The road to sustainability goes through customization and on-demand manufacturing

According to a McKinsey report, the fashion sector was responsible for 2.1 billion metric tons of greenhouse-gas (GHG) emissions in 2018, about 4 percent of the global total— that’s more than France, Germany and the UK combined that year—making it the second largest polluter in the world. The fashion industry is also the second largest consumer of the world’s water supply, accounting for 20 percent of industrial water pollution globally and 79 billion cubic meters of water in 2017 alone. That figure is expected to increase 50% by 2030. 

In addition to the significant monetary motivation to reduce waste, there is the sheer consumer perception as well: The majority (54%) of US adult shoppers agree (43%) or strongly agree (11%) that they are willing to pay more for environmentally friendly products says a report by The Integer Group. Furthermore, according to The Business Research Company, the sustainable fashion market is expected to grow to $9.81 billion in 2025 and $15.17 billion in 2030 at a CAGR of 9.1%, potentially tripling in less than a decade from the $6.35 billion it’s currently worth. 

There are several ways the fashion industry can reduce emissions, water waste and align with a growing voice for sustainability: 

1. Shorten supply chains with mass-customization 

When we say mass-customization, typically what comes to mind is the consumer level, bespoke customization. Although this is a fast growing niche, what we are referring to here is a different application of mass-customization. Think of this as product development by a brand for a small group: targeted demography at the store, city or event level. This does three things: firstly, brands can now experiment with a large variety of new designs and sizes without carrying much physical inventory. Second, use targeted small batch manufacturing to stock store-specific designs and sizes (inventory  targeting). Third, switch to faster production cycles, with shorter supply chains, run with local manufacturing, thus bringing new styles to market significantly faster

Traditionally, what you see as the latest trend for the season has been on someone’s drawing board 60 to 90 days prior! The long production cycles meant making assumptions before all the data was in. A compressed supply chain removes the guesswork, enabling a brand to defer production till it has the needed data, thus capturing the market when and where it matters most, while significantly cutting down on wasted resources. 

When corporations lengthen their supply chains, transporting the product across the world (from countries with fewer fossil fuel restrictions) to end-consumers releases greenhouse gasses at a distressing scale. Ships alone were responsible for emitting more than one billion tons of CO2 and greenhouse gases a year, an estimate which is projected to increase by 50% to 250% by the year 2050.

Re-shoring efforts have been increasingly popular throughout the world for a number of reasons, but the immediate reduction in emissions and the ability to shorten supply chains and make products on-demand has even driven large traditional brands to rethink their mass-produce-overseas strategy in favor of producing small batches locally. 

In addition, mass-customization makes bespoke fashion possible. Research indicates that consumers perceive their customized goods to be more valuable, likely leading to a longer usage of the product. Several studies have shown that customized goods are far less likely to be returned. A reduction in returns alone has the potential to cut emissions significantly, seeing as each return can effectively double the transporting of goods, and is currently more likely to end up in a landfill than back on shelves. 

2. Reduce wastage through on-demand manufacturing 

Dead inventory is costing the US retail industry as much as $50 billion a year, being passed through a chain of discount stores and liquidators before the remaining portion ends up in landfills. 

That is right – a significant percentage of produced apparel, that has used up natural resources and water by the ton, is never even purchased or worn! Although one report puts the wastage anywhere from 20-30% of produced goods, the actual figures are thought to be much higher. 

Brands won’t reveal this number, but some studies have put the production to purchase ratio at 2.4:1 among brands that better manage their inventory to 5.6:1 or higher, among those that don’t. That is 40% to 60% of manufactured products, never being sold and making their way through a chain of discount stores and liquidators before ending up in a landfill or destroyed to protect the brand’s prestige and exclusivity, like in the famous case of Burberry

One obvious solution to tackle fashion’s overproduction problem is by only making what is needed. Although this objective would have once been deemed impossible due to demand volatility and the high minimum order quantities associated with traditional supply chains, on-demand manufacturing is enabling firms to do just that: produce products when there is a demand and without minimum order quantities. 

Made-to-order or on-demand manufacturing ensures that the materials, energy and resources that go into producing a garment will only be deployed if and when there is a demand for it. This has the clear potential to significantly reduce emissions and waste associated with warehouse inventory and overproduction. 

3. Improved machines, processes and responsible materials

Using processes and machines that waste less water and materials is an obvious way for the fashion industry to significantly reduce its impact on the environment. A Bloomberg news article,  explored the use of lasers and software to produce distressed and faded looks on jeans, without using chemicals and water entirely. This, coupled with mass-customization opens the door for bespoke fashion on a jean, while reducing the environmental impact! 

As in the case of Levis, manufacturers can also reuse processed water and explore digital printing on textiles rather than dyeing. In addition, adopting technologies that reduce the need for physical samples and shipping, like virtual product samples, will enable more sustainable product development.

Around 70 million barrels of oil a year are used to make polyester fibres for our clothes. A simple shift to recycled polyester can help reduce carbon emissions by 50% to 75%. Organic cotton and linen are naturally biodegradable fibers which produce 50% less greenhouse emissions compared to synthetic fibers. Till a decade back, retail quality bespoke products with these fabrics were not thought possible. New manufacturing and printing technologies now make it possible to use these fabrics for garment printing, bespoke fashion and on-demand production.

We are here to help

Fashion and the demand for new apparel and accessories is not going anywhere, but we can make the industry more efficient and sustainable.

From mass-customization, print-on-demand, sportswear production optimization, design-to-manufacturing automation to bespoke fashion, we can help with digital technologies for a sustainable future.

We are the industry leading provider of software for mass customization and on-demand manufacturing at scale. Our technology helps apparel brands and their manufacturers bring designs to market significantly faster, expand product lines and make those products on demand.

For more information, visit www.vPersonalize.com or email us at hello@vpersonalize.com

What does it take to reshore manufacturing successfully?

Online sales have exploded during the coronavirus pandemic, as consumers try to stay home more. Online sales at Walmart, Target, and Best Buy in the first quarter increased by 74%, 141%, and 155%, respectively. Meanwhile, the 800-pound gorilla that is Amazon (NASDAQ:AMZN) continued its steady march, growing global online sales by 24%.

The coronavirus pandemic has led to a massive fallout for the world economy. Just in the US alone, over 36 million people have filed initial claims for unemployment benefits over the last seven weeks. The restrictions that were instated to stop the spread of the virus have devastated in-store businesses of all sizes and exposed the vulnerabilities of our global supply chains.

The supply chain disruptions have created longer delivery times. This increased delivery time amid political uncertainties and complicated national trade policies has fostered a strong renaissance towards reshoring, local manufacturing and fulfillment.

In an effort to to blunt recessions many governments are pushing businesses to reevaluate long established supply chains. A lot of energy appears to be focused on stimulus programs aimed at reshoring and strengthening local production and supply networks.

Last month alone, Japan earmarked over $2 billion of its economic stimulus package to help its manufacturers reshore production out of China. French President Macron, a former champion of globalization, has said that their supply chain will need to be focused more locally, while his Minister of Economy, Bruno Le Maire, urged citizens to stock French products. German Chancellor Angela Merkel recently said that the pandemic required a level of sovereignty obtained through a “pillar of domestic production”.

The U.S. Government for some years has been strongly advocating corporations to bring offshored manufacturing back to the US. The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the importance of having access to not just essential goods, but even to seemingly simple products like masks and gloves locally.

Professor Beata Javorcik, chief economist at the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, recently told BBC, “They will re-shore activities that can be automated, because re-shoring brings certainty. You do not have to worry about your national trade policy, and it also gives you an opportunity to diversify your supplier base.”

Jonty Blum of the BBC added, “Although, some factors such as 3D printing, automation, the demand for customization, quick delivery, as well as protectionism were already driving this trend, it seems that Covid-19 has only accelerated that process.”

Many economists are echoing this sentiment: Automation will likely accelerate as companies look to reduce their reliance on low-skill, low-cost labor in other countries while supporting less contact among employees and consolidating steps along the value chain. According to a report published by analyst company Forrester, automation could become the key for businesses to survive the looming recession brought on by COVID-19.

On-demand manufacturing is a key area that has seen unprecedented growth amid demand uncertainty and scarcer resources. The recent demand for face masks is one example: Due to the difficulty involved in anticipating how long the need for masks will continue, or at what rate, the traditional model of producing and keeping stock does not work. With on-demand manufacturing, the products are made after purchase and that ensures the materials and resources aren’t wasted on inventory. Since the product is made bespoke and on-demand, it is possible to add customization. Customization, in turn, increases what consumers are willing to pay and reduces returns, giving companies the ability to sell more products at a higher price. The catch is to do this while maintaining the same operating expense, which is where automation and on-demand manufacturing technology make all the difference between success or failure.

In times of uncertainty, it is only natural to speculate on the future. The one sliver of a silver lining that can be viewed amid this tragic crisis, outside of our reduced contribution to ongoing climate change, is the potential way in which we can recover from this. Hopefully, we will emerge with a stronger industrial strategy and more sustainable, resilient supply chains.

vPersonalize focuses on technologies for mass-customization and on-demand manufacturing at scale. Our technology helps apparel brands and their manufacturers bring designs to market significantly faster and make those products on demand.

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