As sustainability has become a top priority for the fashion industry, buyers are seeking out suppliers who can meet their standards. At the same time, they are open to new destinations and supply chain relationships to take advantage of trade schemes and minimize supply chain disruptions.
To assist retailers in these pursuits, the second edition of Source Fashion was held from July 16-18 in London, connecting sourcing, product development, design and merchandising executives from brands such as Asos, Burberry, Harrods, H&M and Selfridges with sustainable suppliers from around the globe. Double the size of the inaugural February event, the July show gathered 300 exhibitors from 30 countries to showcase apparel, accessories, materials and technology solutions.
“We’re quickly getting to scale now,” Suzanne Ellingham, director of sourcing for Source Fashion, told Sourcing Journal. “For expos to really work, you need to try and get to a critical mass of exhibitors so that it just becomes a must-attend place for buyers, and I think a lot of the marketing message, a lot of the brand identity is really starting to resonate with key buyers now.”
Organized by Hyve Group, Source Fashion is positioned as a “responsible sourcing show,” and all exhibitors had to provide proof of an audit from a firm such as Sedex or SGS. Exhibitors from China went through an additional check for sanctioned cotton. “We’ve launched as a responsible sourcing show, because for us, it’s very much about building that platform [for] buyers who want to buy better, they want to buy better quality, they want to be assured that they’re working with good people,” said Ellingham.
Among the exhibitors were companies using fashion as a means for social good. For example, Yes Helping Hands from Nepal trains individuals with disabilities to make handmade silk, cashmere and pashmina products, providing them with work as well as financial independence. The organization came back to Source Fashion after successfully meeting buyers and customers in February. “When we find the buyers, then because of that we can give more opportunity to our people who are depending on Yes Helping Hands,” said Dinesh Kumar Thapa, CEO of Yes Helping Hands.
Sustainability was also a focal point for the co-located Pure London show, which had a curated section for responsible vendors, such as upcycled saris and vegan shoes. To showcase in this area, exhibitors had to provide evidence of their work toward at least three of the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals. While there is a mix of goals the brands are targeting, one of the most common is SDG 12 on responsible consumption and production, per Olivia Pinnock, journalist, lecturer and sustainability adviser for Pure London.
“The industry has huge problems with overconsumption, waste, overproduction,” Pinnock told Sourcing Journal. “What is really crucial to a lot of these brands here is that they’re producing on demand, or they’re producing as low quantities as they can so they’re not producing waste in that way. And that they’re also encouraging their consumers to really care [for] and love their products as well.”
Jack Stratten, head of trends at Insider Trends, spoke in a Source Fashion seminar about the gap between sustainable intent and actual action among consumers. “Price normally, for most consumers, trumps good, ethical decision-making,” he said. “It doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t be making ethical choices. What it means in reality is retailers need to do things like find ways of not making sustainable products more expensive. That’s one solution; that’s the ultimate goal. But if not, we maybe have to have business models that focus on quality and value rather than simply cost.”
In a different seminar session, Zoe Bayliss Wong, who was formerly a director at Depop and is now at Vivobarefoot, discussed how sustainability and profit can go hand in hand. “The disruptive businesses are actually gaining market share by going beyond sustainability,” she said. “Because sustainability is no longer just about doing less harm. It’s now about doing more good.”
Expanding the sourcing map
During Source Fashion’s seminar series, a major topic was geographic expansion and diversification.
The United Kingdom enacted the Developing Countries Trading Scheme (DCTS) on June 19, replacing the Generalized Scheme of Preferences. Compared to the prior trade program, DCTS is designed to be “simpler and more generous,” said Karen Johnson from the UK Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO) and Department for Business and Trade (DBT), in a presentation. The scheme allows for low or no duties on goods imported from 65 countries. There is also now more flexibility for the least developed countries to meet the rule of origin to qualify for the duty savings. Rupert Casson from FDCO and DBT noted that the estimated annual tariff savings from DCTS will be 770 million pounds, or approximately $990 million at current exchange.
“Trade is an essential part of developing countries, growing economies, engaging with the global economy and developing, tackling poverty, increasing jobs, a whole load of things that are really important for those countries and for us to support,” said Johnson. “We also know by doing this that UK companies and customers get a much wider choice.”
Other sessions highlighted the opportunities in two of the countries in the “least developed” category in the framework. One panel discussed the pluses of working in Madagascar, from the proximity in time zone to Europe to the highly skilled workers and CSR investments. Another outlined the potential in Ethiopia, with speakers noting the government investment in the garment sector, renewable energy use and the demographic advantages in the nation. “As we’ve seen in China, India and other countries, it’s aging and the industrial labor force, the number is decreasing,” said Hibret Lemma, CEO of Hawassa Industrial Park Investors Association. “Africa will continue to be a young, dynamic population—a big potential for the garment industry.”
Within the show floor, partnerships with government bodies brought exhibitors from countries including the Philippines, Madagascar and Ethiopia. “It’s about connecting people to manufacturers that have the capabilities to do what they need and just making them visible,” said Ellingham. “In a world where people are looking to diversify their risk and work with more ethical businesses, being able to open those doors and really educate on some of the fantastic regions and manufacturers there are and also give them some advice or guidance on how to do business better there, it just makes people curious.”
Jean-Pierre Aguis, fashion category sourcing manager at John Lewis, was one of the attendees who explored a new region at the show. “I had very interesting conversations with suppliers from Madagascar, which is not an area we currently source from, but the products they brought are very impressive, so I have taken away quite a few interesting contacts,” he said.
Risk reduction was also a topic for the seminars. Anam Rahman, co-founder of Kavida, spoke about the balance between sourcing costs and risk. For European brands, nearshoring on the continent offers less risk but comes with higher prices. Meanwhile, sourcing from Asia is less expensive, but the longer chain carries greater risk. Kavida monitors potential disruptions—such as natural disasters, terrorism or transportation hiccups—that could impact orders. “Our tools and systems and processes were built for this low-pressure environment and they’ve collapsed under this high-pressure environment,” he said. “In 2023, you can’t manage your supply chains on Excel.”
Ellingham estimated that around four out of five Source Fashion attendees indicated interest in sourcing from Europe in the show’s registration survey, showing the rising appeal of nearshoring to reduce risks.
Technology and trends
Another theme of Source Fashion was the interplay of technology and sustainability.
The Salvation Army Trading Company and Project Plan B showcased their newly launched Project Re:claim, which will recycle polyester into pellets that can be used for new textiles, closing the loop for synthetic apparel. While plastic bottles are widely used to make polyester yarns, Plan B’s partner and production director James Holmes noted in a panel that these yarns are often not then recycled at the garment’s end of life. “If we can turn the polyester pellets back into yarns, which we have done, we can then offer that as a resource rather than the plastic bottles,” he said. “Plastic bottles can remain plastic bottles.”
Retailer N Brown is also tackling waste, but from a different angle. Returns are a huge sustainability issue in fashion, and a large portion of apparel returns are tied to fit. Five years ago, the retailer purchased a body scanner, which it has been using to gain a better understanding of sizes today and the diversity that exists within the same size. “The data that we get from that body scanner is imperative into building back into our loop to be able to understand what we get back from customers, that feedback, and then what we can do in development to make sure that we are constantly improving and learning,” said Angela Gaskell, group sourcing, sustainability, quality and fit director at N Brown. This initiative has reduced N Brown’s returns by up to 5 percent.
At the show, attendees could get scanned and contribute to expanding this data set.
A central feature of the Source Fashion programming was a catwalk show that highlighted trends—such as mixed patterns and “amped up” sporty looks—using sustainable fashion. The fashion show also featured modest fashions from Jordanian exhibitors and Athos Pallos’ Greek cotton collection. Envisioned by stylist Rebekah Roy and creative director Paul Swaby, the show was headlined by designer Sarah Regensburger, who has dressed celebrities like of Lady Gaga and Taylor Swift.
Regensburger also sat down for a one-on-one chat with Roy, in which she discussed her experiences heading up a young brand and working with vegan materials, like cactus leather, including the challenges of trying to avoid overstocks. “As a sustainable brand, I don’t really want to have stock leftover,” she said. “The minimums sometimes are really tough for young designers. If we have to order 100, what if I don’t sell that piece?”
The third edition of Source Fashion is slated for Feb. 18-20. Looking ahead, Ellingham said the focus is on “slow, sustainable growth.” Fueling this growth will be more partnerships, such as a collaboration with the Bangladesh-based organization Women and E-commerce, which will bring 20 to 30 female makers to the show floor. As it looks to expand its exhibitor presence, some key regions are Southeast Asia and Europe.
“It’s about making this a destination for UK and European buyers, and a place that they can walk through the doors and really meet truly global manufacturers,” said Ellingham.