Taiwan's Missed Opportunity to Lead World in Textiles

Taiwan's Missed Opportunity to Lead World in Textiles
Photo Credit: Depositephotos

What you need to know

Taiwan is an engine of global sportswear and textile innovation, providing much of the knowhow that goes into garments and equipment made by companies like Nike, Adidas and Under Armour. Yet few people know of Taiwan's contribution to their clothes, and the country must do more to cultivate its brand image with end consumers.

Outdoor sports are all the rage in Taiwan today. Interest in running, cycling, hiking, and camping has experienced tremendous growth in recent years. Last year alone there were more than 600 running races hosted on the island—that’s the equivalent of a staggering 1.7 events per day! Taipei City is now home to hundreds of micro-gyms and running clubs, and the city’s bike paths are overflowing with cyclists. This interest in outdoor sports has been matched by growing demand for branded performance sportswear. Little known to many, however, the technology and know-how that puts the performance in performance sportswear originates from right here in Taiwan.

Last week the textile industry made its way to the Taiwan World Trade Center for the Taipei Innovative Textile Application Show (TITAS) trade event, Taiwan’s annual global textile trade show. Industry insiders from around the world met with Taiwan’s manufacturers, equipment makers, and innovators to discover the latest in textile innovation from the island. Many of the booths had their newest wares on display, but the truly innovative technologies weren’t out for public viewing. Instead, these technologies remained behind closed doors, available to only the most important industry customers. For Taiwan, this proclivity for closed-door promotion isn’t limited to the trade show floor. Consumers around the world remain equally in the dark about textile innovation coming from Taiwan.

Over the past three decades, the island of Taiwan has transformed itself from a maker of low-cost fabrics into a global powerhouse specializing in functionally advanced textiles. Taiwan’s Ministry of Economic Affairs notes that more than 70 percent of the world’s outdoor sportswear — the largest application for functional textiles — is currently made using performance textiles from Taiwan. Taiwan has more than 4,300 textile manufacturers employing over 140,000 people, and total production value reached NT$409.3 billion (US$13.5 billion) in 2015.

Customers of the island’s textiles include the world’s top brands. Everyone from Nike to Adidas to Under Armour sources their functional textiles from Taiwan. They do so because Taiwan’s depth and speed of innovation is critical to bringing the next generation of performance sportswear to market each new season. These brands also choose Taiwan for the country’s eco-friendly production capabilities; those that meet and exceed increasingly stringent demands for ethically sourced and sustainably manufactured fabrics.

Taiwanese manufacturers not only lead the world in fabrics that keep sports enthusiasts cool in summer and warm in winter, the nation is increasingly the de facto supplier of “eco-textiles". Taiwan’s textile manufacturing lays claim to innovative textiles made from a variety of recycled and sustainable materials. These include fabric fibers made from oils derived from coffee beans and even trash reclaimed from the world’s oceans. Such achievements are a testament to the ingenuity of the Taiwanese and to the capacity for Taiwan to lead the world toward more sustainable textiles and textile manufacturing practices.

I, however, remain concerned that Taiwan’s leadership in textile innovation could be short-lived if the nation fails to build a reputation among end-consumers. Despite Taiwan’s achievements, few consumers realize Taiwan’s role in the production of their favorite sportswear. When one buys an outdoor hiking jacket or a pair of yoga pants, the brand on the outside signals the product’s U.S. or European heritage, and the label inside declares the country of production; nowadays that’s likely to be Vietnam or Bangladesh. The name Taiwan, however, fails to appear at all, despite the fact that the product’s material and much of the production innovation originated from Taiwan.

My experience tells me that Taiwanese suppliers aren’t all that bothered by the lack of publicity. Many of them remain content to stay behind the scenes, so long as brands such as Nike and Adidas continue to bring big orders. Such a mindset, unfortunately, leaves Taiwan in a disadvantageous position over the long term. A lack of reputation among consumers diminishes manufacturers’ bargaining power. Furthermore, this absence in publicity at the consumer level exposes Taiwan’s manufacturers to unnecessary risks, should the world’s leading brands decide to move their orders elsewhere in search of lower prices. Most damaging of all, however, is that despite Taiwan’s mastery of functional, smart and eco-textiles, upstart sportswear brands from the island are unable to tap a national reputation for textile innovation and green production to grow their own brands. It’s a reality that continues to keep Taiwan over-reliant on contract manufacturing.

Can Taiwan afford to miss this opportunity? The island should be known to consumers globally for its leadership in functionally advanced and eco-friendly textiles—much as we recognize Italy as home to the world’s best leather, and New Zealand the home to the best wool. Consumers should be as confident in buying outdoor sportswear with textiles from Taiwan as they are in buying eyeglasses with lenses made in Switzerland.

What Taiwan needs is a strategic, long-term promotional campaign to promote the nation’s stewardship in functional and eco-friendly textile innovation and manufacturing practices. This goes beyond the “Think Taiwan for Textiles" campaign sponsored by Taiwan Textile Federation, that focuses its marketing solely on industry insiders. Instead, the campaign should target end-consumers in major developed markets; those who make the vast majority of functional sportswear purchases and, according to a recent Nielsen study, are “willing to pay more for products and services that come from companies that are committed to positive social and environmental impact". These ideals are in near perfect alignment with the offerings of Taiwan’s textile manufacturers. Taiwan is in as good a position as any nation to build a reputation as the standard-bearer for eco-textiles and sustainable manufacturing practices.

Such a reputation would benefit Taiwan on many levels. It would contribute to a virtuous cycle, where a positive reputation among consumers would lead to further growth, which in turn would result in greater investment, leading to more innovation. Not only would such a campaign help distance Taiwan from rivals such as Korea and China, it could also establish a market position that could be leveraged over decades, similar to Italy’s long-held repute for quality leather. Finally, such a standing would give young Taiwanese brands a solid foundation upon which to build their own brands as the Taiwan label becomes synonymous with innovative textiles and global-leading green production practices.

As a brand consultant, I never fail to encourage our clients to build a clear set of associations for their brand. These associations serve to build positive differentiation for their products and their company. Taiwan is one of the few countries in a position to own the association of the world’s leader in functional textile innovation and as the epicenter of sustainable textile manufacturing. It goes without saying that such associations would be desirable associations for any nation. It’s time to move beyond the closed-door promotion of Taiwan’s textiles, and to reveal to the world’s consumers the Taiwanese innovation behind their favorite brands.

The News Lens has been granted permission to republish this article by CommonWelath Magazine. The original can be found here.