The British Government is confident that its £1.5m support for a new Textile and Clothing Industry Forum will help the sector respond to the challenges of the global marketplace. But are closer relationships throughout the supply chain really the answer? We speak with some of the companies involved.

Earlier this week, in an announcement timed to coincide with London Fashion Week, the British Government unveiled the latest in a series of recovery plans for the UK textile and clothing sector, promising to help improve its competitiveness by "forging closer relationships between designers, manufacturers and retailers."

Textiles Minister Patricia Hewitt said that a new £1.5m aid package would support a new Textile and Clothing Industry Forum - a government and industry partnership that will work to improve supply chain relationships within the sector.

Ministers hope the new programme will help create industry champions and a solution to global competitive pressures. They want to sharpen up the supply chain and improve its efficiency and effectiveness and they plan to use IT, in particular e-commerce, to help achieve this.

Although five main areas or modules will be focused on initially, it is expected that more will be introduced as the programme becomes established. These currently include new product development, co-development (product development across the supply chain), world-class manufacturing, logistics and inventory management, and collaborative supply base management. The programme will also be broken down into in four stages of delivery, starting from a series of awareness raising seminars, and moving on to establishing and delivering a modular Supply Chain Transformation Programme; Best Practice Groups to share experience and expertise; and the introduction of a system of benchmarking and evaluation supported by an Internet based learning network.

The objective is to carry out practical work in participating companies, to deliver best practice improvements in supply chain and manufacturing performance, and to support changes to current business practices. The knock-on effects are expected to be seen in increased product availability, flexibility, innovation, time to market, stock turn and work-in-progress, as well as reduced lead times.

But perhaps most importantly, the three-year programme aims to move the industry away from a 'quick-fix' mindset, and encourage it to develop a sustainable strategic response that will help strengthen the sector in years to come. Companies throughout the supply chain need to support each other against global competition, the thinking goes, and the industry must focus on the areas that it excels in rather than trying to compete in areas where it will never have an edge.

Working together
It's not a radical approach by any means. But it is one that seems to have hit a nerve with a number of rival fashion and textile companies. Big names that are usually battling it out on the high street, such as Next, Marks & Spencer, Oasis, and House of Fraser have pledged their support, and are to work together with suppliers including Chilton Scotland, Coats Viyella and Acordis on the project to inject new lifeblood into the struggling clothing industry.

The initiative has been warmly welcomed too, with firms saying it is time they teamed up to address some of the key demands placed on the supply chain, including the need for flexible production, high quality, and reduced lead times.

Stephen Frankham, technical marketing director of one of the collaborators, Tencel, a division of the fibre making company Acordis, said the crucial point about the programme was that it would encourage communication within the UK supply chain. He told "It's a good project. It is not going to revolutionise the industry overnight, but it will mean that the entire UK supply chain starts talking."

M&S, which has been blamed for accelerating the industry's problems by expanding its cheaper overseas clothing supply chain at the expense of British producers, is a partner in the forum. A spokesman for the company - which announced that by 2002, 70 per cent of its clothing would be sourced from overseas - said it was pleased to take an active role.

The spokesman said: "We are happy to be involved in a programme that encourages and develops areas that the UK is very strong in, such as design, development, and technology."

The need for action
No-one would deny that action is needed desperately. Textiles and clothing is the UK's sixth biggest industry, employing more than 250,000 people, and providing around 9 per cent of the country's manufacturing workforce. But it has seen massive job losses over the past three years - the latest of which was the announcement earlier this month that Coats Viyella was cutting nearly 2000 jobs as a result of its decision to pull out of the contract clothing business.

Manufacturers, in particular, are under pressure to react to increasing competition from low-cost producers around the world, and have been hit hard by the strong pound, state aid regimes in some overseas countries, and changing sourcing and consumer spending patterns on the high street. And the situation looks set to get even worse with the removal of quotas and tariffs throughout Europe by 2005.

But is an initiative such as the Industry Forum really going to have an impact in the face of such competition?

Stephen Frankham, technical marketing director at Tencel, thinks so. "It will enable us to look at the industry and make sure that it is being properly managed. We shouldn't underestimate some of the things that the UK is good at doing such as design, procurement and logistics. The forum will enable us to look at the things we do successfully in this country and make sure that they are nurtured and maintained."

Chilton Scotland, which buys yarn from all over the world and knits, dyes and finishes it into fabric, is a partner in the Industry Forum. Managing director Nissim Chilton told "We are very happy as a business that such an initiative has been started by the Government."

While conceding that the past 18 months had been tough for his business, in line with the rest of the market, Mr Chilton added: "We can start to address some of the issues of the industry, but we mustn't underestimate the situation. The industry is going through major restructuring, mainly due to globalisation."

Too little, too late?
The initial impetus for the Forum has been driven by the industry. Earlier this summer, a panel of senior industry figures put its weight behind a series of recommendations that included the urgent need to improve supply chain relationships.

This '12-point plan for the textiles and clothing industry', as it was known, proposed to help the sector diversify into higher-value areas, embrace new technologies, raise productivity, offer more help to exporters, encourage British designers to stay in the country, and cope with redundancies.

But in June 2000, when details of the £15m plan were announced, business and union leaders were quick to dismiss the package as offering "too little, too late". And there will inevitably be detractors to this latest Textile and Clothing Industry Forum.

Hitting back at the cynics, Ken Watson, project director of the Textile and Clothing Industry Forum, said: "This project is not a talking shop. It is a project led from within the marketplace that will make real improvements to performance."

He emphasised the fact that some of the country's leading retailers and suppliers have given the supply chain initiative their full backing, through representation on the project team and the steering group and in terms of financial and other resources. "This steering group has specifically said that it wants to drive through change in the industry to make it more profitable. We applied to the government for funding, and £1.5 million has been granted to us to see the project through. But this will be matched by industry contributions over the three years of the DTI funding phase."

He added that: "Quite simply, it wouldn't have got off the ground without the industry's support. And we will not continue to get this support unless it delivers real results."

Industry-led initiative
"So yes, the Forum will make a difference, but it needs a commitment from the partners to realise its full potential. It will address the fundamental issues of what drives business performance, as well as issues across the supply chain.

"It does not mean, however, that low cost manufacturing in certain countries will not continue to be attractive. Our action is to make sure that design-led, innovative manufacturers in the UK have a place working with retailers in the UK. It is the positive and enthusiastic companies that will participate, and it is these companies who will go forward with their customers."

The Industry Forum is also being supported by numerous regional and national trade associations, including the British Clothing Industry Association, British Apparel and Textile Confederation, British Retail Consortium, British Fashion Council, and The Sportswear Industry Federation. Cranfield University and the University of Salford are involved at project level too.

"Within three years we are committed to making the whole programme self-sustaining. The benefits identified within the projects will lead to continuous on-going improvement," explains Ken Watson.

The Industry Forum model has as its blueprint the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders (SMMT) Industry Forum model - which is helping businesses in the automotive supply chain and in other sectors to tackle their own performance issues. In the case of the SMMT, for example, productivity is said to have doubled, and defects reduced by 65 per cent.

And now that the funding and framework has been secured, the Textile and Clothing Industry Forum is gathering momentum. Next week the first meeting will take place, from which projects will be identified, teams built, processes studied, and weaknesses identified. The results will be reported back to industry - and we will follow its progress with interest.

UK companies, companies with a UK business interest, or European countries interested in a similar pan-European initiative are invited to contact Ken Watson for further details. E-mail:

Additional reporting by Deborah Bowyer.