The Startups Building A Future Of Zero Fashion Waste
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Guest Post by Lindsay Trombley
Never in the history of the planet has clothing been so cheap and so plentiful. On average, we’re buying five times as much clothing per person as we did thirty years ago. At the same time, average household spend on clothing has plummeted. So how is it that while other consumer prices have risen, clothing prices have dropped so sharply?
The problem of overproduction in fashion
Over the past three decades, the global fashion supply chain has become ever more diffuse and opaque. As the supply chain has globalized, fashion brands’ ability to take advantage of cheap labor in developing markets has translated into a precipitous drop in clothing prices. Overseas garment factories are incentivized to keep their production lines operating as close to 100% utilization as possible, so they offer fashion brands extreme bulk discounts for booking large order quantity production runs. While it’s very expensive on a per-unit basis to produce 100 units of a single style, the per-unit price to produce 10,000 units is shockingly cheap.
Most brands typically overproduce by 30-40%, and of the more than 100 billion new garments produced every year, 20% are never sold at all.
In practical terms, this means it’s cheaper for fashion brands to overproduce—knowing they won’t sell through everything—than it is for them to produce smaller runs in quantities they know they can sell. Most brands typically overproduce by 30-40%, and of the more than 100 billion new garments produced every year, 20% are never sold at all.
Meanwhile, the fashion industry produces about 10% of global carbon emissions globally—more than all international flights and maritime shipping combined. Given the volume of overproduction and waste, it’s clear that tackling these issues would make a huge impact in helping the industry reduce its carbon footprint.
Consumer behavior is changing in response to climate change
Consumer awareness about the climate impact of our various consumption habits is on the rise, and so is willingness to change individual behavior. Consumers say they’re reducing their plastic consumption and eating less meat. In a recent study conducted by the company, Wovn (of which the author is a founder), 99% of consumers said that it was at least somewhat important to them that their fashion choices be sustainable, and over half of them said they’re buying fewer clothes as a result.
Consumer awareness about the climate impact of our various consumption habits is on the rise, and so is willingness to change individual behavior.
The fashion industry is already in for a reckoning over COVID-19. Clothing spending has dropped sharply, and a wave of high-profile bankruptcies has ripped through the industry. If the industry doesn’t address its overproduction issues and adapt to changing consumer views on sustainability, many 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 address overproduction at its roots, to move the industry from mass production to mass customization, and even to challenge the very concept of physical clothing.
Startups bringing customization to the mainstream
One way to address the problem of overproduction is to flip the production model on its head. Rather than producing massive quantities months in advance, new brands are emerging with a made-to-order model, where production of an item begins only once an order has been placed. Unmade, which was 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 at scale, providing photo renderings of the items before the customer places the order.
But making to order doesn’t completely solve the problem; returns can still be problematic. In the U.S. alone, it’s estimated that customers return 3.5 billion products each year, and many of those products go straight to landfills.
Unspun, a startup based in Hong Kong, is applying tech to ensure that the jeans it produces are not only made to order, but made to measure. The company uses 3D body scanners to take customer measurements, then produces a custom pair of jeans.
In the U.S. alone, it’s estimated that customers return 3.5 billion products each year, and many of those products go straight to landfills.
Challenging the very idea of physical clothing
The clothing we choose to wear is a form of self-expression, but what if you could express yourself through fashion without having to buy physical clothing? The Fabricant, an Amsterdam-based startup, is betting that digital fashion can be just as viable an outlet for personal expression as the stuff you physically wear on your body. Last year the company, which describes itself as “a digital fashion house leading the fashion industry towards a new sector of digital-only clothing,” sold a “digital dress” for $9,500 on the blockchain. The idea is that so many of us now use digital channels to show off fashion choices that it’s beginning to make sense to bypass physical production altogether. If an influencer wears a dress once on Instagram before discarding it, it’s certainly less wasteful if that dress is digital.
Addressing overproduction today
We’re probably a long way off from a future where we all subsist on a physical wardrobe of a few basics and express ourselves only through digital garments. But there are more prosaic ways to tackle clothing waste starting right now.
Companies like Wovn can give brands access to consumers so they can find out which bets are the right ones to place based on real consumer sentiment. Much of the decision-making that brands do today about which styles to produce and in which quantities is still driven by past purchase patterns and trend forecasting agencies, which often fail to accurately predict what consumers will want to buy in the future.
We may never reach a future of zero fashion waste, through the smart application of technology and innovation, we can certainly get a lot closer than we are today.
Lindsay Trombley is a cofounder of Wovn and a Founder in Residence at Founders Factory.