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Posts Tagged ‘Apparel’

How is this for a bold assertion: All your clothes are made with exploited labor.

That is the title of a recent Atlantic article which discusses what Patagonia learned when it audited the practices of its second-tier suppliers. These are not the firms sewing sweaters or assembling backpacks. Rather these are the mills producing fabric and factories producing components that go into those sweaters and backpacks. It turns out that a lot of those mills were engaged in some dubious practices.

About one-quarter of those mills are based in Taiwan, and the majority were found to have instances of trafficking and exploitation.

The problems stemmed from how those mills found the people to work their factory lines. They didn’t hire workers themselves and instead turned to so-called labor brokers. These labor brokers charged migrants exorbitant, often illegally high fees in exchange for jobs. There were other red flags, too. Suppliers would open bank accounts into which the workers deposited their paychecks, so that fees for labor brokers could be automatically deducted. Workers’ movements were also restricted through the confiscation of passports. The recruitment and hiring process used by many labor brokers can create a cycle of fear and debt that leaves workers neither able to leave their jobs nor to make a decent living.

The article goes on to explain that sourcing labor through brokers is both legal and common in Taiwan. It is arguably necessary for the mills to be cost-competitive. Still it is an embarrassment for a brand such as Patagonia which has staked quite a bit on being a better global citizen than the typical clothing brand. (Check out the social responsibility page on their website.)  (more…)

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Here’s an interesting supply chain problem for you: What do you do when Mother Nature jeopardizes your usual production process?

That may sound a little melodramatic, but it is a relevant question for makers of high-end fashion jeans (Why the California Drought Matters to the Fashion Industry, Wall Street Journal, Apr 10).

The four-year drought in California is hurting more than just farmers. It is also having a significant impact on the fashion industry and spurring changes in how jeans are made and how they should be laundered.

Southern California is estimated to be the world’s largest supplier of so-called premium denim, the $100 to $200-plus-a-pair jeans such as VF Corp.’s 7 for All Mankind, Fast Retailing’s J. Brand and private-equity owned True Religion. Water is a key component in the various steps of the processing and repeated washing with stones, or bleaching and dyeing that create that “distressed” vintage look.

“(The) water issue in fashion in Los Angeles is a big deal,” said John Blank, economic adviser to the California Fashion Association, a trade group. Premium denim “requires water. It is all about that processing. It is the repeated washing to get the premium look. This is what people pay for.”

Southern California produces 75% of the high-end denim in the U.S. that is sold world-wide, Mr. Blank said.

This data from Levi’s highlights the water usage in question.

MW-DJ389_levis__20150409143105_mg

Unsurprisingly, actually growing cotton and consumers washing their clothes accounts for most of the water usage but steps the jeans maker control (e.g., cut, sew and finish) still uses a large amount of water.

So what can a fashion label do?

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The dollar has been on a tear over the past year. Check out how much it has appreciated against the euro over the past year or so (A Shakeup in Currencies, Wall Street Journal, Mar 19).

euro

There are some obvious implications from this chart. For example, if you spent spring break in Europe, you have an impeccable sense of timing. Also, if you are US-based manufacturer counting on exporting to Europe, you are going to be swimming upstream (see, for example, Strong Dollar Stands in Manufacturing Sector’s Way, WSJ, Mar 15).

But if a strong dollar hurts US firms, it’s gotta be a godsend for European businesses, right? Well,maybe not. How a weak euro impacts European firms is going to depend on the structure of their supply chains. Check out this eye candy from today’s Wall Street Journal (Europe’s Fashion Retailers Under Pressure From Strengthening Dollar, Mar 24).

BT-AA741_RETAIL_16U_20150324180606

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Fast Company named American Giant one of its most innovative companies of 2015 (American Giant Guns For Gap By Doubling Down On The USA, March 2015). American Giant is purveyor of T-shirts, sweatshirts, and (most famously) hoodies. We have posted about them several times before. Part of American Giant’s pitch is that they make everything in, well, America. They cut and sew all of their items in facilities in California and North Carolina. This TechCrunch video offers a tour of their Brisbane, CA, facility.

Now one of the challenges of producing sweatshirts in the US instead of overseas is the increased labor cost. Check out this graphic from the New York Times (U.S. Textile Plants Return, With Floors Largely Empty of People, Sep 19, 2013)

cost

Assembling garments in the US roughly triples the labor costs. These are partially offset by lower duties and logistic costs, but they remain the primary reason why a US-made costs about 20% more than an Asian one.

But what can be done to make an American sewer more productive to reduce the labor cost gap? (more…)

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As you may have heard, West Coast ports are having some labor issues. The Pacific Maritime Association (which represents the shipping lines and terminal operators) and the International Longshore and Warehouse Union have been going at it, affecting about 20,000 workers at 29 West Coast ports. (Can’t name 29 Wet Coast ports? See here.) The LA Times has a nice summary of what is in play. In a nutshell, management claims that the union is engaging in a slow down (effectively striking while getting paid, see here) while the union claims that they are responding to safety concerns (at LA and Long Beach) and that management is misrepresenting their position. In any event, what has resulted is lots of delays and a  slew of ships waiting off the coast for their chance to unload. (Never seen a slew of ships? Check out these images.)

OK, that’s all well and good, but how is this affecting supply chains? The sheer scale of the problem is rather mind-blowing. If it were just a question of losing one port, things wouldn’t be too bad. Ships bound for LA, could be sent to Oakland or Seattle. But it’s the entire West Coast. If the goods need to be offload to an US port, that means going all the way to the Gulf Coast or the East Coast. It’s not clear that is an easy solution. Part of why LA and Long Beach are such busy ports is that they have an entire infrastructure to support them. Even if a ship could get to, say, Charleston, it’s not clear that it would do a lot of good for some of the customers whose stuff is on the ship. If a company’s whole logistics system is based on breaking bulk in the Central Valley, having a bunch of containers in South Carolina is, at best, an inconvenience. (more…)

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I have never really given T.J. Maxx much thought. I can’t recall the last time I was in one of their stores, and going to T.J. Maxx has not been an obvious choice to me since I was in high school (and that tells you more about the shopping options in Manchester, NH, in the early 80’s than anything else). But now Fortune has an article singing the praises of T.J. Maxx — or more accurate its parent company TJX, which also owns Marshalls among other retail chains (Is T.J. Maxx the best retail store in the land?, Jul 24). The article is full of all sorts of interesting nuggets (TJX is basically the successor company of Zayre, another retailer from my childhood, who knew?!) as well as laying out seven “secrets” from the company playbook. Some of these are about positioning in the eyes of the customer (e.g., Put real treasure in the treasure hunt) or management talent (Find a CEO who gets retail). But many of their points go right to the stores operations and how it manages its supply chain.

The off-price business is a volume game: selling a ton of goods and selling them fast. The measure of speed here is how quickly a company turns over its inventory: TJX does that every 55 days, vs. 85 for its peer group, according to Morningstar. Indeed, the company is structured to whisk items through its distribution centers and stores—and a lot of items they are: TJX shipped some 2 billion units to its stores in its 2014 fiscal year (which ended on Feb. 1), up from 1.6 billion in fiscal 2010.

Former employees say that the stuff moves so rapidly that merchandise is often sold before TJX has paid its vendors for it. The busiest stores can take daily delivery of product, which employees put out on the floor right away—a “door to floor” approach that cuts down on the amount of space needed for backroom storage. Sources say items typically go on markdown if the turn rate is slower than about seven weeks, which also contributes to the rapid flow.

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Gustin

One of my favorite topics to teach is the newsvendor problem, an inventory model for very short-lived products like newspapers and fashion goods. One of the points that gets made in that class is that variability is costly. Having to commit resources before knowing what will sell means risk and risk may be a reason not to be in the business. But that risk also suggests an opportunity: If one can find a way to reverse the order of things and commit resources only after knowing what will be demanded, then an otherwise unprofitable business can be a profitable one.

That is essentially the idea behind Gustin, a maker of high-end jeans. It initially sold its jeans trough boutiques, which bought jeans at a wholesale price near $80 but then marked them up to around $200. Gustin had to front all the cost of production and then wait for stuff to sell. Now, they have reversed the order of things and take orders directly from customers ahead of production. As the founders tell it on Marketplace, they have positioned themselves as a totally crowdsourced fashion company (Burning down the house that Levi’s built, Apr 8). You can hear the story here:

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