Training Next Gen sourcing talents for a more sustainable future with Dr. Sheng Lu

October 19, 2021

In this episode of Serai Spotlight, we talked with Dr. Sheng Lu, the Associate Professor of Fashion and Apparel Studies at the University of Delaware, about the influence of collaborative efforts in shaping the sustainable future of the apparel industry. How can next generation sourcing professionals help set new standards? What can data-based technologies help solve challenges facing the industry? An edited transcript follows.

Sheng Lu: My name is Sheng Lu, and I'm a professor from the University of Delaware Fashion and Apparel Studies. I'm a trained economist and I look at trade and the textile and apparel, trade sourcing. That's my favorite topic. And also trade policy. 

In one of my recent studies, we look at how companies know sustainability performance will affect their kind of preference, being selected as a sourcing kind of destination. And also at the country level, exactly how a country's competitiveness, in, say, meeting the social responsibility requirements, meeting their sustainability requirement will affect their sourcing volumes. So I think trade, sourcing, sustainability really go hand in hand.

What are some of the challenges of brands and retailers in today's climate when they're trying to embrace sustainability?

Sheng Lu: I think, you know, one is probably comes with the definition of sustainability itself, because truly there is no kind of unified standards for sustainability, just like, say, you know, I talk to my students, OK, you need to write me a good or high quality paper, but I never tell them. What does it mean to write a good and high quality paper?

It's very hard for them to really follow the same with sustainability. There are so many things they can do. But also, regardless of the efforts, there is always something that is missing. So, yeah, companies are very dedicated to sustainability, but also they really lack guidance, lack new regulations, that make them just don't know how to follow these rules.

Sustainability is becoming more and more specific and a detailed like, you know, you need to have a specific team to help you to develop a more sustainable material, to really to have resources to vetting your vendors and know, to be honest, I think these large fashion brands and retailers, they will have the resources to have the team, have the talents to do so. But how about these small and medium sized enterprises? And actually, I'm thinking maybe they lack resources to do so.

Now, it's relatively easy to do something to make them look more sustainable.

But how about the entire industry? I just recently checked the data. Very interesting. I look at the quantity of U.S. apparel imports versus how much clothing actually was sold in the US market. I found like half of the clothing was missing. Well, like half of the clothing was never sold.

Think about it. They were never sold. And of course, they'll waste it. But where do they go. But also, is this current model healthy? And even more interesting when you talk to these apparel exporting countries, their measurement of success is due to, OK, I want to export more to the U.S. market, to the EU market. So you're already talking about so much clothing that has never been sold. But also, I know these are all these apparel producing and exporting countries. They see their success as exporting more. So I think if we are really making our industry more sustainable, we need a new way of thinking. We need a new business model, so. Oh, yeah. 

How can brands achieve sustainable sourcing?

Sheng Lu: One is that leaders in sustainability are fine. They have a wonderful, fantastic team, very dedicated to the issue of sustainability. And I think this is a very good start to really achieve sustainability. Second, do not try to achieve sustainability by working alone. You really need to work very closely with your supply chain partners. For example, during Covid one strategy commonly adopted by some successful companies is to strengthen their relationship with key vendors. Do not simply treat vendors like one time or a very short term kind of contractors, but really work with them to treat them as a partner and bring them the resources they need. Teach your vendors how to do that. Help them to overcome some of the challenges they face. So I think this kind of supply chain, you know, collaboration building, strategic partnership, will be, you know, a very successful strategy to adopt. 

So what are the three sustainable sourcing trends and practices that excite you? 

Sheng Lu: From my observation, three things really impressed me the most. One is actually, you know, the job market. These days, I see a lot of openings about compliance, about sustainability. So this shows that companies are building a dedicated team to help them develop a more sustainable business model.

Second, I think companies, especially those companies really dedicated to sustainability, they're going to have a bigger budget. And with a bigger budget, they can do a lot of things so they can provide training, they can do more frequent auditing, and they can train both their internal employees and also work with their vendors to help them to be more capable to deal with all kinds of sustainability challenges. Number three, I think it's really about the availability of new technology, especially the data-based technology. Personally, I'm very passionate about how data is really transforming the way we operate the fashion industry.

It's not just a slogan. You need to have the tool to really help you to do that, to really to see who is supplying the raw material for me and how they're connected with each other and how they're partnering with each other.

What are you most optimistic about the future of the apparel and textile industry?

Sheng Lu: My passion and my confidence come from my students, actually. So they're generation Z. And I can tell you they genuinely care about sustainability. They genuinely care about how their clothing is made. So often people say, especially in the media, they say our brands don't care about sustainability, they don't care about workers. But just about this. Companies are composed of people. So when our students enter the industry, they work as sourcing managers. When they apply their values, and when they set a high standard to do business, I'm confident that things will get better.