Fashion companies that keep pace with manufacturing and production know that one common thread that arises repeatedly is how complex and slow-moving the legacy fashion and textile industry is. Offshoring, waste, and inefficiency are the rule, not the exception, and progress towards a more effective and sustainable model is still terribly slow as the industry remains pegged among the worst polluters in the world.
The World Economic Forum estimates fashion and textiles make up 10 percent of the world’s carbon emissions. If that weren’t bad enough, more than 85 percent of all textiles produced go into dumpsters each year. While that’s no revelation for those familiar with the industry, what may be surprising is there’s little being done to change this dynamic, despite the call for change.
On the contrary, the Harvard Business Review notes the industry is actually moving backwards, with reports indicating the call for sustainable fashion hasn’t translated during the past two decades. Production of shorts and shoes creates more waste than ever before, with 75 percent of items produced being burned or buried in landfills.
So why is material change not happening? A lack of widespread legislation to incentivize or force change still is a key gap. One small point of light is the recently proposed New York Fashion Act mandating the industry shape up or suffer the consequences. If passed, the legislation will require fashion retail sellers and manufacturers to fully disclose all environmental and social diligence policies. In France, emerging is Digital ID, a unique code existing as a twin both on the garment and in the cloud—allowing for universal traceability of products to slow down waste in the fashion industry. But as they say, actions speak louder than words. And in today’s day and age with a new world of creators calling the shots, the time is coming for change that must be targeted and measurable, while also being broad enough to reflect the truly global supply chain upon which the fashion industry relies.
The good news is that the demand side of the market is likely to become a major driving force simply because mass customization, the velocity of changing consumer preferences, and the need to respond immediately will force more nearshore and onshore production. It’s the only way brands and creatives can compete and win in this new demand model.
With the world experiencing a digital transformation like never before, culture is leading the way in change across industries. The post-COVID world saw an acceleration in the creator economy like no one could’ve imagined. The digital-native generation has come of age, and their revolutionary mindset is making its presence felt. According to Statista, TikTok grew nearly twofold among those aged 15-25 after Covid hit, and brands are challenged to effectively engage these new creators (and consumers). Custom-designed fabrics provider Spoonflower—now a subsidiary of Shutterfly—once spoke of an “Etsy army” that had populated their design library with 1.8 million digital creations, each of them ready to print on demand, to be fashioned into any number of do-it-yourself garments, accessories, home goods, or other textile products.
Customers demand immediacy, capturing the moment as it’s experienced. They don’t want to wait weeks or even months to share what they feel. Just look at the music industry. A song plays; it elicits specific emotions and times that make people happy or sad. They want to keep that feeling going, embrace it. Listeners can make this happen by downloading songs or videos quickly and easily. The immediacy of culture is finally matched by the technology and processes to make it happen. Industry can move at the speed of culture.
This culture shift is taking place across almost all creative industries, from music to art. Unfortunately, the one industry that has yet to catch up is fashion and apparel, which typically run on analog supply chains. At a panel discussion during a recent fashion and textile sourcing event in New York, William Brenninkmeyer, global sourcing manager and lead of innovation at C&A, noted, “Chasing trends is impossible with an analog supply chain, where the lead time is 6-8 months. But digital production technologies now enable on-demand fulfillment, so you can bring concepts to production to consumer in two days. It’s incredible.”
This new model taking shape is being driven by digital production. Digital on-demand production empowers producers to channel digital creator and consumer data that encompasses buying behaviors, social media listening, and more into a fulfillment strategy—answering demand for a digital supply chain with greater agility and efficacy than the traditional 18-month forecast cycle. Furthermore, it answers the sustainability imperative by aligning supply with demand, thus minimizing the waste that inevitably comes from forecast-based production. The approach also makes it possible to unleash customization and personalization for micro-communities and even the individual.
In this same event session, Aaron Day, CEO of Amaze Software, said, “The analog supply chain was built to meet a certain need at a certain time, but that world has been disrupted by a cultural shift. When you account for all the associated costs, I think we’re nearing a tipping point where an on-demand t-shirt can be produced cheaper than one produced using a traditional printing press.”
For those just entering the industry, adoption of digital processes might not be that difficult. Consider European-based retail powerhouse C&A. Founded more than 180 years ago, with more than 1,200 physical locations worldwide, C&A embodies every attribute of powerful retail production, yet is still vulnerable in the age of a web-driven “retail apocalypse.” Counterintuitively, such a business sees considerable upside in Web3 technologies that lean into digital transformation, which tap into both emerging consumer trends and individualized content creation.
According to Brenninkmeyer, C&A is investing heavily in digitization to drive “rightshoring” for tailoring fulfillment strategies based on the most effective means of serving different customers and brands. Directly addressing the needs of a creator economy—and fighting legacy challenges of overproduction, sustainability, and inefficient supply chains—on-demand, digital production makes it possible to digitize key pieces of their supply chains to adopt nearshoring more rapidly. This not only helps eliminate supply chain disruptions, but finally capitalizes on the demand for a more sustainable and efficient industry.
The growing ecosystem of available digital technologies provides brands with the capabilities to join and profit from the creator economy; deliver uncompromising, high-quality physical goods; and better align demand with supply, eliminating overproduction waste. They can make the products people want, getting it into their hands faster, and minimizing the risks associated with today’s globalized marketplace.
And it’s all happening now…moving fashion at the speed of digital culture.
Don Whaley is VP marketing at Kornit Digital Americas, a worldwide provider in sustainable, on-demand, digital fashion, apparel and textile production technologies.