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The Expert Guide to Producing High Quality Softlines in the Fashion Industry

What Are Softlines?

Softlines or ‘soft goods’ are soft products, often but not limited to clothing, made of material or leather including: Clothing, Linens, Towels, Shoes, Belts, Hats, Scarves, Gloves, Bedding, and Pillows.

Softline retailers manufacture or import and sell soft goods, and are often a part of the fashion industry. Large retailers like department stores may sell all types of soft products in the distinct departments related to their use, such as 'beach towels' in the vacation department. Numerous smaller retailers often prefer to focus on just a few soft products, for instance, a store selling bedroom furniture and products may also offer bedding and pillows as a part of their inventory.

While soft goods include soft furnishings for use around the home, the most popular products falling under this category are definitely apparel. The global apparel market is valued at 842.7 billion dollars in 2016, up 5.5% from 2015 and constitutes 2 percent of the world’s Gross Domestic Product. Bearing in mind how large the soft goods market is, SgT have created this guide to producing high-quality softlines in order to help brands and importers assure the best possible quality products and empower them to improve their market share by following proven best-practices and suggestions. 


This is Your Expert Guide to Producing High Quality Softlines in The Fashion Industry.

Hit the links below to skip to that section directly, or keep reading to explore various topics such as safeguarding your quality, understanding the cost of quality, how to manage supplier relationships, ethical sourcing, sustainable fashion, outsourcing your quality and more:

Doing business in the fashion industry is not for the faint-hearted. It is a highly competitive and fragmented industry to work in, and not all brands make it out on top. Brands are challenged to continually stay up to date with the changing trends in the industry and adapt to the changes in consumer demands faster.

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Textiles Social Compliance
Textiles CSR Compliance

Buyers, fashion designers and brand owners are expected to predict upcoming trends, and with the rise of the conscious consumer, explore sustainable alternatives. As fast fashion has drastically increased over the last few years, brands are expected to produce quality products that are compliant in record time.

This ever-changing market increases the level of competition amongst designers, manufacturers, distributors, importers, licensors, and retailers in the fight to survive in this cut-throat industry.

Even though the nature of this industry is highly competitive, it can also be regarded as one of the most rewarding and glamorous sectors to work in. Whether you’re looking to get your foot in the door, or looking for ways to scale your brand, there are many factors to consider.


1.) How to Safeguard the Quality of Your Softlines

How to Safeguard the Quality of Your Softlines

The end goal for all garment manufacturing processes is to meet the quality standards and expectations of consumer demands by producing soft products that are of the highest possible quality.

Due to the highly competitive and complex nature of the fashion industry, brands have to strategically implement effective quality assurance to avoid suffering loss of sales, damaged reputations, and falling behind their competition.

With apparel in particular, going to market in a timely fashion is crucial, as there is a limited window for the seasonal fashions to hit the shelves and compete with other brands, and so quality issues causing delays are not acceptable.

With this in mind, ensuring that your quality assurance is effective is imperative.


How To Put In Place Effective Quality Assurance For Your Brand

You should be looking at implementing a thorough quality management system, including different audits and testing which will assure that your supply chain and factory is capable of producing the quality you require moving forward.

A typical textile QMS should include:

Expert technical advisory from the start will allow you to go into production safe in the knowledge that your planned products will comply with your market's regulations, as well as not suffering from design flaws which could cause quality issues down the line.

Auditing is a very important part of overall quality assurance, as it gives you an advance view into whether issues are likely or not. If your supply chain is long and includes foreign countries, auditing becomes ever more crucial as it will assist you to select suppliers who can be relied upon to produce the correct goods at an acceptable level of quality, while also complying with social and environmental laws and standards. All of these 3 elements play a large part in protecting your brand's reputation.

This is where QC comes into play. Production staff, quality inspectors, or both, will manually inspect products at different phases of production. Inspections start with raw materials, because you get out what you put in in terms of quality. However, soft products will also be inspected during production, and before shipping. Furthermore, follow-up quality inspections can be scheduled on an ongoing basis at pre-determined times in order to assure that no quality defects are creeping in where your products are being manufactured as the months and years pass by.

Consumer safety is paramount, and so as well as testing for quality defects, it is important to lab test each batch in order to assure that the products adhere to your market's safety regulations. For instance, you could be testing for harmful materials, resistance to fire, and fit and function. 

All of these elements together should give your brand robust textile quality assurance, as you are covering all bases from pre-production, through to retail store shelves.

Quality Assurance for Softlines
Quality Assurance for Softlines

Quality Assurance VS QC for Softlines

Quality assurance (QA) is comprised of all the planned, systematic operations which are proactively put in place to produce a product that successfully reaches the quality and requirements of the brand and its consumers. Simply put, you are putting systems into place that assure that things are unlikely to or cannot go wrong during the production of your soft goods, and that a reliable, high-quality product is the result in the end of the manufacturing process. QA is key to proactive, effective, softlines quality management. Without it, a consistent level of quality won’t be maintained during the different stages of production, and the risks of poor quality are high.

Quality control (QC) is not the same as quality assurance. In fact, quality control is merely one aspect of over-arching quality assurance, dealing with the testing of products at different stages of production. QC helps manufacturers and importers to identify defects in products during or post production, but if your organisation has put in place effective quality assurance measures, your QC inspections, while necessary, should be seen more as a safety net in the unlikely event that poor quality items have somehow been produced and crept through.


A Word On The Importance Of Raw Material Inspections

Quality management is an ongoing process, occurring at every phase of the entire manufacturing operation and should never end. It starts at the development stage and ends with happy customers.

The final product is directly related to the quality of the fabric or material received. Therefore, if quality management of raw materials before production even starts is not efficiently implemented, defective, non-performing or non-compliant raw materials are used to manufacture soft goods, it will lead to quality errors later down the production line. These quality errors are incredibly costly and could easily have been avoided by conducting raw material inspections.

If supply chains are in the developing world, how can you be sure that the raw materials going into products are truly of the correct quality? Taking the supplier's word for it is not an option unless you have a very long-standing and mutually trusting relationship. So eve if the factory is able to supply your products, it is so important to assure the legitimacy of the raw materials being used.

A Raw material inspection will inform you of the material's:

  • Type
  • Fitness to be used in your product
  • Safety

In the garment industry, various raw material inspections are applied including The 4-Point System and Acceptable Quality Level.

2.) The Importance of Understanding the Cost of Quality

The Importance of Understanding the Cost of Quality

As the Information Age is in full swing, consumers have started to change their behavior, practising brand promiscuity as they prefer to shop across market segments rather than staying loyal to a particular brand.

Their purchases are driven by personalization, customization, authenticity, sustainability, and quality. Accordingly, it has now become harder for brands to predict their behavior. To avoid the risk of falling behind in this competitive landscape, brands are under pressure to keep costs low while increasing quality, as well as paying far closer attention to clothing CSR and sustainability.

Therefore, understanding the cost of quality is crucial, and not doing so can severly hurt your brand.


The Cost of Quality (COQ)

The COQ can be referred to as the money a factory spends on garment and material inspections, quality personnel training and the cost of labor for repair work to ensure that products meet acceptable quality standards. In other words, it is the total sum of expenses incurred to prevent non-conformance from happening.

It helps your brand determine what the extent and costs of resources and processes are which are implemented to avoid quality issues. The COQ can be divided into the Cost of Good Quality, which branches into Prevention and Appraisal Costs and the Cost of Poor Quality (COPQ) which branches into Internal and External Failure Costs.


The Cost of achieving Good Quality:

Prevention Costs

Prevention costs

refer to the cost of all activities implemented, specifically to prevent poor quality issues. These costs are incurred to keep appraisal and failure costs to a minimum and takes place before any of the operations begin.

Some examples include:

Quality improvement team meetings Quality improvement projects Quality education and training Supplier review Pre-production sample and process design Error proofing Capabilities evaluation

Appraisal costs

Appraisal costs

are connected to the measuring, monitoring, and auditing of activities which are related to quality. These are the costs involved with having the purchased material, products, services and processes evaluated by the suppliers and customers to ensure they adhere to the relevant quality specifications which lead to an improved organization and productivity.

Some examples include:

Product, process and quality audits Supplier ratings Testing and evaluation of equipment Procedure evaluation Incoming material inspections Final product inspections

The Cost of Poor Quality (COPQ):

Internal Failure Costs

Internal Failure Costs

are costs associated with products that fail to meet quality standards which were discovered before the product is delivered to the customer. These defects would have led to the customer not being satisfied with the product.

They are incurred in the form of:

Reworking Scraping Retesting Failure analysis Delays Downtime Re-designing Shortages

External Failure Costs

External Failure Costs

are costs caused by products that fail to meet quality standards and are discovered after the delivery of goods to external customers, which result in customer dissatisfaction.

They are incurred in the form of:

Complaints Returned products Product recalls Retesting of an assembly line Rebuilding of tools or equipment Reordering to replace faulty material Loss in sales/turnover Customer’s badwill/loss of customers Damages in vendor/buyer relationship Damaged brand reputation Production slowdown

In the past, quality managers associated the Cost of Quality with the price of creating quality softlines and believed that producing products of higher quality equalled to increased costs. It has however been proved in 1951 by quality gurus Dr. Joseph Juran and Armand V. Feigenbaum that the cost of poor quality is far greater than the cost of quality implementation and improvement.

For example, if a defect is detected during the inspection process, the cost of rectifying and reworking the faulty garments will lead to an increase in production costs and a decrease in profit. Correcting a defect in the customer phase is 5 times greater than it is at the merchandise development or manufacturing phase.

Moreover, research shows that the cost of poor quality can range from 10% - 40% of business costs. For example, if a successful fashion brand has an annual revenue of $100M, poor quality will add up to $20M each year, or $77,000 for each day during the work week!

Poor Quality Affecting Business Costs

Therefore, measuring your internal failure costs, appraisal costs and preventive costs is the first step in identifying areas for improvement and opportunity to add value for your consumers while reducing costs, remaining competitive and increasing your Return on Investment (ROI).

3.) Managing Textile Supplier Relationships

Managing Supplier Relationships

Supplier relationships, particularly in the apparel industry, can often be complicated and overly formal. Brands no longer manage their entire manufacturing processes alone, but extend their supply networks around the world to keep their costs low and maximise their time, money and resources.

Therefore, managing supplier relationships effectively is crucial for running a successful business and staying ahead of your competition. It’s important to build a mutually beneficial relationship which can often lead to favorable prices, improved availability, generous terms and you may even benefit from the occasional buyback. Both parties’ needs have to be met at all times to foster a positive, long-lasting relationship.

Being in a different country, often on the other side of the globe, can be a sticking point to working with and therefore forming relationships with suppliers, but it's highly recommended that you either place staff in their country or at least visit regularly in order to:

  • Understand how they operate by seeing them in action
  • Personally supervise their work (this may be an opportunity to audit or QC check the facility and/or products)
  • Train the suppliers in order to improve their output - this could be either by educating them with information on best-practices, or by literally teaching them how to create products in a better way

Working with suppliers to develop them is a win-win situation. They feel valued and are able to improve the quality of their output, and you build a better supplier in terms of quality and ongoing relationship.

If you cannot do this, find a local company who can get involved directly with your supplier on your behalf (SgT can act for you in this way).

While it is important to work with reputable suppliers to ensure supply chain excellence, it is just as important to establish credibility with your suppliers. In fact, establishing credibility with your stakeholders is one of the most valuable assets your brand can have.

4.) Why Sustainable Fashion is Important

Why Sustainable Fashion is Important

Fashion can be dirty

The fashion industry, fast fashion in particular, is the world’s second-largest polluter after oil, and accounts for 2% of the world’s GDP.

Did you know that it takes about 2,700 liters of water to produce one shirt made of Cotton? About 60% of the world's total cotton harvest is used for clothing production in the textile industry and is responsible for millions of people’s livelihoods across the globe. The natural fiber, conventional cotton, is responsible for many toxins being released into waterways and the air due to the harmful pesticides used during production. It is the most chemically dependent crop in the world.

Moreover, polyester, the most popular synthetic fiber used to produce soft products, is highly dependant on the diminishing oil and gas reserves for its production. Firstly, it is a petroleum-based fiber, and it requires a lot of energy (a staggering 70 million barrels of oil each year, no less) to produce it.

Secondly, it doesn't decompose, being a kind of plastic, and is also responsible for the emission of micro-fibers into the world's oceans, as they detach and are flushed away each time polyester garments are washed. These account for 85% of the human-made material found along ocean shores and are also being ingested by wildlife, and then humans ourselves.

Additionally, global garment production is reaching its physical limit as it is set to increase by 63% by 2030. According to Greenpeace International, in 2015 nearly 80 billion cubic meters of fresh water was consumed while the fashion industry emitted over a million tons of carbon dioxide. In addition to this, the fashion industry was responsible for the production of 92 million tons of waste.

These statistics are no longer being ignored, and alternatives to traditional cotton and other harmful materials are being used. It is evident that Mother Earth is buckling under the pressure of increased consumer demands and consumption. Therefore, textile production has had to be reassessed and the time for sustainable fashion is now. A few alternative materials have started to emerge in the textile industry.

* All data quoted here comes from previously published literature


Ethical Sourcing

Ethical sourcing is defined as the process of ensuring that all raw materials and products used in one’s manufacturing process are required responsibly and sustainably, while making sure that workers can enjoy a safe working environment and are treated fairly. There are a number of brands going the extra mile to ensure ethical sourcing.

As a brand owner, you need to start considering ways of including sustainable alternatives in your supply chain.

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You may choose to:

  • Invest in your supply chain to assure that suppliers are reaching and exceeding global pollution standards. This means auditing prospective suppliers to assure that they reach stringent requirements for the sake of the environment and your brand's reputation, and then working with them to assure that they in turn are sourcing raw materials ethically, and so on.
  • Use sustainably grown natural fibers, such as cotton, soy, hemp, and bamboo, or even materials made from recycled PET plastic, such as bottles. For instance, Adidas have recently had success by launching a range of 'green' trainers which are made from recycled ocean plastic. The point is that these fibers use less pesticides, irrigation, and other inputs, and that their organic or recycled status makes them desirable to today's consumer who is concerned with the ethical sourcing of raw materials.
  • Recycle old garments' materials into your new products instead of creating new material. For every shirt's cotton that your business recycles, that's 2,700 liters of water saved, and more fabric not going to landfill. The same goes for PET plastics if you're recycling them to make polyester.

Establishing your business as an ethical fashion brand means that protecting the earth and minimizing the environmental impact of your softlines production is your number one priority. Running an ethical fashion brand is extremely challenging, but there are many benefits starting to become clear for ethical fashion brands. The industry is rife with competition, but, working with like-minded individuals including your customers towards a more sustainable future for all is a win in itself.


5.) Soft Goods CSR and Social Compliance: What You Need to Know

CSR and Social Compliance: What You Need to Know

In the past, a fashion brand’s marketing strategy, logo, catchy slogan and its 'Return on Investment' were rendered more important than CSR and social compliance.

Today, CSR and social compliance are no longer isolated from the rest of the organization, but have rather become an integral part of a brand’s business operations.

Why did CSR become so important?

Corporate Social Responsibility addresses the moral, ethical, and social consequences of global business operations in the supplier's countries . Because the fashion industry is hugely labor-intensive, issues concerning unsafe working conditions, child labor, unpaid leave or overtime, worker exploitation, and more have become a concern to customers and industry regulators.

CSR came sharply into notice in 2013, for instance, due to the Rana plaza disaster in Bangladesh, where more than 1,000 textile workers died after the building they were working in collapsed despite warnings over its safety being voiced.

Many large clothing brands, such as Primark, had production there at that time, and there was a great public outcry against the brands, who many thought were negligent in allowing their supply chains to include unsafe conditions for workers.

Although the consumers of soft goods may not be familiar with countries where their products are made, such as Bangladesh, India, China, etc, due to high-profile cases like this, they are increasingly concerned with how their favored brands are making efforts to be socially responsible.

Brands must take these concerns seriously, as information is available online in seconds, and so you can now see large brands like Primark making it very clear that they're taking CSR seriously on their websites.


Who is responsible for CSR Compliance?

Traditionally, CSR stemmed from the philanthropic willingness to do good, whereas today, major corporations implement CSR strategically to gain competitive advantage and increase the company’s ‘goodwill.' Regardless of whether it is simply 'talk' or not, fashion brands are now being held accountable for their impact on workers and the environment by governments, official bodies, and consumers, and are responsible for CSR compliance.

Therefore, it is their responsibility to tend to their customer’s CSR concerns, who have the power to demand that their favorite brands become more socially aware and proactive.

Interviewed in, Gayathri Banavara, LIM College professor, states:

Research has shown that positive social activities by companies are a direct result of the demands of consumers and employees.

Most company Web sites have a tab dedicated to CSR which includes information on the company’s current CSR activities as well as their future plans. And almost all companies at least require their vendors to be audited and have the records to prove it.


an in-depth look at corporate social responsibility and its impact on apparel brands


Social Compliance for Softlines

One of the key steps towards the production of high-quality soft goods in the apparel industry, while achieving company goals and maximising profits, is ensuring that suppliers or factories adhere to internationally recognized standards of production such as The SA8000 Standard.

This standard puts in place set regulations demanding the control and prohibition of:

  • Child Labor
  • Forced or Compulsory Labor
  • Health and Safety
  • Freedom of Association and Right to Collective Bargaining
  • Discrimination
  • Disciplinary Practices
  • Working Hours
  • Remuneration
  • Management System

If the SA8000 certification is held, this shows that the organisation is upholding social performance expectations, and should form an important element of your supply chain auditing.  

However, because garment factories are often located in developing countries, issues such as worker exploitation can go undetected. That being said, there is no way around social compliance in the fashion industry. The unfavorable consequences of not meeting industry compliance standards and working with non-compliant factories will lead to significant reputational damage, loss of customers and sales, and will be a PR nightmare.

Even though set compliance standards exist and working conditions have improved, it is still a cause for concern as garment factories around the world are still being charged on counts of unfair wages, extensive working hours, exceeding local overtime limits, health and safety violations and more. Therefore, it’s the brand’s responsibility to ensure that their entire supply chain conforms to social compliance standards and regulations.


6. Outsource Quality Management for Your Softlines. Here’s Why.

Outsource Quality Management for Your Softlines. Here’s Why

Traditionally, organizations’ business models were diversified, and they preferred to establish themselves as a ‘jack of all trades’ to gain as much clientele as possible. They could do it all.

But, after the mid-1980s a general shift in business philosophy occurred as businesses started to realize that it was impossible to be great at everything and that there is more value in focusing on what they’re really good at.

Thus, outsourcing was born.

Businesses started developing a ‘core competence’ by specializing in a few closely related business areas, and anything that fell out of the ‘core competence’ was outsourced.

The decision to outsource your brand’s quality management processes is a strategic one and involves outweighing the potential cost savings, against bringing on a third-party and the idea of losing complete control over your supply chain.

Although it may seem like a bad thing, this is fortunately not the case, as the benefits of outsourced textile management are plentiful. Because the quality process of manufacturing softlines is incredibly intricate, the help from textile quality providers goes a long way in dictating the success of your brand. The apparel industry relies on various processes which can be provided by quality providers, such as laboratory testings, inspections, CSR audits or QMS audits which ensure the high-quality production of soft goods.

Specialized Softline Quality Provider vs. Generalist

When looking to hire the services of a third-party quality provider, you need to establish whether you want to work with a specialist or a generalist. Specialists provide quality control processes specific to the type of softlines you manufacture while a generalist's services cover a broader scope.

What to look for in a Quality Provider for Your Softlines?

We’ve explored the many benefits of outsourcing your quality management, and we’ve established that specialists will provide the most bang for your buck. Now we’re going to help you determine what you should be looking for in a quality provider for your softlines to help you achieve the best quality results for your brand and meets your brand’s quality expectations and requirements efficiently.

Taking into account that quality management requirements are specific to each brand, there are a number of factors to consider when looking for your perfect fit:

  • The quality of their resources
  • Their time zone
  • The extent of their outsourcing experience
  • Their equipment and infrastructure
  • Customer reviews and feedback

And there you have it, your expert guide to Softlines production. We’ve explored the key points importers must focus on to gear your soft goods production towards growth, success and, most importantly, optimum quality.

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