Guest Post by Lindsay Trombley
Never in the history of this planet has clothing been so cheap and abundant. On average, we buy five times as many clothes per person like we did thirty years ago. At the same time, the average household expenditure on clothing has been fall down. So how is it possible that while the prices of other consumers are rising, the prices of clothes are falling so sharply?
Overproduction problem in fashion
Over the past three decades, the global fashion supply chain has become increasingly scattered and opaque. As supply chains have globalized, the ability of fashion brands to tap into cheap labor in emerging markets has translated into a sharp decline in clothing prices. Garment factories overseas are incentivized to keep their production lines operating as close to 100% utilization as possible, so they offer big discounts to fashion brands for ordering large quantities of production. Although it is very expensive to produce per unit to produce 100 units of a single model, the price per unit to produce 10,000 units is very cheap.
Most brands usually 30-40% overproduction, and of the more than 100 billion new garments produced each year, 20% are never sold at all.
In practical terms, this means that it is cheaper for a fashion brand to overproduce – knowing they are not going to sell everything – than it is for a fashion brand to produce less in the quantity they know they can sell. Most brands usually 30-40% overproduction, and of the more than 100 billion new garments produced each year, 20% are never sold at all.
Meanwhile the fashion industry produces approx 10% of global carbon emissions globally – more than all international flights and ocean shipments combined. Given the volume of excess production and waste, it is clear that tackling these problems will have a major impact in helping the industry reduce its carbon footprint.
Consumer behavior changes in response to climate change
Consumer awareness of the climate impacts of our various consumption habits is on the rise, as is the desire to change individual behavior. Consumers say they consume less plastic and eat less meat. In a recent study conducted by the company, Wovn (of which the author is founder), 99% of consumers said that it is at least somewhat important to them that their fashion choices are sustainable, and as a result more than half of them say they buy less clothes.
Consumer awareness of the climate impacts of our various consumption habits is on the rise, as is the desire to change individual behavior.
The fashion industry is already taking COVID-19 into account. Clothing shopping has fell sharply, and a wave of high-profile bankruptcies has ripped through the industry. If the industry doesn’t address the problem of overproduction and adapt to changing consumers’ views on sustainability, more brands are likely to fail.
The global fashion industry is worth $ 2.5 trillion, and change won’t happen overnight. But there are signs of progress. A new wave of startups is emerging to help tackle overproduction at its roots, to move the industry from mass production to mass customization, and even to challenge the concept of physical clothing.
Startups are bringing customization into the mainstream
One way to solve the problem of overproduction is to reverse the production model. Rather than producing large quantities in previous months, New brands have sprung up with custom made models, where production of an item starts only after the order is placed. Not tidied up yet, which started in London in 2014 and has raised $ 12 million to date, supplies technology that enables fashion and sportswear brands to let their customers place custom orders on a large scale, providing photo rendering of items before customers place orders.
But making orders doesn’t completely solve the problem; returns can still be problematic. In the US alone, an estimated customer returns 3.5 billion products annually, and many of these products go straight to landfills.
Unspun, a startup based in Hong Kong, applies technology to ensure that the jeans produced are not only to order, but also to size. The company uses a 3D body scanner to take customer measurements, then manufactures custom jeans.
In the US alone, it is estimated that customers return 3.5 billion products annually, and many of these products go directly to landfills.
Challenging ideas about physical clothing
The clothes we choose to wear are a form of self-expression, but what if you could express yourself through fashion without having to buy physical clothes? The Fabricant, an Amsterdam-based start-up, is betting that digital fashion can be a viable channel for personal expression such as the stuff you physically wear on your body. Last year a company that described itself as “a digital fashion house leading the fashion industry into a new sector of digital specialty clothing”, selling “digital dresses” for $ 9,500 on the blockchain. The idea is that so many of us now use digital channels to flaunt fashion choices that it makes sense to ignore physical production altogether. If an influencer has worn a dress on Instagram once before throwing it away, it is certainly less wasteful if the dress is digital.
Overcome today’s overproduction
We may be far from a future where we all live in physical clothing from some basics and express ourselves only through digital clothing. But there are more mundane ways of dealing with clothing waste from now on.
Companies like Wovn can provide consumers with brand access so they can know which bets are right to place based on true consumer sentiment. Much of the decisions brands make today about which styles to produce and where the numbers are still driven by past buying patterns and trend-forecasting agents, who often fail to accurately predict what consumers want to buy in the future.
We may never reach a future without wasting fashion, through smart application of technology and innovation, we can definitely become closer than we are today.