"Fast Fashion" as the very name suggests makes it imperative that the sourcing should be made as close to a home market as costs will allow. And for the world's two largest markets - the European Union (EU) and the US - geography does provide some useful outsourcing neighbors. This is what has to happen and is happening in most of the cases.

For example, in the US, with low cost supplier countries nearby to the south, brands can benefit from cheap purchases that are boosted by short-supply distances and also free trade agreements, such as DR-CAFTA (the Dominican Republic-Central America-United States Free Trade Agreement). The desire of American clothing brands to source in the Western hemisphere - rather than always heading east to Asia - has been a steadily growing trend for several years. And some of this sourcing is done in the US itself, where there are regions retaining strength in design and manufacturing of apparel and textiles, including New York and Los Angeles. One benefit of sourcing domestically is that producers can take advantage of US consumers' increasing support of the made-in-US label, says Cass Johnson, President of the National Council of Textile Organizations (NCTA).

As for sourcing in neighboring countries, brands have not only benefited from the DR-CAFTA, but also the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) with Canada and Mexico, says Hughes. "When you have duties that can average 17% on apparel but go as high as 32%, obviously the duty-free benefit...helps a lot on manufacturing closer to the US," she adds. But, "the biggest benefit is turnaround time," according to Johnson. "You can get a garment sewn and delivered in the western hemisphere in anywhere from one to three weeks' time compared to six to nine months' time sometimes in Asia." Johnson also notes a faster supply chain can mean long-term savings for brands as producers can slim down their inventory while also responding quickly to changes in sales - for example, producing more of an item that is selling well. "The potential savings can be significant."

It is also important to consider the manufacturing strengths of different regions, she stresses. For example, the Americas have strengths in cotton production, while shipping US cotton to Mexico for processing and manufacturing is cheaper than shipping it to Asia. The free trade agreements also allow companies to easily take advantage of multiple countries; for instance, DR-CAFTA allows other member countries to use Mexican fabric and still be deemed duty-free. Although China and Bangladesh remain the top exporters of many apparel lines to the US, western hemisphere suppliers perform well. As of May, Nicaragua, Honduras, El Salvador, Guatemala and Haiti ranked among the top 20 suppliers of cotton trousers to the US, according to Hughes. In addition, half of the top ten suppliers of cotton knit tops to the US are Western hemisphere countries. The majority of companies import complete apparel, as opposed to parts of apparel from DR-CAFTA countries, further shortening times to market.

European Experience

Across the Atlantic, Europe's depressed economic situation and the fact retailers want to maximise cost efficiency has resulted in some sourcing moving closer to Europe, but not to the degree that was expected. The parallel here is with the disappearance of textiles quotas in 2005, which did not inflate Chinese outsourcing to predicted levels. "There was a lot more to China but not near the drop some were forecasting," says Matthijs Crietee, Deputy Secretary General of the International Apparel Federation (lAF). And as for current trends: "Currently, we have noticed a drop in clothing imports in terms of value to the EU from China over the past three years, and that is new. But we haven't seen a huge rise in imports from Turkey, Bulgaria or Tunisia, although Bangladesh has picked up some of that decrease from China. This is typical of fashion; there are trends that are often magnified beyond what they are in reality."