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Langsey Company's Li Zhang is your insider industry guide to all things China. Here, she tackles manufacturing.

As many of you will know, finding a good supplier can be a challenging task. However, sourcing the right supplier for your business is one of the most important steps in making your fashion company a success.

Having reliable, efficient and responsive suppliers is a key factor in providing your customers with high quality products and services, at the right price. It’s also important to make sure you’re using ethical suppliers, who are committed to the safety and wellbeing of their workers, as well as the environment.

So how do you go about finding a reputable supplier for your business?

To help you feel more confident in choosing the right supplier, we’ve prepared this handy checklist, full of helpful tips for dealing with factory owners and suppliers.
Whether you’re about to carry out an on-site inspection, or are working with a new supplier via email, these tips will help you find the best supplier for you.

1. Find Out the History and Background of the Supplier

  • Talk to the factory owner, to gain an understanding of the factory’s history – if a factory is well-established, with a long history of business, they are more likely to be experienced, reliable, sustainable and capable.
  • The factory owner’s personal experience is also important. Hot tip: look for factories run by owners who started his/her career as a basic sewing worker; they will understand the industry better than a businessman without any technical skills.
  • What are the factory’s main markets – export or domestic? If they supply to export markets, find out that countries they service. Different markets mean different standards. If an Asian factory mainly serves their domestic market, be careful about their quality control capabilities, as developing countries often have lower standards than developed countries. If a factory exports to the Japanese market, you can usually trust its production quality, as the Japanese market has very strict and high standards.
  • Who are their key clients? If a supplier has a few clients who are famous fashion brands, you can of course be confident about their quality and reliability. But don’t just take their word for it – if you are on-site, ask to see products from the well-known brands’ labels, or if you are not on-site, ask them to show you some images.
  • Understand the factory’s positioning – high volume at a low cost, or premium quality at high cost. This way, you will know whether its positioning matches your brand’s own positioning. If you are a premium brand, a high volume low cost factory may not able to meet your quality standards.

2. Get a Clear Idea of the Supplier’s Capacity

Ask potential suppliers each of the questions below, to find out more about their production capacity.

  • The number of operators – pattern technicians, sample makers, cutting workers, sewing workers, ironing workers, packaging workers. Hot tip: clear division of labour is important; if a factory has an unclear division, such as normal sewing workers helping to make samples, you need to question their structure and capability.
  • The number of production lines/cells – again, a clear and well-organised production line structure is crucial.
  • The capacity, in number of pieces per day, of one worker, and especially about the type of product you would purchase. For example, if you are going to make tees, ask how many tees a worker can make per day.

3. Observe the Supplier’s Quality Control Measures

  • Does the factory have a quality control system in place? If they have, you can ask to see the documents before committing to the supplier.
  • If you are carrying out an on-site inspection, observe the factory’s QC (quality control) process.
  • If on-site, you can also ask to see some products that have passed final QC and were classified as good. If you find 20% of pieces with a visual defect, you have to question about the supplier’s QC standards or the QC team’s capabilities.
  • For premium brands, you can always ask for 100% third-party quality inspection, as long as you are willing to pay the extra cost. With this, the factory will send all your products to the inspection company, who will check each piece of your products. They will return defective products to the factory, and the factory fix problems and send to do inspection again. You can negotiate with the factory to require the factory pay for the second inspection cost.

4. Ensure Your Supplier is Committed to Social Compliance

  • Safety: what precautions has the supplier taken to ensure worker safety? Apparel workers don't really need any protective equipment, but it’s imperative that sufficient first-aid kits are available in the workplace for employees.
  • Child labour: look at the list of employees and make sure that all workers are at least 16 years old. If you are on-site, select a few young employees at random and ask to see their ID cards.
  • Working hours: does the factory respect local laws? If the factory is in China, the Chinese law is 44 hours a week with maximum overtime of three hours a day. Make sure the supplier is compliant with all employee laws and regulations.
  • Fire prevention: are there enough fire extinguishers in the work environment? Are they accessible, up-to-date, and in good working order? Are there enough emergency exits to accommodate all workers?
  • Environmental policy: as we mentioned in our last newsletter, the Chinese government has recently launched an aggressive environmental protection campaign. Talk to potential suppliers about this issue and ask whether they have been inspected by the government and passed the inspection – if yes, ask them to show you the relevant documents.

5. Be Clear on Copyright and IP Issues with Suppliers

  • Talk to the supplier about copyright and intellectual property laws. Do they understand that they can’t sell your products to other customers? Do they understand that they can’t provide your design to other customers?
  • Ask the factory owner what they normally do with the old samples and over-made products. In China, many factories sell their old samples and over-made products on the Taobao platform or to online storeowners. Fashion manufacturers will generally make a little more than the order quantity, so that they will still have enough products to ship, even if some defective products are thrown away. Hot tip: ask the supplier to ship the over-made quantity to you – you will pay extra for those products, however this will help to control the possibility that the supplier will sell the over-made products in market.
  • To be extra certain, ask any potential suppliers or factory owners if they have a Taobao store – if they have, ask for the store name, visit it later, and find out whether they sell their customers’ labelled products online!
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