What Retailers and Software Vendors are not yet doing when it comes to PLM & Sustainability
In her first piece for WhichPLM, Annabel Lindsay, Programme Coordinator for Mindless Mag, writes about the increasing use of technology given the current global climate, and the need for all sides of our industry to work together, to truly transcend into a sustainable era.
Technology has been a windfall throughout lockdown. We’ve created an online society, allowing us to stay connected to each other and the outside world. This digitally-enabled visibility is currently vital to our mental well-being, much like needs for transparency within fashion and retail is fundamental for achieving environmental and social well-being across all stages of the value chain.
And so, while in the midst of a global pandemic where it could be easy for sustainability to be pushed to the back of our minds, it’s arguably more important than ever to highlight the connectedness of our mindless consumption of ‘things’ with our planetary health. And advancements in retail technology may just be the answer…
Retailers: survival of the fastest
Retailers themselves recognise benefits to operating under the increased autonomy or analysis of digitisation. From an economic standpoint, technological advancements for enhancing the industry’s growth have been profound. PLM (Product Lifecycle Management) software systems have helped to speed up product development processes by storing information about products from concept and design, through to manufacturing, service and product disposal.
In more recent years, some retailers are increasingly incorporating sustainable efforts alongside economic growth through technological software systems. Largely down to the imminent reality of existing in a world with finite resources and increasing consumer-demand for sustainability.
PLM has its perks
Understanding PLM processes helps us to recognise sustainability short fallings amongst retailers and how we, as consumers, could be better engaged with such processes. This isn’t to shun efforts of the many retailers already using sustainability as a driving factor for maximising technological potential. Instead, it’s meant to act as a realisation of the immense opportune that retailers have to innovate and revolutionise the way they conduct business, in line with our planet’s environmental capabilities.
Successful PLM software typically helps fast fashion retailers to bring products to market faster and before competitors. It allows all those involved in product development to interact on the same platform and access latest product information, making communication easier. This minimizes manufacturing errors or delays and supports product innovation.
What’s the issue?
The issue with software designed to intensify the pace at which products are brought to market is that it contradicts the ethos of needing a slower system to achieve sustainability. As a consumer, I often wonder if we must bear some of the burden of accountability. Has our increased thirst for ‘things’, especially digitally, pushed brands to invest in such software to satisfy our demanding and ever-changing needs?
As consumers, we can tackle sustainability by actively campaigning for and engaging with new schemes creating an exciting new dynamic between retailers and ourselves (H&M already has in-store recycling stations for old garments to be repurposed). Shifting attitudes towards materials and resources post-POS, recognises the existing value in garments on the consumer side of fashion, justifying investments in tech-software innovation.
When it comes to retailers, there’s a growing sustainable concept of simple but radical brilliance, which software vendors could help facilitate achieving. Closing the loop on linear supply chain systems could be the missing piece of the puzzle – keeping resources circulating in use, for different purposes, for as long as possible through recycling. Whereas traditionally, once a product is in consumer ownership, retailers no longer have involvement with it, retail software vendors could develop new stages within PLM systems, post-point-of-sale to close value-chain loops.
PLM systems support conceptualising and manufacturing new products, which is still useful as 80% of product-related environmental impacts can be influenced during design. Having successfully helped to design-out waste, PLM systems need expansion, focusing on the end of the lifecycle to understand how value can be retained and restored from existing garments, sparing new virgin-resources. With such systems comes huge scope for innovation, and that’s where technological advances really come into play.
For closed-loop systems to take-off, PLM systems need to integrate consumer participation, especially regarding take-back schemes and product recovery. But communicating such initiatives to consumers is not easy, as A) we don’t always want to listen (possibly guilt avoidance for participating in the recently declared ‘non-essential’ consumption of products) and B) on the surface, these systems seem complex, and just generally confusing.
Software companies providing sustainable PLM solutions could give retailers an opportunity to focus efforts on communicating these initiatives, getting consumers involved directly in contributing to a greener system.
We’ve noticed that retail technology provider Aptos is doing just that. Aptos establishes two-way brand partnerships to introduce more sustainable PLM systems. “We are committed to developing technology that helps our clients act as stewards of the environment throughout the entire product lifecycle, from ideation to shelf”, says Project Manager, Luca Ferraris.
They do this by examining:
- Virtual prototyping and sampling, reducing time to market and minimising the commitment of resources in pre-production phases.
- Well-executed CSR plans, helping suppliers to respect codes of conduct for eco-friendly, quality products that appeal to conscious consumers.
- Ensuring the right assortments arrive at the right time, reducing overstock, markdowns and waste across the chain while boosting customer satisfaction.
‘If these systems exist, why don’t all retailers use them?’, I hear you ask. Well, many of them already do. But for smaller/medium-sized enterprises, they can be expensive, involve sharing sensitive data and require extensive training. With this, it seems that unless shared industry goals transition from economic to environmental prosperity, then software vendors considering sustainability may remain exclusive to those who can afford it: the retail giants churning out mass-produced products in the first place. Could tech-innovation truly transcend industry-wide?
Writing this from home in lockdown, in parallel with the publishing of Fashion Revolution’s 2020 Fashion Transparency Index, I’m optimistically imagining a sustainable future for fashion and retail, enhanced by innovations in software across the value chain. Yet, I believe that technology can only take us part of the way there…
Transparency is going to be vital to help educate and inform consumers of why their participation is so vital to achieving sustainability. Without knowing the absolute truth of the environmental and social exploitation required to sustain our current consumption habits, facilitated by PLM software systems, consumers may lack the urgency required to step-up and fulfil their equally as important role in changing the retail system.
Equally, brands and retailers need to take on a more active role in closing the loop on their product-lifecycle systems, or at the very least ensuring products are designed as sustainably as possible. Working closely with software vendors can help all parties involved to innovate, develop and embrace the necessary tech systems required to truly transcend into a sustainable era.