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.