5 ways one apparel manufacturer found its relevance to society during COVID-19

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Edgar Tung

The COVID-19 pandemic has created a perfect storm, unprecedented for the apparel manufacturing industry.

A well-constructed, agile supply chain might have protected some industry players from the initial supply shock. But as the virus travelled across continents, very few market players have been spared the demand shock, as the shutters closed on brick and mortar stores.

In times of adversity, it is easy for businesses to press the panic button, taking frantic measures and seeking quick-profiting opportunities. To no avail.

The fact is that profits have become secondary, and that’s because business as usual is no longer usual.

The upside to that situation is that there is ample time to reflect, and to search for the answer to: why should your business even exist?

Manufacturers and other industry players who seize the day by doing so will have a much better prognosis post crisis, if not during.

A great enterprise proves its relevance to society during times of crisis

When the pandemic was beginning to take hold in early February, Esquel Group, one of the world’s largest shirtmakers, delved into completely unfamiliar territory, researching and carrying out the production of reusable face masks.

In three months, the Hong Kong-based company manufactured over 30 million masks, in some sense equivalent to one billion single-used masks given that each could stand 30 washes.

It was proven to be a well-timed response to the desperate mask shortage worldwide, and one that kept its workers in a job whilst also creating values for the wider community.

The company’s ‘5 Es’ strategy was a big part of its journey to find its relevance in face masks. The 5 Es comprised Ethics, Environment, Exploration, Excellence and Education.

They can serve as a guide for any industry player escaping a storm.

Here are the key takeaways:

Ethics: Build trust by making promises that you can keep

Trust yields long-term rewards. It might be tempting, and indeed easy, to make fancy promises when facemasks, or anything else, are suddenly a much-sought-after commodity. But if you have a greater purpose in mind, you will do well to stay away from marketing gimmicks and focus instead on being honest with customers.

Be clear about what you can do. For instance, a reusable mask is not a medical-grade mask. It is a tool for hygiene and wellness and fit for general purpose, but it is not to be worn in a high-risk environment.

Ethics was the watchword as we pivoted to making face masks, from research and development to marketing and retailing. It reminded the team against going down the wrong route to sacrifice quality and transparency at the expense of efficiency.

Environment: Always calculate the cost of each action on the environment

With the pandemic taking lives and wreaking havoc on the global economy, the urgency to protect our planet has slipped down the pecking order. But the planet won’t thank us for the daily disposal of billions of used surgical masks.

Facebook’s mantra of “move fast and break things” might not be the way traditional industries such as apparel manufacturing want to operate. And yet the so-called “tech way” is not exclusive to Silicon Valley; it becomes more widely helpful in times of crises.

In fact, environmental groups have already warned about the devastating effect they could have on marine life since surgical masks – largely made of polypropylene – do not simply disappear. Left to their own devices, they will slowly break down into microplastic and enter the food chains.

A good solution should not create more problems than it solves. The idea of creating reusable masks was Esquel’s answer to the plastics problem while protecting the health and well-being of people.

Exploration: Move fast and break things

Facebook’s mantra of “move fast and break things” might not be the way traditional industries such as apparel manufacturing want to operate. And yet the so-called “tech way” is not exclusive to Silicon Valley and becomes more widely helpful in times of crises.

This is because all sorts of companies – not just tech ones – suddenly have a vested interest in challenging the status quo; namely that of getting on a path towards change. The research and development team has to step up, and competing, collaborating and bringing new products to the market becomes more important than ever.

Esquel’s journey of creating reusable masks was a bit like running a startup within a company, with lots of unknowns and the measurement of outcome yet to be defined at the beginning.

It is a good example of how innovation is the key cog to moving the three interlinking processes of discovery, experimentation and optimization.

In this case, the latter three encompassed, for instance, the design of ear loops and the establishment of the necessary production lines, achieved by rechanneling the existing energies of the shirtmaker’s garment-producing capacity.

Excellence: Push the boundaries to the limit

When it comes to delivering real business values in uncharted territory, one of the biggest challenges is to strive for excellence without getting stuck chasing perfection.

You might be tempted to wait until your product is perfectly ready to hit the market, only to realise the moment has gone. Striving for excellence can indeed involve pushing the frontiers of excellence in areas like product performance, production efficiency, delivery and cost. But at the end of the day, you have to accept trade-offs among them.

The first thing Esquel recognized in the creation of its reusable masks was: the best we can do today might not be good enough for tomorrow. As such the initial focus was on ensuring the health and well-being of its workers and the quick reopening of factories. A basic model was developed to plug the gaps in mask supply, and the product was then optimized based on the feedback before it was taken to the market.

Education: Build organisational knowledge to avoid making the same mistakes twice

If you have a motivated workforce that shares a sense of ownership over what they do, putting the recovery strategies into motion will be much easier. In fact, a resilient workforce is even more crucial for labor-intensive industries such as garment manufacturing.

In times of adversity, treat staff as your partners, keep them informed, empower them with the skills they need, and offer them the assurance that you will guide them out of the storm.

In Esquel’s case, creating reusable masks was new to everyone, even to the sewing workers and definitely to the sales executives. It follows that another essential step is to align your staff with proper knowledge-management tools.

It is important to ensure that all departments – R&D, production, logistics, retailing and marketing – can build on the same experiences so that they would not walk the same path twice.

Moving forward

The global apparel market will gradually bounce back when the pandemic subsides. And Esquel will set its sight on its core textile and garment business once again. This crisis has helped the company to navigate a path not only in creating reusable masks, but also in developing new brands and platforms. At the end of the day, every crisis contains the seeds of opportunities. – World Economic Forum

  • Edgar Tung, Managing Director, Global Operations, Esquel Group