The Fashion Supply Chain Is Broken

By Brian Laung Aoaeh and Lisa Morales-Hellebo

Originally published at www.refashiond.com on October 14, 2018.

Authors’ Note: This is the first in a series of six articles about problems and opportunities in global supply chains, with a focus on the fashion industry. This article frames the problem. The next article will delve into a historical analyses of technological disruption, from the perspective of risks and uncertainties for the fashion industry.

Executive Summary: Recent trends present incumbent companies in the global fashion industry with challenges and opportunities related to innovation in supply chain. In this article, we discuss how a historical top-down approach to business is giving way to an emerging bottom-up approach that is driven by consumer preferences. This is placing stresses on fashion supply chains which the industry can only address by adopting a collective, collaborative, ecosystem-driven approach to innovation.

The fashion supply chain is broken and must be refashioned. This is the conclusion we have come to after studying the issue, starting in 2014.

About The Authors

After 19 years in tech, Lisa Morales-Hellebo founded and launched the New York Fashion Tech Lab in 2014 with Springboard Enterprises and the Partnership Fund for NYC while serving as Executive Director for the first year. She then spent a year traveling to Puerto Rico to visit apparel factories, maker labs, cut-and-sew shops, ateliers, and universities in order to learn about the existing apparel supply chain and the challenges it faces.

Brian Laung Aoaeh, CFA spent 10 years in investment research and management, with 2 of those 10 years as the first and only member of the corporate development team at KEC Holdings, a single family office, and 8 of those 10 years as the first member of the small team that built KEC Ventures, an early-stage venture capital investment firm based in New York City. KEC Ventures grew to $98M of AUM across two funds, with 51 investments. Brian was a partner at the fund from its inception till his departure in September 2018.

Our interest in supply chain originated independent of one another. We first met in June 2016, and spent hours talking about supply chain at our first encounter.

After having started thinking about value chains[1] in 2014, by August 2017 Brian had decided to become a specialist early stage investor in supply chain technology after having been a generalist early stage venture capitalist up till that point. So we teamed up and started The New York Supply Chain Meetup: to nurture and grow the world’s foremost open, global, multidisciplinary community of people devoted to building the supply chain networks of the future. Driven by our shared enthusiasm for all things supply chain and our belief in what the future of supply chain will resemble, we are now on the verge of launching sister chapters of The Worldwide Supply Chain Federation: a collaborative, and mutually supportive coalition of grassroots communities focused on technology and innovation in the global supply chain industry.

In September 2018 we decided to team up to build REFASHIOND; an early-stage venture fund that will invest in the startups creating innovations to make global supply chain networks more efficient, starting with those reinventing the fashion supply chain.

Our Goal: To Catalyse Industry-wide Dialogue & Action

In engaging in the work that has gone into this article, and those that will follow, we hope to start an industry-wide conversation about tangible steps that participants in the fashion industry can take to arrive at a common framing of the problems confronting the industry, and then to find ways to work together to address those problems that can only be solved effectively through collective action. We encourage you to reach out to us if you’d like to discuss any aspects of this work, or if you’d like to collaborate with us in some way. Given our conversations with the industry executives in our network with whom we have the closest relationships we know supply chain, technology, and innovation are topics that every executive management team in the fashion industry is discussing and thinking about to some extent. It is time to start taking collective action to tackle the big issues. Please reach out to us by email;

  • Lisa Morales-Hellebo — lisa@refashiond.com, and
  • Brian Aoaeh — brian@refashiond.com.

A Bit of Historical Perspective

It is easy for outsiders to assume that the history of the fashion industry is completely divorced from that of technological innovation. That is wrong. In fact, the history of fashion, apparel, and textiles can be linked directly to some of the most important inventions of the industrial revolution.[2] A few key examples are the Fly Shuttle Wheel to allow one weaver to do the work of two; the Spinning Jenny, which increased wool mills productivity, the Cotton Gin, Power Loom, yarn Spinning Mule, the first factory, and even materials and textile innovations, like those used in the Mackintosh Raincoat.

Having acknowledged the role technological innovation has played in the history of the fashion industry, it is fair to ask: Has the industry’s more recent history lived up to the technological promise of the current era? That depends. We argue that the fashion industry’s incumbents’ collective investments in the industry’s supply chain have failed to keep pace with changing consumer expectations, expectations that change ever more quickly as advances in digital media and telecommunications unfold and shape consumers’ expectations of when and how to shop.

This is creating challenges for the industry as a trend towards shorter, less complex supply chains appears to be in the early stages of supplanting the long, global, and highly complex supply chains that accompanied globalization and large companies’ insatiable quest to outsource their manufacturing to foreign markets with the lowest combination of fixed and variable costs.

A Definition, And A Reiteration Of The Problem

Throughout this discussion, we will rely on the following definition of supply chain. A supply chain is:

A network of connected and interdependent organisations mutually and cooperatively working together to control, manage and improve the flow of materials and information from suppliers to end users.[3]

To reiterate the problem;

  • First: The fashion and apparel supply chain is broken and must be refashioned.
  • Second: Innovation is happening so fast and is so complicated that there isn’t a single company in the fashion and apparel industry that can reinvent itself quickly enough to take full advantage of new technologies and innovations. Instead, the industry needs to consider taking an industry-wide ecosystem approach to adopting technology and innovation.
  • Third: Because fashion and apparel is the world’s second largest polluting industry, the future of our planet depends on the industry adopting technologies that will accelerate the move towards more economically and environmentally sustainable supply chains.

According to FashionUnited, the global fashion industry is valued at $3 trillion in annual sales, with the United States accounting for approximately $400 billion of the global total. According to the New York City Economic Development Corporation’s Fashion.NYC.2020 report, New York City’s fashion and apparel retailers generate about $15 billion in sales, annually. It is inevitable that an industry of this scale will face supply chain challenges. Yet, as a whole, the industry has been slow to adopt digital technologies to aid in solving the supply chain issues it encounters.

The Current Paradigm

Predicting & Dictating Trends: Style and fashion has historically been dictated by a top-down system of influential designers and tastemakers who set the standards for beauty, taste, trend, and style. The rise of social media has created an unprecedented shift from top-down to bottom-up style and trend mandates, where the designers and tastemakers are now looking to street style, emerging brands, and influencers for inspiration and ideas about what consumers want. A team of trend-trackers monitors global social phenomena, hoping to observe the behavior of youth tribes and other emergent youth-driven phenomena that may be transformed into global fashion trends. The trend-trackers job is to record such phenomena and supply the information to industry clients, while also advising on brand strategies, developing marketing tactics, organizing events, and even providing designers and stylists who may design an entire collection for a brand. This process can take anywhere from 6 to 18 months. By the time it is complete the trend may already be out of style, and the result may be unsold inventory.

Sourcing & Materials[4]: Apparel sourcing is becoming more challenging due to; rising labor costs in foreign markets, increasing compliance costs due to alleged and documented labor abuses in far flung apparel manufacturing hubs in developing countries, and increasing consumer preference for sustainable methods of production as the effects of climate change come into stark relief.

Design: Designers work very closely with trend-trackers to anticipate consumer tastes, and to design clothes that they expect consumers to buy. However, by the time new designs find their way into retail showrooms, consumer tastes may have evolved away from the trend that inspired the designs.

Manufacturing: Apparel manufacturing is largely labor-intensive, concentrated in low-wage countries that are far away from most major fashion and apparel consumer markets, and subject to abuses such as the use of child-labor and slave labor. The process is inefficient, slow, and prone to quality control issues.

Distribution: Consumer behavior is forcing a convergence towards omni-channel and multi-channel distribution with increasingly decentralized warehousing, technological complexity arising from multi-platform selling channels, last-mile logistics, and automation all playing parts in making todays apparel supply chain more complex to manage than in the past.

Sales & Marketing: Technology has provided numerous distractions and shortened attention spans, making it more difficult for fashion and apparel brands to cut through the noise long enough to generate sales. Technology is also making it much easier for consumers to engage in comparison-shopping before they make a purchase.

With the proliferation and popularity of on-demand business models, consumers’ shopping behavior is shifting away from norms the global fashion and apparel industry is accustomed to and can control, and towards norms that favor consumers’ preferences. This shift is resulting in the hyper-segmentation of consumers who used to be seen as too “niche” to address because expectations built around sales volume didn’t make sense, or the industry deemed certain consumer segments as not meeting the standards for beauty imposed from the top. Plus-sized clothing is only recently being accepted as the untapped opportunity that it has always been in the United States where the average woman is a size 16, according to Racked.com’s article, “Size by the Numbers.”

Factors Driving Industry Profitability

Below, we highlight a few measures of profitability. There are others, but for brevity we have chosen to focus on a handful. To do analyses of this sort it is most useful to analyze trends over time for a company, and then compare that data on a relative basis to data for the industry as a whole or to data for a designated subset of peers.

Gross Profit Margin: Gross profit is measured by deducting cost of goods sold from revenue, and gross profit margin is calculated by taking the ratio of gross profit to revenue. Gross profit and gross profit margin reflect a company’s pricing power, the power exerted by its suppliers as reflected in its cost of goods sold, as well as the impact of competition.

Operating Profit Margin: This is also often referred to as EBIT Margin. It is calculated as the ratio of operating profit to revenue, with operating profit obtained by subtracting operating expenses from gross profit. Operating profit margin is a measure of how variable costs affect a company’s profit margins, and can be used to assess how much control a company has over the costs associated with running its operations. One-time charges should be excluded from the calculation. In the fashion and apparel industry generally, we expect that IT infrastructure investments that are required to operate in a multi-platform and multi-channel environment, increasing freight and supply chain logistics costs, as well as labor inflation in foreign markets will each have a negative impact on operating profit margins. Moreover, as we have previously stated, the trend towards increasing marketing expenditure in order to hold consumers’ attention long enough to generate sales will also have a negative impact on operating profit margins.

Return on Equity (ROE): A firm’s return on equity is calculated as the ratio of net income to average shareholders’ equity. It is a measure of how effective a company is at converting its assets into earnings growth. For example, if ROE is 15%, a dollar invested generates 15 cents of assets for the business. ROE is affected by revenue, selling and general administration expenses, taxation, operating efficiency, and inventory management. Management may use share buybacks to offset declines in ROE.

Inventory Turnover: The inventory turnover ratio is an efficiency ratio that measures a company’s effectiveness at generating sales from the inventory it holds. It is calculated as the ratio of cost of goods sold to average inventory. Inventory turnover ratio is affected by the rate at which sales occurs, which, in-turn is dependent on consumer sentiment. Companies in the industry often overestimate how much to stock in inventory, leading to steep wholesale and retail discounts. In the worst cases, inventory that cannot be sold is destroyed.

Earnings Per Share (EPS) Growth: Earnings per share is calculated as a company’s net income minus its preferred dividend payments, divided by the weighted average number of shares outstanding. Generally, earnings per share is affected most negatively by factors that reduce net income. As the industry generates increasing proportions of sales from the BRIC nations and other emerging markets, foreign exchange risk imposes negative pressures on revenues and net income. It is important to note that companies can easily manipulate earnings per share growth by instituting share-buyback programs.

Inventory Forecasting & Management Issues

The issues at play here are illustrated best in H&M, a Fashion Giant, Has a Problem: $4.3 Billion in Unsold Clothes a story by Elizabeth Paton that appeared in The New York Times on March 27, 2018. The article highlights a drop in quarterly sales accompanied by an increase in unsold inventory. According to the article, H&M’s customers have either moved to doing more of their shopping online or have gone seeking lower-cost offerings elsewhere. This is ironic since H&M has been a fast fashion stalwart for two decades during which it has experienced massive growth. The article describes some of the supply chain challenges H&M is grappling with, and how the company intends to respond: “H&M has insisted it has a plan, saying it would slash prices to reduce the stockpile and slow its expansion in stores. It said it hoped its online business would expand 25 percent this year.”

Lack of Efficient & Agile Supply Chain

What happens when the information or forecasts at one node in a company’s supply chain is incorrect? Incorrect information at any node in a supply chain creates a phenomena wherein the flow of goods is unexpectedly distorted over time due to differences between actual demand by end-consumers and forecasted demand by suppliers.

The phenomenon is known as the bullwhip effect, and it arises because demand signals are incorrectly amplified as information is transmitted along the supply chain. The bullwhip effect arises due to; poor coordination along the various nodes in a supply chain, and rational decisions that are made by supply chain participants using the best information at their disposal. The distortions are made worse because of the uncertainty that accompanies activities at every point in a company’s supply chain. The general consequence of the bullwhip effect is poor customer service.

How might a fashion company counteract the bullwhip effect? First, some companies are reversing the effects of globalization by creating the cyber-physical infrastructure required to enable networks of small-batch, quick-turn, and localized manufacturing hubs in order to make it possible to manufacture goods for consumers in the key markets of Western Europe and North America in small batches, closer to the ultimate end-consumers. Second, some companies are developing and using more advanced software for predictive analytics. Advances in artificial intelligence make this a much more feasible proposition today than at any time in the past. Third, some companies are improving the real-time flow of predictive information and data between key nodes in the supply chain. This allows every participant in the supply chain to anticipate future demand more accurately, and to stock raw-materials inventory more efficiently. We will discuss the technology trends that are making solutions to this problem possible in the fifth article in this series.

Conclusion: A Race To The Bottom?

Prevailing economic, social, and technological trends point towards a challenging future for the global fashion industry. Incumbent players may choose to operate with a business-as-usual attitude. Alternatively, they may opt to address the industry’s supply chain challenges by adopting an ecosystem-based approach to solving the problems that are too big for a single company to solve on its own. This will require adopting a systems-thinking approach to how companies in the industry are run, and how they view their relationships with one another.

The companies that win will adapt to the changing landscape by building on their historical strengths, while simultaneously developing new supply chain capabilities through partnerships with former sworn rivals or relatively new technology startups.

The companies that lose will remain entrenched in the old ways of doing business, following one extreme round of price-cuts by even more extreme discounts. This race to the bottom will be exacerbated by additional measures like reducing the number of brick-and-mortar locations — measures that do nothing to solve the fundamental problem: The fashion and apparel supply chain is broken and must be refashioned.

Next in the series: Where Will Technological Disruption In Fashion Come From?

About REFASHIOND Ventures: REFASHIOND Ventures is an early-stage venture capital investment firm that is being formed in order to invest in early-stage startups creating innovations that make global supply chains more efficient, starting with startups at the intersection of fashion and retail.

About REFASHIOND CO:LAB: REFASHIOND CO:LAB is the systems design, research, and strategy consulting arm of REFASHIOND Ventures. REFASHIOND CO:LAB helps organizations create competitive advantage through supply chain innovation.

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[1] One may think of a value chain as a company’s internal supply chain. The term is used to distinguish internal operations from operations that rely on a network of external parties.

[2] McFadden, Christopher. “27 Industrial Revolution Inventions That Changed the World.” Interesting Engineering, 18 Feb. 2018, interestingengineering.com/27-inventions-of-the-industrial-revolution-that-changed-the-world. Accessed Oct. 12, 2018

[3] Christopher, Martin. Logistics & Supply Chain Management: Creating Value-Adding Networks. 4th ed., Financial Times Prentice Hall, 2011.

[4] Berg, Achim, and Saskia Hedrich. “What’s next in Apparel Sourcing?” McKinsey & Company, May 2014, www.mckinsey.com/industries/retail/our-insights/whats-next-in-apparel-sourcing. Accessed Oct. 8, 2018.


Originally published at www.refashiond.com on October 14, 2018.

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