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With its Complex Supply Chain, Fashion Needs a Seismic Reset

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In her first piece for WhichPLM this year, resident digital printing expert Debbie McKeegan explores the future of our industry. She believes we need to rebuild the value chain and renegotiate the contractual partnerships of the past in order to move forward. Debbie is the CEO of TexIntel – an expert advisory practice serving the Creative, Digital and Print Textile manufacturing Industry.

Where do we go from here? The fashion industry is broken – and has been for some time. If there’s a tangible upside to the current pandemic, it’s that finally the iceberg is out of the water and in plain sight. Seismic change is required to redefine fashion – both fast and slow fashion. Every aspect of the current business model is now under scrutiny.

The timescale is acute. In the past new technologies and equally disruptive business models have had the benefit of time to embed into the production process, but COVID-19 has accelerated the need for change and shows no sign of slowing. Ecommerce sales are on the up, witnessing ten years worth of growth in just the first 3 months of the pandemic. But something else has accelerated: environmental awareness. The consumer is becoming increasingly aware of the true environmental cost of Fashion. The pressure on the system is palpable; businesses that have embraced digitization and technology have excelled during this incredibly difficult time – those that haven’t or cannot afford to do so, struggle on or simply disappear.

If the Fashion industry doesn’t address its unsustainable practices it will neither thrive nor survive. The consumer demands action, as does the environment.

A report from the Global Fashion Agenda, working with McKinsey, states that if the Fashion industry does not accelerate its response to climate change, by 2030 it will produce around twice the volume of emissions required to align with the Paris Agreement’s global warming pathways. From rising sea levels, to extreme rainfall and powerful heatwaves, the consequences of climate change can no longer be ignored by either society or the Fashion industry, which will see many impacts on its operations in the years ahead.

Amidst the global pandemic and rising pressure to address social issues, climate change is jostling for attention at the top of the international agenda.

However, managing the impacts of global warming is a precondition of building a fairer society and for tackling many of the problems of the age. To play its part, the Fashion industry must ensure it engages with the issues and reduces its climate impact to a minimum.

All players in the fashion value cycle have the potential to significantly reduce carbon emissions and help put the industry on the 1.5-degree pathway, whether that’s through coordinated decarbonisation efforts or sustainable consumption choices.

In 2018 the Fashion industry produced 2.1 billion tonnes CO2eq. This represents 4% of global carbon emissions – an emissions’ share larger than that of France, Germany and the UK combined.

We have the technology to deliver sustainable fashion and manufacturing, and to support the reinvention of the Fashion industry for sure, but how does a business make the necessary change – and at warp speed – to survive? From the outside it looks simple: invest in new technologies for lean efficient sustainable production and control inventory. But as practitioners we all know it’s not quite that simple.

Manufacturing is a tough business, and over the years margins have reduced as buyers squeeze the system with a firm grip and merciless power. Now faced with a requirement for reduced stock as order volumes are minimised and called off against sales data at speed, manufacturing is feeling the squeeze. Switching to an on-demand strategy or close proximity production is certainly progress and ultimately delivers a sustainable solution for the fashion buyer reducing their liability – but how does that affect the supplier and the manufacturer? Who takes the risk and who holds accountability? Stories abound of “sales or return” buying policies within our industry; forcing the brands to take back last season’s unsold stock in order to sell this year’s collection is unsustainable and at best only serves to prolong the agony of commercial life for all stakeholders. The designer, supplier or manufacturer takes all of the risk!

The buyer always holds the power, and something has to give. The economics of retail need to realign with the realities of millennial production – put simply volume orders are costed at scale. When you switch to a reduced buying strategy the numbers just don’t add up, and the supplier is taking the pain. As we emerge post-pandemic strategic alliances are required between the retail sector and the supply chain. Collaboration is key if we are to build a new future for the fashion industry. Only then will we deliver a new chapter of successful commerce and reduce the environmental impact of retail and not simply prolong the agony and stress on the supply chain and the planet. The system must become risk averse for both stakeholders and the environment.

If we are to rebuild and focus on a sustainable future, we have to instill trust, we have to value the stakeholder upstream and downstream. Liability has to be shared and contracts renegotiated so that businesses can thrive.

The supply chain for even the simplest garment contains multiple touch points, and each stakeholder has a responsibility, however great or small. Manufacturing at speed demands automation and investment in new technologies. It also demands an accelerated learning curve. But do we have the knowledge and transparency at hand to make the step change required?

The role of the designer has evolved – sustainable design starts with the creative process. The DNA of the product is mastered by the design team, and the product partners are set for production. The pandemic has accelerated the demand for sustainable manufacturing – either by raw components or in the demand for agile production i.e. products that are either sustainably sourced and/or efficiently manufactured to meet the growing demands of the consumer whilst also guaranteeing profitable sales. But are designers in possession of the facts? Do they have the knowledge or authority to ask the correct questions and source the right production partners? Are the components they source certified? When designing to a price point it’s not easy to configure the product to the buying team’s unrealistic expectations. This process is much easier for the large brand that has the volume to source and buy at scale, but for the smaller brand configuring products using sustainable sourced components or production is a difficult mission and often an impossible balancing act.

Sustainable fashion demands transparency – and the fashion industry isn’t renowned for, or historically comfortable with, sharing data. If we look at the industry’s most successful brand’s they are vertical. Asking a brand to share information with supplier’s demand trust. We have to rebuild the value chain and renegotiate the contractual partnerships of the past and move forward at speed to become overtly transparent. Only then can we truly manufacture sustainably and rebuild the Fashion industry.

Debbie McKeegan Award winning British designer, Debbie McKeegan, began her digital journey almost two decades ago – pre-Photoshop, and pre-digital print. With a manufacturing background, a vast knowledge of traditional textiles (from both a design and production perspective), and an interest in CAD from its onset, today Debbie serves as an expert in the world of digital print. Debbie has developed many new digital production practices, and speaks as an authority on digital design and print worldwide. She is the CEO of TextIntel - an expert advisory practice serving the Creative, Digital and Print Textile manufacturing industry. As a WhichPLM contributor, she is able to pass on her wisdom as a digital pioneer; embracing the creative freedom offered with the advancement of new technology, she looks forward to sharing her knowledge.