In the Game of On-Demand Fashion, Sell’s on First, and Make’s on Second

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When we think about fashion, we typically think about what’s on-trend, what brands are the latest obsession, what shoes will look best with that top. 

Sustainably minded shoppers have pushed the envelope as of late, asking questions like, “what’s in my clothes?” or “who made my clothes”? With statistics like “less than 1% of material used to produce clothing is recycled into new clothing” or “93% of brands aren’t paying garment workers a living wage,” it’s no longer possible for us to ignore the climate crisis literally piling up before our eyes. The not-so-pretty side of fashion emerged from behind the scenes and took center stage. 

Brands know that consumers are catching on, and sustainability marketing (greenwashing) has increased tenfold. The hard truth is, there is no catchy slogan nor magic eco-material that will permanently fix fashion’s environmental impact. Overproduction is fashion’s biggest environmental problem  

What if the answer to fashion waste lies in a question we haven’t been asking as much – “how are my clothes made”? 

How are clothes typically made? 

The clothing manufacturing process is complex but begins by converting raw materials into usable yarn. There are even deeper complexities when producing a natural fiber like cotton versus a man-made synthetic like polyester. For the scope of this article, we’ll look at the point from which a large-scale brand orders inventory. 

Given the advances in e-commerce over the past few years, our appetites for speed have become increasingly voracious. Brands traditionally leverage the forecast model, where retailers predict what customers will buy up to a year in advance and then place bulk orders with a wholesale manufacturer. On top of this forecast model, brands fuel rapid trend cycles by going from sketch to shipment in a matter of days.

The challenge is that predictions are far from hard science and are notoriously unreliable. For example, in 2019, it would have been impossible for forecasters to know that we’d be ditching denim in favor of elastic waistbands. Even before the pandemic, companies like H&M revealed they had $4.3 billion worth of unsold clothing. 

Is there a more sustainable alternative? 

There are several tangible approaches to making the fashion industry more sustainable, and they each address overproduction. Zero-waste pattern cutting and choosing fabrics that can be recycled into new garments are hugely important. 

But before making a garment even starts, the process by which these garments are ordered can change. Enter: on-demand production. Also known as made-to-order manufacturing, an on-demand production model solves two critical fashion waste problems – an end to unsold inventory and the failure of the forecast model. 

In short, sell first and make second. 

Customers’ biggest fear is that on-demand ordering doesn’t align with on-demand interest. We expect things in a snap. But with emerging fashion-tech companies such as Lectra and Topology, customers will still experience the same fast turnaround times. The industry can keep up with trend cycles (although those should slow down as well… separate conversation) and fickle consumers. The product can be designed and ordered rapidly; it’s only produced commensurate with orders placed. 

Beyond the environmental benefits, your closet will thank you. On-demand manufacturing can create higher quality and even personalized products, as factories won’t be rushed to meet tight seasonal quotas. And businesses don’t have to sacrifice profitability to do so.

An on-demand fashion model is promising, exciting, and exponentially reduces human error and resources. It benefits designers, factory workers, and the end consumer. But the approach is still in its early days, and we’ll know if it can withstand the test of time when the industry adopts this model at scale. 

What brands can I support that currently use on-demand production? 

While we wait for the rest of the industry to get with the picture, these names show what it truly means to be fashion-forward, in both style and sustainability.  

  • Ministry of Supply 
  • Pyer Moss 
  • Frame & Partners 
  • We Are Kin 
  • Molby The Label


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