Supply chain disruptors shaking up the fashion industry
On-demand apparel assembly, local-for-local production, manufacturer-matching and transparency mapping are among the innovative new concepts starting to shape next-generation fashion supply chains. And investors appear tuned in to their potential too, with millions of dollars in funding set to scale them up, writes Samantha Sault
It has never been easy for brands to find new suppliers who not only meet their price, speed, and quality requirements but who also are compliant with health, safety and sustainability rules and certifications.
"Often, when brands want to bring a product to market fast, everything goes out the window and they go, 'Actually, we just need that factory at that price point'," explains Flora Davidson, co-founder of SupplyCompass.
The UK-based cloud-hosted sourcing platform started as a manufacturer-matching platform and has evolved to "a full design-to-delivery solution" for brands looking for new, responsible or certified suppliers, fast.
“Often, when brands want to bring a product to market fast, everything goes out the window and they go, 'Actually, we just need that factory at that price point'” – Flora Davidson, SupplyCompass
By vetting suppliers and standardising the production process, SupplyCompass is doing "robust back-work" for brands, explains Davidson, who previously consulted with Adidas and L'Oréal on consumer behaviours and launched a small UK shirt company, 'Badger Badger,' whose product was manufactured in India.
"You will get your product faster and you will get it without miscommunication, underpinned by sustainability."
To get matched with a supplier and get a cost estimate, a brand fills out the project details on the SupplyCompass website. After committing to the order, they can upload tech packs or access designers, request samples, finalise everything from quantity to testing to packaging details, and organise delivery.
Currently, London and Mumbai-based SupplyCompass has around 50 suppliers in India and Portugal, and since launching two years ago has worked with 40 SME fashion and homeware brands primarily in the UK and Australia.
In July it received GBP1.5m (US$1.82m) in seed funding led by Episode 1 alongside other investors in London and Mumbai. The company will focus on "driving efficiencies in the early stages of the production process" from tech pack and design development, to the point at which the brand places the order.
The next frontier?
For US importers looking to move production closer to home, Suuchi Inc is an end-to-end solution helping both large, established brands as well as startups develop apparel supply chains in the United States.
The company recently launched SuuchiX, a B2B catalogue offering wholesale 'Made in the USA' apparel, footwear, and homeware, available for market within weeks or even days – and in April, announced US$8m in new funding from Edison Partners.
Given such innovation, is the supply chain of the future right around the corner? The kind of supply chain localisation that platforms like Suuchi Inc are creating – especially when paired with on-demand technology, driven either by customer preferences or brands responding to microtrends – may be the next frontier.
“Localisation is not turning our back on our global networks, but creating a more sustainable, circular, transparent supply chain that is catalysed by on-demand” – Lisa Morales-Hellebo, New York Fashion Tech Lab and Refashiond Ventures
"Localisation is not turning our back on our global networks, but creating a more sustainable, circular, transparent supply chain that is catalysed by on-demand – and on-demand that's sourced locally, produced locally, and ultimately, can be circularly regenerated locally," explains Lisa Morales-Hellebo, an entrepreneur and brand strategist who launched the New York Fashion Tech Lab and co-founded Refashiond Ventures, which funds fashion supply chain startups.
These next-gen supply chains would include "small-batch, on-demand" factories, "connected via shared data across a region" with "shared logistics and infrastructure that would connect them to shared, regional, raw materials – so raw materials become your new volume and your finished goods become one-off, on-demand."
She says systems can create "resiliency, transparency and agility, which doesn't exist in current paradigms that are globalised or even digitally native, vertically integrated brands," adding: "You're trying to look for ways to create shared systems that offset the risk."
In the meantime, brands can utilise tech to heighten transparency, such as 'Retraced.' The Germany-based blockchain solution has been developed to help give more visibility into supply chains – and in turn, market this transparency to consumers who increasingly want to know who makes their clothing and how.
After mapping a product line’s supply chain, Retraced gives each partner a mobile app where they receive push messages asking them to confirm or accept each step in the chain: purchase order, order raw materials, enter photos of materials before shipping with a timestamp and geotracking, confirm receipt of materials, upload work contracts, trickling down to the finished product.
When each partner confirms, they effectively verify the information entered by other partners, too. For example, when the factory confirms it received raw materials, it is also confirming the supplier of the raw materials shipped them.
Furthermore, if information is changed, this is documented in the platform – and all information will be accessible by consumers via another mobile app.
Moving forward on innovation
While sourcing or transparency might be improved with a click or tap, tech disruptors agree that human interaction and building real-life relationships is key to successfully implementing innovation.
"Technology can automate some of the onboarding and collection of data" and eliminate repetitive tasks and inefficiencies like Excel spreadsheets and printed paper, says Davidson of SupplyCompass, but when it comes to vetting factories, "the visit will always be needed."
Retraced's Pünder agrees. "If you don't have good connections with your supply chain partners, there's no way you can sustainably implement those new measures," because while technology can make your supply chain more efficient, it can also require partners to make huge changes.
"In the end, there's always a human involved," he continues. "And you need to get those [humans] on board in order to make sure that whatever technology or process you're implementing is actually done well and is actually working."
Headline image: Innovators are helping to create next-generation supply chains
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