Fast fashion means planning production time and processes well in advance

Fast fashion means planning production time and processes well in advance

While the various modes of transport available to clothing companies all offer a mix of benefits and disadvantages, experts say only use air freight if there is no other realistic option and the speed of delivery justifies its cost with high value sales.

Volker Haemmerle, the Munich-based partner and managing director of the Boston Consulting Group, says the use of air freight can actually be indicative of problems within a company.

"An air freight order could be triggered if a member of staff has failed to respond to an order quickly enough in the first place – a serious 'no-no' in fast fashion today," he says.

Decisions to order goods to be transported by airplane often have to be ratified at board level, but streamlining the decision-making processes can be key to getting goods to market faster.

Nick Banich, business development manager of operations for Miebach Consulting in the US, says that when making a decision on transport optimisation, laying out all options is a good way for a company to begin. When Banich works with clients in the fast fashion industry on transporting goods, he will offer them three different plans so they can weigh all their options.

"We'll see what it costs to set up a supply chain in the most effective manner, both speed and cost-wise; we will see what it looks like if the supply chain was set up in the most service-oriented manner, with speed emphasised; and then we are asked more and more to look at it from the most environmentally sustainable way," he explains.

"We present the three most viable options and make sure the client understands the dependencies and trade-offs within those to come up with the best solution."

He stresses that air freight is okay if there's no other way, but from both a cost and an environmental standpoint, air lags far behind any other mode of transportation.

Building off these thoughts, Haemmerle mentions that decisions regarding mode of transport are "straightforward in 95% of cases."

"People decide on cost, unless there is a clear reason – a definite value and price reason – where getting a product to market very quickly depends on achieving that, and then people go for air freight," he notes.  

For instance, a standard T-shirt from Asia will be shipped. But a product likely to be in vogue for a very limited time, such as the resurgence in demand for Stan Smith sneakers – could be air freighted.

Regional hubs

Haemmerle also recommends that brands source supply closer to key markets to reduce not only time to market, but also to limit environmental impact.

Banich adds that setting up regional hubs is another great way to be closer to target markets and limit environmental impact. He explains that by having these distribution bases strategically located around the world and responsible for packaging, labels and the languages used on product shipments, they can be cost and time effective, and help avoid any mix-ups.

One thing suppliers also have to consider are fixed delays in the supply chain, such as customs clearance, says Haemmerle.

Looking to the future, he says: "We have to look at how to use data better, especially in relation to demand forecasting and planning. In five to six years we will be much better at predicting demand and anticipating where and when it will happen."

The more advanced companies are using social media to gather data about consumers, "but they too need to feed the data gathered from this into the whole value chain and that is not happening yet," he says.

Early planning is key

Kate Hills, founder and CEO of Make It British and UK sourcing show Meet the Manufacturer, says starting the transport planning process early can help to reduce the need for expensive air freight later down the line. "Fast fashion means that planning production time and processes is done well in advance. Decisions about shape, trims, labels and buttons need to be made early."

If products are made and finalised early, this means less demand for rush transportation in order to meet deadlines.

Indeed, Banich agrees that early planning – at every stage – helps a company be more flexible when unforeseen disturbances pop up. He recommends companies have several transport options, ranging from ocean travel to land and air travel, in their "back pocket" to call upon if there is ever a problem with their current method.

"Companies shouldn't be just thinking about how they want to design their supply chain for normal operations, because how often do normal operations actually occur, especially in the fast fashion industry with all the disruptions that can occur?

"I think it's important to spend time looking at the 'what ifs' and planning for all these different scenarios, especially within the transportation segment, because so many things can go wrong," he explains.

Online returns

Logistics are also not only a challenge for delivering new products, of course, as returns can also be a problem. And one UK logistics company is trying to help fast fashion retailers with what can be costly returns operations.

UK-based Advanced Supply Chain launched its 'ReStore' returns service this June, designed to reduce its customers' losses due to damaged returned garments.

According to 2015 data from US-based retail analyst firm IHL Group, returns account for an estimated 4.4% of the US$14.5 trillion in global retail sales, with clothing retailers seeing an average of 10% of their sales returned, the highest among retail segments.

Making matters worse is the fact that only 48% of what's returned can be resold at full price, according to a 2014 Gartner survey of 300 retailers' return practices.

"We realised that retailers were having a real problem with items being returned in a condition unfit for sale – [such as with] lipstick on the collar, smelling of perfume or with no labels," says Advanced Supply Chain company operations director Ben Balfour.

He continues: "Our ReStore service is based at our operation in Holmfield, where we can restore goods to make them fit for sale through steaming out the creases, removing the lipstick or whatever and getting them back in store within a day or two. It is an important service when fashion is so fast these days, with products often having a shelf-life of a maximum of six weeks."

Click on the following links to read other articles on the fast fashion supply chain:

Fast fashion – How to balance speed and innovation

Fast fashion – Why sustainability adds sourcing complexity

Fast Fashion – Tech tools to transform supply chains

With additional reporting by Mandy Kovacs.