Sustainability is becoming more important in consumer choices overall.
Generation Z is generation green.
The cohort of shoppers typically 22 and under is more willing to pay up for sustainable brands compared to other demographics, according to a study by First Insight. The findings by the digital research company found that 73 percent of those it surveyed would pay more for sustainable items, with the majority of that chunk willing to pay a 10 percent price premium.
“With Generation Z on track to becoming the largest generation of consumers this year, retailers and brands must start supercharging sustainability practices now if they are to keep pace,” says First Insight CEO Greg Petro. “With every generation, sustainability is becoming further embedded in purchase decisions.”
Retailers are racing to meet rising consumer demand for sustainable or environmentally-friendly products. Apparel is a notoriously wasteful industry, sucking up vast amounts of water and easily discarding clothing. Some retailers like Gap and Everlane have invested in sustainable business practices while others have built their business models around it. The second-hand apparel market comprised of companies like the RealReal and ThredUP that buy and sell high-quality used clothes are gaining in popularity as environmental concerns gain traction.
The study of 1,000 U.S. respondents showed the Gen Z population beat out the preceding cohort known as Millennials, as well as Generation X, which refers to the group of people born after the Baby Boomers, in terms of preference for sustainable items. The Baby Boomer demographic, often the grandparents of Gen Z, were the “hold outs,” according to the study. Still, sustainability is becoming more important in consumer choices overall and the majority of respondents expect brands and retailers to become more sustainable, according to First Insight.
If there were ever a time for fashion to reinvent itself, it is now. The industry has been hit hard by the COVID-19 pandemic. Billions of dollars of clothing orders placed with manufacturers around the world have been cancelled. Major physical retailers have shuttered. Online sales are down by as much as 30-40% in the US. A majority of fashion businesses are likely to suffer financial distress over the coming months. Many will not survive.
A so-called “black swan,” COVID-19 has exposed a fundamental weakness in the traditional fashion system: matching supply and demand. Industry leaders have long known that the old way of doing things – i.e. seasonally manufacturing items abroad without any advance customer feedback and then, months later, hoping that these items sell in retail stores around the world – doesn’t work. Industry overproduction runs at an incredible 30 – 40% eachseason. For a business with $2.5 trillion in global annual revenues, fashion is ripe for an overhaul of how it produces and in what quantities.
Not only is the traditional fashion system financially wasteful, it is also very damaging to the environment. According to the 2019 Global Wellness Trends Report, fashion is the world’s second worst offender in terms of water pollution. It is also responsible for roughly 10% of all carbon emissions. The price of beauty on the planet is high and real.
So as the world sits on pause during this COVID-19 crisis, there exists a rare opportunity for the fashion world to rethink how it does things, financially and environmentally. This is certainly true of the major incumbents, fashion houses that control a large portion of the industry value chain. But it also applies to new entrants: innovators and disruptors that might find it the perfect time to shake things up and improve upon the status quo.
A growing number of industry experts believe that fast, on-demand manufacturing is an important part of the next normal for fashion.
One of these people is Kirby Best, CEO of OnPoint Manufacturing, based in Florence, Alabama. Having built a career in the publishing industry perfecting the on-demand manufacturing of books, Best, a decade ago, decided to apply his learnings to the apparel industry. He designed a technology and manufacturing facility that allows fashion brands to bring on-demand products to market quickly and cost effectively.
“By using an on-demand model, our customers no longer need to order hundreds of something that they may never sell. With on-demand manufacturing there is no inventory, no fabric waste, and no warehousing,” says Best.
On-demand is both more economical and sustainable. Waste in the industry is rampant and expensive. On-demand production allows fashion brands to reduce their upfront cash need and minimize excess inventory.
It is also more logical. Whereas traditional clothing manufacturing is done weeks or months in advance of sales — sometimes halfway around the world, without any guarantee that the product will sell at retail — on-demand is speedy and surgical: product is only made once the sale has been booked and it can ship in a matter of days. For brands, this means no costly leftover inventory to send to landfill at the end of each season – a win for the bottom line and the environment.
But will fast, on-demand manufacturing be transformative for the industry? Is the necessary investment in equipment and “cut and sew” skills prohibitively expensive and complex?
According to Best, the challenge is a change of mindset more than the investment in hard technology and labor. He believes it is only a matter of time: “Change requires patience. When on-demand first came to the book publishing industry, the publishers initially resisted the model. Now they have adopted it broadly alongside (traditional) long-run offset printing. I believe the same thing will happen in the fashion industry. And I believe the pressures from COVID-19 will accelerate this shift.”
Local Vs. Global
On-demand manufacturing is most efficient if production is done close to the end consumer. This allows brands to sell online and deliver to customers within days without holding inventory. For example, with its Alabama location, OnPoint can receive an order and get it to a customer’s doorstep just about anywhere in the U.S in a day or two.
But while a large portion of clothing manufacturing is done abroad, COVID-19 has also highlighted the benefits of brands manufacturing locally even under a traditional (i.e. non on-demand) model.
Pierre Mallevays, Managing Partner at Savigny Partners, a mergers and acquisitions firm focused on the luxury sector, notes that “the existing global supply chain model left many high and dry during the time of COVID due to factory closures and delays in international shipping.”
Local production and warehousing of inventory would therefore solve the crippling bottleneck caused by a crisis like a pandemic. However, manufacturing locally and holding inventory is only a solution if there is demand for the product – reinforcing the need for the industry to better match supply and demand.
The rationale most commonly given by the industry for manufacturing abroad is the cost advantage. Best thinks this logic is flawed, citing Asia as an example of a manufacturing location where the industry has underestimated the overall cost base: “When you look solely at the manufacturing cost per unit you are only getting part of the picture. You also have to consider other factors, such as warehousing, shipping and the risks associated with the value of time. When all of this is taken into account, I am not sure the cost of manufacturing in Asia is really lower. COVID-19 has brought this all into focus.” Manufacturing, according to Best, will eventually return closer to the customer, to be performed in a market near where he or she lives
However, some industry experts fear that a move towards “local only” production will hurt the industry in other ways, including the loss of specialized skills and techniques from a global workforce that depends on providing them.
Bibhu Mohapatra, a New York based fashion designer, highlights the danger of abandoning manufacturing abroad : “If we don’t think globally, certain skills and crafts are going to die, such as embroidery that comes out of India.” He also points to the human impact of a dramatic shift from global manufacturing: “I believe in supporting local businesses but we need to maintain a balance. We can’t leave people behind. As a creative I have a responsibility to pay attention to the artisans that have been supporting my business from the beginning.”
So while a return to local production is a likely scenario for the industry, it would seem this shift needs to happen carefully and thoughtfully or it may invite more problems than it solves. A balanced mix of global and local manufacturing is perhaps the best way forward.
The End Of Fashion Seasons
Industry leaders increasingly agree that brands adhering to “fashion seasons” – i.e. introducing a fixed number of collections each year according to a set schedule – makes less and less sense. This tradition can lead to brands and retailers being stuck with large amounts of inventory that does not sell through. Since manufacturing against this schedule is done months in advance, any hiccup along the way can throw off the success of the entire model.
Case in point is the current COVID-19 situation: due to sharp sudden decline in consumer demand, many brands and retailers are sitting on a huge surplus of clothing from the Spring/Summer 2020 season. This inventory will lose most of its value over the next couple of months and be removed from full price retail stores by the late summer.
According to Mallevays, this antiquated approach to selling is poised to change: “It is likely that brands will seek to reduce seasonality in favor of a core, repeatable range whilst focusing on their territory and point of difference. Range widths may be cut down.”
Mohapatra concurs, noting that he and many of his designer friends are rethinking their approach to seasonal collections: “Consumers are frustrated. Women go into a department store in the summer to look for a bathing suit and find nothing. All that is there is Fall merchandise”. Consequently, Mohapatra is leaning towards producing smaller drops of product each month: “I don’t think it is going to matter much anymore to follow the traditional schedule.”
Environmentally, a “seasonless” shift is much better, since it tamps down on the notion that any collection has a short shelf life that must be replaced with next season’s offering – which leads to more clothing being produced and waste. What the impact this shift would have on fashion creativity and how designers design remains to be seen.
The Consumer First
A silver lining to the current outbreak is the overall growth of online fashion shopping. Consumers who previously only shopped for garments in physical stores are purchasing online for the first time. Brands that hadn’t developed their e-commerce capabilities are now doing so. Direct relationships between brands and customers are being fostered like never before.
“The trend to go more digital creates a better, more direct dialogue between fashion brands and their customers — and it offers designers tools to better understand the tastes and preferences of shoppers,” says Mallevays.
Mohapatra echoes the notion that COVID-19 has placed the shopper squarely in the spotlight: “We have all been forced to hit the reset button. The old system wasn’t sustainable. We can no longer mindlessly produce things and hope the consumption will keep up. The focus, now more than ever, needs to be on the consumer.”
How this shift affects the multi-brand retailers is yet to be seen. Those for whom a bulk of their business is already online will clearly be at an advantage. “For multi-brand retailers it will be more important than ever to justify their point of difference, be it by curation, location or price,” states Mallevays.
Ultimately, any increased attention by the industry on a movement towards sustainability bodes well for brands and shoppers alike. Consumer interest in sustainable fashion has been on the rise, with Internet searches for “sustainable fashion” tripling between 2016 to 2019. This is reflected in the growing interest consumers are showing in buying sustainable and vintage clothing, and using clothing rental services – each of which is more eco-friendly than shopping seasonally. It was also demonstrated in the protests against wastefulness during London Fashion Week last September which received significant interest from the press.
Undoubtedly the COVID-19 pandemic has meaningfully affected the fashion industry. How the business responds in the longer term is the opportunity at hand. Will brands implement changes such as shifting to on-demand manufacturing via local companies? Will consumers demand a closer direct relationship to brands that shun excess production and focus on sustainability? If ever there were a moment for the industry to bear the time and cost of improving itself, it is now when tolerance of waste-producing business models is diminished and expectations for purpose-driven sustainable action is heightened. 2020 has been a chaotic year to date for the business, but chaos breeds opportunity.
This week, everyone will be talking about online retail’s struggles during the pandemic, France lifting its lockdown and fashion media’s response to the crisis.
The economic effects of the pandemic are seemingly designed to funnel spending toward online retailers. But it’s not easy for e-commerce players to take advantage. There are basic logistical issues, from keeping warehouses Covid-free to unreliable shipping. The two e-tailers reporting results this week are leaders in their particular niches, and have their own challenges. Revolve’s business is built around a festivals and beaches Instagram aesthetic that looks more obsolete by the day. (Coachella alone drives up to 5 percent of sales, according to Cowen.) Farfetch may see its progress toward profitability derailed as discount mania takes hold in luxury.
When luxury spending rebounds, online retailers should benefit, with Farfetch at the front of the pack. Cowen sees Revolve as an attractive acquisition target, with its technology-first approach and young customer base. However, the retailer isn’t sitting on its hands, and has steered its influencer army toward QVC-style presentations rather than vacation shoots.
France Gets Back to Work
Forum des Halles shopping centre in Paris | Source: Shutterstock
France will ease lockdown restrictions on May 11, allowing many stores and offices to reopen
Fashion companies are taking precautions ranging from encouraging remote working to frequent deep cleanings
Milan began to reopen last week, while London and New York remain under full lockdown
Fashion’s capitals are slowly, haltingly starting to open back up for business. Parisian firms that set the agenda in luxury fashion will also provide a path forward for their rivals in New York, London and beyond. A business built around intimate lunches, crowded photo shoots and personally delivered samples won’t be easy to adapt to the new rules of social distancing. But they will figure it out — commerce generally trumps tradition. Remote working will remain the default wherever possible, while offices will undergo elaborate sanitisation rituals on a regular basis. In-person activities, from fittings to photography, will require elaborate distancing protocols, which will make them slower and more expensive. Expect progress in fits and starts, with frequent regression as new Covid-19 clusters emerge.
Fashion Media Gets Creative in Its Pandemic Response
Vogue Taiwan’s latest cover featured a model against an all-digital backdrop | Source: Instagram/@voguetaiwan
Fashion media is starting to release content planned entirely after the pandemic took hold
We’re seeing more digital-only issues, celebrities self-styling shoots at home (Taraji P. Henson, Chloë Sevigny) and weightier covers and themes
Media companies are bracing for advertising revenue to drop 50 percent or more in some cases
Photographers, editors and celebrities have embraced a DIY, “let’s put on a show” approach toward the pandemic, which has made the usual production process for glossy magazines impossible. Vogue Portugal went meta with its all-text cover that reads “Do you buy a magazine just for the cover?” Vogue Taiwan dressed a model in Chanel and put her inside a digitally created backdrop.
The covers and coronavirus content might score with readers, though it’s questionable how long they can go on this way (Vogue Portugal probably wouldn’t like how many readers answered its cover question in the affirmative). The more pressing problem is that the pandemic magazine issues are notably short on advertising. Brands have slashed marketing budgets, and media, particularly print, has been hit hard.
The Bottom Line: As in other sectors, the pandemic is accelerating trends that were already well underway. Magazines were shutting down well before the pandemic, and with advertising unlikely to rebound anytime soon, more will follow.
Around the turn of this millennium, when everyone else was busy worrying about the Y2K bug, researchers at Nexia, a secretive biotechnology firm based in Montreal, had other, bigger critters on their minds. Goats, to be precise. Although they looked just like regular goats and were given cute names like Sugar and Spice, they were, in fact, extraordinary. They had been genetically modified with spider DNA, so that their milk contained silk proteins that could potentially be spun into thread softer than the finest Egyptian cotton, and stronger than Kevlar.
In the end, spider-goat silk never took off. Nexia went bust, the silk-making herd were sold off and, although research is ongoing, the odds on a comeback have never looked good. Dreams of groundbreaking new textiles, however, are still very much alive, and very necessary.
Textile manufacturing, particularly for the fashion industry, has a deservedly dirty reputation. It is a major polluter and consumes vast quantities of water. Around 60% of the materials we wear are made from plastics — principally polyester, acrylic, and nylon. Each time they’re washed, these garments release microplastics into the environment — adding up to around half a million tons annually — endangering wildlife and our own well-being. “We urgently need to know more about the health impact of microplastics because they are everywhere — including in our drinking-water,” Dr. Maria Neira, the World Health Organization’s Director of Public Health, has said.
Given these environmental costs, and the fact that depletion of fossil fuels will eventually make synthetic textiles more expensive, the industry is coming under mounting pressure to invest more of its $3 trillion value into cleaning up its act. This means looking for environmentally friendlier textiles that could take the place of the plastic synthetics.
One option is Piñatex. Developed by Carmen Hijosa, a veteran of the leather industry, Piñatex is an unwoven material made from pineapple leaf fibers from the Philippines. Each pineapple grows in a bush composed of around 25 long, slender and fibrous leaves. These are usually discarded or are burnt once the fruit is harvested, which, since pineapples are the world’s second biggest tropical fruit crop, means 13 million tons of leaves are wasted annually by the top 10 pineapple producing countries alone.
Ananas Anam, Dr Hijosa’s firm, is currently transforming a tiny fraction of this byproduct into Piñatex. Pineapple farmers collect the leaves and use a threshing-style machine to remove their long, pale fibers. These are then worked into a textile in a process similar to felting. The finished product can be dyed or given a metallic finish, and is already being used by brands including Boss and Artesano to make everything from car seats to sneakers to watch straps.
Fruit waste is also the starting point for the companies Green Whisper (bananas), Vegea (wine grapes) and Orange Fiber (citrus). The last discovered that extracting the cellulose from leftover fruit rinds and pulp, breaking it down chemically and spinning it, resulted in a silky yarn suitable for clothing manufacturing. The threads can be used alone or blended with silk to produce a variety of weights and finishes. Technically, the manufacturing process is similar to making rayon or viscose, already widely used by the textile industry, but Orange Fibre has an environmental advantage because their raw material is a waste byproduct of an existing industry, rather than a dedicated crop, such as bamboo or, worse still, virgin forest. They have previously collaborated with Salvatore Ferragamo and, this year, their yarn was used by H&M as part of the brand’s Conscious Exclusive collection.
H&M Group — whose brands include COS and & Other Stories — are one of the fashion industry players investing in new, sustainable textiles. “We are a large company,” CEO Karl-Johan Persson said recently, “and we therefore know that we have an equally large responsibility to ensure that we have a positive impact on our planet.” Right now that feels some way off, but the group has increased the share of recycled and sustainably sourced materials they use from 35% in 2017 to 57% in 2018. Anna Gedda, H&M’s head of sustainability, says the company has committed to a goal of only using sustainable packaging by 2030, although they haven’t set a date for their more ambitious aim of complete sustainability.
Algae and seaweed is another promising resource. Pangaia, an American firm with a celebrity fan base that includes Pharrell Williams, makes clothing from cotton blended with seaweed fiber pepped up with peppermint oil, which reduces the need for washing. “Sustainably produced; sustainably consumed” are the brand’s watchwords — even the packaging is compostable. AlgiKnit, based in Brooklyn, is working the same seam. They are currently prototyping a T-shirt made from alginate extracted from fast-growing kelp that doesn’t need pesticides or fertilizers or, indeed, any land.
What a mushroom can accomplish in two weeks in a bag in a dim room might take a cow two years, thousands of kilograms of food and medicines, as well as a good deal more space.
MycoWorks, a San Francisco-based firm, is making use of another fast-growing resource to make textiles: mushrooms. The process begins with spores injected into bags of common agricultural byproducts such as corn husks, paper pulp and sawdust. These raw materials are then colonized by the root-like mycelium of the fungus, which grow through them and begin to break them down to feed the fungus.
Once this process is complete — taking days or weeks rather than months — MycoWorks has a product that behaves a lot like leather. It’s water resistant, breathable, strong, and flexible; it can be colored. But it has significant advantages over the original: It can be grown to a specific size, shape, even texture, it is biodegradable, doesn’t use animal products, and requires significantly less time and resources to make. What a mushroom can accomplish in two weeks in a bag in a dim room might take a cow two years, thousands of kilograms of food and medicines, as well as a good deal more space.
Bolt Threads, another Californian biotech startup, are also harnessing fungi. Their Mylo leather substitute was used in 2018 by the British designer Stella McCartney to build a prototype of their Falabella handbag, currently made entirely from polyester. But Mylo isn’t the firm’s only foray into textiles. Like Nexia before them, Bolt Threads is trying to make commercial quantities of spider silk without the spiders.
Unlike silkworms, spiders can’t be domesticated. For one thing, they don’t produce as much silk. A silkworm cocoon might be made from a continuous, 900-meter silk thread. Spider webs and egg sacs require a lot less, and manually silking individuals is an arduous process, particularly for the spiders. Another problem is that they are aggressive and territorial — attempts to farm them usually end in carnage and disappointment.
This is, in part, why Nexia hit on the idea of using spider DNA in a larger and more docile animal. Bolt Threads, though, have gone in a very different direction, using genetically modified yeast to make their Microsilks. This theoretically allows them to design fabrics from the molecular level up. By looking at the properties of naturally occurring silk proteins, they can select those with the properties they want, be it softness, durability or strength. (Individual spiders can often produce half a dozen different kinds of silk for use in webs, egg sacs, or for strong draglines used to make a speedy getaway if they’re attacked.)
Bolt put their own spin on these proteins, using adapted yeasts to produce them through fermentation, a process similar to making beer. The proteins can then be extracted and spun into silken threads. While not yet widely distributed — so far, the firm has only sold limited-edition ties, hats, and a one-off dress exhibited at MoMa — commercial spider silk is beginning to feel tantalizingly close. Perhaps it’s time for Sugar and Spice to come out of retirement after all.