High Quality: Competitive Advantage or Pointless Expense?

Last week we explored the idea of innovation as a necessary component of competitiveness for the U.S. sewn products industry. This week, I take up a topic which has been the downfall of the world wide apparel industry for almost 20 years–quality.

Quality as the Problem

Much has been written on the depressing collapse in quality of the fashion industry, most notably by Teri Agins in her book, “The End of Fashion: How Marketing Changed the Clothing Business Forever.” In the 1990’s, one could easily find well made designer apparel at retailers like Bergdorf Goodman, such as fully lined women’s slacks of a pants

beautiful wool, with each pant seam allowance carefully completed with a Hong Kong finish. As Agins points out, the collapse began when giant conglomerates instead of namesake designers became the owners of major fashion labels. Instead of the designer mandating the quality of fabrics and construction; stock holders, demanding ever higher profit margins; began to cut more and more corners. They discovered that the majority of customers had forgotten what their parents knew–garments can be made with quality materials and workmanship and styled with a timeless look. Fortunately for the stock holders, customers had begun to disconnect quality of workmanship and materials from price. Price now became a superficial mark of brand distinction and nothing more. The advent of “fast fashion,” turning around new styles in two weeks or less, was the pit at the bottom.

Customers shopping for ready-to-wear have been well trained to expect poor quality new styles in the shops every time they go in. However, the manufacturing model which enables this system to be profitable is not possible in the U.S. We cannot pay workers $5.00 for a 12 hour workday in a 10 story factory where the elevator doesn’t work and there’s no fire escape.

Quality as the Solution

We must understand that we cannot re-educate consumers overnight. We also must get used to the fact that there are a large number of customers which we may not be sewing for. We will not be returning to the glory days of textile and apparel manufacturing here in the United States with tens of thousands of workers supporting entire local economies by churning out huge quantities of product.

Instead, we must develop business models that pay workers a living wage to support local communities. New business models must be applied that feature impactful training as well as employee buy-in of the processes and outcomes. We must safeguard our environment by reducing manufacturing waste and avoiding the use of harmful contaminants.  Higher quality materials can be made using innovative processes that increase wearability as well as longevity. Products designed with timeless (not boring) styles can lead to higher profit margins per piece and less waste after consumption.

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