Clothing firms seek better relations

14 June 2000

15 June 2000 | David Arminas

UK clothing companies are forming a sector-wide forum in a bid to improve relationships within the country's beleaguered textile industry.

Led by the British Apparel and Textile Federation (BATF), the forum will be made up of senior company representatives, including chief executives, managers and buyers.

The move is a first for the industry, according to Ken Watson of the BATF. Retailers that have already signed up include Arcadia, Next, New Look, Oasis, Littlewoods and Alders. Among the suppliers that are on board are Courtaulds, Allied Textiles, Coats Viyella and Chilton Scotland.

Marks & Spencer has agreed in principle to join, added Watson.

The forum intends to investigate five areas of the industry:

• concurrent production development;

• web-based co-development, where retailers bring suppliers into early design phases, rather than at production stages or not at all;

• agile manufacturing, where production processes are brought into line with consumer demand;

• total logistics within the industry;

• supplier portfolio management.

Earlier this month, the Department of Trade and Industry announced a 12-point plan to help the sector diversify and pledged its support for the forum.

The government has promised, among other things, to review the purchasing rules for government contracts, assist supplier firms in retraining staff and give £2 million to help redundant workers find new jobs.

Stephen Byers, the secretary of state for trade and industry, said he hoped the plan would help to create "an industry of the future, and not of the past". It is based on a year-long review by an industry group led by James McAdam, Coats Viyella's former chief operating officer, who said it was a strategic process, not a quick fix.

The industry has been dogged by poor retail-supplier relations, acknowledged Watson, who is director of the BATF's training and educational programme, Apparel and Textile Challenge. Over the past four years, 400 employees from 200 companies have been through the programme.

"There has been some headway made in improving relations, but it is extremely hard in the present market conditions," he told SM.

"It's a jungle out there," said one second-tier supplier who has 30 years' experience and wished to remain anonymous. "The framework for conducting business has collapsed. What is needed is a code of conduct so that retailers cannot force price cuts."

The government's effort is good as far as it goes, he said. "But it is coming at time when people are throwing in the towel. They are despondent and frightened."

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