At present, the protective clothing industry is responding to a range of external events that have a direct impact on the textile industry and its supply chain. The war in Ukraine, hyperinflation, the energy crisis and the pandemic have all had a tangible effect on our ability to access essential resources. This, in turn, has led to uncertainty when it comes to security of supply. In this blog, we delve a little deeper into this situation and what it means across the protective clothing supply chain.
The bread and butter of protective fabrics
If we rewind a few years, our industry had ongoing access to essential chemicals to manufacture protective fabrics. This has now changed, and the availability of basic ingredients — the bread and butter of our fabrics — has become uncertain, leading to critical shortages in the supply chain.
Examples of essential chemicals that fabric manufacturers now have difficulty accessing are ammonia and caustic soda. These are two basic chemicals required for fibre production, and both are essential in the process of dyeing fabrics. However, the production of these chemicals within chemical plants is energy-heavy. Given the current energy crisis throughout Europe — with prices dramatically higher than usual — many chemical plants have had to declare a force majeure and stop production for a period of time. They would make a loss if they attempted to sell at their regular prices, and would not have any buyers if they attempted to sell at the current hyperinflated value.
In addition, basic chemicals like ammonia and caustic soda are precursors or building blocks for more sophisticated chemicals like dispersions, resins and finishing products. Therefore, this lack of availability of basic chemicals has a dramatic trickle-down effect, causing a wider supply problem for other products further down the chain.
A challenge across industries
The protective clothing industry is not the only industry affected by changes to security of supply and resources. If we zoom out, the fashion industry more broadly has undoubtedly been hit hard, as across the board, it relies on chemicals which are energy-intensive in their production, and will therefore be more difficult to access in the current climate. Further afield, the automotive industry is also affected, as they are unable to easily access all the plastics and chips they need for their production processes.
The added impact of Covid and shifts to workplaces
There is another factor to consider alongside high energy costs when it comes to disruptions to the supply chain. That is, the after-effect of the pandemic when it comes to workplace staffing. As we know, the pandemic initially forced many people to stay-at-home. In the longer-term, it led to many workers moving away from their previous jobs — either through necessity (e.g. redundancy) or by choice, as many workers re-evaluated their career progression or sense of work-life balance.
Within the protective clothing industry, many employees who worked on-site in different companies in our supply chain and could not work from home during the pandemic moved on to other jobs through necessity. Many moved on to alternative workplaces where demand would continue to be high despite the pandemic, e.g. in warehouses or at Uber.
While didn't see this as much within our own operations, we have witnessed it at many of our suppliers. This loss of talent within those companies has had a lagging effect post-pandemic. Alongside this, Covid cases are on the rise again, especially in Europe, which will be a further blow to staffing levels over the winter.
All in all, we have a shortage of not only chemical resources, but human resources — and these two factors together can significantly slow down the supply chain, now and in the foreseeable future.
While there are some things we cannot control, such as when energy prices will come down, there are some things we can do to adapt in these unusual times. Placing orders as far in advance as possible will help ease pressure and counter the stress of delays in the supply chain. Also, maintaining regular and transparent communication with suppliers — keeping them updated on any changes and challenges you are facing — will allow them to be more understanding and flexible to the situation. Proper and consistent forecasting by your customers is therefore of utmost importance, which is the basis of raw materials forecasting for the entire textile supply chain. And finally, it is wise to be mindful of the fact that as the winter season is approaching, we will see more issues with the absence of staff, so planning ahead in terms of staffing will be critical as well.