Unity Is Not the Same as Uniformity

— January 03, 2017

No matter the lens through which you look, it seems safe to say that we are entering 2017 buffeted by winds of chaos, complexity and change. This is true always; these are characteristics that are inherent to the world in which we live. Yet this moment in time stands out as being particularly notable for its uncertainties. In just a couple of weeks we will inaugurate our next president, Donald Trump. I don’t  need to remind you of just how contentious this past election cycle has been, nor how much is at stake.

How this new presidency will play out for the apparel industry at large remains to be seen. On a macro level, the issues of free trade, labor and minimum wage laws, immigration, tax laws and corporate rules and regulations will greatly impact where apparel and textiles will be made, and by whom. As I write, concerns run high. An article published on apparelmag.com last month quotes apparel manufacturers from around the globe expressing their fears that the new Trump administration will curb foreign imports by raising duties or imposing other trade restrictions; yet others were nonplussed, amused by the idea that apparel and textile manufacturing could return to the United States at any significant scale.

As these issues evolve — and they are big, and need to be closely watched — the unknowns that are tied to them make it all the more important to keep a strong focus on those particulars of our apparel businesses over which we have much more control, so that when shifts do occur, we are not held back in moving swiftly to adapt to them by clunky supply chains, hidden data, piles of unsold inventory, an opaque view of our suppliers and a general lack of efficiency.

Fortunately, we have come to a point at which the advances of technology and the power they have placed in the hands of the consumer have created what we might call the ‘omnichannel imperative.’ Living up to the demands of omnichannel involves an incredible amount of difficult and dedicated work. We may not feel  “fortunate” when we’re in the throes of tossing legacy systems and implementing software that offers one master system of record. But the world has changed, and in many ways, that is a good thing. Consumers are holding us accountable for everything from the working conditions of the people who make our clothes to the speed and accuracy with which we can pick, ship and deliver their orders to the location of their choice.

To some degree, making all of our customers happy requires that we come together as an industry. There are points on which we need to align so that where it matters, our individual strengths are allowed to shine. In an article by published on apparelmag.com this month, GS1’s Melanie Nuce discusses the GS1 US Apparel and General Merchandise Initiative, which focus on three key pillars of product information — completeness, accuracy and omnichannel consistency.  “These objectives involve a standardized way to not only ensure accurate and complete data is being shared, but also to establish one way to exchange information so that it reduces operational redundancies, improves business process efficiencies and creates consistency for consumers who use multiple channels while shopping,” Nuce says. When apparel companies can unite over standardized processes such as these, it allows all players to grow stronger.

Another area where apparel companies must unite is social and environmental compliance. It is imperative that everyone works together to ensure that workers across their supply chains — including their contractors’ subcontractors — are treated with dignity and respect by ensuring safe and healthful working conditions, fair pay, and opportunities to grow and enrich their communities. We are making progress. For example, a new initiative Apparel reported on last month, the Pathways to Promise program, gives garment workers from factories in Asia the opportunity to leave their jobs to pursue higher education. One of the backers of this program is the Levi Strauss Foundation. This is a great start, but there is much more work to do — and not just in other countries. It is also imperative that we come together to make sure that the environment, globally, is treated with care. There will, we hope, be many generations of people to come after us.

Coming together on core issues such as these makes us stronger both as an industry and as individual companies. Unity does not mean uniformity. If we unite in building a strong foundation for the industry in places where it makes sense to do so, we will be more efficient, we will be able to operate with a clear conscience, and we will open up much more opportunity to put our creative sparks to work in the areas that make us unique, and that truly capture the hearts and minds of the consumer.

Jordan K. Speer is editor in chief of Apparel.
She can be reached at jspeer@ensembleiq.com.

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