As the Turkish garment sector rebounds from the drop in sales last year due to the Covid-19 pandemic, the industry is looking to tap growing demand from European retailers – and consumers – for garments made closer to home, benefiting from its advantage of being the main near-shore supplier for Europe.

With 73.4% of Turkish garment exports in 2020 to the European market, according to the Istanbul Apparel Exporters Association (İstanbul Hazırgiyim ve Konfeksiyon İhracatçıları Birliği - İHKİB), Europe has always been the focus for this near-shoring shift. Also, manufacturers hope that north American buyers will also diversify away from east Asia post-Covid 19 to also buy from Turkey.

İHKİB Chairman, Mustafa Gültepe, explains this fact as “Turkish apparel industry is always cooperative with international partners and this fact didn’t changed even during the pandemic. Post pandemic periods will prove that our industry is able to serve both the European and the US buyers as a collaborative partner despite what the global apparel supply chain is experiencing.”

Clothes designed by Turkish designer Meltem Ozbek

“We are preparing for new business post-pandemic, and to use our geographical positioning as we are in the middle of a big area, Eurasia. As Turkish investors and manufacturers we’re very eager to use this opportunity, at first for Europe as we have the capacity and opportunity for vertical structuring to be the number one supplier in Europe. Maybe we cannot exceed China, but our competitive advantages are matchless for European buyers and brands,” said Haldun Boz, board member of İHKİB.

In 2020, the pandemic wreaked havoc on orders, supply chains, and inventory management as governments closed or restricted markets to curb the virus’ spread. Exports slumped by 12%. However, the manufacturing sector in Turkey clawed back USD1 billion in foreign sales through manufacturing personal protective equipment (PPE), ending the year down 3% on 2019. Strong demand for casual-wear and knitwear also bolstered exports.

A year into the pandemic, retailers are adapting to the new reality, requiring smaller orders, smaller inventories, and fast turnarounds. This has driven demand for near-shored garment sourcing, which plays into the hands of Turkish manufacturers near the world’s second largest clothing market, Europe, at the expense of east Asian manufacturers especially. Exports to Europe were up 14.9% in January to March (2021) compared to the same period in 2020.

Turkey’s geostrategic position means deliveries to the UK by land transport are just seven or eight days, and within a week to the continent compared to 25 days from China. For continental Europe, garments can be delivered to Germany or Spain within two to three days. And these near-sourced supplies may get faster as logistics alternatives for Europe is increasing. Turkey has also bolstered its shipping routes even during the pandemic, starting a new routes from Izmir to Spain.

But it is not just speed-to-market that is driving a sea-change in European sourcing. “Inventory management has become a major issue for companies. They don’t want to be heavy on warehousing, so near-sourcing becomes very important,” said Mehmet Kaya, board member of İHKİB.

Prior to the pandemic, orders were generally larger, even from Europe, whereas since mid-2020, orders are increasingly being split into smaller inventory cycles, of just one to two months compared to three to six months.

Clothes designed by Turkish designer Ceren Ocak

To meet such changed ordering requires agility at the manufacturers’ end, utilising digitalisation, 3D facilities and design expertise.

“We want to be agile, prompt and use digitalisation. In meetings with clients, we show them resampling that is done within minutes via 3D facilities and use our in-house designers to come up with new ranges,” said Kaya.

The sector has started to invest in cutting-edge technology and is tapping into the expertise built up over the past decade at fashion design colleges and vocational schools. Manufacturers are also improving online orders, in line with the surge in use of e-commerce, which accounts for around 14% of apparel exports. The sector aims to increase this ratio to around 50% within the next several years.

Turkey is adapting to growing consumer demand for sustainability and more eco-friendly manufacturing. The Turkish manufacturing sector’s “guidelines are based on United Nations criteria, and are being applied from top to bottom. Carbon footprint, social compliance issues and circularity are increasingly important for consumers,” said Kaya.

Turkey is also tapping into the consumer backlash against ‘fast fashion’ due to the perception of it being environmentally unsustainable. Kaya says, “Fast fashion is believed to be becoming ‘slower’, and in fact, it must become slower. This is the new reality, and the competitiveness of our apparel industry lies in the production of more durable apparel goods,” said Kaya.

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