The global apparel industry and market are "at a tipping point",with economic uncertainty casting doubts on levels of future growth, accordingto a new research report.

Thereport, "Tomorrow's apparel industry: products, markets, sourcing andprocesses- forecasts to 2017", is a think piece about the future of theapparel industry, designed to encourage industry executives to consider what isgoing to shape their industry over the next few years. It analyses and providesfuture forecasts for the various different strands of the industry, discussinghow trends have changed in the 18 months and speculating on what is likely tohappen in the future.

Perhapsthe most significant change from the last report in 2010 is the increasinglevel of uncertainty about a positive outcome, influenced by the current globalpolitical and economic situation. "The apparel industry and market reallyare at a tipping-point," the report notes. "The forks in the roadbetween stagnation, growth and recession are quite dramatic."

Amongthe areas analysed are the apparel market, merchandise trends, distribution,the industry, and sourcing and production. In addition, the report considerskey influences on the future shape of the industry, including the supply chain,technology and computer systems issues, and political and economic factors. Foreach area, the report gives a "best guess" forecast for growthbetween 2011 and 2017, then assesses the level of confidence it has in thatprediction.

Thereport has greatest confidence in the areas of products and production, whereit believes that the fastest-growing merchandise sectors will be women'sunderwear and sportswear, with the weakest likely to be children's wear-asrecessionary conditions in the developed world drive consumers to low-priceretailers. There is also a fair degree of confidence in predictions fordistribution, where it's thought likely that the internet will continue to gainground, at the expense in particular of traditional mail order-although theextent of this change is debatable. In addition, sales made through socialnetworking channels are likely to rise.

Assessingthe likely health of the apparel industry is a harder job, given theuncertainties brought about by the Euro zone crisis in Europe and theearthquake and tsunami in Japan. But fastest growth is expected in the rest ofthe world, Eastern Europe and Turkey, offset by steady declines in Western Europe. Projections on the likely size of the global apparel market remain broadlyin line with the 2010 report, but with one significant proviso: there is farless confidence in growth, with projections clouded by the spectre of adouble-dip recession in Europe, caused by the crisis in the Euro zone.

Therest of the world, the report predicts, will remain a hugely significantmanufacturing base, with the area (principally China, South East Asia and theIndian subcontinent) producing nearly two-thirds of the world's apparel-butconsuming only one quarter of the market total, remaining a huge net exporterto more developed regions. Furthermore, the report assesses the key influenceson these industry trends, naming raw materials costs, increasing labour costs,oil price increases, political instability and the ethical debate aboutsustainability, the environment and fair trade as the most significant.

Andit suggests that rising labour costs will produce "permanently higherprices" for consumers in developed markets, despite a likely easing infuture cotton and fibre prices and a return to more "sensible" levelsfor oil prices. However, concerns over ethical and fair trade will be the mostsignificant areas of debate among social responsibility issues.

Originally publishedin The Stitch Times, October 2011