The Future of Sustainability in the Fashion Industry
It’s been two years now since we opened our virtual doors. If you had of asked me five years ago where I’d be today, I certainly wouldn’t have said selling “sustainable” apparel to one of the worlds largest retailers. But here we are, fumbling our way through this messy industry, and after two years of grinding with my head down, trying to find new and better ways to make apparel, I realized something…
What clothing is made of is actually only a really tiny part of the problem.
There is a major movement within the fashion industry towards sustainability. Brands are popping up left, right and centre, pushing organic cotton, bamboo, hemp, Tencel - you name it. This is awesome, I’m behind it 100% and I don’t want to take away from their progress because they are on the right track. But there’s much bigger problems in the fashion industry than what the clothing is made from.
Material is only one small piece of the huge puzzle that is the fashion industry. If we really want to change this industry’s impact on that planet we need to focus on the way the game is played, not only the pieces it’s played with.
The Fashion Game
This is what we call fast-fashion. The practice of taking runway styles to the shop-floor in a matter of weeks. There’s 52 micro-seasons in fashion now. That’s right, one a week. There’s fall/winter, spring/summer, summer 1 and summer 2 delivery, winter 1 and winter 2 delivery, resort season, then there’s inter-seasons, pre-seasons and it’s all quite dizzying after that. Brands are expected to sell-through clothing to retail stores about 8 months in advance to the four main seasons.
So say Spring/Summer will launch in February (yeah, still winter). That means the brand sells it to the store in August or September. Which means they designed it sometime during the previous summer, a year before. It’s a bit of a guessing game, you have research and estimates, but really until it hits the floor you don’t know a year in advance exactly what’s going to move and what isn’t.
So how are they not losing huge on the stuff that doesn’t sell? They hedge their bets.
Here’s how that works.
- They design a huge line. Lots of different styles, cuts, colours and prints. They take advantage of economies of scale to buy these large quantities offshore for low prices.
- They know a majority of their income is going to come from only a portion of the products, so they price everything up to account for selling the products that don’t move at discounts of 40-70% off.
- They also include in the pricing the possibility of dead-stock (product that just won’t sell.)
This dead product moves through the discount retailer network and what’s left is eventually shipped overseas (countries are now refusing to accept this there is so much) and/or ends up in a landfill.
The brand isn’t losing. They’ve accounted for all of those scenarios in their pricing. That’s how they are still in business, because this happens every single season.
You already know this though, because you see the 70% off sales after Christmas and when summer’s over.
There’s two to four seasons around the world. Most of your clothing is functional across all of them. Anything in excess of that has been created by the fast-fashion brands to sell you more clothing you don’t really need.
This modern retail cycle results in an unfathomable amount of waste. There’s waste on the brands part, since they are counting on a portion of product just not selling. This piles up in a warehouse as dead-stock. After moving through the discount retail network, much of this is shipped back to a developing country and ruins the local textile producers by inflating supply.
Some ends up in the landfill and contributes to the 26 Billion (yes that's a B) pounds of clothing just North America throws away every year.
Charities like the salvation army only sell less than 20% of donated clothing.
A lot of this waste is created on the consumer level. Getting a shirt for $15 or 70% off doesn’t really inspire a sense of ownership. It’s a disposable commodity and that’s exactly how it’s treated by the purchaser.
Don’t feel bad, it’s a brilliant and crafty scheme. Instead of just selling it at a fair price, they have developed a system to essentially sell twice as much clothing. Appealing once to the human desire for “cool” and then subsequently our conditioned impulse for “saving.”
While we’re all worried about what we’re making clothing out of, we’re overlooking that so much of what we’re making is never actually being used. I’d like to know the environmental impact 26 billion pounds of waste clothing makes annually compared to what we’re saving using organic cotton.
We're at Fault too:
The relationship the modern consumer has with a retail store is perpetuating this problem. As a consumer we’ve come to expect to walk into a retail store and see racks on racks of selection. Then we spend time flipping through a bunch of crappy designs and find one we like.
We’ve become so accustomed to this system developed by the big brands that we’re now part of the problem. Retail stores demand 100% markup from brands. That means you are paying two times as much for a product so you can go to a store and look at it. This isn’t easy on the middle-priced brands trying to make a change either, that’s why they all produce offshore. If a brand doesn’t have it’s own storefront, straight out of the gate they are accounting for selling the majority of their products at 50% off retail value.
We love retail stores though, retail therapy is a real thing. Buying things makes us feel good, that’s scientifically proven. That anticipation combined with dopamine is a serious drug. In a world where most of us are tied to doing shit we really aren’t that into in order to survive, this little escape becomes a big part of our lives. If we aren’t getting that dopamine anywhere else we can become quite attached to the main source.
They keep releasing stuff, we keep buying it, it’s gone way past personal need with focus on quality, lasting items, and now it’s just a quick hit of the brains best drug.
“Who really cares if I only wear this once, it felt good buying it.”
1) Seasonality and fast fashion have built a system where enormous amounts of waste are part of the business plan.
2) The system dramatically inflates the prices of clothing in order to account for less popular items and all that waste.
3) Our expectations as customers of the retail shopping environment is contributing to the problem and continues to support the brands who benefit from this system.
All revolutions start from the bottom up.
The shift has already begun. Social media has put power in the hands of the little guy. Anyone can reach a potentially massive audience now. We can challenge the big brands and it’s all public forum.It starts with changing the consumer mindset.
We have to stop being consumers and start being owners.
You have the power to literally pressure an entire industry to change by slightly altering your spending habits. Every industry is run by demand, stop buying and you put it in a choke hold. This is getting into the nitty-gritty here, but it starts with getting that dopamine from somewhere else. Get outside, hit the gym, be active, explore, travel and get that adrenal gland working. It’s scientifically proven that will reward your brain more than an extra dress in your closet. Keep that in mind next time you head to a mall on a down day.
If we’re not willing to look for and accept alternative ways of buying products then nothing will change. If we stay on this path of demanding things quicker and cheaper, we will keep getting screwed on pricing and the landfills will keep filling up with the byproducts of our habits.
Our generation is on the right track, we’re becoming more conscious consumers and you can see this as big brands shut stores and begin to bleed. Small brands with social causes, ethical manufacturing mandates and sustainable materials are taking more market share every year.
The day will soon come when it's expected that every brand give back to a social or environmental cause in order to to offset the footprint caused by operation.
Those who refuse will die by vote of the new generation of consumer.
But we still have a ways to go. The number hurdle is changing the, “I want it cheap and I want it now” mindset.
The Future is Bright:
Then it’s up to the brands to figure out an improved system of offering products to customers. I’m not saying we should all walk around in the nude, I am saying there’s a better way to do this. The traditional retail store is dying... ready for this? Here it is...
The future of sustainable fashion can be summed up in three glorious words, “made-to-order”.
Before the industrial revolution, mass production and fast fashion, clothing was made specifically for the wearer. It fit perfectly, suited your style exactly and was made to last. Like everything else, I believe the fashion industry will come full circle. The future of sustainable fashion lies in direct to consumer, zero-waste, custom, made-to-order clothing. This clothing will be made from the waste we’ve created over the last 50 years of this disposable fashion trend.
The technology doesn’t exist on a large available scale yet but it’s not that far off. There are companies implementing closed loop processes already.
As the consumer mindset shifts away from, “quicker and cheaper” and towards a better understanding of the impacts their purchases make, brands will begin to pre-sell direct to consumer online. As technology and logistics continue to improve, turnaround time for custom products will shorten and brands will be able to sell you clothing before they even make it. Eliminating the guessing game of what-will-sell? This will bring down the cost of clothing by cutting out the traditional multi-brand retail store’s 50% share and eliminating the inflated prices caused by this broken model.
It’s already happening.
The first step in this direction, before the technology exists, is limited edition lines. Going against the grain of the industry’s model of mass production and creating smaller, more focused lines in order to reduce waste. Some brands are already leading this movement with crowd funded designs and styles.
Don’t expect to see prices drop though. Making clothing this way, in small batches, costs a lot more per-unit than banging out 100,000 pieces on a machine - especially for the first adopters. But by shopping this way, you will be supporting a system that’s moving towards the goal of a zero-waste future.
Retail stores won’t die off completely. If you’re curious about what they’ll look like in the future I recommend reading Re-Engineering Retail.
This change isn’t going to happen overnight either. It will take years to shift the consumer mindset and like most major changes in the economic landscape, it will be generational as technology continues to leap forward.
I seriously hope our generation will be the ones remembered for starting the revolution. And I hope L/L Supply will be one of the small brands that puts some serious pressure on the big players to reconsider the current model.
What are we doing?
When a piece of clothing is made and worn by a customer, then recycled, taking that and trying to make a new piece severely compromises the quality. As I mentioned above, the technology just doesn’t exist yet to close this loop (unless the products are 100% pure made from a single material - which a very small amount are). Additionally, if it was a shit quality, fast fashion shirt in the first place - even harder.
The consumer level is not the only part of the supply chain that waste is generated from though. There’s also what's called pre-consumer waste. A huge amount of left-over, discontinued or over-stock fabric is also wasted at the manufacturers level. This year we’re using all that waste from other brands and manufacturers to make new products.
Our entire summer collection this year is made from perfectly good up-cycled-fabric.
We sell to retail differently as well. No big fat look-book where they choose 30 styles, only 6 of which will sell well. We’re shipping in limited edition, up-cycled-fabric apparel to our retailers as it becomes available. They are letting us determine quantity and frequency to manage waste. The relationship is less dictated by purchasing, and then force selling products to the customer, and directly reactionary to demand.
Online, we’re already running a limited edition inventory structure.
We will be pushing further towards a zero-waste model by beginning to offer pre-sale limited run designs. Our smaller, focused collections are a step towards this goal.