in manufacturing and how to improve operations. In this Q&A, Ashok Mahtani, co-founder and chairman of textile and garment manufacturer Alpine Group, discusses the benefits and limits of digital sampling and how to improve the cost efficiency of sustainability.

Ashok Mahtani Alpine Group
Ashok Mahtani, co-founder and chairman, Alpine Group

Name: Ashok Mahtani

Title: Co-founder and chairman

Company: Alpine Group

What’s the number one question you get from your clients now that was never really a consideration before?

We have seen a huge shift in client focus towards our sustainability and social practices—in particular the treatment of our workers, the environmental impact of our garments, and our efforts to reduce our footprint.

Perhaps the most challenging question we get from our clients is, “Can we provide sustainable garments at a neutral cost?” Whilst we are continually working to bring high-quality, durable and sustainable products to our customers at a disruptive price, the reality is that sustainability comes at a cost. It is therefore vital that clients and consumers alike understand this and appreciate that this is a small price to pay compared to the environmental costs of using non-sustainable materials and manufacturing practices.

Which processes have you put in place due to Covid that you’d like to see continue even after the health crisis is behind us? Why?

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Covid has driven a paradigm shift in the textile industry. The pandemic required us to evolve our day-to-day business operations across Alpine Group, particularly in terms of efficiencies and sustainable benefits.

Although digitalization was already underway, the pandemic accelerated the process and enhanced the digital functionality of how we operate and communicate.

How are you evaluating potential brand and retail partners differently now compared to before the pandemic?

At Alpine Group, we value our people, and during the peak of the pandemic we retained all 10,000-plus team members, which was due to the strength of our strategic partnerships with our brand and retail partners. We continue to only work with partners who share our value system, including our focus on people and the planet, particularly as we will be undertaking the Future-Fit Business Benchmark. Our sustainability strategy is our business strategy because it paves the way toward the future of the fashion industry where every thread counts, every person counts and every action counts.

What is the main thing brands and retailers could do (or stop doing) right now that would immediately improve product development?

We value being seen as a strategic partner to brands and an extension of their in-house teams. Having visibility of the brands’ development needs, goals and plans helps us help them, avoids unnecessary wastage of key resources and builds product with focus and perspective.

Our collaborative philosophy means we always work hand-in-hand with our brand partners and teams of designers to co-create new ideas and sustainable solutions. Such open synergy allows us to deliver original added value and drive business impact beyond providing material supplies and garment manufacturing.

How are you adapting your operations to support quick-turn, small run orders?

As an end-to-end ecosystem, we have adapted our supply chain, focusing on efficiency and the positive benefits this brings to our clients. Through shortening supply chains and keeping fabric close to the needle, we are able to not only save time, but also reduce impacts from transporting fabrics across continents, including energy and carbon emissions. We have also been implementing smaller machine lines, increasing our agility and speed-to-market capabilities. In addition, we are excited to be developing our vertical offering, whereby we will be able to offer fabric production through to apparel manufacturing within one of our key countries of operation.

In this challenging retail environment, how are you working with clients to balance sustainability needs with cost efficiency?

All brands and retailers are being challenged by the cost of sustainability. Although Alpine Group is working to be cost efficient, the reality is more complicated. To make alternative materials more price-competitive, we need larger demand, and therefore all players in the system—brands, retailers, consumers, suppliers—need to put sustainability at the forefront of all decisions. That is how the industry will reach the desired economies of scale.

Due to Alpine Group’s 40-year heritage and scale, we are able to be efficient in our client offerings—platforming sustainable fabrics and saving costs through waste reduction and resource utilization.

When it comes to quality and compliance, what are the biggest challenges?

Compliance is never a challenge; it is always an opportunity.

One area of opportunity is the varying standards set by different buyers. There needs to be a consistent standard across every buyer that reflects a philosophy where the people who are employed at the lowest levels of the organization always come first.

Another area of opportunity is communication. In this globalized world where social media plays such an important role, we need to make sure that we are communicating openly and transparently with every team member and listening to feedback on areas we need to work on.

In terms of quality, we have a material science team that evaluates every component of a material before we use it to create a fabric and as a result, we have full control of our materials. In addition, we are actively harnessing the power of data, mining consumer intelligence to better predict changing expectations and needs.

How has Covid enhanced your remote collaboration capabilities? Which piece of technology or innovation have you found most useful during this time, and what remaining hurdles still exist in projects with limited travel?

The increased use of 3D collaborative workrooms has worked as an alternative to face-to-face collaboration, whilst also creating efficiencies and an improved use of resources within the group. Additionally, there are sustainability benefits as a result of the increased use of technology, including a reduction in carbon footprint as well as physical sample wastage.

However, I believe that technology can only do so much in the textile industry, where the ability to touch the fabrics is essential to assess stretch, drape, physical feel and color shade, to name a few. Because of our years of experience, buyers are able to trust our judgement and recommendations on such attributes.

Covid has taught us the development process can be managed virtually through the use of technology, with the final physical sample being sent to the customer for their sign off.

What is the best decision your company has made in the last year?

Developing a group-wide sustainability strategy which encompasses a holistic approach to address industry challenges. Within this sustainability strategy, as part of our “Every Person Counts” pillar, we established several new systems including upskilling and empowering our existing team members—with a particular focus on female empowerment—and a strategic hiring plan to enhance our internal skillset.

What keeps you up at night?

The many opportunities that present themselves due to the paradigm shift within the fashion industry, and the need to be constantly keeping ahead in order to anticipate emerging consumer and brand needs.

What makes you most optimistic?

Fashion is a broken system, but the future demands better, defined by disruptive shifts in digitization, the global e-commerce boom and sustainability.

Rooted in decades of industry expertise, Alpine Group has been unlocking new, sustainable possibilities for brands and partners, and this is evident in our commitment to making every thread count in the development of innovative materials such as GreenFuze Circle. This is our textile-to-textile recycling technology, which is being amplified through our traceability and life cycle assessment programs, which will help us support brands to educate consumers. This is a significant step forward in scaling up the technology’s reach in making fashion fit for the future.

What’s in store for Alpine Group in 2022?

We believe in working towards a circular economy and creating positive impact, which means the continued implementation of our innovation and sustainability strategies, as well as ensuring our business operations are responsible, regenerative and contribute to the protection of our natural ecosystems. These will be important focuses for this year.

Additionally, as the first textile innovation and apparel manufacturing business to undertake the Future-Fit Business Benchmark, we have also made material commitments that we’ll be working toward achieving: By 2025, 100 percent of cotton we use will come from sustainable sources, and 45 percent of polyester, nylon and lyocell that we use will come from recycled or regenerated cellulose materials.