Earlier this year, we announced that the theme for the 2020 Executive Conference would be “Past, Present & Future of the Sewn Products Industry.” A few months later, we made another announcement (and published an article about it in Behind the Seams) which can basically be summed up as “Plans Change.” The impact of Covid-19 affected all of our 2020 activities, just like it did for everyone in the industry, and forced us to try some new things. The biggest change for SPESA was our inability to travel and host live events, which is why we decided to move the 2020 Executive Conference online.
Nearly 150 attendees registered for SPESA’s first-ever Virtual Executive Conference October 29-30. Around ⅓ of the attendees were SPESA members and other sewn products industry suppliers, ⅓ were brands and retailers (mostly apparel), and ⅓ were representatives from other industry associations, academia, and government. Over the course of two days we heard from speakers discussing a wide range of topics, from economics to politics to technology to sourcing. We embraced our original theme, exploring the past, present, and future of the industry, and highlighted how and why our future now looks very different than we expected.
Thank you to everyone who joined us for the conference. We also want to take this opportunity to once again thank our wonderful speakers for sharing their time and expertise, and our sponsors, Gerber Technology, Methods Workshop, and Tukatech, for helping make this event possible.
SPESA Chairwoman Nina McCormack kicked us off on October 29th, welcoming attendees to the conference and sharing her hopes for the SPESA membership and the sewn products industry moving forward. Mrs. McCormack stated:
“Hopefully, we will get an indication over the next two afternoons where our industry stands today. There is a lot of uncertainty right now, but I believe 2020 has taught all of us so far, that we have to adapt, do this quickly, and that every challenge brings new opportunities. We might never completely go back to doing business as before, but the opportunities are out there and it is up to all of us to find them and take advantage of them.”
The 2020 keynote speaker was Roger Tutterow, Ph.D., Professor of Economics at Kennesaw State University (KSU) where he also holds the Henssler Financial Endowed Chair and serves as Director of the Econometric Center, an applied research center housed in KSU’s Coles College of Business. Dr. Tutterow’s remarks were not specific to the sewn products industry; they apply to every business, every facet of the economy.
He explained the importance of understanding the confluence of economics and politics, even at a high level, to gauge how their impact trickles down to businesses and industry. He also explained how data and statistical models can be used in unexpected ways. For example, using birth rates to predict fluxes in the workforce, Dr. Tutterow presented a realistic and cautiously optimistic picture of the state of manufacturing in the United States.
Dr. Tutterow’s remarks were off-the-record.
Trade & Tariff Policy Update
Nicole Bivens Collinson leads the International Trade and Government Relations practice of Sandler, Travis & Rosenberg, P.A., and is a well-known authority on trade policy and legislation. During the conference, Ms. Collinson provided an overview of key trade issues affecting the industry including the U.S. Section 301 tariff investigations in France and Vietnam, digital services tax, and carbon taxes, as well as other policies that we should expect to see in the coming months. She explained that the Section 232 tariffs on steel and aluminum, combined with the uncertainty surrounding their implementation, has contributed to a drop in U.S. manufacturing output. Overall, her message was that the policies being made and implemented by governments around the world have a direct impact on trade, sales, and production capabilities across the supply chain.
Ms. Collinson noted the Section 301 tariffs on Chinese products imposed by the Trump Administration are unlikely to go away, even with Joe Biden as President. However, under Biden’s Administration, we might see some easing in certain areas and on certain products, as well as an exclusion process re-opened. This possibility is still a ways off as the Biden Administration will likely focus on the economy, healthcare, and job creation first. Ms. Collinson also discussed the investigations and government policies related to forced labor in the Xinjiang region and what it means for companies manufacturing in China.
Devolving Supply Chains
Dr. Sheng Lu, Associate Professor of Fashion & Apparel Studies at the University of Delaware, began his presentation by explaining why it is so important to promote dialogue between academia and industry. “We have the data, we have the model, but you have the real stories, the real observations of what is going on in the industry.” In addition, he noted, academia is responsible for training students — the next generation of industry professionals.
The bulk of Dr. Lu’s presentation examined the impact of Covid-19 on the sewn products industry through a supply chain and sourcing perspective. He introduced the “regional textile and apparel trade and production network” concept and examined the competitiveness of sourcing from Asia versus sourcing from the Western Hemisphere. He also explained his “unpopular opinion” that sewn product sourcing isn’t coming back to the United States. Dr. Lu shared a wealth of data that can help companies understand the current sourcing patterns leading the industry into the future.
U.S. Resources for Business Promotion
The second day of the conference began with Lloyd Wood, Deputy Assistant Secretary for Textiles, Consumer Goods, and Materials at the U.S. Department of Commerce International Trade Administration (ITA). The ITA Office of Textiles and Apparel (OTEXA) is responsible for increasing the international competitiveness of the U.S. sewn products industry through industry analysis, U.S. trade policy development, trade negotiations, and promotion. The office provides resources to help U.S. companies advance their business. Mr. Wood shared an update on the state of the U.S. sewn products industry, and highlighted the enormous collaborative efforts to significantly upscale domestic production of personal protective equipment (PPE).
Mr. Wood’s remarks were off-the-record.
Utilizing Technology in Manufacturing & Products
To tackle the topic of technology, we needed a tag team, so we invited Natasha Spackey from Advanced Functional Fabrics of America (AFFOA) and Arnie Kravitz from Advanced Robotics for Manufacturing (ARM). AFFOA and ARM are industry-leading research institutes focused on innovation and advancement in the sewn products industry. The panel was moderated by Eric Spackey, CEO of Bluewater Defense, who led a discussion on the changing landscape of technology in the industry, the existing research, and where the industry needs to go from here.
Mr. Spackey highlighted the recent convergence of technology integrating into apparel and the key parts that need to be considered. On one side there is the material science piece, which is the foundation of the 21st century materials that will make up higher-value apparel and textiles from which the industry can hopefully generate more margin. And then there is the manufacturing side which is key to achieving a “Made in America” strategy. Ms. Spackey and Mr. Kravitz shared examples of technology increasing productivity in manufacturing and the fascinating advancements in wearable tech.
Digitalization of the Sewn Products Industry
Our final speaker of the conference was Jeff Streader of Go Global Retail. Mr. Streader pulled from his 30+ years of experience across the industry and his current expertise as an investor in the “consumer vertical” to explain what we should expect in retail’s future. Pre-covid, the apparel and footwear industry was inconsistent and saturated. There were too many stores, too many brands, and too many choices, which led to an environment with a lot of discounting and smart consumers not willing to pay full price. This led to constant evolution and turnover of the industry. That pattern will accelerate with the impact of Covid-19 and inventory problems will increase. Everyone in the sewn products supply chain will be forced to rethink their model.
Mr. Streader’s solution to all of this is one with a baseline of a vertically-integrated supply chain. That includes reducing cycle time, being more responsive, and being transparent end-to-end. He goes further to argue that, looking at 2021 and beyond, solutions all have to be powered by digital capabilities. During his remarks, Mr. Streader provided examples of a few of the digital solutions available now and the brands and retailers that are benefitting from them.
Virtual Happy Hour
It wouldn’t be a real SPESA event without some kind of entertainment built in. Many of our attendees stuck around Thursday afternoon for a virtual happy hour (although unlike every other SPESA event, attendees had to supply their own refreshments). We want to congratulate Bert Feinberg, Savannah Crawford, and Dan Berzack for taking home the figurative trophies (and the literal prizes) for being the best at trivia! We plan to host another happy hour & trivia afternoon soon.
Overall, it was a fun way to celebrate SPESA’s 30th anniversary!
SPESA Business Meeting
The Virtual Executive Conference ended with the annual SPESA Business Meeting, during which the SPESA membership voted to approve the following candidates for the SPESA Board of Directors Class of 2023:
Nina McCormack, and
In addition, we announced that the current SPESA Officers will retain their positions for another year. SPESA President Michael McDonald encouraged any interested attendees (SPESA members and others) to reach out if they are interested in joining any of SPESA’s membership committees. Committee members help guide SPESA’s activities, including planning future conferences and events.
Mr. McDonald closed the meeting with a “State of SPESA” address during which he shared his pride for the accomplishments of the SPESA team and membership, as well as the sewn products industry overall. Our industry is resilient and we are excited to see what we can accomplish next.
Overall, we are happy with how our first-ever virtual conference turned out and extremely grateful to everyone who participated. If you have any suggestions on how we can improve in the future or topics you would like us to explore, please complete our event survey or feel free to email email@example.com.