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Why Quality Is Key to Fashion’s Sustainability Debate

Concerns about inventory was central to the discussions at Lectra’s recent Ideation on the Road conference at the Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandising (FIDM), with experts agreeing that brands are gambling with their futures by investing in too much stock.

“You might as well be in Vegas” if you’re holding too much finished goods inventory, according to Kornit Digital vice president of sales and marketing Don Whaley. The producer of on-demand printing solutions has seen an uptick in interest from brands that have found themselves with “the wrong product in the right place at the wrong time”—ultimately leading to huge amounts of waste.

“I think a lot of the brands are just in recovery mode right now,” Whaley said. “I think people are digging themselves out of ditches” and paying a “penalty” for cash flow pressures and inventory stacking early in the year. Now brands large and small are looking to inject some agility into their value chains by integrating digital finishing solutions “as a complement to traditional off-shore, analog production.”

Whaley said California’s Zumiez has transitioned to a just-in-time model over the past five years. Because the youth-centric mall retailer deals in “very dynamic, very trendy” product for young shoppers, “demand is really difficult to predict.” On-demand finishing processes such as printing allow the chain to replenish products quickly, moving stock out of warehouses and onto store shelves on a daily basis. This keeps irrelevant inventory from piling up in storage.

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Driving efficiency can help companies streamline costs—and that’s something brands across the sector should be focused on in light of economic pressures, according to White Oak Commercial Finance executive vice president and managing director Gino Clark, who has seen a 4 percent increase in interest expenses. “I do expect to see those increases continue next year, and so those are just another added cost in addition to the inflationary pressures that we’re seeing,” he added.

White Oak, which works with dozens of fashion brands and retailers, provides financing for brands with “a very quick-turning product,” Clark said. “So by eliminating or reducing waste, you see a very quick cash conversion process, inventory turnovers start to speed up.” One through line Clark has noticed across successful businesses is a focus on quality and sustainability. “What we see on the financing side is you see a much quicker turnover of the assets [in companies] that are able to incorporate superior products made out of recycled goods or using superior processes,” he said.

“Just producing garments that are made to last alone is a huge factor in not creating waste, along with not putting unnecessary product out into the market that just has to be clearanced out” at the end of a season, Carhartt manager of technical design Tiffany Radon said. “The majority of Carhartt’s product line every season is carryover products, and consumers know us for them and have come to expect that.” Keeping SKU count relatively low, along with revamping product development processes with digital systems that reduce sampling, have also saved the company time and money.

Awenate Cobbina (L) and Mordechai Rubinstein pose for a photo during the Filson 125 years of legacy and tradition celebration on Oct. 5, 2022 in Seattle. Photo by Mat Hayward/Getty Images for Filson

Outerwear and leather goods specialist Filson is focused on promoting longevity and repair, according to technical design manager Sarah Mims. “Our customers do pay for sustainability, but I don’t think they necessarily think of it as sustainability—they just know it’s made out of materials that are going to last forever,” she said. The company, which owns some of its manufacturing facilities employing operators with tenures of more than a decade, offers repair services for goods that have been damaged, extending their useful life. Its in-house restoration department also makes new products from older bags that have been returned by customers, transforming them into one-of-a-kind pieces that retail for much more than their original MSRP, she said.

“I think a lot of people are looking forward toward quality,” FIDM instructor and head of development and production August Ortega said. “And I think what we have to do as designers and consumers and people who are at the top of the chain, is essentially teach the consumer that with quality comes sustainability.”

“I do think there’s a social consciousness that’s kind of brewing,” added Whaley, who believes shoppers will only be willing to pay more for sustainable goods “if they see tangible value in the performance of that clothing. They’re not going to do it just on a goodwill basis.”