The China sourcing conundrum
In conversations with U.S. and European retailers and brands, ELEVATE – a company formed in 2013 to support corporate social responsibility – finds that apparel buyers rate diversifying away from China as one of their top three sourcing goals.
This is not to suggest that there is a desire to exit China – which currently holds by far the largest share of global apparel trade, at 41 percent – but rather a need to significantly reduce dependence on product from China, owing to rising costs, factory closures, unenthusiastic second generation family ownership, new attitudes about working in factories, and a perception that China wants to move to higher-value manufacturing. Sourcing and procurement organizations feel uncertain, and uncertainty is not a friend of supply chains.
The problem is that for all its uncertainty, China still has a huge base of factories, a well-developed transport infrastructure, and a comprehensive eco-system that supplies cut-and-sew operations, and management that has matured with years of experience. Even if a buyer would like to give another country an opportunity, many corporate risk managers view certain countries or regions as quite challenging for doing business.
South Asia could seize this opportunity by better meeting requirements – besides competitive costs – that are vital to global buyers. These include: (i) quality, which is influenced by the raw materials used, skill level of the sewing machine operator, and thoroughness of the quality control team; (ii) lead time and reliability, which are greatly affected by the efficiency and availability of transportation networks and customs procedures; and (iii) social compliance and sustainability, which has become central to buyers’ sourcing decisions in response to pressure from corporate social responsibility campaigns by non-governmental organizations, compliance-conscious consumers, and, more recently, the increased number of safety incidents in apparel factories.
Surveys of global buyers show that East Asian apparel manufacturers rank well above South Asian firms along these key dimensions, as noted in a new World Bank report on apparel, jobs, trade, and economic development in South Asia, Stitches to Riches (see table). So, what can South Asia, which now accounts for only 12 percent of global apparel trade, do to become a bigger player? An encouraging recent development is that buyers have started collaborating to facilitate new sourcing possibilities – as the case of Bangladesh illustrates.
Lahjung Bhotia is from Hatiya, Sankhuwasabha, a remote mountainous district in Eastern Nepal. She and her husband rent land and grow black cardamom with a third of the production going to the land owner. On the side, the couple runs a small tea shop, selling cold drinks, eggs and biscuits. She and her husband take turns working at the shop and the farm and she claims to be doing okay, not terribly good, but just okay. Her life’s singular objective is to educate her children well enough so that they can work in offices.
In Nepal, the Jagattradevi and Tulsibhanjyang areas of the Syangja District are rapidly emerging as leading producers of seed potatoes -- whole or parts of potatoes intended to be re-planted as seeds -- which have traditionally been imported, mostly from India, to meet growing local demand.
Importing seeds from India is costly and time consuming. Therefore, producing seeds domestically is not only a lucrative activity but also a necessity for Nepali farmers, who are also dedicated to growing high-quality seed potatoes.
The Irrigation and Water Resources Management Project (IWRMP) has helped kick start the sustainable production and supply of this important food and cash crop. Since 2008, IWRMP has benefitted about 1,100 households and contributed to improving agriculture productivity and management of selected irrigation schemes in Nepal.
A couple of months ago, I visited a few tertiary colleges affiliated with the National University in Bangladesh while preparing the College Education Development Project which aims to strengthen the strategic planning and management capacity of the college subsector and improve the teaching and learning environment of colleges. Almost two-thirds of all tertiary students in Bangladesh are enrolled in these colleges, making them the largest provider of higher education in the country.
World Bank report on education in Bangladesh
A recent World Bank report estimates that around 1.6 million tertiary students in Bangladesh are enrolled in around 1,700 government and non-government colleges affiliated under the National University. This piece of information underpins a huge economic opportunity in context with Bangladesh’s quest to become a middle-income country over the next few years. There is a strong demand for graduates with higher cognitive and non-cognitive skills and job-specific technical skills in the country. This requires an improvement in the quality and relevance of tertiary education to ensure graduates have more market relevant skills. The National University student enrolment size combined with its sheer number of colleges network all over the country make it the critical subsector for making a qualitative dent in the higher education system.
Imagine a school that teaches knowledge and provides hands-on training. A place where students express confidence in their skills, and are excited to make a difference in their future jobs. A bastion of confidence and optimism, where 100% of graduating students have jobs lined up before graduation.
Sounds too good to be true? I found this haven at the University of Moratuwa’s Department of Textile and Clothing Technology, supported by the Higher Education for the 21st Century Project (HETC), which is designed to modernize education by its increasing its quality and relevance. 24-year-old Malaka Perera, who is graduating next month, told me how the program has helped him build a foundation for his career. “The program taught me how to deal with people, along with communications and problem solving skills that I used during my internship. As a result, finding a job was quite easy.”
Sri Lankans have enjoyed the benefits of broad education access for decades, which has allowed the country to build human capital to rise and become a middle income country. However, as a country with rising aspirations in an increasingly globalized world and competitive region, the quality and relevance of its education system is key for the country to maintain its edge and reach new heights.