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The Return of Value: New Pricing Models for a Circular Textile Industry

If you think about it, the definition of value has changed drastically in the textile and apparel industry. Prior to industrialization, apparel and the textiles that comprised them were prized possessions. The average person had their “best” outfits and their “every day” clothes. Careful mending, darning, replacing a cuff or collar, and other repair work kept clothes in shape for as long as possible.

When someone occasionally acquired something new, the old “best” moved into the “second best” position in the closet and “second best” became “every day” or was passed down to another member of the family. Clothing that eventually became unwearable was converted into rags and batting for other household products. The lifetime for a piece of apparel was treasured, long, and diverse.

Even the emergence of ready to wear and apparel retail in the 1950’s and 60’s didn’t quite shake the respect people had for their closets. While the middle-class closet expanded dramatically into the 1970’s and 80’s, clothing’s shift from valued possession to commodity accelerated with the rise of fast fashion and mass retail.

The value equation for apparel underwent an upheaval. Price ruled, and the cheaper the better. According to Bloomberg News, since the early 1990s, apparel prices have actually fallen as a result of cheaper overseas production and the rise of lower-cost sales channels. From its peak in 1993, the price of women’s apparel is down 23 percent; men’s apparel is down 10 percent after topping out in 1998.

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Like frogs in boiling water, consumers didn’t notice as quality was slowly pulled out of apparel to hit an ever-dropping price point. Besides, with the loss of quality, clothing became disposable, either because it wore out in a season or went out of fashion. Consumers didn’t mind—everything could be easily replaced with something new on the next trip to the mall.

That attitude about apparel has been slowly but inevitably changing as the impact of unbridled apparel consumption is made more public. The environmental burden of textile production and disposal is becoming more apparent, not to mention the social weight of cheap manufacturing. Consumers who have been enlightened have started to rethink their apparel purchases within the context of sustainability. Perhaps, that apparel value equation of old has started to come back full circle.

Talking to consumers reveals that the concepts of quality, longevity, versatility, and responsibility are taking their rightful places beside price in the reemerging value equation. Consumers are willing to pay more for quality even if that means buying fewer items. They are starting to think about garments in new ways, from where, how, and from what they were made to what happens at the end of their useful lives, which is now much longer than a single mini-season.

Visionary brands, retailers, and textile companies have been elevating their offerings accordingly as well as embracing sustainability and transparency at the same time. Products made with recycled content and full consideration for the environment, clothing that is designed to last, and supply chain openness and traceability that appeals to questioning consumers are all important elements of a lasting transition to sustainability. These industry leaders, along with innovations like blockchain technology, DNA marking, and global information management systems, have made possible the transparency and accountability necessary for a more sustainable apparel market.

As apparel mindsets and values change, so too must the pricing models the industry has relied upon since the very beginning. Straight line cost-based and even market-based accounting approaches are losing relevance as more pricing model creativity is developed or transferred to apparel from other markets.

Think about planes and automobiles. When major airlines shifted to the hub-and-spoke model in the 1980s, economic changes were inevitable. Flights to and from the critical hubs were priced lower, while tickets to off-track destinations were more costly. Then upstart airlines turned those pricing models upside down once again. The menu pricing these companies introduced lets travelers thoroughly customize their flights. Those who care about seat assignments, baggage, early boarding, or food have the option to pay for these services or not. Even the airline behemoths have embraced this approach.

Automobile renting is more fluid these days as well. Companies have extended their reach through partnerships with airlines, retailers, banks, and other companies with access to potential customers.  Renters can choose to pay based on make and size of car as well as lease duration and location.  Companies are even factoring in the new car experience, pricing new automobiles higher and making used cars more affordable for renters. Rather than sending these older cars to the dump, companies are positioning them for a price-sensitive market and extending the useful life of their inventory.

Can these pricing model innovations have relevance in the textile and apparel industry? Absolutely.

Consider the rise of vintage, apparel rentals, and swapping/sharing and the documented trend toward less-but-better-is-more thinking. Ultimately, all of these evolving attitudes toward valuing apparel require higher-quality clothing that lasts longer and performs better. That means the initial materials must be more consciously procured and garments more thoughtfully designed and responsibly made.

Merchandisers need to consider a product from its origins to its end. Brands and retailers must convince consumers that value is worth the price and that cost per use is a more relevant consideration than initial out of pocket expenditure. What if consumers were presented with apparel options based on average times to wear and wash, like the uniform industry? Could we then justify the value and cost?

Postponing or even eliminating end of life is a key aspect of circularity.

For apparel, the initial quality of materials and garment construction are absolutely critical but new technology is coming out to make manageable the physical process of recapturing and reassigning clothing to the secondary apparel market where it can be enjoyed again. For example, new scanners can identify fiber type, size, origin, brand, and other sustainability and quality aspects of a garment quickly so that fact-based decisions can be made about where the garment should be redirected and how it should be priced. (Remember that rental car model?)

Marry this technology with blockchain and DNA marking technologies and, most of all, communication and collaboration throughout the supply chain and you will get new pricing models that drive apparel toward circularity while meeting the advancing—or perhaps resurrected— expectations consumers have for sustainable, responsible, personally valued apparel.

Tricia Carey is the director of global business development for denim at Lenzing Fibers.