Fast fashion is going out of fashion, but a complete industry transformation will take time. In an exclusive interview, the International Apparel Federation’s (IAF) president, Cem Altan discusses the need for education, digitalisation, higher quality pieces combined with lower production to reduce waste as well as fairer prices to ensure everyone embarks on the journey together.
Garment manufacturer Altan, who is the founder of Aycem Textiles in Türkiye, took over the IAF presidency position in what can only be described as an extremely uncertain period for the global fashion industry.
Han Bekke handed over the baton to Altan on 7 November 2021 when the world was continuing to grapple against the supply chain disruptions caused by Covid’s latest variant. And 2022 hasn’t been any kinder to the sector with a war in Ukraine leading to high energy costs, rising inflation and a cost of living crisis that is making consumers think twice about purchasing non-necessities such as garments.
Altan, who is also on the board of directors for both the Istanbul Apparel Exporters Association (IHKIB) and Turkish Clothing Manufacturers Association (TCMA), says frankly: “The Ukraine war after the Covid crisis didn’t help anyone. Before we had crises individually, but this is a global crisis and everyone is suffering from increased energy and raw material prices and rising inflation.”
He points out that for consumers it means higher interest and mortgage rates without earnings going up to meet the shortfall. As a result, families are minimising expenditure to cover the cost of the mortgage, food and the general running of a household so buying new clothes is the last thing on anyone’s mind.
In fact, he argues: “Whenever there is a crisis, garments are always the first to be affected.”
The cost of living crisis arguably couldn’t have come at a worse time for retailers and consequently garment manufacturers. After Covid, retailers bought too much stock, but now the reduced demand means their hands are tied until it’s sold.
Altan explains: “If the retailers can’t sell their current stock they won’t generate enough cash to buy new stock, which means all countries are having a 20-25% reduction in their garment orders.”
Altan admits that when the orders do come back it’s likely they will initially be given to nearsourcing countries first and then South Asian countries afterwards. However, he’s quick to add the garment industry has a bigger problem on its hands – the pandemic and war combined means garment production costs have risen “tremendously” and brands don’t want to pay the extra costs, which is why he says everyone is struggling.
“In Europe and the US there is at least 10% inflation, but garment prices haven’t gone up even 1% but with high material costs and energy costs the margins have shrunk,” he explains.
Retailers and brands need the suppliers, he says bluntly: “Without them they won’t have any products, so they need to consider how important it is to have such big margins – they’re all making high profits but they need to share some of these with their suppliers.”
Altan is confident the global garment and textiles industry is changing with buying and purchasing strategies being focused around sustainability and digitalisation.
However, he believes the transformation requires a collaboration between all of IAF’s members in over 40 countries, especially given the new European Union legislation that is on the horizon, which calls for zero carbon emissions by 2050.
He points out the IAF wants to be the bridge between manufacturers, brands and retailers. “The goal is to sit at the table and solve the industry’s wider problems together – this way we can achieve positive results more quickly.”
Buyers and brands’ needs are also changing, but Altan states they are demanding too much and when they demand too much it places extra pressure on manufacturers and this includes getting a fair price.
He says: “Brands and retailers don’t want to pay extra for the changes required to take the industry forward but they need to share the costs – they want safe, sustainable factories with good worker welfare. To be able to achieve all of this you need a lot of investment and manufacturers need to make some profits to invest in these changes.”
In saying this, he remains positive this can be achieved but says: “We need to collaborate with buyers and manufacturers to make this happen.”
The big shift away from low price fashion will mean a change in thinking for many sourcing countries, says Altan.
He believes it will take time for garment manufacturers, especially those in Asian countries that are focused on low price fashion, to make the transition within their business model but his advice is to start adopting digitalisation technology now.
This shift also needs more universities to focus on fashion design and technology programmes and Altan is adamant that every factory needs to have an in-house fashion design department.
“Garment manufacturers need to have their own collections and intenational collections so when a supplier visits they can show them new pieces, new developments, new embroidery and fabric techniques.”
This is the secret to being able to ask buyers and brands for a higher price for their garments.
Altan’s philosophy is that if a garment manufacturer doesn’t ask for a fair price they won’t get one, but he also understands that having a point of difference from a competitor makes it much easier for a fair price to be offered.
Nearshoring remains a buzzword within the garment industry at the moment but Altan points out this can only go so far towards solving the industry’s wider problems.
He says: “We all have to increase the quality, provide the added value and deliver design upgrades to the clothes we manufacture and this requires collaboration between the East and West and with buyers, retailers and local design groups.”
Altan is also a firm believer in the industry needing to constantly renew itself: “We can’t do the same thing again and again – we have to bring new ideas into the market and provide R&D with new fabrics. Young people have a different fashion mentality – we have to adjust ourselves to that as well – we have to bring out young fashion designers as they know how to best serve their peers.”
As a Turkish garment manufacturer he’s keen to share the success of Istanbul Fashion Week, which has been running a competition to introduce young designers to the industry for a number of years. The result, he notes, is the positive reputation the country now has for having good young designers.
Altan sees his home country as being similar to somewhere like Bangladesh 60 years ago, which was the host of this year’s IAF World Fashion Convention and where Just Style’s discussion with Altan took place.
He explains: “We used to do low price fashion but since then we’ve invested in machinery with the help of the government and we’ve taken advantage of having raw materials produced within the country. As a result our apparel industry has grown quickly. Our production is not too high quantity-wise but we offer high quality products which means our turnover is high.”
Altan explains Türkiye’s ambition is to increase its value and sell more expensive garments as well as continue with its focus on sustainability, however, he adds: “The most important thing for us is to choose which markets we want to grow – most of our production goes to Europe – about 65%, but the US is our target market.”
He highlights that since 2005 when Türkiye lost its duty-free quota to the US, it lost a big share in that market. As a result, the younger generation of US buyers aren’t familiar with Türkiye’s strength so the wider aim is to raise awareness of its offering to US-based buyers.
In fact, he says: “If we achieve this we can easily increase our exports – US$22bn dollars to $30bn dollars – that’s our target at the moment, but you can only increase your turnover by increasing your quality and design and also by increasing your production capacity.”
He’s proud to share that with the help of technology and digitalisation Türkiye has also increased the quality of its workforce, which is why he believes it’s a good example of how Asian countries can grow and develop in future.
“Our association with universities is increasing and the number of students going into garment and textile universities is almost 100%,” he says.
He admits Türkiye’s close proximity to Europe is a unique advantage compared to Asian countries as it means it can deliver garments quickly.
For this reason, Altan’s advice to his own brands and retail customers based in nearby locations is not to buy too much from him: “I believe suppliers should buy enough and if it sells we can deliver it again in two or three weeks. This avoids retailers making price reductions on unsold stock so we all gain from this.”
Altan believes reducing waste is a mission for the whole industry: “We can all do this but I’m sure that if we move towards slower fashion we won’t need to produce more than will be used.”
Right now roughly a quarter (20-25%) of unsold garments are dumped, but with eco projects and new EU regulations all unused garments will have to be collected, broken down and made into new fibres and fabrics, he says.
“If we reduce our production and bring our quality up it means the garments our consumers buy will last longer and they won’t have to buy clothes they don’t really need.”
In other words, Altan states: “All garments made need to be renewable and repairable which means we can achieve the sustainability goal that we want to achieve.”
Next year the IAF’s World Fahion Convention will be located in the US and Altan explains education will be a key part of it with the IAF providing education programmes in the form of webinars and seminars.
“Our industry needs an
educated and trained workforce and with the rise of digitalisation this is
crucial – IAF’s ultimate role is to increase our member countries’ education,”
By Just Style