Changing textile and other input suppliers may be fraught with difficulties, but it is key to the role of any clothing buyer. And experience and expertise is critical to help buyers avoid pitfalls when making the switch.

"It can be extremely difficult," said Emma Wilson, buyer for UK-based specialist sourcing agency Smartway. "There are issues such as quality, lead-times and monitoring the supplier."

She stressed to just-style that it is tough to find reliable suppliers for small or medium-scale businesses unless companies have overseas offices.

The best way to find a supply source is through recommendations, but as Emma’s client Jules Canterbury, founder and director at London-based luxury maternity and nursing lingerie brand, said: "No-one wants to give recommendations because brands keep that information to themselves."

Wilson admits overseas offices can be costly. "But they can reap economies because you develop the right relationships."

She added that it’s also important to develop agents who "work for the brand, not the supplier – we need the truth about suppliers!"

It is even harder for higher-end quality buyers, who need more attention to detail than mass market retailers. In complex product lines, such as lingerie, there can be "endless problems".

Canterbury stresses lead times, as certain lines need replenishing within six weeks.

And then there’s changing technology. In performance sportswear, the advent of the ultrasonic seam is a major competitive edge, as is laser-cut technology and some of the new Chinese fabrics.

But buyers will avoid Asia if suppliers cannot handle smaller volumes. With production lines set up to handle mass orders, requests for small-scale and fast replenishment of orders can cause delays and worker unhappiness as equipment has to be recalibrated.

Switching suppliers
Building relationships with existing suppliers offers advantages in negotiations, but this approach does not suit everybody.

Munir Mashooqullah, founder and president of US-based Synergies Worldwide, said: "Top-end brands change sources much less frequently. Lower-price brands may change suppliers every three or four seasons, while discount wholesalers will chop and change every season."

Mashooqullah advises buyers on switching suppliers. He said the cost of finding a supplier can be minimal – US$2,000 or US$3,000 for a fact-finding visit, but added that the cost of going with the wrong supplier can be "huge". He warns: "All that glisters is not gold; don’t judge a book by its cover."

It is important to get good local and market intelligence. "You don’t want to end up paying too much for a higher-quality product than you want, or too little for a lower-quality product."

Mashooqullah added that the top-end players are much keener to get involved with regulatory compliance than their cut-price cousins.

Compliance issues
The costs of not doing so are all too apparent. News broke earlier this year that JCPenney and The Children’s Place were among companies targeted by a Rana Plaza lawsuit in the wake of the 2013 building collapse that killed more than 1,000 workers in Bangladesh.

In the same week, the UK’s Primark discount clothing chain announced that it has almost completed compensation payments. Primark has signed the Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh, as has Hennes & Mauritz (H&M) along with around 190 international companies, and carried out building inspections on factories there.

Bangladesh has done much to improve its raw material supply, while local backward linkages can help brands switch suppliers with confidence. Cross-border supply chains can cause delays in countries, such as Vietnam, which imports many textile raw materials.

"These are the issues that keep people awake at night," said Mashooqullah. Yet such issues can and are dealt with by many suppliers who deal with these countries successfully.

Generally, high-end suppliers will control around 70% of their chain he noted, falling to 50% and below with mid- and lower-end brands.

Reputational risks
But of course, such control can only go so far. Mike Flanagan, CEO at consultancy Clothesource, said: "Do people really expect a shirt buyer to check the source of petrol in the cotton field tractor?

"The ‘reputational risks’ aren’t absolute, and are probably overstated. With Rana Plaza, it’s hard to see evidence any buyers have suffered damaged reputation," he suggested.

"What hits buyers is the colossal distraction of fire-fighting the hostile response. That makes the imperative not some philosophy about the need for control, but a pragmatic judgement about what’s likely to cause harm."

He noted that buyers can "change their stance very quickly." For instance, Japan’s Fast Retailing "lagged on all this for years, but has leapfrogged up the compliance ladder very quickly."

Fashion also drives supplier-switching, if it starts to account for an increasing proportion of a company’s sales – especially where this moves above 30%. The drive to find alternative suppliers for staples or continuous products can be weaker.

Nonetheless, Flanagan told just-style: "The default strategy for most buyers is to be in continuous search of better suppliers. Most buyers have a perpetual list of needs that aren’t being met by a current roster."

Trade shows can provide good introductions to top suppliers, and they don’t have to be wholly focused on the fashion sector. Emma Wilson cites sports trade show IPSO Munich as one annual event where many fruitful meetings take place.

Sourcing shifts: Is garment production really moving out of China?

Sourcing shifts: Is reshoring really happening?

Sourcing shifts: Has the trend towards dual sourcing accelerated?