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Want to put some teeth into your social responsibility program? Try product customization.


The apparel and accessories industries have challenges when it comes to social responsibility. Periodically you’ll see moody, black and white ads on social media trumpeting a company’s support for Black Lives Matter, or decrying working conditions in Bangladeshi and Chinese factories. But when you look past the advertising and into the supply chain, you often see difficult jobs with poor working conditions.

It doesn’t have to be that way. 

Working in a factory will never be mistaken for a vacation. The work is hard. But a product customization program can make the factory work easier, because it’s an easy first step to lean manufacturing. It’s a spur to setting up work cells equipped for one-piece flow with multi-skilled operators. It also makes your brand more profitable.

Traditional mass production relies on the premise that it’s cheapest to manufacture in large batches. That leads to large piles of raw material, run through long, straight assembly lines, and ending with giant batches of finished goods. Everyone hopes you’ve guessed right about product mix. If not (and you generally don’t), you’ve got both raw materials and closeout inventory eating up your working capital. 

Lean manufacturing is different. Instead of buying raw materials in large volumes and producing in high volumes to reduce average costs, you build products to actual customer demand. This approach frees up working capital, reduces closeouts, and increases profitability. The master of lean manufacturing, Toyota, is more profitable than GM, Chrysler, Nissan, and Ford combined. 

From a social responsibility standpoint, lean manufacturing also creates more humane working conditions. 

Let’s say you’re a jeans brand. You’ve got one fabric (denim), a few colors, and many styles. Your factory sets up production lines dedicated to a single style and churns out container-loads of each one. Workers on these production lines do one job, and one job only – cutting, stitching, riveting, adding zippers, etc. – all day long. Repetitive work like that is not only boring, it’s ergonomically dangerous. (It also increases the risk of defects.)

Now imagine a factory with flexible manufacturing cells rather than a straight assembly line. Each cell can cut and sew different styles. Workers in each cell can perform multiple tasks, so that they can either do more than one task on a product, or they can rotate through stations throughout the day. With a setup like this, you don’t need a high volume of an individual style to feed a single line, which gives you the ability to customize and personalize products for your customers. You can produce single pieces of each style, since the total volume would justify running the cell. And since you’re not tied to a distant forecast, you’ll have fewer closeouts and higher profits. 

You (and your factories) are almost certainly not ready to make a complete shift from mass production to lean manufacturing. However, a product customization program enables you to experiment, on a small scale, with lean techniques. Choose one style and offer customers a few options for personalization – perhaps embroidery of a monogram or a design, or different fabric trims. Set up a small cell, staffed with skilled workers from the sample room, to produce those orders as they come in one by one. Even with a comparatively small volume of orders, they’ll likely be kept busy for most of a day. 

If that small step is still a bit scary, here’s another option: partner with a company like JTB Custom. Ship us your finished goods, and let us handle the personalization for your customers. With the upcharge for personalized products, you’ll still be able to make a profit on those goods. And you’ll get to see the brand-building benefits that a product customization program offers. 

Best of all, if you go down this road, the work becomes more humane and you can tout your success while making a real difference.

Want to learn more? Please contact us. We are here to help!