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Can Smarter Manufacturing Solve Fashion’s ‘Mismatch’ of Supply and Demand?

Fashion’s wasteful ways are in need of a change, and industry insiders are using the relative pause afforded by the Covid crisis to delve into the issues.

At the virtual Fashion and Sustainability Summit hosted by Fashiondex on Thursday, experts from sourcing and manufacturing companies weighed in on the sector’s negative environmental impact, and how it can embrace a more sustainable future by producing only what it needs.

David Prentice, senior vice president of sales for OnPoint Manufacturing, an Alabama-based made-to-order apparel manufacturer, said that his company intends to disrupt the cycle of overproduction. “There really wasn’t anything on demand in this industry, which is why there’s a dump truck of textiles going to landfill every second,” he said. “We’re trying to shake up this industry a bit and change things.”

OnPoint, unlike its counterparts across the globe, does not have minimum order quantities. Instead, the company only produces a garment when it is sold, ensuring that it ends up in the hands of a consumer and not packed away in a warehouse—or worse.

The solution doesn’t just work for DTC brands or e-commerce businesses, Prentice said. Clients with brick-and-mortar businesses can sell garments through a showroom model, using garment samples to make the sale. Once a shopper places an order in store, the garment is produced in 3-5 days and delivered to their door.

Beth Esponnette, co-founder of made-to-order denim manufacturer Unspun, said she was inspired to start her business because she “saw a mismatch between what is made in the industry and what people actually want to buy.”

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The Silicon Valley upstart believed that tech could be the key to eliminating waste in the supply chain. “We’ve started a fashion tech company so that we can make product on demand, and make it for someone—exactly as they want it,” Esponnette said.

In order to start the process of ordering their custom-fitted jeans, shoppers must first download a mobile app, which creates a set of measurements for them using just a few quick smartphone camera snaps. Then, they upload their data and choose their preferred style, along with the details they’d like to personalize.

Unspun has partnered with H&M and other major players, allowing them to use its technology. “We see this as a way for the industry to be more inclusive, and also avoid excess inventory,” Esponnette said.

The co-founder’s next objective is to make on-demand manufacturing “much quicker” than its current capabilities. Unspun’s own time frame for creating a pair of jeans is about two weeks, while companies like H&M, which have much larger operations and sophisticated manufacturing infrastructures, can turn around a pair in five days. “We’re trying to get it down to a couple of hours,” she said.

Clover and Cobbler, a Los Angeles-based footwear factory, has also done away with minimum order quantities, with each pair of shoes made to order. Brands can place higher volume orders, according to owner and designer Jaclyn Jones, from just a few pairs to hundreds, if they so desire.

The factory prides itself on making its shoes from scratch, even cutting insoles and cobbling wooden heels in house. There’s no waste, she said, from unused materials or pieces of shoes that might never make it to production.

Clover’s business model has generated interest from established brands and industry fledglings alike. They cite different reasons for wanting to bring their operations stateside, ranging from tariffs to sustainability and human-rights concerns.

Jones said that while she’s buoyed by the interest, it’s been challenging to scale the business and meet the demands of companies that are used to manufacturing internationally. “They’re coming to us expecting the same prices as overseas,” she said.

“There are some changes they have to make and it works a little differently here, but there are major benefits,” she added, including shortened timelines, easy communication, and physical access to the factories. “You can come in and see where your shoes are on the line—you can come in and say, ‘This is exactly what I want.’”

Chung Yu, director of New York-based clothing manufacturer MCM Enterprise, said the company’s made-to-order businesses has skyrocketed in recent years as brands and retailers with private labels want to provide shoppers with “faster fashion,” or smaller batches of product with a quicker turnaround.

This new way of manufacturing disrupts the cycle of markdowns and discounts that come with overproduction, Yu said. MCM also helps brands create samples, he said, that they use to sell into retail. If a style falls flat and doesn’t move forward into production, there’s little harm done.

While manufacturing apparel in the U.S. has historically been difficult, the movement seems to be having a resurgence, according to Ngozi Okaro, founder of the Custom Collaborative. The group provides a non-profit workforce development and entrepreneurship program with the aim of training women from low-income and immigrant communities in fashion-related vocations, including apparel manufacturing.

In addition to teaching participants about sustainability best practices, finance and creating business plans, the group does some small-batch production of its own. “Seven women have started their own production cooperative,” Okaro said, and she hopes there will be more to come.

Women in the program will continue to band together to form more fashion-focused businesses or to reform existing companies into cooperatively owned ones, she said. “We want to train them on the most in-demand skills,” she said, “and train them to be leaders.”