Price is often the biggest impediment for consumers to choose a sustainable product option, and this cost concern extends to companies’ production and sourcing decisions. A recent McKinsey study of chief purchasing officers at fashion firms found that cost was the second-biggest hurdle to adopting sustainable materials.
But what if price- and eco-consciousness don’t have to be mutually exclusive priorities? India-based apparel manufacturer IIPI Sourcing is proving that investing in responsible production doesn’t have to mean sacrificing the bottom line or affordability.
“At its purest, fast fashion was a term signifying how quickly a trend could be replicated for the masses,” said Juhi Gupta, design head at IIPI Sourcing. “Before long, it also became a term signifying how cheaply could a trend be replicated for the market, with retailers falling over themselves to mass produce hundreds of millions of cheap on-trend clothing. We at IIPI would like to offer responsible fast fashion to our customers, which keeps up the spirit of the original idea, replicating the latest trends quickly and manufacturing them competitively.”
IIPI is able to quickly deliver on trends in a sustainable fashion by leveraging a vast library of eco-friendly textiles. “By having an established supply chain of organic and recycled suppliers, we’re able to generate lead times at par with traditional styles or fabrics,” said Shama Erum, head of merchandising at IIPI, who works closely with design to cost collections as they are developed and help customers in making the most cost-efficient design decisions.
A little more than 50 percent of the raw materials that IIPI currently uses are organic, from fabric, thread and trim to packaging materials and labels. The company plans to raise that figure to 100 percent organic and recycled raw materials by the end of 2021 by expanding its existing network of suppliers. “To our clients, there is no downside,” said Erum. “We’re certain that when we offer to our customers the same price or even less for any product they wish for in 100 percent organic and recycled fabrics, they definitely aren’t going to say no.”
Aside from material sourcing, one of the other factors that has allowed IIPI to balance sustainability and efficiency is its focus on healthy rather than unlimited growth. When it began its sustainability journey in early 2019, IIPI sought to get away from the business model of rapidly scaling up factory space, because building up standing capacity can often create pressure to accept cheap or large orders or waste resources such as water, electricity and real estate.
“There’s a big question in everyone’s mind about the challenges that come with doing sustainability in an affordable manner,” said Ritesh Nair, IIPI’s co-founder and director. “The truth is, there are no challenges. We discovered early on that challenges in a traditional supply chain begin due to unchecked scale and thereafter pile up. We aren’t looking to be infinitely scalable.”
According to the company’s co-founder and director of operations, Sarwan Sharma, this strategy of sustainable expansion has actually helped IIPI save costs compared to its local as well as global competitors in markets such as China and even Bangladesh. In one year flat, Sarwan Sharma said, “Our factories run at extremely high per-machine capacity, we optimize our lead times fantastically and we save on so many killer overheads like electricity and real estate, the benefits of which we pass on carte blanche to our customers so they do not need to compromise on choosing cheaper fabrics.”
Nair, Sarwan Sharma and IIPI’s director and finance head Kushal Sharma collaborated to create a new sustainable business model by combining their factories and other business units including digital printing and washing. “Sometimes the easiest way to solve a problem is to stop participating in the problem,” said Sarwan Sharma. “It might appear to be contrary at first glance, however we understood sustainability as a yardstick which would help us be more efficient in the long run, and therefore reduce cost.”
“We’ve incorporated technology where it counts—to minimize waste,” added Nair. IIPI has deliberately chosen the areas to technologically innovate that may be less visible, but make up the highest cost component. For instance, IIPI is using internal printing machines that are 100 percent digital that use 40 percent less ink and have the added benefit of no MOQ constraints and no limits in color, size and repeat. Meanwhile, per Nair, “We’re actually not investing in 3D sampling because it’s not saving any cost in the supply chain, and moreover we believe fashion is also passion. There’s nothing to ever beat feeling a sample in your own hands, fitting them before one takes crucial buy decisions.”
IIPI is also helping its customers reduce overproduction and the tons of clothes destined for landfills by offering the ability to test small batches of a particular style. For a similar per-item cost to a larger production run, clients can quickly have 1,500 fast-fashion pieces or about 500 designer garments made.
The unsustainability of the typical fashion model with unchecked scaling has become even more apparent during the COVID-19 pandemic, as inventory piles up and canceled orders deal blows to developing economies that count on apparel manufacturing. “Without the billions of cheap easily disposable clothing growing year on year, such unsustainable factory bases would not have been required or created,” said Kushal Sharma.
Starting with sustainability
IIPI Sourcing was founded on the principles of five R’s: reimagine, redesign, reuse, reduce and recycle. Contrary to many long-established firms that have needed to shift gears to address environmental and social consciousness, IIPI sees it as an advantage that this has been its focus from day one.
“We felt that with sustainability as our guiding principle, we could innovate ‘less,’ in the sense that we could innovate to reduce all the harmful choices we end up making in the name of innovation and freshness,” said Kushal Sharma. “We realized at the time we were forming IIPI that if we have to be truly sustainable, we needed to build a culture from the ground up that understands that innovation without direction just creates more problems.”
This is also the lens through which IIPI develops new processes and offerings. For instance, in response to the coronavirus, IIPI has begun to manufacture cloth masks using eco-friendly materials in the U.S. This is in line with its vision of innovation with direction to solve relevant problems. “We’re learning from this unprecedented crisis to combine technology and fashion yet again,” said Kushal.
IIPI’s factory has received authorization by the Indian government’s Defence Research and Development Organisation for N95 masks, and its product achieves 99 percent filtration efficiency. The company is delivering masks to frontline health workers, and it is also encouraging broader use of these masks by the general public by adding color and style to the base N95 design to raise their appeal.
The production company will soon be offering antibacterial, antimicrobial N95 masks for customers in the U.S. market, and it is already working with some of its clients to develop prototypes. “We’re offering our clients fashionable N95 grade masks matching to their apparel colors and fabrics, and this idea has been very well received,” said Nair. “We are certain it will provide a timely value addition to the end customers.”
Click here to learn more about IIPI Sourcing.