How tech can transform the fashion supply chain

Digital technologies could transform supply chain visibility and transparency in fashion, but a culture of resistance is holding the industry back 

Not yet falling apart at the seams, but certainly unravelling, fashion is revealing itself as a fragmented and fickle industry. Twenty years ago, the Western world still relied on domestic manufacturing, nowadays the industry depends on labour from much further afield. Driven by changing consumer demands, a need to cut costs, a move away from homegrown textiles and a shift towards fast fashion, the fashion supply chain has waned under the pressure of its growing complexity.

Why is the fashion industry resistant to change?

The level of efficiency in the fashion supply chain has not kept up with its developing intricacy, and the disconnect between sourcing raw materials, manufacturers and retailers has generated serious concerns about the industry’s impact on wastage, climate change, poor pay and forced labour. Digital technologies have the capacity to boost efficiency and bridge the gap between suppliers and brands, but a culture of resistance is restricting the industry.

“Some companies are better than others, without question,” says Shaun Godfrey, chief operating officer of freight-forwarding for Xpediator, which provides fashion logistics services for retailers, brands and manufacturers. “The ones that do it best, and we see evidence of their success from their financial accounts, are those that start with the consumer and work their way back in a controlled way through the supply chain; this is very much built around a strong and standardised IT system.”

Digital technologies designed to track and trace products from the raw-material source to the customer can deliver full visibility of the supply chain. The key is to maintain a consistent format of data for all suppliers and elements of the chain. The data can then be interfaced with digital technologies such as blockchain, a shared database where various parties in the fashion supply chain input and verify information.

It’s about the conscientious application of technology, not just technology on its own

The challenge of a full digital transformation

However, creating a holistic system like this can be a daunting task, especially for larger fashion companies with complex supply chains. Some suppliers or manufacturers in developing countries might not even have the systems in place to store the data required.

Current growth in the marketplace is dominated by smaller companies that are developing on the back of very strong digital platforms and technologies, notably artificial intelligence, the cloud and blockchain. Teemill, a cloud-based platform that lets anyone build an online fashion store and sell T-shirt designs online, is an example of a startup that is fully embracing technology in its supply chain.

“The design of the industry itself is outdated,” says Martin Drake-Knight, design engineer at Teemill, which prints and ships items for anyone with a smartphone. “For us it’s about viewing the supply chain as part of a connected system and looking for positive solutions across the product life cycle, from where clothing comes from through to where it goes after it’s worn out.”

The company uses technology to design waste out of the fashion supply chain. “Mindful application of tech can create efficiencies that we reinvest in better materials, renewable energy and solving the issues in fashion,” explains Mr Drake-Knight. “It’s about the conscientious application of technology, not just technology on its own.”

But many fashion brands are still hesitant to implement pioneering digital technologies because they can be expensive, involve sharing sensitive data and often require extensive training.

Need a longer-term view for the fashion supply chain

Clothes manufacturing is vastly driven by the cost of labour, with many brands seeking out the cheapest route. In this industry you get just what you pay for, and cheap labour comes with a risk of exploitation and back-office costs.

Alternative manufacturing facilities could save money in the long term, but are often disregarded because of their initial cost. However, there’s an opportunity for brands to use digital technologies to identify all the costs associated with the production cycle, including wastage and back-office costs, which are often missed. Businesses might find that choosing a different manufacturing plant improves the efficiency of the whole fashion supply chain and savings associated with this could far outweigh the benefits of low-cost labour.

“Digital technologies can enable a reshoring of UK fashion manufacturing, able to compete on a global scale, if the research is done coherently and properly funded,” says Susan Postlethwaite, senior teaching fellow in fashion at the Royal College of Art (RCA) and co-investigator of Future Fashion Factory, aimed at improving the fashion supply chain. But there are a large number of stakeholders and policymakers who need to be involved to make it a success.

Fashion should embrace tech, not ignore it

“The buy and sell side all want originality,” says Tessa Laws, chairman of Bagir Group, which manufactures tailored garments for retailers including H&M and Brooks Brothers. The standardisation of fashion is a worry for the industry, and some argue that current digital systems take away from the potential for innovation and unique design.

But instead of hiding away from technology, the industry should be taking charge of it. The RCA wants to train the next fashion generation to embrace new technologies, understand the science and engineering for new production methods and recognise the potential to innovate in the designing of new systems and processes.

Fashion is desperate for a technology makeover and, unless the industry embraces innovation with open arms, its growing supply chain is likely to suffer. If the wider industry looked at smaller niche businesses that view fashion with fresh eyes and new perspectives, they might be inspired to transform their own supply chains.