Even though China continues to dominate the apparel supply chain, the 'China plus' strategy and the search for alternative production bases seem set to occupy industry executives in the years ahead.

"Most companies are not putting all of their eggs in one basket; they're looking at China plus one, China plus two, China plus five," notes Julia Hughes, president of the United States Association of Importers of Textiles and Apparel (USA-ITA).

Speaking to industry executives at the Prime Source Forum in Hong Kong she adds: "China's a major producer, but it's not the only producer."

Christophe Degoix, president of The Sourcing Committee at the French Chamber of Commerce and Industry in Hong Kong, agrees. "I think we're really at a turning point on the sourcing side and it's going to be extremely exciting over the next couple of years for all of us in the industry.

"More and more we are talking about 'China plus' strategy, and 'what is the next China'?"

The answer, it seems, depends a lot on "what business you're running, what products you're sourcing, how big your order is," explains Veit Geise, VP of Asia Sourcing at VF Asia Ltd.

"My business is jeanswear and imagewear, so for jeanswear I do 8% of my business in China. Roughly half is in Bangladesh and any other country that's cheaper than China. But when you look at my colleague who does the footwear, he's largely dependent on China, not for lack of trying but for lack of alternatives."

So what are the options?

Faced with rising wages, a slowdown in the availability of labour, and government policy that is increasingly unfriendly towards high labour content, low value industries, consensus among industry executives seems clear that China's many other advantages mean it will continue to be key to apparel sourcing strategies.

The alternative countries to make up a balanced supply chain, however, are less clear-cut. 

Ranjan Mahtani, CEO of the Epic Group, a woven apparel manufacturer that operates out of Bangladesh and Vietnam, says that "even in Vietnam we face an average increase in wages of 25-30% every year, in spite of which getting labour is a tall order, and we are being pushed to relocate our factories into the interior of the country where labour is under less pressure."

Likewise in Bangladesh, where there is a huge workforce, " in the last four to six months we've seen a 40% wage increase, and big question marks on the availability of utilities and the infrastructure required to handle the phenomenal growth this country is experiencing in the apparel sector."

And in India, there are multiple threats to the country's pool of cheap and abundant labour, according to Chandrima Chatterjee, director of compliance, economic and consultancy at the Apparel Export Promotion Council.

Economic growth has led to higher wages and inflation, she explains, while the National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme has contributed to a slowdown in the use of migrant labour in production clusters as well as a 25% rise in wages over the last two years. Furthermore, India's cotton-centric apparel centre has been hurt by rising cotton prices.

The fact there is no integrated supply chain in South East Asia also presents a major challenge.

"We are hearing of the shift of business from China to countries like Vietnam, Cambodia, Bangladesh and Indonesia, but the reality check is that a major part of the textiles come from China. Where are we going to get them from if not China?" asks Mahtani.

"If you're looking for a full integrated supply chain in South East Asia you have very few options," agrees Mr RJ Gurley, director of the VALUE project at Nathan Associates. He points out that while Cambodia has over 350 garment factories, it has "no yarn, no mills."

The region as a whole, though, is a very attractive source for textiles and apparel, and the government and private sector are working to create a single market and single production base by 2015. In particular, the Source ASEAN Full Service Alliance (SAFSA), which was launched in 2009, is partnering garment factories and textile mills in the region to form 'virtually vertically integrated factories' that offer an alternative garment supply chain.

"I believe that they will provide an alternative; not some place to go instead of China, but some place to go in addition to China," he says.

For Stephen Forte, managing director of global sales at thread maker Coats, the future lies in proximity.

"It's going to be a little less about getting massive boats of containers in from China or somewhere else cheap, and a bit more about getting the relevant product on the shelves quickly so the sell-through is better."

But how much is the price of speed worth? asks VF Asia's Geise. "If you have commodity basics, speed becomes a secondary issue after price. But if you deliver to a high fashion retail chain then speed is the predominant item, and if you need to gear up for speed tools like vendor managed inventory then China is, in my view, the most developed country for those things." 

Looking ahead, the solutions are likely to lie further and further afield. Could be Africa be the new frontier? Certainly not in the next decade, executives seem to agree, but it's definitely one to watch.

"They have natural resources on the footwear side to produce leather, they've proved they can produce cotton, but I think [movement into Africa is] a long term process," says Kevin Burke, president and CEO of the American Apparel and Footwear Association (AAFA).