Zara

For a True War on Waste, the Fashion Industry Must Spend More on Research

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by Mark Liu

The rise of fast fashion in Australia means 6000 kg of clothing is dumped in landfill every 10 minutes. The ABC’s War On Waste visualised this statistic by piling a giant mound of clothing waste in the middle of the city. So what to do about it?

A scene from the ABC’s War on Waste. ABC

Sustainable fashion experts advocate abstaining from buying fast fashion, promoting clothing swaps and repairing old clothing. Others suggest buying organic and ethically-sourced clothes or designing clothing using zero waste techniques. The hope is that greater transparency in supply chains will lead to an end to sweatshops and unsustainable fashion practices.

These are admirable initiatives, but they only reduce wastage or delay garments from ending up in landfill. They do not address the fact that the scale of fast fashion is so massive it can easily eclipse other sustainability initiatives. Nor do they address the wastefulness of existing technologies and the urgent need to research new ones.

Even if we could magically stop the global production of all garments, we would still need new, green technology to clean up the waste we have already created. There are long-term strategies for green technologies such as electric cars, but where are the major companies and research institutes developing the next generation of sustainable fashion technologies? The development of new synthetic biology technologies may be the key.

From catwalk to research

I would like to share my journey from zero waste fashion design pioneer to trans-disciplinary fashion researcher to highlight the challenges faced by sustainable fashion and the need for more research.

Ten years ago, I presented my “Zero-Waste” Fashion collection at London Fashion Week. I and other sustainable designers at the time took the waste streams of other industries such as scrap materials and leftover fabric and created our collections from them. I was selected for “Estethica”, a new initiative created by sustainable fashion gurus Orsola De Castro, Filippo Ricci and Anna Orsini from the British Fashion Council. Sustainable fashion was shown on London catwalks next to luxury fashion – a revolutionary step for the time.

I pioneered a way of creating tailored, high fashion garments so that all the pieces of a garment fitted together like a jigsaw puzzle and no waste was created. Conventional pattern cutting creates about 15% wastage of material, even if the pattern has been optimised by a computer. I wanted to systemically change the way clothing was made.

To design a garment with zero waste requires new patternmaking techniques, based on advanced mathematics. Author provided

But the problem with zero-waste design is that it is very difficult to create. It requires a skilled designer to simultaneously imagine the garment as a 3D item and a flat pattern, while trying to fit the pieces together like a jigsaw. It is easy to make an unfitted or baggy garment, but creating something that looks good and fits the body was a real challenge.

Even after all these years, most contemporary zero-waste fashion is still not tailored to the body. I practised this technique for years to master it. It required breaking all the rules of conventional pattern-making and creating new techniques based on advanced mathematics.

These were exciting times. Our fabrics were organic, we made everything locally and ensured everyone was paid an ethical wage. The press loved our story. But problems started to emerge when it came to sales. We had to sell more expensive garments, using a smaller range of fabrics – our materials and labour costs were higher than those of companies that produced overseas. Often fashion buyers would say they loved what we did, but after looking at the price tag would politely take their business elsewhere.

As a sustainable fashion designer, my impact was limited. It was also impossible to teach zero-waste fashion design without explaining how advanced mathematics applied to it. It was time to try a new approach, so I decided to apply science and maths to traditional fashion techniques.

My PhD research explored the underlying geometry of fashion pattern-making. Combining fashion with science allowed the traditional techniques and artistry of making garments to be explained and communicated to scientist and engineers.

Consumers have embraced fast fashion. Shutterstock

In the meantime, fast fashion companies rapidly expanded, with Zara, Topshop and H&M reaching Australia by 2011. They produced massive amounts of cheap products making low margins on each garment. Consumers quickly became addicted to the instant gratification of this retail experience. The size and scale of their production produced hundreds of tonnes of garments every day.

The limits of fashion technology

Fast fashion companies such as H&M have developed recycling initiatives in which consumers can exchange old clothing for discount vouchers. This is supposed to prevent clothing from going to landfill, instead recycling it into new clothing.

However, there are those who are sceptical of H&M’s recycling process. In 2016, investigative journalist Lucy Siegle crunched the numbers and concluded that “it appears it would take 12 years for H&M to use up 1,000 tons of fashion waste”. This, she said, was the amount of clothing they produce in about 48 hours.

A 2016 H&M sustainability report reveals that only 0.7% of their clothes are actually made from recycled or other sustainably-sourced materials. In the report, H&M acknowledges :

Today, this is not possible because the technology for recycling is limited. For this reason, the share of recycled materials in our products is still relatively small.

In fact, their 2016 annual report states that more research is needed:

if a greater proportion of recycled fibres is to be added to the garments without compromising quality, and also to be able to separate fibres contained in mixed materials.

Sustainable technologies strive for a “circular economy”, in which materials can be infinitely recycled. Yet this technology is only in its infancy and needs much more research funding. H&M’s Global Change Award funds five start-up companies with a total of 1 million Euros for new solutions. Contrast this with the millions required by the most basic Silicon Valley start-ups or billions for major green technology companies such as Tesla or SolarCity. There is a dire need for disruptive new fashion technology.

Many of the promising new technologies require getting bacteria or fungi to grow or biodegrade the fabrics for us – this is a shift to researching the fundamental technologies behind fashion items.

For example, it takes 2700L of water and over 120 days to grow enough cotton to make a T-shirt. However, in nature, bacteria such as “acetobacter xylinum” can grow a sheet of cellulose in hours. Clothing grown from bacteria has been pioneered by Dr Suzanne Lee. If a breakthrough can be made so that commercially grown cotton can be grown from bacteria, it may be possible to replace cotton fields with more efficient bacteria vats.

But why just stick with cotton? Fabrics can be generated from milk, seaweed, crab shells, banana waste or coconut waste. Companies such as Ecovate can feed fabric fibres to mushroom spore called mycelium to create bioplastics or biodegradable packaging for companies such as Dell. Adidas has 3D printed a biodegradable shoe from spider silk developed by AM silk.

Although I began my journey as a fashion designer, a new generation of materials and technologies has pulled me from the catwalk into the science lab. To address these complex issues, collaboration between designers, scientist, engineers and business people has become essential.

To clean up the past and address the waste problems of the future, further investment in fashion technology is urgently needed.

*This story first appeared on The Conversation

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Can Rent the Runway Replace Fast Fashion?

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With a new same-day delivery service, it’s going to try.

By Eliza Brooke

 

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Rent the Runway’s new service could expand to cities like Chicago, LA, and DC. Photo: Rent the Runway

 

When Rent the Runway launched in 2009, offering shoppers a relatively inexpensive way to rent out designer clothing for a few days, customers booked their outfits for weddings and special occasions three weeks ahead. Eight years later, that window has narrowed to days and, in many cases, hours.

“Our customers’ entire lives are on-demand,” says CEO Jennifer Hyman. “They’re not planning anything in advance.”

So to meet the wants of those Hotel Tonight-ing, Seamless-ing, Uber-ing shoppers, Rent the Runway is going on-demand, too. Today, it’s launching same-day delivery in New York, promising to deliver orders to shoppers by 5 p.m. if they book by noon.

You could say that Rent the Runway is trying to compete with Net-a-Porter and Barneys, both of which offer same-day delivery in parts of New York, or that it’s trying to get a slice (a sliver, really) of Amazon’s Prime Now action. But Hyman says that it’s mainly looking to cut into fast fashion’s stranglehold on day-of purchases. For women who work and live within subway distance of a Zara, it’s all too easy to put off buying something for a nice event until the very last minute, because you know that when you walk through those doors you’ll be able to find something that’s on-point and inexpensive, fast.

“Today, the only real options from a value perspective and a distribution perspective are H&M, Zara, T.J. Maxx, and Forever 21,” Hyman says. “If I get asked on a date tonight, the probability that I’m going to go all the way to Saks and spend $1,000 on that outfit is zero.”

Rent the Runway offers product from high-end designers like Oscar de la Renta, Giambattista Valli, and Proenza Schouler, but some of its dresses hit as low as $30. That’s the price point that could persuade people to test out its same-day service instead of hitting up a chain store. And for anyone who feels gross about the disposable clothing culture attached to the fast fashion industry, buying into Rent the Runway’s cycle of reuse (which does incur the environmental costs of dry cleaning) may be extra appealing.

In recent years, the startup has been trying to cement itself as a go-to for everyday clothing as well as event dressing, and it’s expanded its assortment accordingly with trousers and tops and rompers. Same-day delivery helps push it toward that goal.

Hyman says Rent the Runway is looking to expand same-day delivery to other major cities by the fall. If all goes well, Chicago, DC, LA, and San Francisco could be up next.

*This story first appeared on Racked

How NOT to Make the Fashion Industry More Sustainable

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This week, representatives from all the major brands – from fast fashion retailers like H&M, Asos and Zara, through to luxury labels like Burberry and Swarowski – are gathering in Copenhagen to discuss sustainability in the global fashion industry.

The fashion industry is one of the most lucrative and destructive industries on earth. It generates €1.5 trillion every year and produces over a billion clothes every year. With global garment production set to increase by 63% by 2030, this model is reaching its physical limit.

This year’s Copenhagen Fashion Summit is focusing  on “circularity” – an industry buzzword that promises relief to the problem of limited resources within one of the world’s most resource intensive industries. In 2015, the fashion industry consumed nearly 80 billion cubic meters of fresh water, emitted over a million tonnes of CO2 and produced 92 million tonnes of waste. The Summit admits that the industry has a disastrous environmental impact and that we face “increasingly higher risk of destabilising the state of the planet, which would result in sudden and irreversible environmental changes”.

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Panelists at the Copenhagen Fashion Summit, 10 May 2017. Credit: Copenhagen Fashion Summit

While their focus on circularity sounds promising, it’s simply not enough.

Industry leaders rarely talk about the real solution: reducing the overall volume of production. All their talk about sustainable investing and innovative new materials and technologies comes under the assumption that the industry continues to grow. But unlimited growth is impossible on a planet with finite resources.

The industry wants to place the responsibility on consumers to educate themselves and recycle their own clothes, while continuing to heavily market cheap fast fashion at us.

Real change is not going to happen without investing in designs and strategies to extend the life of clothing and reduce the environmental impact of production at the design stage. Fashion brands need to redefine their marketing strategies and start involving customers in a new narrative where people buy less and clothes are more durable and repairable. We need to slow down.

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Trash queen street performance in Taipei, November 2016
It’s not enough to sell customers placebo solutions that ultimately leave shopping patterns untouched and guilt free. Even if we encourage people to recycle more, we have to remember that recycling is a resource intensive process relying on chemicals and vast amounts of energy, with many unsolved problems making it far from commercially viable.

We already know that we own more clothes than we can wear. Shopping doesn’t make us happy in the long run. High volumes of fast fashion and rapidly changing trends aren’t catering to our real needs.

If the Fashion industry really wants to be “an engine for a global and sustainable development”, it needs to think about how to shift the business model beyond the current paradigm of continuous economic growth. We hope that the fashion industry doesn’t wait until 2030 to realise that.

*This story first appeared on Greenpeace.org

Rights of Indian Leather Workers Systematically Violated

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Major footwear and garment brands react to serious human rights issues in their leather supply chain and promise collective action

Around 2,5 million workers in the Indian leather industry often face unacceptable working conditions that violate their human rights and seriously affect their health. Toxic chemicals used in tanneries often very negatively impact the health of the workers. Less known are the many labour and other human rights issues in the leather industry like wages below the stipulated minimum wage, child labour, the exploitation of home-based workers, the difficulty to organize in trade unions and the discrimination of Dalits (‘outcastes’).


DoLeatherWorkersMatter300‘Do leather workers matter?’

This is in short the plight of leather workers that is described in more detail in the report Do leather workers matter? Violating labour rights and environmental norms in India’s leather production.
The report explores labour conditions in the leather industry that are steeped into deep-rooted social inequalities in Indian society based on caste and gender discrimination. The main pillars of this study are literature research and field research at three production hubs that supply hides, leather, garments, accessories and footwear for export, namely Kolkata, Agra and the Vaniyambadi–Ambur cluster in Tamil Nadu. The report depicts labour conditions in a cross section of production units varying from homeworkers, tanneries, workshops in the informal sector to large modern export units. Of course these conditions do vary between production units.

Dalits (‘outcastes’) and Muslims make up the majority of the workforce in the leather industry. The low wages of the Dalit leather workers reflect their low status and the low status of their work in the leather industry, being dirty and polluting. In Tamil Nadu for example the official minimum wage early 2016 for leather workers is less than 2 euro per day, being less than half of the official wage of an apprentice in the textile industry. Often this minimum wage is not even paid.
Female homeworkers, responsible for a highly labour-intensive part of shoe production, are also among the most precarious workers. They face insecure and unprotected work, receive poverty wages and work under unsafe conditions. Moreover, children are often involved in leather production in India, mostly in the unorganized part of the sector, working in smaller tanneries and workshops.

Response of footwear and garment brands
A large range of major brands are sourcing footwear, leather garments, leather goods and accessories from India, which include H&M, C&A, Primark, Armani, ECCO, Esprit, Tommy Hilfiger, Zara, Mango, Walmart, Gabor, PUMA, Pentland, Prada and Marks & Spencer among many others. The report does however not look into the supply chains of specific brands, but more generally sketches human rights violations in leather and leather goods production in India.
India is the world’s second largest producer of footwear and leather garments. The footwear sector in India specializes in medium to high priced leather footwear, particularly men’s wear. Almost 90% of India’s footwear exports goes to the European Union.

A draft version of this paper was initially shared with a wide range of companies and CSR initiatives. In a joint statement 12 member companies of the Ethical Trading Initiative (UK) welcomed the ICN report and said that ‘taken together we recognize the very concerning issues in the leather supply chain’. They also said to agree that ‘there needs to be a collective response to these issues’ and ‘We commit to working with international and national stakeholders to develop a strategic response to the issues in our leather supply chain.’
In total 19 companies, including the 12 ETI members like C&A, H&M, Primark, Inditex, Marks & Spencer, Next, TESCO, Sainsbury and Pentland, reacted to the report as well as two CSR initiatives: the Leather Working Group and MVO Nederland (CSR Netherlands). Most companies recognize the urgency to address the issues identified in this research and some shared concrete commitments to combat adverse human rights and environmental impacts in their supply chain.

Recommendations
The report contains nine recommendations to companies and CSR initiatives in the leather and footwear industry on (the need for): due diligence, mapping of supply chains, transparency, long-term business relationships, collaboration to increase leverage, the mandatory written contracts and equal treatment and the importance of unions, collective bargaining, company level grievance mechanisms and space for civil society.

Download the full report here.

*This story first appeared on IndiaNet

Are Ethical Brands Greenwashing?

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5 questions to figure out which brands are LEGIT

As a responsible shopper looking to do the right thing, you might think if a brand is openly talking about their environmental or labor practices, they’re probably legit. And if they show you a picture of a happy worker or an NGO partner, it’s probably a sign of good intent and practices, right? Swipe that credit card.

WRONG!

Buyer beware — greenwashing is definitely a THING, and it’s not just the big fast fashion brands.

We’re always getting questions about H&M, Zara and others. Are they “greenwashing”? (i.e. exaggerating their environmental chops or social practices in an effort to make themselves seem sustainable, and even diverting attention away from negative practices like child labor, or the consumption-driven fast fashion model. Ew.)

But recently, savvy readers, like yourselves, have been asking more questions about the credentials of smaller “ethical fashion” or “eco-fashion” brands, and whether their practices add up to all their marketing.

Greenwashing is never good. But with the smaller “ethical” new kids on the block, it’s almost even more dangerous if they don’t stack up to their claims. It seeds pessimism and cynicism among consumers, just as a new vision of a sustainable industry is starting to gain traction.

So over the last month we did a mini experiment to dig into the practices of a few exciting and popular “ethical” brands, who outwardly celebrate their positive impact, intentions or transparency, and see what evidence they had to back up these assertions.

We looked at:

  • Everlane, the “radically transparent” basics brand
  • Warby Parker, the “social impact” eyeglasses company
  • Kowtow, a fairtrade, organic cotton brand making knitwear and basics from New Zealand
  • Krochet Kids, a social impact brand, empowering women in Uganda and Peru

We studied their websites and social media, contacted them through numerous channels, looked at publicly available records and everything else we could find. We did an intensive search beyond what a consumer could do in an afternoon, but without using any tools you wouldn’t have at the ready.

We went to these brands with a lot of questions surrounding labor practices, environmental practices, community engagement, management practices, size and business model, intention, innovation and transparency.

Below we’ve shared some highlights, AND, as we did this in-depth research, we pieced together the five questions we realized could help you sniff out greenwashing. (If you’re a nerd for this stuff like us, you can view everything we found on their updated brand pages on our Project JUST wiki)

So check out what we found and TRY these questions on for size:

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Curious about fibres?

1. First, check out what kind of fabrics / materials they are using.

Fabrics are an easy way to really change the impact of a supply chain for the better. PLUS it’s a super easy way for you as a shopper to know which brands are serious about changing the game. Raw materials are a big portion of the product, and consequently, its environmental and social impact. As a designer or a brand, committing to a restricted set of fabrics can be difficult — sustainable fabrics can be more expensive and not as easy to source — but it pays off in both your impact and performance in the end. So how did the brands we picked stack up?

Kowtow uses organic and fair trade cotton. Organic cotton is proven to be significantly better for people and planet, and fair trade means farmers and workers get fair wages for their work.

Krochet Kids uses some sustainable fabrics, but also uses acrylic and polyester (oil). They’re in the process of rolling out an organic cotton line.

While Everlane uses some natural fibres, none of them are certified from sustainable supply chains — you can read all about the impact of basic fabrics here. And, they also use synthetics like nylon (again, oil).

Warby Parker uses cellulose acetate, titanium, and stainless steel in its frames for both eyeglasses and sunglasses. Cellulose acetate is usually made from wood pulp. In February 2014, the brand reported via its Facebook page that Warby Parker frames are made of acetate that comes from a family-owned Italian manufacturer.

2. Second, do they have any certifications?

When you’re shopping, check out the tags — any symbols or certifications there? A certification offers a brand a rigorous program of standards and assessment, and a signal to shoppers of monitoring, high standards, and intention. A brand doesn’t have to have a certification to do good work, but often times, brands use them as a roadmap to build out a more sustainable supply chain. You have to be cautious though — some certifications aren’t that rigorous, or have major flaws in monitoring or auditing what’s actually happening on the ground. You can read more about certifications in our New Slang dictionary.

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Fair Trade Cotton UK

Survey says?

Kowtow has organic and fair trade certifications. Plain, simple and thorough.

Warby Parker is a BCorp, but we couldn’t find any information about what this means in terms of their environmental impact, or how they treat their workers. However, their recently released response to the California Transparency in Supply Chains Act means that the brand has now made its Code of Conduct publicly available (check out this release of new information on our Warby Parker brand page).

Krochet Kids is launching an organic line, and has their own special impact measurement tool that they use at each of their facilities.

Everlane doesn’t have any certifications that provide us with an easy signal to show that they’re trying, but it’s clear they like to set things up their own way. For their supply chain, they have three pillars of work: they started with transparency, are currently building their compliance, and sustainability is next. They do hold the factories they work with accountable to a 85% or higher score on the labor audit. If they don’t hit the mark, they step in with a corrective action plan, in partnership with their auditing firm, Intertek, to help.

Certifications aren’t for everyone, nor do they always work, but for the shopper and for us, it’s an easy way to know what standard a brand is holding themselves to, what are their intentions and to look into what’s actually happening to meet it.

3. Third, how transparent are they… really?

This basically comes down to what — and how much — they’re truly sharing with us. What’s on their website? Their social media? What data do they share to back up their claims of social or environmental impact?

Let’s stack ’em up.

Everlane: As fashion supply chain nerds, ever since this brand came out with their tagline, radical transparency, we’ve been curious to know what constituted “radical” from the information they shared. After all, “radical” by definition implies something beyond average. But, when we looked on the Everlane website, we didn’t really find much beyond where some of their factories were located, and what they made. What were we looking for? How they guaranteed fair wages and safe working conditions, what kinds of environmental policies they had in place, and their intentions for future improvement.

So we reached out to their team with a list of questions, and low and behold, got to sit down with the Founder & CEO, Michael Preysman —getting serious now.

He shared quite a bit of info with us including:

  • Their code of conduct
  • The average score of their factories on quarterly audits: 90.1%
  • The number of times a year their team visits their factories: 3
  • Their current lack of environmental policies, but their intent to work on this as the next phase in monitoring their supply chain
  • And lots more! (available for you to see behind a tiny little paywall, but trust us it’s worth the 5 bucks)

So why isn’t all this info available on their website?

Michael said (paraphrased) that they prefer not to reveal their work until it’s fully complete, so that the company can figure the right strategy to communicate the information to their customer, in a way that makes sense.

Legit?
You tell us. Given that these guys have shaken things up before, we’re excited to see what they churn out in the coming months to truly be “radical” in their supply chain practices.

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More than just transparent pricing?

Warby Parker: When it came to Warby Parker, we received not one answer to our questions. Not one! Between January and February 2017, we reached out six times to the PR company and twice to the brand, who then redirected us back to the PR company (head spinning emailing 😕).

This brand that claims positive social impact, and even has a BCorp certification (!), never answered our questions about whether they can trace their entire supply chain, where their suppliers are located, if they have a code of conduct, how much the workers in their supply chain are paid, how they monitor their social and environmental practices, and what their goals are to decrease their negative impact. In just the last two days, they did release a new set of info to comply with the California Transparency Act. Great – but we’ve still got questions.

Kowtow and Krochet Kids: These two brands both have a lot of information available on their website. Krochet Kids was willing to answer any question we threw their way, while Kowtow had enough info on their website and via their certifications to thoroughly answer our questions.

4. Do they express intention for improvement?

No brand is perfect. But given the major impact of fashion supply chains on people and planet, it’s important to at least have the intention and plans to continue to improve. Do they have goals on their website? Any plans that they share with the media, or consumers?

Krochet Kids told us all about their future plans. So did Everlane. Warby Parker — no answer and nothing available on their site. And finally Kowtow, who by committing to only use fair trade and organic cotton, has restricted their growth and made a sustainability commitment for the long run.

5. Fifth, and finally, will they get back to you / us / anyone?

When you ask a question — do they respond? And do they give you a straight answer?

After we emailed them this month, Everlane gave us a sit down with their founder & CEO. We had also reached out to them before with questions through various consumer channels, and had received responses — but not nearly as comprehensive as this. We appreciate this, but we also recognize that not everyone is afforded this kind of access. We hope they continue to strive to be as responsive to consumers as possible to attain this same standard of radical transparency.

Krochet Kids’ CEO and COO had a phone call with us after they answered our comprehensive survey. We were impressed with their brand, and especially with their willingness to share and open up to us.

Kowtow and Warby Parker both didn’t answer our repeated efforts to get in touch with them with our questions. That said, Kowtow has a ton of information about their brand and practices available on their website for anyone (not just supply chain dorks like us) to see. Warby Parker? Not so much.

So what did we learn?

In this day and age, with consumers buying products made by global supply chains, and with issues of human trafficking, child labor, worker abuse and environmental violations — the consumer should have a right to know how the product they’re paying for is made and be able to see the evidence to back it up.

And with brands like these, consumers should also know legitimately that the brand’s vision and proclaimed values match how they treat workers in their supply chain, and how they treat our planet. If you’re paying, you deserve to know.

So don’t get taken for a ride— keep searching, keep asking questions and tell your friends to ask, too. From our experience, you might even get to sit down with the CEO.

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*This story first appeared on New Co Shift

Is Adidas’ Tech Venture a Leading Signal for the Future of Sustainable Fast Fashion? 

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Sweaters are pictured at the Adidas Knit for You store in Berlin, Germany. Source: Reuters.

ADIDAS is envisioning a brand new way of adapting to the fickle trends of the fast fashion industry – the company has been trying out an in-store technology to knit customized 200 euro (US$215) sweaters for customers within the day in order to tap into fast fashion with a personal twist.

The technology has been implemented in a pop-up store in a Berlin mall, and allowed customers to customize their own merino wool sweater according to their desires.

The in-store machine scans the customer’s body to produce the right fit and size unique to each person. Customers would then choose a design from a range of possible options and then experiment with different color combinations. Once they had made their choices, the machine would knit the sweater in situ, and then the sweater is finished by hand, washed and dried before being collected by the customer.

This new venture is part of a plan to drive up the company’s operating margins to levels on par with rival Nike by 2020. The group is experimenting with strategies to cut short the delivery times of new designs down to 12 to 18 months.

It is a strategy which has worked in the sneaker industry, but now the “Knit for You” campaign aims to add individuality into the mix, aspect often lost in ready-made products.

But speed still lies at the heart of Adidas’s game plan. The sportswear company is aiming for 50 percent of its products to be made in a faster time frame by 2020 – double the rate it produced products in 2016 – which they expect will allow them to boost the products they sell at full price by 70 percent.

And they aren’t the only ones who are banking on speed to top their competition – Japanese basic wear giant, Uniqlo, are also hoping pushing for higher production rates and supplying their stores faster will help it usurp the fast fashion crown from Inditex’s Zara, who reported US$25 billion worth of sales in 2016.

“We need to be fast,” Uniqlo founder Tadashi Yanai was quoted saying in an interview with Bloomberg. “We need to deliver products customers want quickly.”

Like Adidas, Uniqlo is trying to leverage technology to launch forward fast.

The company’s Ariake facility along Tokyo’s waterfront brings together marketing and design teams to streamline the operations, an outfit Uniqlo’s owner, Fast Retailing, wants to replicate in more locations. The hope is that much of the company’s operations can be slowly automated and artificial intelligence can be increasingly used to predict sales patterns.

The goal to ultimately unseat Zara might be a bit of a stretch for Fast Retailing who aims for US$26 billion by 2021, but Yanai believes Uniqlo’s focus on everyday clothing that keeps fashion forwardness and practicality in mind is a recipe for success.

Uniqlo’s no-frills approach to fashion requires less production time in general and the company could focus on upping the quality of the designs.

“Zara sells fashion rather than catering to customers’ needs,” Yanai said. “We will sell products that are rooted in people’s day-to-day lives, and we do so based on what we hear from customers.”

Fast Fashion margins are shrinking

Adidas and Uniqlo might be tapping into an industry that is already facing its twilight days.

Once the machine that drove the fashion industry, fast fashion is a term coined to describe clothes emulating catwalk trends that are quickly replicated for mass production, resulting in “micro seasons” and low wages for garment workers in some of the poorest countries in the world.

Fast fashion retailers such as Zara and H&M would churn out fresh pieces that would be rolled into stores on a weekly basis. Their rise crippled retailers that typically worked on a season-by-season basis, and relied heavily on brick-and-mortar stores to sell their clothes.

Fast fashion retailers harnessed the rise of e-commerce to peddle their wares online, spending less on advertising and relying on web analytics to chart consumer habits.

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Staff members proceed with the measuring process on a computer to order a knitting pattern at the Adidas Knit for You store in Berlin, Germany. Source: Reuters.

“If you are a fashion apparel retailer, you have to have a steady flow of newness,” Customer Growth Partners president Craig Johnson said. “You can’t just regurgitate what was hot last year.”

But that all seems to be changing.

Recently, Inditex said their profitability had shrunk to an eight-year low, while their rival H&M said their profits fell in March for the first time in four years.

The changing fortunes of the two companies have two implications: Firstly, consumer habits are changing. Large scale campaigns by activists and marketing efforts by retailers have resulted in greater awareness of the side effects of fast fashion – most notably highlighted by the devastating Rana Plaza factory collapse in 2013.

The change in sales numbers indicates more and more people are spending a smaller chunk of their disposable income on clothing, and are instead diverting those resources to other areas, such as electronics or travel. LA Times reports less than four percent of every dollar is now spent on apparel compared to the eight percent that was spent in the mid-90s.

Secondly, apparel companies are now finding their margins under siege from rising production costs as the quality of living in once-poor manufacturing companies – such as Vietnam and India – and the cost of materials increase.

Fast fashion no longer appears to be the huge money-making machine it once was, and retailers are now turning to new strategies to captivate buyers.

Value Fashion on the Rise

The emergence of Adidas “Knit for You” campaign speaks to the broader question of the change fashion is experiencing; clothes tailored to the individual is beginning to matter more.

The sweater campaign’s focus on customization indicates exclusivity is far more important than the ability to buy the same shirt in six different colors for a few dollars.

“It is very individual. It is like knitting your own sweater,” Adidas customer Christina Sharif told Reuters, adding she ordered shorter arms on her electric blue sweater than the standard model.

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Employees of Fast Retailing Co., operator of Japan’s Uniqlo clothing outlets, work at the company’s new headquarters building called UNIQLO CITY TOKYO, in Tokyo, Japan. Pic: Reuters 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Despite the speed it aims to achieve, Adidas and Uniqlo are recreating the meaning of “fast fashion” into one that leverages technology to improve efficiency rather than sacrifices resources and engages obsolescence.

Uniqlo has maintained its commitment to the culture of normcore everyday wear, but expanded its range to include limited edition art-as-fashion pieces.

It engaged top-line designers such as Christopher Lemaire, supermodel Ines de la Fressange and New York’s Museum of Modern Art to produce lines that gave its everyday wear a fashionable and enduring twist.

It is a sign the company understands the power of fashion as an identifier and is moving into what Lemaire calls “slow fast fashion” – affordable (though pricier than Uniqlo’s main line) and accessible, with a know-it-when-you-see-it specialness

“People have been realizing [fast fashion] no longer can go on the way it used to – overconsumerism and overproduction are a disaster,” Lemaire says.

“You just need a good pair of pants. If you find a good pair, you don’t have to change every six months.”

*This story first appeared on Tech Wire Asia

Inditex’s Sustainability Investment Reaches €7 Million in 5 Years

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Image Courtesy: inditex.com

Inditex, world’s leading fashion group which operates over 7,000 stores in 88 markets and owns brands like Zara, Pull&Bear, Massimo Dutti, Bershka, Stradivarius, Oysho, Zara Home and Uterqüe, has invested more than Euro 7 million on sustainability front over the last five years.

The Group has invested in expansion, scaling and modernization of logistics platforms and design centres to boost efficiency and energy saving measures. The start-up of highly-advanced “multi-shuttle” areas at the Bershka platform in Tordera, Barcelona, and at the Arteixo distribution centre (A Coruña) make dispatch time management more efficient and precise and double the speed.

Another area was research and development work focused on store applications for sustainable technology, such as paper saving mobile payments and efficiency technology RFID. Last year, it completed the deployment of RFID technology across its entire Zara store base and has embarked on the process of rolling this technology out in its Massimo Dutti and Uterqüe stores. Other brands like Pull&Bear, with Stradivarius, Bershka and Oysho will follow in 2018. Besides, the number of eco-efficient stores worldwide reached 4,519 in 2016 delivering water savings of 40% and energy savings of 20%.

Furthermore, it also introduced mobile payments in 15 markets in total since it started to roll-out in Spain, the UK, US, Italy and France. Using the online apps of each of Inditex’s eight retail concepts or using a Group app called InWallet facilitate the environmentally responsible replacement of hard-copy receipts with e-receipts. Online orders placed in Spain with any of the Group’s brands have no longer generated hard copy receipts since March 2017 thanks to the e-receipt system named “Paperless”. Zara is also already using this system in the US and the UK.

The Green to Pack project at Zara alone save 22,000 trees and the emission of 1,680 tonnes of carbon every year. In addition to this, it also introduced clothing containers for used-garments in all Zara stores in Spain, Portugal, the UK, the Netherlands, Denmark and Ireland for recycling into new fabrics.

The research and development of more sustainable fabrics is also increasing. Last September Zara launched the second edit ion of its Join Life collection made of Refibra™ fibres. Developed by Austria’s Lenzing Group, Refibra™ fibre are made of pulp from cotton scraps and from sustainably-managed forests.

*This story first appeared on Apparel Resources