As its name suggests, the lifeblood of the fast fashion industry is, largely, speed to market - meaning that in many cases, traditional, weeks-long methods of shipping garments via sea or truck are no longer making the grade.

Fast fashion brands such as (H&M, Zara, Forever 21 and Topshop rely on the air cargo industry to ship products quickly to stores around the world, according to a spokesperson from the International Air Transport Association (IATA).

Air deliveries can mean clothing often arrives in top condition since air freight can provide humidity control and dust protection. It also allows for accurate and flexible allocations of inventory and the ability to source and sell globally with no time constraints, particularly useful for online sales.

However, while shipping garments by air allows brands to renew their collections almost every week, demand is limited by cost.

According to the World Bank, air freight is typically priced four to five times that of road transport and 12-16 times that of sea transport, ranging from US$1.50 to US$4.50 per kilogramme (kg), while the value of air cargo typically exceeds US$4 per kg.

"Most brands try to minimise...air freight to where it adds genuine value - few are 100% air freight," says Simon Pearson, a China-based supply chain consultant, head of Simon Pearson & Associates. "It's a simple economic question of whether the extra speed buys you a financial benefit that offsets the significant increase in freight costs."

"Best-in-class" brands, he says, try to achieve a balanced supply base mix to optimise on cost and speed to market. This might mean paying slightly more for quick response items that are near-sourced and leveraging low-cost sources for everyday essentials.

Leigh Sparks, a professor of retail studies at the University of Stirling in Scotland, adds that overall, the most cutting-edge, time sensitive and fashion-oriented garments are most commonly expedited by air. "Air freight makes sense when you have high value - low volume, or where to keep the brand promise, you need [certain garments] to be in stock," he explains.

But these air freight costs are often built in to the price of such in-demand garments, says Vineet Sethi, India-based senior management consultant of the TBM Consulting Group.

Brands choosing air freight have to have a very good understanding of domestic and international sales, and of the demand curve.

The financial case
Sparks agrees that good data, communications and "understanding effects" make the financial case clear for buyers. "Rather than thinking about the value of the goods on the plane, the question is the value of the sales that will be met or lost by other [transportation] choices," he says.

Brands should also consider the proximity of a warehouse to retail stores when deciding on transportation modes. "For Zara, air freight is more relevant from warehouse to its [retail] stores," says retail expert Felipe Caro, an associate professor at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) Anderson School of Management.

Caro has extensively researched Spanish fast fashion giant Zara's supply chain. "If they can reach a store in two days by truck, they will send things that way - if not, they will send garments by plane, so they can reach the store in 48 hours," he adds.

Aside from the most time-sensitive items, however, inbound shipments from factories to warehouse do not involve much air freight - in fact, about 60% of Zara's shipments from factory to distribution centres are sent by sea, says Caro.

According to Caro, for fast fashion brands moving "organically" into international markets, integrating air freight into the supply chain is much easier than for a retailer that already serves a certain market and then decides to make the switch to shipments by air.

"When you already have a market position, you don't want to drive up the price - but when you're growing organically, you know you'll be using a lot of air freight," he says. "When [Zara] enters a new region, they take into account market conditions and what are the additional costs to get [garments] there within 48 hours. The initial shipping cost is taken into account in cost calculations and reflected into the price at the end."

Tailored services
To aid retailers with their air freight needs, there are several freight companies increasingly tailoring services specifically to the time-sensitive fashion industry.

Germany-based Logwin, for instance, provides retailers with individualised services and value-added packing solutions such as placing items on hangers, and labelling and bagging. Also, UK-based Ligentia Air has direct contact with major carriers to secure guaranteed space allocation and consistent freight costs throughout the year - catering specifically to fast fashion.

UK-based IAG Cargo offers a range of tailored solutions, including its 'perform' product line, which allows customers to book in advance for an airport-to-airport service, along with its 'prioritise' line, which targets high value and urgent shipments, allowing for late cut-off and early collection times.

John Cheetham, regional commercial manager for Asia-Pacific and India at IAG Cargo, says his company is also continuing to develop handling facilities at London Heathrow Airport and Adolfo Suárez Madrid-Barajas Airport to help ensure fast handling and improved lead times for customers. 

Cheetham says brands that work with airlines on regular shipments tend to get the best value out of air freight. "In response to the rise of online retail, we are seeing bigger players move towards worldwide distribution centres," he says. "These bases are set up much closer to the markets where the garments are needed, meaning that flight times are much shorter."

That said, Cheetham agrees aviation has added complexity to the distribution chain.

"If a London retailer sources its products in Asia, for example, it often needs to ship its product en masse to its London distribution centres before re-exporting those garments that have been bought abroad," he says. "This is a big issue for retailers as it drives up both costs and their carbon footprints."

And that can be a green marketing problem.

Sustainability issues
 "[Air freight] is the worst transport mode in terms of sustainability, and at some point it may damage brand value - therefore, some brands are quite reluctant to use it," says Xavier Farrés, a supply chain consultant in Spain at Miebach Consulting [Germany].

IATA is nonetheless optimistic, especially when it comes to using air freight to serve emerging markets. "Even though retailers are carefully planning in advance to ship most of their collections by sea freight, air cargo remains key to rapidly adapt them to customers' desires and competitors' moves," says the IATA spokesperson.

And the air cargo industry is working towards cutting transit times (IATA wants a 48-hour reduction by 2020), which the international organisation says would make air transportation even more attractive to fashion retailers. This is being achieved by collaboration with customs agencies worldwide and the spread of electronic clearance systems, explains the IATA spokesperson.

Cheetham adds that demand would also be boosted by next-generation aircraft with more capacity on key trade lanes; increased fuel-efficiency; innovation in specialist services for the fashion industry; and declining air freight costs.

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