While China's position as the world's leading clothing manufacturing country remains unassailable, the increasing cost of doing business there means the rapid growth of its apparel industry may be on the wane. New research highlights Belarus, Ukraine, Moldova, Romania, Madagascar, Tunisia and Morocco as attractive sourcing alternatives. 

This may be the final year the Chinese apparel sourcing sector gains market share, according to Anne-Laure Linget, international development manager at the French Knitting and Lingerie Federation.

However, while its rapid growth phase may now be over, the gap between China and the rest of the world remains massive, with some 43.8% of products sourced for the European Union coming from China in 2011. By contrast, its nearest competitor supplying the EU is Turkey, which accounted for just 12.2% of the market last year.

Research by the French Knitting and Lingerie Federation, which was commissioned by the Fast Fashion London sourcing fair, found that after 20 years of relative stability - excluding last year's cotton price spikes - production costs are set to continue to rise, up 2-5% a year, particularly in Asia.

Linget, a co-author of the 'Worldwide Sourcing Study,' says these issues are set to continue, making China an increasingly difficult sourcing hub.

Added to this, "people prefer to work for Apple," Linget explains, describing the higher wages and better working conditions offered by companies producing components for the electronics giant.

However, wage increases have not hit every market, and there are now many attractive alternatives to China, which offer lower wages and are closer to brands' markets allowing them to save on shipping and work on a fast fashion basis.

According to Linget, Belarus, Ukraine, Moldova, Romania, Madagascar, Tunisia and Morocco are all markets that should be considered as sourcing locations. 

The following is a summary of some of the alternative sourcing options suggested by the French Knitting and Lingerie Federation.

In 2011, the average monthly salary for textile workers was approximately EUR190 for sewing production and EUR220 for textile production. The country is a good sourcing option for suits, jackets, coats, shirts, light clothes and baby knitwear. Linget describes it as one of the key textile countries among ex-soviet states, with well-equipped factories and a low cost and skilled labour force. On the flip side, work is mainly done on a CMT basis due to the lack of quality raw materials, there is a lack of flexibility in some mills, and the country is subject to custom duties of 20% into the EU, and is struggling with price increases in mass market clothing production.

Average monthly salaries in the Ukrainian textile industry are about EUR150 a month. It is considered a good sourcing option for women's ready-to-wear, high-end outerwear, men's and women's suits, shirts, evening gowns and wedding dresses. Linget says the country has a strong sewing tradition, with well-equipped factories, and a number of small workshops. Negatives include the limited specialisation of the country's factories, with no jeans or high quality corsetry production available in the country.

Average salaries in Romania are EUR280 a month in clothing production and EUR360 in the textile industry. It is a good sourcing option for women's ready-to-wear, high-end outerwear, men's and women's suits, shirts, knitted clothing and lingerie. Reasons to source from Romania include a lack of customs duties and barriers, well-equipped factories, good French and English skills, combined with a low cost and quality labour force. Issues faced in the country include rising salaries in the textile industry and increasing prices.

In Moldova, the average monthly salary in the textile and apparel industry is EUR170 per month. The country specialises in producing fabrics, knitted clothing, footwear and leather goods. It features qualified and skilled workers, a high level of technical capacity, a good reputation and free trade agreements with Romania. There is also a short delivery time to EU and CIS countries. On the negative side, the lack of raw materials means they must be supplied by the client, and workers' wages are rising in areas that boarder the EU.

While the minimum monthly salary in Madagascar is around EUR33 per month, the addition of overtime, incentives and some companies' social policies mean the average income for qualified workers is from EUR43-53 per month. The country is a good sourcing option for children's wear, sportswear, lingerie, work clothes, sweaters and knitwear and jackets. It is not subject to customs taxes for the EU, there are no language barriers in French and English, and companies respect environmental and social standards, says Linget. However Madagascar faces a lack of flexibility and reactivity due to its geographical location, a lack of raw materials, and compulsory social benefits provided by companies increase costs.

Tunisia has annual minimum wages of EUR2,350 (US$2,959). The country is the fifth biggest textile and clothing supplier to the EU, with strengths in jeans, sportswear, formal trousers, lingerie and bathing suits. It is able to offer a short delivery time of two-to-four weeks and offers flexibility and reactivity in restocking and replenishing. However, political instability has made many foreign investors leave the country. There is also a shortage of fabrics, energy and transport, while employers are obliged to offer social security and provide employees with transport.

Morocco's annual minimum wage is EUR2,142 (US$2,696). The country's strengths are in women's wear, jeans, T-shirts, dresses, sweaters and lingerie. Its proximity to European markets offers it competitive advantages in transportation costs, pricing and services. However, there is a shortage of adequately trained and skilled labour, while sub-contracting and co-contracting is not yet well developed.