Will the Finnish clothing and textile industry take the digital leap?

Efficiency in production, fast reactions to trends, sustainability and the ability to meet individual consumer needs are requirements for success in the textile, clothing and fashion industries.

Digitalisation is a revolutionary force in every industry, from agriculture to space technology. The Finnish clothing and textile industries also see digitalisation as an opportunity – and even a necessity for achieving growth in the global environment. The winners of the future will be the companies that utilise new technologies in their business and discover new, innovative ways of fulfilling the needs and expectations of their customers.

In the near future, digitalisation will usher in significant changes in the textile, clothing and fashion industries thanks to innovations such as 3D modelling, data analysis and product customisation. For example, 3D patterns and models will shorten the product development cycle by eliminating the cutting and sewing of hundreds or even thousands of samples. The 3D models can also be used in product marketing and social media content.

Pronounced focus on the consumer

The Finnish clothing and textile industries’ interest in creating added value for their customers through customisable products has been growing. At the same time, consumers are more interested in individual and customised clothing. The change will require a new level of agility and flexibility from R&D processes and the use of novel services enabled by digitalisation. For example, on-demand knitwear design and production companies can make use of the Unmade platform and let the customers design their own knits when placing the order.

Changes in customer behaviour, also largely influenced by technology, are the main factor transforming the sector. Trend-conscious consumers are constantly online, comparing, sharing and liking content. The rise of electronic and mobile commerce has heightened the desire of consumers to decide where, when and how to buy products. This change is forcing companies to develop new solutions and practices for commerce. In addition to their products, the companies also have to create interesting content for their customers. 

The leveraging of digitalisation has begun

The VTT-coordinated DICI (Competitiveness from digitalisation in clothing industry) project looks for new business opportunities for the Finnish clothing and textile industries. According to a recently completed survey, Finnish clothing, textile and fashion companies have now begun to leverage the potential of digitalisation. In particular, this potential is being tapped quite extensively in various social media, online shop and web marketing functions.

What customer service solutions enabled by digitalisation have the companies made use of? Which solutions enabled by digitalisation and new technologies have the companies used in their business?
Social media channels (89%) Customer data analyses (e.g. purchase data, focused marketing for loyal customers, etc.) (53%)
Online shop (82%) Analysis of online customer behaviour (e.g. time spent on the site and products looked at by customers) (51%)
Web marketing (67%) ERP (Enterprise Resource Planning software) (35%)
Loyalty schemes (31%) Digital printing on fabric or clothing (29%)
Mobile applications (27%) Automation of cutting processes (29%)

Table. Utilisation of digitalisation in the clothing and textile industries (N=55).

The results indicate that functions and solutions that the companies were capable of implementing in-house are the most prevalent, along with solutions that were reasonably agile and flexible to implement. The companies felt that the use of new technologies had created new opportunities for expanding their existing business (e.g. an online shop) and increased the visibility and attractiveness of their products and services.

According to the companies, the greatest challenge entailed by digitalisation was a lack of time and resources to study the possibilities (53%). A lack of competencies was also a common problem (40%). On the other hand, many companies reported that they were currently in the process of exploring the alternatives (38%). According to the companies that took the survey, the utilisation of digital potential will increase clearly in the next three years (Figure).

Change figure

Figure. Utilisation of digitalisation in the near future (N=55).

The largest companies indicated that they will invest in the digitalisation of their processes in the next few years (e.g. the use of 3D patterns and modelling in design) and develop their logistics and storage functions with digital solutions. The smaller companies, on the other hand, intend to invest in the development of customer loyalty schemes. It would appear that the use of mobile applications to expand the service offering and business of companies is still in the early stages.

Clear demand for new innovations and methods of commerce

A noteworthy feature of the Finnish textile and fashion sector is that it is dominated by SMEs. Digitalisation will open the global marketplace to companies of any size and enable entirely new marketing and sales methods. For example, the users of recently launched international commerce and marketing platforms, such as IVALO and Weecos, have been able to achieve significant growth in their turnover and international sales.

The positive atmosphere in the sector has begun to be reflected in statistics and the mood of entrepreneurs. In the spring of 2007, the economy and finance magazine Taloussanomat ran the following headline: “The clothing industry said good-bye to Finland”. Ten years later (5/2017), a news clip by the same publication was titled ”Surprise comeback by the Finnish clothing industry: exports are growing by double digits”. CEO Anna-Kaisa Auvinen of Finnish Textile & Fashion also issued a release on the changes in the sector: “It is delightful to note how the positive mood in the sector has been translated into growth. Finnish textile and fashion companies work hard to achieve growth and reach international markets, and this work is now bearing fruit.”

Digitalisation will inevitably continue to transform the clothing and textile industries in the future as well. The demands of consumers who are looking for more individual but easy-to-use service solutions and personalised services provided with them will only keep growing.

The spread of consumer behaviour across multiple channels has created demand for new innovations and methods of commerce. Companies that will be able to combine different channels of influencing consumers and consolidate their brand extensively through different channels, both in the domestic and international markets, will achieve the greatest success. The novel and successful marketing and sales channels and campaigns implemented by Finlayson are a good example of this. The company has also been able to react quickly to current phenomena, such as by making lion products for the IIHF World Championships and reacting to the discussion on wage inequality between the genders with the ‘Woman’s euro’ campaign.

In recent years, customers have started looking at the ethical values and recycling of products, and these have even joined price and availability as selection criteria for products and services. Digitalisation enables and promotes transparency and traceability in the production and distribution chains. At the same time, it has created potential for new types of specialised service businesses. For example, Weecos provides companies with an online commerce platform for high-quality, sustainable products.

In the future, production efficiency, fast reactions to current phenomena, sustainability and the ability to meet the personal demands of consumers will be the prerequisites for success. Thanks to its agility, small production series and utilisation of digitalisation, the Finnish clothing and textile industries have new potential in this competition. They just need to have the competence and courage to take the digital leap.

Satu-Marja Mäkelä, Senior Scientist and Maarit Tihinen, Senior Scientist, VTT

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