COMMENT: Quality issues in Japan's cashmere sector
Quality issues are emerging on Chinese cashmere
Since the 1970s Japan's consumers - especially young women between 25-40 years old - have had a penchant for luxury items, from bags to shoes to cashmere sweaters, shawls and scarves.
Since the financial crisis of 2008 there are signs that consumers are seeking more value for money instead of paying top dollar for branded products. US consultancy Bain is forecasting a rise in luxury sales in Asia for 2010 of 22% (30% in China), but the exception will be Japan with a predicted decline of 1% over the year.
This decline will impact on cashmere retail sales despite the fact that in the case of cashmere sweaters, companies such as Uniqlo, with a huge production capacity on the Chinese mainland, have been able to see high quality cashmere sweaters at rock bottom prices.
On the other hand there are quality issues emerging due to large scale imports of lower quality cashmere from China, which has changed once luxurious cashmere into an almost everyday item.
The Japan Wool Products Inspection Institute Foundation (JWIF) is the official inspection body for Japan and imposes strict quality control standards on cashmere imports and production. The JWIF, despite its expertise, is only used by a few companies for testing and many of these are department stores.
According to Mrs Yukiko Ishikawa, CEO of Vitras Inc, there has been an "invasion" of low quality cashmere into Japan in the last five years as a consequence of the decline in the quality available from China.
The situation has been exacerbated by the lack of reliable means of measuring the authenticity of the cashmere materials.
Since the composition of the imported materials is not guaranteed, importers are concerned that they may have to recall all their products as their customers (mostly department stores) are very stringent on quality and always require tests in Japan.
Importers do not trust cashmere anymore. It has reached the point when in some cases cashmere is sold as wool to avoid problems.
It is clear that the expansion of cashmere as a less than luxury product in Japan will eventually debase its reputation. This is the reason why the concept of establishing an international Cashmere Mark comes into play, so as to guarantee quality and test the fibres which constitute top quality cashmere.
This vital issue will be discussed at the Cashmere World Quality Forum due to be held in Beijing's National Exhibition Center from 23-25 November.
Even 15 years ago cashmere sweaters could be purchased for as little as US$20 in the US as quality standards declined.
Japan has entered a similar phase which is causing complications for both importers and department stores.
Perhaps if the JWIF had more clout then this decline in quality could be halted and cashmere could return to its former status as a genuine quality product and not have to be classified as wool to avoid being recalled as "not being the authentic article".
By Richard Smith.
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