Will tech fix fashion’s environmental problems?

Source: Unmade
Jan 17, 2018
Matthew Stern

Environmental sustainability is more important than ever to customers, but the fashion industry is notorious for its wasteful supply chain and other practices unpopular with the environmentally conscious. In a session at the 2018 National Retail Federation Big Show in New York City, three fashion startups detailed different steps they’re taking to solve fashion’s environmental problem.

Ben Alun-Jones, co-founder and creative director of Unmade, said that conservatively, 10 percent of products each season go unsold and end up in landfills. Unmade’s business model is designed, at least in part, to address this problem.

Unmade is a platform through which fashion brands can enable e-commerce customers to customize the clothing they order within the parameters the brand specifies. The company claims to be able to facilitate the manufacture of highly-customized and individualized orders at the same speed and cost as mass-produced ones.

“We looked at the way that the fashion industry was working and, having come from different industries where we were making electronics or different products, you have a very responsive supply chain and this didn’t exist in fashion,” Mr. Alun-Jones said. “When we saw an industrial knitting machine … [we thought] this is everything you need to get started, but no one in the fashion industry seemed to be looking at it the same way we were.”

House of Fluff is a new fashion brand focused on sustainability. CEO and Creative Director Kym Canter said that the company uses only recycled plastics, makes everything at a fair trade factory in NYC and turns factory floor scraps into plush characters called “Scrappies.”

The brand recently opened a zero-waste pop-up store with all products made from materials salvaged in upstate New York, such as discarded car mufflers.

And biotech/fashion company Modern Meadow is bringing “bioleather” to market for the first time in 2018 after years of development. Bioleather is created by growing living collagen cells in a lab, synthesizing and texturing them into a product with qualities similar to leather (along with its own unique aesthetic qualities). CCO Suzanne Lee saw this innovation as beneficial both for animal welfare and preventing waste.

“We only grow what we need; we only form that into the shape of the product that you want,” Ms. Lee said.

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS: Will shoppers be attracted to the types of solutions discussed in the article at a high enough rate to significantly reduce fashion’s environmental impact? Which of these approaches is most promising, both in terms of effectiveness in waste reduction at scale and in its chances for widespread adoption?

Please practice The RetailWire Golden Rule when submitting your comments.
"At the core, we all want to help — innovative brands can facilitate our willingness to help."
"I like all of these ideas and I’m really curious if shoppers will care enough in large numbers to provide growth opportunities."
"The paradox is that consumers also are very interested in fast fashion, an area that has essentially become the leader in clothing waste."

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13 Comments on "Will tech fix fashion’s environmental problems?"

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Max Goldberg

Many shoppers, particularly Millennials, will be interested in fashion products that reduce waste and/or use recycled materials. These new companies make sustainability their brand message. If that message is coupled with desirable styles, at reasonable prices, these companies could set a trend for the future.

Kim Garretson

Also important to this discussion is the incredible amount of unsold used clothing from thrift stores that ends up in landfills. A 2013 report estimated this at 12.8 million tons a year. While the thrift stores have several options other than their retail stores, for recycling used clothing donations, this volume of trashed clothing far exceeds what the fashion brands send to landfills. There is a good roundup of this issue here.

Neil Saunders

Consumers say that environmental considerations are important when buying clothing, but their actions do not always match their words. The vast majority place ethical considerations way behind factors like price, convenience, design and so forth.

It is almost certain that these types of company will grow, but it is also almost certain they will remain niche. What is more likely is that bigger chains will incorporate more sustainable methods in their production, albeit to a limited degree.

I also think the more likely area of growth from consumers who are concerned about the environment is the resale market where resellers like thredUP are already doing very well.

Adrian Weidmann

Environmental responsibility and sustainability are extremely important and relevant. The only way we can affect a meaningful change is by supporting meaningful initiatives with our wallets. Government mandates and laws aren’t nearly as effective as consumer awareness, acceptance and purchases of products made by brands that care. I do believe consumers will respond to these brands as their stories become known. The key is for brands to be honest and sustain their business model. When they slip into the “3 percent of net will be donated … BLAH, BLAH, BLAH … ” shoppers will no longer believe and trust those brands. At the core, we all want to help — innovative brands can facilitate our willingness to help.

Ryan Mathews
The quick direct answer to the question is, no. The only way to achieve really meaningful environmental impact is to convert the mass market end of the supply chain, not just the fringe or tip. If we took the sales of all of the companies mentioned in this article they wouldn’t represent a rounding error on the books of large manufacturers. This is also an example of what used to be called, “first-world thinking.” Most of the planet needs clothing — full stop. Environmental concerns — while they often most directly impact poorer populations — are all too often luxuries only the affluent can afford. As to which is most effective, we need more information. Recycling and repurposing always seems like the best answer but can lead to secondary problems. Frankenclothing seems like a good idea, but the target customers are likely to be the most vocal opponents. Unmade is good in theory, but the fact is many people don’t know what size they really are. So ordering a size-six dress or a 38 regular… Read more »
Joy Chen

Some shoppers will be interested in clothing made of sustainable materials. However, for it to be successful with a fashion brand, it must be a key part of its brand positioning or story and must not impact price value. For some of the major fashion brands, this will be tough to execute. The easier approach may be to identify one thing that has the most impact to the environment and make a change there for improved environmental sustainability.

Brandon Rael

Along with the trust and transparency trend, there is a greater expectation in the consumer market for environmentally conscious clothing manufacturing. That said, the paradox is that consumers also are very interested in fast fashion, an area that has essentially become the leader in clothing waste.

There has to be a balance somewhere. If you couple the Zara/H&M agile, flexible, trend-ready fast fashion along with environmental consciousness, then the downstream impacts to our world won’t be as significant. A more environmentally safe product may have a higher price tag, however the sensible consumer more than likely will be receptive to this.

Technology could be a game changer here.

Meaghan Brophy

All of these approaches are very attractive solutions. However, we won’t see any benefits to the environment until alternatives such as “bioleather” are as affordable as the real thing. Both consumers and retailers are primarily motivated by price. I’m sure some shoppers will choose the environmentally friendly option even if it’s more expensive, but they won’t be the majority. Everyone wants to be sustainable, but only if it’s easy.

Lyle Bunn (Ph.D. Hon)

These firms as profiled at NRF18 indicate interesting alternatives to current mass production practices, but they will be challenged to find their place in the consumer landscape. The cost of gaining profile, customer communications and the volume of customers needed to break even relegate such niche producers to cottage industry and craft fashion status. But I say, let entrepreneurial zeal live on! It will produce at least some more capable management talent.

Cate Trotter

These are all great initiatives and I think all of these developments are worthy endeavours — retail does need to try and tackle its waste and environmental issues and tech is proving a great way to do that. That said at present a large proportion of shoppers are still very value-, and particularly, cost-driven, so until prices are able to be close to what most pay now, especially in fast fashion, widespread adoption is unlikely. There is a subset of shoppers who are very environmentally-conscious and solutions like these will appeal to them. It’s bringing it to the masses that still needs some more work, but that’s not to say it won’t happen.

Camille P. Schuster, PhD.

Personalizing or made-to-order products will have general appeal if that approach can be profitable. However, it is difficult to believe that this approach can be profitable for mass-market sales. Earrings and clothes made out of trash is an even more more difficult sell.

Doug Garnett
Doug Garnett
President, Protonik
1 year 6 months ago

This is a serious environmental problem. That said, with the exception of narrow sets of buyers (whether motivated by environment or “Made in America”) consumers first buy the product that they want … and they’ll buy one with environmental benefit only after being sure it’s a good product and fits what they want.

Too many have attempted to position their clothing lines on environmental care, only to have consumers reject their clothing based on style or quality. Environment is not enough.

Ralph Jacobson

There are several fashion apparel/footwear companies that work externals from their companies to help eliminate sustainability challenges, or they donate to environmental causes. However, it is less common to see this approach internally. There have been some efforts to reduce waste along the manufacturing supply chain, from the raw materials suppliers all the way through the process. I like all of these ideas and I’m really curious if shoppers will care enough in large numbers to provide growth opportunities. Or will the target audience be more niche? Time will tell.

"At the core, we all want to help — innovative brands can facilitate our willingness to help."
"I like all of these ideas and I’m really curious if shoppers will care enough in large numbers to provide growth opportunities."
"The paradox is that consumers also are very interested in fast fashion, an area that has essentially become the leader in clothing waste."

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