Guest Blog: The need for robust FIRST MILE thinking

A guest blog from Stephen E. Lamar, AAFA President and CEO

We’ve long been discussing the pivot of our industry from a last mile focus to FIRST MILE thinking.

With the last mile, we had been concentrating on how to get goods to the customer – to cover that last mile to service folks who are increasingly shopping for the latest fashions at home. In an age of e-commerce and full omnichannel integration, this last mile equation is plenty complicated and demands a lot of our time.

But more demanding is the intense industry focus on the FIRST MILE – before the goods have even started their journey from concept to consumer. This is the point where we stop and ask ourselves key questions like:

  • Is this a product my customer or the Planet needs?
  • Am I making and shipping it in a responsible manner?
  • How does this product align with my company’s ESG goals and values?
  • Will I be able to properly support my supply chain partners and workers?
  • And so on.

If the last mile determines whether our customer gets their products, the FIRST MILE determines whether they even want them in the first place. Moreover, in an age of circularity and sustainable consumption, this FIRST MILE takes on even more importance since the last mile loses its traditional meaning and all but disappears as goods are returned, recycled, reused, or repurposed.

A foundational dynamic enabling robust FIRST MILE thinking is the rebalancing of the buyer-supplier partnership.

The Pandemic cast a new light on many industry problems that had been festering, but never fully resolved. First among these were imbalances in the buyer-supplier relationship.

The old model vesting all power in the buyers and retailers was shaken as global store and factory closures and country lockdowns sent shock wave after shock wave through our industry’s supply chains. Companies have taken a fresh look at their supply chain partners with a new lens. As a result, a new normal – one that places suppliers and buyers on a more equal footing and builds supply chains around fewer, more dependable partners – has emerged and is accelerating.

This is good news for FIRST MILE thinking, as it now means greater alignment among the values and operations that are needed to sustain the industry’s push toward full traceability and transparency.

“Suppliers are still responsible for implementing buyer mandates, but they are no longer simply taking dictation.”

It also has huge ramifications for the corporate social responsibility world. For example, suppliers are still responsible for implementing buyer mandates, but they are no longer simply taking dictation. Rather, they are increasingly involved in the development of training and capacity building efforts to make sure mandates are fully funded and can be fully and responsibly implemented.

This shift also impacts policymakers, who often view supply chains as simple ways to convey their own legislative mandates.

No longer can legislators hope to outsource their policy making function with a push of a button or stroke of a pen and expect supply chains to do their bidding. Easy buttons will remain a temptation; however,  smart policymakers will understand that reality is more complex and new requirements – particularly those that dig deep into supply chains – take time to be understood, interpreted, taught, and measured.

“It is often said that if we want to go fast we go alone but if we want to go far we should go together.”

Collectively this better-balanced buyer-supplier partnership means new traceability and transparency requirements – whether articulated by retailers or regulators – will take longer to implement. But they will have better staying power as supply chain partners will have more equal buy in and understanding of these requirements and a long-term interest in the shared success.

Confucius famously said that a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step. It’s also often said that if we want to go fast we go alone, but if we want to go far we should go together.

Robust FIRST MILE thinking applied through the filter of this new supplier-buyer partnership does just that.

Stephen E. Lamar is President and CEO of the American Apparel & Footwear Association, the national trade association representing more than 1,000 brands in the apparel and footwear industry. Steve leads a dedicated team of professionals who represent AAFA members before the government, through the media, and in industry settings on key brand protection, supply chain and manufacturing, and trade issues. Steve also advises AAFA member companies on legislation and regulatory policies. Follow on Twitter @SteveWonk or LinkedIn. Learn more about AAFA with and @ApparelFootwear.