Within the fashion and clothing industry, there is a considerable focus on waste, with a new concept of zero inventory retail from brands like Unspun Jeans offering a new solution.
The focus on reducing textile waste is not actually coming from the brands or retailers, but from consumers and the media who are beginning to shine a bright light on the levels of textiles thrown away every year.
Whilst there are conversations around the levels of waste, we never really dig much deeper into the root cause. Fast fashion, cheap clothing, and an exploding population of consumers all play a significant role, but what about the inventory strategies used by clothing brands and retailers?
The fashion industry has become hooked on a high-inventory, low-cost model, setting the groundwork for vast levels of textile waste. Zero-inventory retail is taking the opposite approach, with brands like Unspun Jeans creating garments to order, potentially devising a new waste-free model for the fashion industry.
The fashion industry produces 10% of all global carbon emissions. Clothing is essential; however, when you consider that, of the 100 billion garments of clothing made every year, 60% of those are trashed or burned within ONE year- it’s clear our relationship with clothing has become toxic.
This level of waste is often hard to picture but becomes more shocking when broken down to a more digestible scale. The equivalent of one truck of clothes is burned or dumped in landfill every second, with the ABC reporting that in Australia alone, 6 tonnes of textiles are discarded every 10 minutes.
The level of waste is directly related to the amount we produce, and this textile production is growing exponentially across the world. In Europe, a study by the European Parliament showed that fashion brands went from an average of two collections per year in 2000 to five in 2011, with this growth continuing in recent years.
Zero Inventory Retail: Merchandise Planning
At a basic level, the buying/product/planning departments within the fashion industry are employed to affectively take a gamble on what consumers are going to want to buy.
This concept applies whether you are making clothes, or you are a retailer buying for a store. Due to changing seasons and the timeframes required for production, orders are made months and even years in advance.
Fashion buying and planning requires expertise and experience. At a fundamental level, however, the concept bears a close similarity to an expert punter studying a horseracing form guide. The problem is that picking a winner is far more complex, with predicting what people will want to buy, when, where, in what colour and in what size, being close to impossible.
This betting analogy is further cemented by the other major factor: margin. To maximise profit, better odds are available with larger quantities, with discounts from factories and suppliers providing a higher margin and return. Businesses are incentivised to bet big on inventory volume to maximise returns.
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The Problem with Discounting
With a consumer now educated to expect regular discounting, high inventory levels are supported by the safety net of a sale every month. Even the biggest fashion mistake, the style ridiculed by consumers, will likely find a buyer at 70% off RRP.
Discounting has become so prevalent in retail that many clothing brands and retail businesses even have specific ‘buys’ for these sale events. With consumers educated to expect a sale every month, many companies have begun buying reduced quality garments in bulk with every intention of only selling once heavily discounted.
The result is an industry flooded with cheap clothing, purchased by consumers who were likely converted due to pricing rather than necessity. These items of cheap clothing, purchased impulsively, likely have a very short lifespan. As mentioned already, over 100 billion pieces of clothing are made every year, with nearly 60% trashed or burned within ONE year.
What happens to sale rack garments after the sale is over? Even at 60/70/80% off RRP, brands and retailers struggle with leftover inventory, in many cases requiring the destruction of their stock.
US second-hand retailer Goodwill reports receiving over 50,000 lbs/month of unsold clothing donated to them in the San Francisco area alone, and around 60-70% they’re unable to sell.
The excess inventory problem is not isolated to heavily discounted sale items. At the other end of the fashion food chain, luxury fashion brands experience a similar issue.
Burberry became the poster child for this excess inventory problem when it was widely reported they set fire to over $40 million USD of stock back in 2018. For luxury fashion, preserving product scarcity and brand exclusivity is fundamental to their business model.
When you consider the environmental burdon of creating $40 million USD of clothing, how can a business model that requires the destroying of this stock be sustainable?
Zero Inventory Retail: Made-To-Order Fashion
As with many sustainability issues, one solution lies in reversing the big business, high volume approach and taking inspiration from how clothes used to be made.
You don’t need to go that far back in time to find clothing made to order as a common practice. Many will roll their eyes at this concept as being ridiculous, blinded by their own idea of time. In the grand scale, the past 50 years is a blip in the history of the Earth. We are, however, doubling down on decisions regardless of their long-term effect on the future on our planet.
A significant difference and disruption to the concept of made-to-order clothing are our developments with technology. Whereas the location of an expert tailor restricted previous made-to-order clothing, we now have technology able to replicate this experience online.
Although still in its infancy, developments in technology could potentially allow for a zero inventory retail model to scale quickly and become the norm again, with clothes being made to order as required.
Unspun Jeans, a US denim company based in San Francisco, are one company leading the charge in championing a zero inventory retail model. The foundation of their business model centres around mobile technology to digitally design and fit a custom pair of jeans using a scanning tool on your phone.
The 30-second body scan you perform yourself translates your legs into a digital jean avatar. You can then select the jean style, fabric, thread colour, rise height, and hem length, creating a bespoke piece of clothing made specifically for you.
Zero Inventory Retail Model
Every pair of Unspun jeans is made to order using your 3D scan to create a completely bespoke pair of jeans. Outside of the incredible experience of getting a completely personalised and unique product, the model means that Unspun has instituted a zero inventory retail model.
Without any aged inventory, there is no requirement to discount or clear old stock, creating a responsible consumption relationship with customers.
The made-to-order production also dramatically reduces the waste created by traditional clothing manufacturing. For every 10,000 garments produced, traditional methods result in a further 1,000 garments going straight to landfill in the form of cutting waste.
For more information on Unspun Jeans, the zero-inventory model and their custom scanning tool, be sure to check out https://unspun.io/
Further Reading: AWARE Blockchain Recycled Fabric: Traceable Recycled Cotton. Read More