Less stuff, more profit
Updated: Sep 21, 2020
Many clothing brands are seeking greater speed to market, innovation and sustainability whilst maintaining quality. They should engage more with localised manufacturing based on digital technologies that deliver more sustainable production and consumption than conventional apparel manufacturing supply chains.
High volume clothing supply has evolved into a long, geographically diverse chain of operations. At one end are factories located in countries that have been chosen because of their low labour, resource and pollution costs, often because issues of governance. At the other end are consumers, who are increasingly becoming used to buying at a discount, due to the overproduction that such a model generates when product demand is less than expected or consumer preferences become hard to predict.
Whilst various well-known initiatives led by industry, researchers or NGOs deal with hazardous chemicals in the environment, recycling and the circular economy, the sheer volume of material put onto the market and purchased by consumers is seen by many commentators to be the biggest problem which may or may not be solvable. Since this volume is often sold at a discount, better matching of supply and demand would lead to less mark down and less stock. Speedier supply supply chains can help achieve this, among other goals. Thus most retailers and brands are attempting to speed up the production process. Supply chain management organisations are likewise restructuring in response to this signal from their customers. From a sustainability perspective, a demand-led approach is attractive. Other advantages of faster, more localised production for brands in most developed countries include lower external risks, for example currency, country political, weather and long term climate change. Thus there emerges a rare thing - a financial incentive for brands to encourage more sustainable consumption.
Combined with the increased speed to market that many brands and retailers and brands are seeking, it is surprising that more attention has not been given to the new models of manufacturing that are being made possible. Whilst “See Now, Buy Now” may either be a fad of the luxury industry, or an enduring change, it still relies on conventional making and stocking – the “Make Now” has not been achieved.
We note and applaud the work being done on different “speeds” of circulation of material in fashion that can also inform this issue. This ranges from the encouragement of slow fashion to creative ways of designing materials suitable for more sustainable fast fashion.
New manufacturing models: push vs pull
Other sectors with higher value manufactured goods than apparel such as aerospace and automotive are already investing in Industry 4.0 initiatives that include digitisation of the supply chain, greater use of data and information flows between customers and manufacturers and within the manufacturing process, combined with new manufacturing technologies such as additive manufacturing. Whilst apparel is held back by its lower product value, it has the example of the rapid uptake of digital textile printing and its increasing diffusion into new applications. Integration of design digitisation with digital printing, automated cutting and with manual or automated making up has led to the creation of pilot microfactories for “greige to garment” manufacturing. A commercial example of this approach is the launch of the US company Sustainable Apparel Solutions.
Footwear has already embraced this concept, from Nike’s ability to offer customised products to Adidas’ “Speedfactory” concept.
It is easy to see how a similar approach could be taken in knitwear, combining zero waste approaches such as whole garment knitting with sophisticated garment printing to produce a wide range of printed knitwear with very low MOQs, at speed. The idea of making in white and then printing unique customised designs on the finished garment is being developed by Faering using high specification flatbed digital printing.
Digital printing is not the only technique that can be used: the use of lasers for decoration, cutting and in the dyeing/printing process is at different levels of adoption and development, but may hold substantial promise if integrated into low MOQ production.
At the same time, software-orientated fashion-tech companies such as Unmade are creating tools to facilitate rapid transition from design to manufacturing. For example a customised design on a website can be transmitted directly to a knitting or printing machine to create a bespoke product.
The ultimate objective is for customers to pull production through a speedy and responsive supply chain, rather than the current system of making large volumes of product that eventually require pushing onto customers through discounting.
Sustainability in production
Published results to date show that applying techniques such as digital printing within conventional supply chains results in only modest improvements in environmental sustainability performance. For example, a life cycle assessment carried out by VTT in 2014 comparing the screen printing and digital printing of cotton identified only modest improvements, which became more relatively more significant as the volume printed was reduced. Similarly, in other industries additive manufacturing, when deployed in conventional manufacturing supply chains, generally fails to demonstrate substantial improvements in impacts such as overall energy use.
Such examples indicate that substantial environmental and social benefits are only likely to be achieved when the supply chain is reconfigured and the benefits of a more precise match between demand and supply are realised. Alternatively, technological innovation may allow for the elimination of whole process steps, when much greater improvements may be possible. One example is the use of lasers or water jetting in the distressing of denim; or the replacement of the complete indigo dyeing and subsequent industrial laundry of denim with a digitally printed garment. Where these are not yet commercially implemented there is necessarily a degree of speculation about the gains that may be possible.
Whilst volume retailing has many current challenges, from the challenge of new eCommerce competitors to the saturation of many of its markets, one area it has not helped itself has been in the frequent discounting of its products. This has led to greater consumer expectations of buying at a discount, creating a vicious circle of reduced margins, increased price pressure on the manufacturing base leading to greater environmental and social risks.
In contrast, the trend to greater customisation of apparel has been much commented in the last few years and offers the potential for increased margin, if the manufacturing challenges can be overcome.
From a sustainability perspective, the greater involvement of the consumer in the design and making process may create greater attachment and hence increase the effective lifetime of the product. For example, a scarf with greater personal meaning is likely to be kept and used more than one without. This may help to increase the overall utilisation of clothing, recently estimated to be in steady decline. In this way the benefits of more flexible supply chains operating at very low MOQs may extend beyond production into more sustainable consumption patterns.
Whilst seeking to reduce time to market to that of the speed-leaders such Boohoo or ASOS, disruptive and radical re-engineering of the supply chain should be considered, as well as simply trying to make the existing model move faster.
Ironically the tools to create these new supply chains are being developed by the luxury sector, where speed is often less important. Their wider adoption would herald the beginning of a more attractive and sustainable model for the fashion supply chain than currently exists.
Nicholas Morley is co-founder of Faering Ltd, a design/manufacturing start-up based around digital printing on knitwear www.faering.co.uk. He was chair of Mistra Future Fashion, the world’s largest research programme in sustainable fashion funded by MISTRA, the Swedish Foundation for Strategic Environmental Research www.mistrafuturefashion.org
 A defence of this system could use arguments that cheap labour and resources were part of a country’s specialism that should be traded. Arguments against would point to underdeveloped or ineffective governance and to damaging practices against people and the environment  See for example https://www.businessoffashion.com/articles/intelligence/can-american-retailers-department-stores-jcrew-gap-quit-the-discounting-promotions-drug  See for example the 2018 Climate Works/Quantis report on climate change impact of the apparel supply chain http://www.climateworks.org/report/measuring-fashion-global-study/  For example the outdoor brand Houdini has recently adopted an explicit long term sustainability goal of 100% demand-driven supply resulting in zero overproduction or clearance  The work of Dr Kate Fletcher, Professor Rebecca Earley, Dr Kate Goldsworthy and of the Mistra Future Fashion research programme is of particular note.  A microfactory concept based on digital printing was presented at Texprocess in 2017 https://www.researchgate.net/profile/Marjukka_Kujanpaeae/publication/267513023_Environmental_performance_of_future_digital_textile_printing/links/5451f7df0cf24884d88722ca/Environmental-performance-of-future-digital-textile-printing.pdf  See Figure 1 in the recent Circular Fibres Initiative report by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation https://www.ellenmacarthurfoundation.org/assets/downloads/A-New-Textiles-Economy_Summary-of-Findings_Updated_1-12-17.pdf