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Brands Are (Finally) Getting Behind the Digital Supply Chain Evolution

It is common knowledge that the global fashion supply chain has been slow to digitize its sourcing, manufacturing and supply processes.

Was this a result of a lack of funding? Apathy? Or little brand support? There’s no doubt that all three factors have played a part in keeping the fashion supply chain anachronously analogue to some extent. But although there is much talk about brands stepping up to change things—like knights in shining armor helping the people in distress—in truth, this digital imperative has ultimately been driven by consumer demand for more ethical, sustainable and increasingly more meaningful fashion.

It has not really been a case of lethargy that has kept the supply chain in the dark and reliant on outdated manual processes for such a long time. The fact remains that there simply was not any real direction from brands to change and given the exceptionally low profit margins that supply chain players often realize—on a sliding scale the lower they are positioned in the food chain—there was no financial impetus to move away from an “if it ain’t broke…..why fix it” mentality.

Brands have and will continue to focus all their efforts on getting closer to the customer, understanding their desires to give them exactly what they want, and consistently ensuring they provide the best, most innovative personalized experiences to boot. Brands have been investing in the latest technologies to achieve these objectives for decades. The money has always been there. Technology and research/innovation budgets have tended to be firmly entrenched in the pursuit of ever more revealing data insights into consumer buying behaviors, intuitive e-commerce experiences and the impact of snazzy, targeted marketing campaigns—and very little to do with greater product process visibility or collaboration within their supply chain.

This penchant for front-end technology was always a race to understand the needs of the consumer better. Brands have consequently treated supply chain players as poorer relations in the digitization game and have been less focused on understanding the back-end complexities of sourcing, supply and manufacture. Whether they chose a fully factored CMT (Cut, Make & Trim) or the popular, middle of the road, nominated method of product creation route, retailers had no real incentive to have clear visibility or high-level communication systems in place to understand and check the process of production. In short,  brands simply asked suppliers and manufacturers for something and expected their supply chain partners to deliver. As a result, very few brands regarded their supply chains as strategic digital partners because they were often just not seen as an important link in the insatiable quest to satisfy consumer demand.

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To say that there has been a change of heart  is an understatement. The Covid pandemic has certainly played it’s part. Because channels between brands and manufacturers remained obstinately analogue—with costing, sourcing and on-time delivery forecasts often recorded manually across spreadsheets, emails or telephone conversations—once the pandemic lockdown ensued, most of the fashion industry was completely in the dark about how they could continue business. Compared to other industry sectors, the slow uptake on digitizing critical business processes had bitten the apparel industry on the ass.

It was clear that the industry needed greater collaboration and data connectivity between design, development and production partners to provide the full visibility and accountability required to not only manage the potentially short-term disruption of the pandemic, but also enable it to become more resilient, agile and efficient if it stood any chance of surviving an increasingly complex and uncertain world.

Stuart McCready Stocks
Stuart McCready Stocks courtesy

The industry adoption of digital technology has certainly accelerated significantly since the pandemic. Brands are rapidly rationalizing their supply chains and forging closer strategic relationships with partners that have embraced the digital transformation of core processes and implemented industry 4.0 automation capabilities. Brands are actively encouraging close supply chain partners to digitize quickly, and are slowly supporting this transformation through funding, education and mentoring programs.  However, the fact remains that this investment is not happening because brands have an overarching desire to get closer to their supply chains, it’s primarily taking place because increased digitization ensures they can deliver on emerging, new customer expectations around sustainably and ethically sourced and produced goods.

Alongside the impact of the pandemic, Cop26 and increased media attention to global environmental activism, there has been a massive shift in consumer behavior in support of people, planet and performance. Spurred on by generation Z, consumers are now asking questions about how their clothes are sourced, manufactured and delivered.  Do the workers making them receive fair wages? Are the materials made with recyclable materials? Do the material dyes negatively impact the environment? Consumers are increasingly demanding to know the provenance of the apparel and footwear items they buy and wear. The customer is paramount—and brands now see a more transparent supply chain as playing a pivotal role in attesting to their sustainability and corporate social responsibility credentials.  Brands will need ever-greater access to data at key points in the buying, sourcing and production processes,  so they can surface this information effectively to provide the greater accountability proof-points that consumers will increasingly demand.

 

Stuart McCready-Stocks, brands director, Coats Digital, has played a leadership role for over a decade supporting global retailers, brands, sourcing businesses, and fashion manufacturers to achieve their strategic goals and sustainability/CSR responsibility targets. Prior to working in the fashion tech industry, Stuart studied Law in the UK, before joining the precision engineering industry, in 2005, at Gerhardt International as its director of sales, where he led the delivery of the commercial and operational strategies in Europe, Asia and the US.