When fast fashion first came to prominence in the early 21st century, it was heralded as a savior to the upheaval caused by e-commerce, social media. A 2006 article published in the academic journal The Socio-Economic Review questioned, “Can fast fashion save the U.S. apparel industry?” The theory was that if speed and flexibility became a competitive edge, the mass model would be replaced with localized supply chains, smaller-scale production and more flexible retailing.
But that’s not what happened because fast fashion adopted only speed but not the corresponding flexible supply chain and small-scale manufacturing. Thus, the industry ended up with astronomical overproduction through a buy-wear-replace cycle in which half the garments produced are discarded within a year.
According to the Australasian Circular Textile Association, about 30 percent of garments produced are never sold. It not only amounts to hundreds of billions of dollars lost for businesses, but more importantly it’s also an immeasurable price to pay for the damage to the environment.
How much damage? The discards from consumers in the U.S., according to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), added 10.5 million tons of waste to landfills in a single year. The documentary True Cost states this as 11,000 pieces per hour to landfill.
This overproduction is also pumping climate-changing gas into the air. In fact, every pound of waste from apparel production generates over two pounds of carbon dioxide equivalent (CO2-E), not to mention water waste and pollution. United Nations Environment Programme estimates 20 percent of global wastewater comes from the fashion industry.
The good news is, we’re now in the early days of the next industry upheaval. And this time, mitigating the negative environmental impact of fashion is a primary goal. Technology is facilitating a new era of more sustainable apparel production and consumption, with data science, on-demand production and 3D design technology as key enablers.
In 2018, news about the dollar value of unsold and incinerated inventory at H&M and Burberry left the public shocked and horrified. The reality is, that’s the norm. With consumers’ insatiable appetite for new things, brands typically opt to make too much rather than risk losing sales because they didn’t make enough.
The emergence of technologies for data collection and analysis, however, is enabling a smarter approach to demand versus forecasted production. Taking this further, e-commerce platforms such as StitchFix are using data science to anticipate consumer trends based on customer insights. New technology platforms for trend analytics are also giving inputs to brands on the probabilities of consumer acceptance from the early stages of fashion design.
As the industry strives to produce less and sell more of it, we’re beginning to see major innovations in manufacturing that facilitate smaller-scale, smarter production. Where it used to take a year to move from concept to commerce, the combination of data analytics and automation are enabling much shorter times to market.
The “just-in-time” model has multiple benefits. It requires less capital investment, allows for real-time decision making and results in a better balance of supply and demand. While it may have a higher per-item cost, it balances out because there’s significantly less risk of losses from overproduction and loss of margins from excessive discounting.
With new approaches to supply chain that are increasingly focused on direct to consumer, all these will evolve further.
3D design solutions
Before an item can be produced, it has to be designed and developed, and today that also contributes its fair share to the landfill. In the traditional model, a design of a garment is sent to technical designers to be translated into a document detailing the garment construction. This goes to the patternmaker and then to the sample room for a prototype to be made. This cycle is often repeated as designs, fit and construction iterations occur. It’s time consuming, resource intensive and adds more physical prototypes to the landfill.
With the advent of 3D design technologies, every step of the process is radically more efficient. Now, designers can develop their ideas virtually and visualize them in true-to-life three-dimensional renderings. The 3D digital garment is more than a visualization because it holds all the information that can be used even into manufacturing. This allows the designers, technical designers, pattern team and fit team to work collaboratively, bringing greater creativity without any waste to time and cost.
With 3D technology, companies can create and even merchandise entire collections without making a sample until it needs to. When it is time to start making physical items, all of the digital pieces are in place to ensure everything is produced to intent accurately and consistently.
The push for environmental sustainability in the fashion industry is essentially driving business sustainability as it scales. Companies that embrace technologies for data science, on-demand production and 3D design gain significant competitive advantage. With better time to market and a supply in balance with demand, making less but selling more is good for consumers, good for the planet and good business practices.