Buy Now, Build Now

IS THE FUTURE OF RESPONSIBLE FASHION

Over the past few years, a growing awareness of the harmful effect of fashion on our planet has led to a call within the industry to adopt and prioritize sustainability. There now exists a movement within the industry to employ ethical work practices, manufacture with sustainable fabrics and to recycle and reuse excess items. The media is helping bring change to the business by keeping eco-friendly fashion front and center in both consumer and business press.

However, there is a critical area of sustainable fashion that to date has not received the attention it deserves: on-demand manufacturing, also known as, ‘buy now, build now,’ a topic I have written about previously.

Perhaps the aspect of the traditional fashion industry most damaging to the environement is overproduction. Simply put: the historical business has not been able to properly match supply and demand. Lacking visibility into what is actually going to sell, large department stores and small boutique shops alike often place clothing orders from fashion brands larger than needed. Since these orders take months to produce and deliver to retail — sometimes when trends have already moved on — a meaningful portion of the clothing is never sold to customers, or it is sold on sale at a fraction of the original manufacturing cost. The result is wasted inventory and money.

 

In 2009, when I came up with the concept for Moda Operandi, I believed there was a better way to match supply and demand. Moda’s pre-order “trunkshow” model allows consumers to order pieces right after they are shown at a designer’s runway show. So the pieces the designer produces for Moda customers are only items that have already been ordered and secured with a deposit. Moreover, this pre-order model helps designers glean information from up front orders to better predict which items might resonate at traditional retail. Brands harness this information to optimize which items to produce and in what quantities for their own stores and third party vendors. This means less wasted inventory and money.

While Moda’s pre-order model took an important step towards fashion sustainability, the spillover effect on the industry was limited. Only a relatively small segment of shoppers are willing to wait months for their clothing to be made and sent to them. So most stores stuck with the model of buyers buying “in the dark” now and often being stuck with waste later.

My next fashion company, Tinker Tailor, made a more aggressive go of matching supply and demand. This direct to consumer company sold customizable luxury women’s clothing, produced in house via its own atelier. Similar to Moda, each order sewn was an order secured with a deposit. But by owning and optimizing the manufacturing process, Tinker Tailor managed to control and shorten the order to delivery window to about six weeks. Nonetheless, this delay was still too long for most customers and it was one of the reasons the company failed.

 

 

Katla, my latest eco-friendly fashion venture, has pushed the “buy now, build now” envelope still: our Florence, Alabama based manufacturing partner, OnPoint Manufacturing, developed a revolutionary software platform that allows it to cost-effectively produce one garment at a time, on-demand, within two to three days. This means less waste – and customers get their orders in under a week.

I am hopeful that Katla is emblematic of a new push towards sustainable “buy now, build now” businesses within the industry at large. Rapid, responsible made-to-order manufacturing is a development shoppers are increasingly expecting and demanding. And new technologies – including 3D printing and 3D knitting technologies — are enabling manufacturers to offer “buy now, build now” without ruining profitability. As such, direct-to-consumer clothing brands like Katla — supported by e-commerce and social shopping – will rely on made-to-order manufacturing more than ever, getting product onto consumers’ doorsteps, at a good price, in just days.

To be clear, the “buy now, build now” revolution will not happen overnight. Traditional manufacturers will need to adopt modern technologies that will require additional capital and training (but perhaps fewer people) to employ. And traditional retailers will need to embrace more flexible business models that accommodate on-demand manufacturing vs. the old system of holding inventory. All the while, increasingly eco-conscious consumers will become more demanding of buying sustainable fashion even if it means waiting a few days longer than traditional retail. Ultimately the reduction in waste and resulting improved cash flow will make great economic sense up and down the fashion value chain, benefitting the planet at large.

The time is now for the industry to commit to better, safer, eco-friendlier manufacturing processes that reduce waste and save money. “Buy now, build now” is the next step towards an environmentally and financially sustainable fashion industry.