The trend towards the dual sourcing of garments has accelerated since the middle of the last decade.

The dual sourcing pattern involves initial volumes being sought in the east, with lead times of up to three months, and replenishment from locations closer to the consumer, within weeks or even days.

It has been facilitated by the end of World Trade Organization (WTO) mandated import quotas from January 2005, and the improved flow of electronic information replacing previously cumbersome exchanges of paperwork.

For European fashion retailers such as Zara, Hennes & Mauritz (H&M) and Next, fast-track sourcing has focused on Turkey, North Africa and the eastern and southern periphery of the European Union (EU). Meanwhile their US counterparts, such as the PVH Corporation, owner of Tommy Hilfiger and Calvin Klein, have mostly turned to Mexico, Central America or Haiti.

"I would agree that by now most of our members have nearshore production that is faster turn but also in Asia, where they put in larger orders for the longer run," said Julia Hughes, president of the United States Fashion Industry Association (USFIA). "The main driver is that you are trying to pick your prints and colours at the very last minute to meet what’s driving consumers to buy at your stores."

Hughes says fast-track garments made in Mexico are typically brought by truck to US retailers’ distribution centres in Texas or along the border, allowing for lead times that are significantly shorter than for garments manufactured in Asia.

She stressed there are many reasons to opt for dual supply chains.

The biggest risk to US fashion retailers this year was the serious delay of shipments due to labour disputes disrupting cargo throughout all of the US’s 29 West Coast ports. These ports handle nearly half of all US maritime trade and more than 70% of the country’s imports from Asia.

"Many of our members had hedged against such risks by having plans for some products to go to East Coast ports in the first place; of course, this sort of risk management affects their sourcing decisions as well," she explained.

Upstream fabric supply
While clothing factories around the world are highly adaptive in terms of cut, sew and packaging, the greatest challenge for a garment dual supply chain is a continually adequate fabric supply, because retailers’ initial inventory and the fast response replenishment should be produced from the same fabric.

The lengthy nature of weaving and knitting processes lends itself to the rule of thumb, ‘the further upstream in the textile industry, the longer the lead times’. This phenomenon has complicated fast-track sourcing in locations without strong backward linkages for raw materials.

"Garment retailing is a business that has become very profitable in recent years if you get it right, and fast response facilitated by a dual supply chain helps you to get it right," said Bart MacCarthy, a professor of operations management at the UK’s Nottingham University Business School. "But successful dual sourcing depends on who is in control of your upstream supply and on how close you are to the manufacturer."

According to MacCarthy’s observations, these challenges have accelerated a general trend of retailers and manufacturers interacting directly with each other rather than through agents, and retailers setting up their own buying offices in the garment manufacturing countries.

He added that the raw material dilemma puts Turkey at an advantage versus European retailers’ other fast-track locations. The country has substantial domestic production of cotton and artificial fibres, relatively good labour conditions, and a preferential customs agreement in place with the EU.

European production base
Having major retailers including Zara, Mango, Topshop, Next, River Island, Everlast, Pierre Cardin and Nike relying on Turkish manufacturers for fast-track sourcing, Turkey is emerging as a base for European production, winning out over production countries that are dependent solely on garments.

"Turkey has a potential in this industry thanks to its advantages in the geographical location, raw materials production and trained workforce," said Yaprak Yilmaz, director of Londonist Textile Agency, a UK-based textile sourcing company that connects international fashion brands to garment manufacturing companieslocated in Turkey.

She continued: "In the medium term, with decreasing lead times, a better quality/price ratio and the creation of brands, Turkey willcontinue to be one of the most competitive textile and clothing industries in the world."

Illustrating how mainstream a practice fast-track sourcing has become, Yilmaz identified the successful implementation of the Quick Response Manufacturing (QRM) model, which entails ever-shorter internal and external lead times as being "vital to the future of the Turkish clothing and textile manufacturing industry."

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