This year's ASBCI conference was given the theme 'Flip-flops or Fleeces? Weathering an unpredictable fashion climate' and discussed how extreme weather, environmental issues and economic downturn are forcing the apparel industry to face new trading realities. Joe Ayling reports.

The global fashion climate came under the spotlight at the 15th Annual Industry Conference of the ASBCI (Association of Suppliers to the British Clothing Industry) - against a backdrop of changing weather patterns and an unsettled economy.

The subsequent effects are far reaching, because all these factors are interlinked, as just-style learnt at the event, which was held in Rugby this year.

With the conference opened by a meteorologist, who was followed by a chief economist, it soon became clear that the correlation between money and sun is a close one.

While long-term climate change has resulted in more sustainable business models for fashion firms, fluctuations in weather continue to govern retail sales.

Added to this, consumers are also tuning into the environmental impact of climate change and making ethical decisions themselves.

Meanwhile, a major cause of climate change - excess oil consumption - has its own repercussions in the truly global fashion supply chain.

Search for the silver lining
Royal Meteorological Society (Rmets) chief executive Paul Hardaker addressed the 150 ASBCI delegates by confirming their worst fears: that it is too late to reverse climate change - for now.

Indeed, Rmets works on the premise that sustainable measures taken today will take 50-100 years to take an effect.

As for the damage done by greenhouse emissions so far, Hardaker says Rmets expects global temperatures to rise an average 2-5°C by 2010, and a significant change by 2050 will lead to more extreme weather events such as flooding and heat waves.

With the pressures of global warming on a knife-edge, fashion firms will doubtless face continued pressure from consumers and business to become greener too.

In addition, short-term weather fluctuations continue to influence sales trends, with the retail moguls running Topshop and Marks & Spencer both citing the poor weather conditions on the UK high street last year.

They will be relieved to hear that this summer's UK forecast is for less rain and slightly enhanced temperatures.

The very emergence of weather service providers to the retail sector, such as the Met Ofiice, MeteoGroup, Metra and Weather Informatics, are a telling sign of its impact.

Pollution is not the only by-product of excess oil usage of course, and Adam Chester, chief economist to the Bank of Scotland Treasury, outlined the financial implications of rising oil costs at the event.

And while Brazil, Russia, India and China (BRIC) are managing to escape with booming GDP growth - China's GDP grew around 11% last year - US and other European markets are suffering amid rising commodity prices and a challenging retail sector.

Chester says that with the average developed market household seeing a downturn in disposable income, and 50% of expenditure dedicated to non-discretionary items, the fashion sector is left in a "volatile" state.

"The retail environment over the next 6-12 months is likely to be a challenging one," he says.

However, Chester also adds that the weather could actually have a bigger effect on clothing and footwear sales than the economy itself.

Buyers following forecast
Marks & Spencer's head of women's wear buying, Annette Browne, explained to delegates how adapting for the weather and keeping to set lead times can be a fine balancing act.

She says: "If we look at some of the challenges on a day-to-day basis, not only have we got those to deal with, but now we've got the weather to deal with as well.

"One of the biggest things from the buying and design point of view is about reacting to trends.

"We have to get the trends right - that's the most important thing - and buying closer to the season is an important way that we do that.

She says "pricing architecture" and value are becoming more important to the consumer, due to a change in the UK economy and in the landscape of British retail.

Indeed, fast fashion retailer Primark is breathing down the neck of M&S by becoming the UK's second largest retailer.

However, Browne points out that the fast fashion model employed by the likes of Primark is not the way M&S does business.

She says: "It is not about cheap prices, and a phrase that [CEO] Stuart [Rose] often uses is "price times quality equals value" and that's very much what the Marks & Spencer sourcing strategy is about.

"It's about selling stuff and giving our customers the best products at the best value - and that's not just about cheap prices."

Primark, on the other hand, is weathering the storm by selling items with low mark-ups at big volumes.

Therefore, clothing retailers in the UK are tackling the market in very different but equally successful ways.

And while economic uncertainty is expected to stabilise towards the end of the decade, unusual weather patterns could be a long-term consideration for fashion buyers.

The annual ASBCI forum has once again thrown up some interesting challenges for fashion businesses. And although it is probably too late to fix the roof while the sun shines, there is ample opportunity for running repairs.

By Joe Ayling, news editor.