The global COVID-19 pandemic proves to be a challenging time for the fashion industry in many ways. We want to bring forth the voices of the manufacturing sector into the mainstream conversation, and in the Perspectives series, we speak to our partner factories on how they are coping with current circumstances, the need for digitalization, sustainability and more.
About this partner
Established in 1975, this manufacturing partner is based in Shanghai with factories in North and South China and a showroom in Hong Kong. With innovation at the core of their business, they are members of the Sustainable Apparel Coalition, follow the BSCI and Sedex audit methodologies, and their fabric range includes GRS, GOTS, OCS and RDS certified fabrics and materials. Offering full product development services spanning all apparel categories, their clients include major sustainability-focused brands including Ganni, Filippa-K and Ecoalf.
We spoke to Vincent, Director of this enterprise to talk to him about the history of the business, how the Chinese government is supporting factories to resume operations, his experience with 3D technology and his views on the direction the apparel industry will take in the years to come.
When did you start your business? How has the industry and your business changed since you started?
The business was started in 1975 by my parents in Hong Kong. It’s been 45 years. We started off as a small factory making outerwear. In the 1970s in Hong Kong, the industry wasn’t as it is today—you had many small factories making only parts of a garment. We would only produce the lining and then, as we got more skilled, we started making the whole jacket. Now it’s completely changed; all the processes including cutting, sewing, making—except the embroidery, printing or washing that are done offsite—are all done in one single location.
Back then, the orders were really big. Each order was easily 20–30,000 pieces. Many fabrics were, in those days, from Japan. It was all CMT based and the customers would send fabrics to us from Japan. They would even have a pattern-maker and a technician to teach factories how to make the markers correctly. Now, it is all done on a computer and automated. I believe that robotics will be more commonly used in 2–3 years because I can see prices dropping really quickly.
There has been a rise in the demand for sustainable production over the past few years. What does sustainability mean to you? How has this demand impacted your business?
I joined a company in 2005 and around that time, our western buyers started to talk about sustainability, mainly on the social aspects and product safety, including ISO, OEKO-TEX® and overtime wages. Then around early 2010, some brands started to look for organic cotton, recycled polyester, etc., but there were very few brands looking out for them. Most of them were still focused on the labour and product safety aspects of sustainability. And then, around 4–5 years back, the materials side of sustainability—recycling, upcycling, biodegradability, etc.—started gaining momentum. More brands started to look for these, so around 4 years ago we started to make products with recycled polyester and 2–3 years back we started using SpinDye ®.
Many of our customers are based in Scandinavia, who were early-adopters of sustainability, so that’s where the journey started. I think once you’ve been to dyeing houses and especially washing facilities, for example, you’d see why it’s really needed. Two years ago I went to the Copenhagen Fashion Summit and got to see some of the new innovations and talk to many people. Sustainability is also about transparency, and in the end how you can also have a sustainable consumption pattern, and do things in a circular closed-loop fashion. That’s the goal.
How have you adapted your business in this uncertain time? What are your biggest challenges at the moment?
We have been impacted by COVID-19 and some of our orders were cut or reduced for Fall-Winter 2020. We are dealing with this by keeping our costs low, and by continually innovating, but on a tighter budget. Before I would say “Let’s try that.”. Now, I am looking into development costs and seeing the ROI for them, but still looking for new ways of innovation. I have been doing a demo testing of a new 3D system, sourcing for new recycled viscose, viscose mixed with recycled cotton, and also other materials amongst other things, but in a more controlled way.
How are you helping and supporting your factory workers? How has the support offered by the Chinese government differed from other countries?
The coronavirus hit us during the Chinese New Year (25th January) period, so it didn’t have much impact on the workers except that they started work a little later. The local workers started work, maybe about a week late. But the migrant workers had to stay in their hometowns for longer. What the governments set up in the factory and what we, as well as our subcontractors, did was give bigger bonuses for them to come back; we doubled them. For some of the bigger Tier 1 factories, the local government helped to get a charter bus or charter train to bring the workers back. They also helped provide two months of free social security, so we didn’t have to.
I think there will be more help coming along because the whole export market literally fell off the cliff in mid-March. The impact was not just on the garment factories but all the way up to the fibre manufacturer; the impacts have been very deep. I’m talking to some association members and they’re still thinking of ways to help. One thing they want to do is boost consumption locally. We do have a major apparel market in China. The offline market is coming back slowly but the online market is returning quicker.
On the factory floor, we have two masks per day for everybody—one before lunch and one after lunch. We also have hand sanitizing stations and we disinfect the place twice a day. It’s actually a local policy mandate. Before your work resumes you have to get approval from the local government to restart it, so they come and check what procedures you are following and what supplies you have to make the place safe for work.
It’s very interesting to see how different governments are dealing with this especially in relation to apparel manufacturing and offering support depending on the situation and circumstances.
The unique thing is that the virus did not hit us in the middle of the busy season. It was after Chinese New Year, so things were supposed to be slow anyway. For a period of time, in early March there was a fight for workers because some couldn’t come back to work, so some factories competed for local and skilled workers, giving higher wages and so on.
The factories are generally doing okay. They have work, but less work so the workers are doing shorter hours. It depends on the region. In the coastal areas, where our factories are in Shenzhen, Guangdong, there is some work. We got hit but not to the point where we have to shut the place down.
Have you reached out to manufacturers from other countries? What have you learned from these conversations about the global effect on supply chains?
At the end of February, I was looking for manufacturing partners in eastern Europe. At that time, my clients saw what happened in China and how it was disrupting the supply chain, and wanted to move their manufacturing closer to home and closer to their market. As the conversation progressed I had even looked into Canada. As the pandemic progressed, it changed the whole conversation. Now I have to wait and see how this plays out because all the major textile exporters are completely shut—India, Turkey, Bangladesh, Vietnam. In Eastern Europe as well, many countries are on lockdown. It changes the whole landscape of the supply chain. I would wait for a little while to see what the brands and customers are thinking.
And what changes do you hope to see once the pandemic is over?
It’s hard to say what I want—maybe going back to more ‘normal’? I know some companies will not make it through this time, even though local governments, like ours, may give interest-free loans. We have to survive first and then innovate more. I can see that already so many textile companies on the wet processing side are doing many new treatments for antibacterial finishes and so on. We may see more of these products coming out down the road. And I think a quick turnaround is another. I see more innovation on the product side and on the workflow, how to reduce costs because with the Spring/Summer season there is a lot of unsold inventory which means it will hit the cash cycle of these brands, so they will keep spending tight. How to make the whole process more efficient and more productive will be one of the themes.
What technology do you use to manage the design–to–production processes?
We have been using CLO 3D for a year and half, which helps decrease the number of samples. Some of our clients just give us a sketch and measurements and don’t give us a pattern. So my patternmaker will make the pattern and then use CLO 3D to check how it is, so it really helps the process. I’m also trying out another 3D system that will actually give a web front-end for the user to make changes to fabric colour or modifications to the accessories.
I think the best part is shortened development times because you can see how it looks and make corrections to your pattern. If you don’t have a 3D solution, you need to sew something to check if your pattern is correct. So this decreases the number of samples and mockups of placements of prints and embroidery.
In terms of digitalization, I won’t say we are very advanced and I won’t say we are very old-school. We do have an ERP system that helps us keep track of our order management. We are also doing things to cut down on wastage.
Would you say these technologies have helped your business adapt through the course of the pandemic? How do you see digitalization growing further in the apparel industry?
I think it’s definitely helped to have everything on a computer. In China, we are also very used to working on WeChat. On the manufacturing side, we still need people to work the machines, so there it doesn’t make any difference.
I think digitalization will be there. When I go to shows, I see more systems trying to digitize the sewing lines, for example, where items are on a conveyor belt, like in an auto factory. But it still has its limitations, because the key to speed and productivity is in how fast the worker can sew. So I think there’s more than just digitalization that you need to look into; it needs to be human design that looks into the movement of people to decrease time and fatigue. A lot of these systems overlook finishing including attaching buttons, pressing, ironing, etc. Those parts are still very manual and there’s still a very long way to go.
Perspectives is a SupplyCompass series that focuses on our supply chain partners operating at the intersection between innovation, efficiency and sustainability, to help shape more inclusive conversations in the fashion industry. Read the full series.