Lynne Tooms, senior director of quality and sourcing at George, was one of the speakers at Fashion SVP

Lynne Tooms, senior director of quality and sourcing at George, was one of the speakers at Fashion SVP

Textile and apparel industry executives gathered in London last month to offer advice on some of the strategies they are employing to help improve efficiency and gain a competitive edge. Responsible sourcing, nearshoring, strong partnerships and fast response were among the issues discussed at the Fashion SVP conference. Katie Smith reports.

The Rana Plaza building collapse, which killed more than 1,100 people last year in Bangladesh, was a "real turning point in the need for transparency and greater accountability", according to Lynne Tooms, senior director of quality and sourcing at UK retailer George at Asda.

"For me, it's about making sure we're doing the right thing, and we're always better together as one team," she told the audience.

Responsible sourcing 
Work started on the George brand's responsible sourcing programme a year ago in a bid to become "Britain's most trusted retailer". Responsible sourcing, Tooms said, is now a "key strategic part of doing business in 2014 and beyond," adding that everyone in the organisation has a part to play - from the board right through to the buyers.

Transparency should be at the heart of any responsible sourcing programme, she believes. "Transparency these days is not a threat to anybody's business. It's how we can do business better. It demonstrates that we've got nothing to hide and it will actually strengthen any commercial relationship.

"Transparency is about two-way communication, it's about trust. It's not just about being clear on what our requirements are, but it's also about hearing and listening to the challenges that are met within the supply chain."

George's Responsible Retailing programme has four main pillars: service to customers, respect for the individual, strive for excellence, and act with integrity.

Each of these are focused on transparent sourcing - an example being publishing its list of primary factories online - engagement and well-being initiatives, raising the bar with its supply base, and driving social impact projects, such as vocational training for workers at its supplier facilities.

"Responsible retail is not just a short-term initiative for George," Tooms said. "It's something that we are totally committed to. It's becoming more and more important not only for our customers to trust us to win commercially, but also for our colleagues to be really proud of where they work."

With prices rising in China, some apparel brands and retailers are looking closer to home to source their products. Liz Leffman, director of garment sourcing consultancy Clothesource said: "What's interesting is how Eastern European countries have really held their own when it comes to supplying the European market," adding: "It remains a very important source."

In 2010, Eastern European countries supplied around 15% of the Europe's apparel, according to Leffman. That share has grown in the last four years to over 20%.

The reason for this, she believes, is that Eastern Europe provides speed to market, good quality standards and a high degree of reliability.

Having said that, there are some disadvantages, Leffman said. There is a lack of design capability among some suppliers, which she described as a "steep learning curve they need to go up". In addition, prices are still relatively high, compared to the likes of Bangladesh, China, Cambodia and Vietnam.

Leffman noted that companies looking to buy from Eastern Europe should find out what factories are capable of producing and communicate well with them.

Fay Tear, production director at women's designer clothing retailer Karen Millen, believes it's important to have strong relationships with suppliers.

The design-led business sources 60% of its product from China and 40% from the EU, with around 40 suppliers in total. Its suppliers are an extension of its team and are "really important" to the company, she said.

"The bottom line for me and our supply base is that we know each other and we know each other well," Tear noted, adding: "We're open and honest, there is give and take, and we work together, and ultimately we visit regularly."

Supporting Leffman’s view, Tear said the benefit of using two UK manufacturing factories for its Tailored in London collection was “immediate actions and responses”. The company used this as an educational tool for assistant buyers and admin members of staff. “I don’t think you can understand it from a supplier perspective until you have actually been there,” she said. 

Having the same mindset as suppliers is also important, according to Tear. "It's a partnership and we're in it for the same result." She added: "It's all about the relationship, knowing our product, their quality and production, communication and organisation."

Fast response
For UK fashion brand LK Bennett, it can take 12 months for a product to be delivered into stores. But the business is looking to change this with its fast response solution.

The aim, according to Liraz Golan, head of production, is to replenish goods while they are in demand, perhaps before the weather changes, a new trend takes over or customers move on to purchase different items.

This six-week process requires short lead times, quick response and flexibility, and should also help "improve profitability," Golan said, adding that LK Bennett intends to increase its full-price sell-through, avoid end of season excess stock, and reduce the number of markdowns.

"The approach that we need is both proactive and reactive. We need to do some proactive work in order to be reactive," she said. 

LK Bennett is also assessing its supplier base to make sure it has the right suppliers on board to be able to be responsive. "We need suppliers that are agile, flexible, [and] that are on board with our strategy to be able to react with our demand," she added.