When the COVID-19 pandemic brought the apparel industry’s most pressing needs to light, survival mode kicked in. With their excesses and inefficiencies laid bare, brands' long-stated goals—from minimizing environmental destruction to streamlining production—had to become a reality, and quickly.
But there’s some good news: as is often the case, innovation is borne out of necessity (and, in this case, crisis), and the apparel industry’s pace of developments on environmental, technological, and even sociological fronts has sped up. In particular, sustainable fashion has grown from a grass-roots initiative to a board-room issue. While some developments have a direct environmental impact, like recyclable materials or the resale industry, there are just as many adjacent efforts that can drive real results for fashion's carbon bottom line. Here are 10 bright ideas that are powering a new sustainable approach to the apparel industry.
1. Material Innovation
The fashion industry is notoriously unsustainable, contributing up to 10% of global carbon emissions annually. Underwear alone accounts for 170 tons of waste, but that doesn’t mean we need to become a generation gone commando.
Unlike most items on this list, many of the future’s most advanced fabrics will leverage the capabilities of natural chemistry rather than utilize complex technologies. Scientists are making speedy progress and have already created several alternatives to mainstream textiles by reimagining recycled materials, biological products, natural assets, and ingredients that are actually alive.
Hong Kong-based brand Recyc Leather makes bags, shoes, and other accessories using natural rubber and waste from the glove industry, while British designer Christopher Raeburn creates entire collections from discarded goods. Sea Me, based in the Netherlands, uses seaweed as an alternative to yarn, and India’s Malai develops “a sheet of cellulose jelly” to make an entirely biodegradable leather alternative. Designer and researcher Sanne Visser even makes a replacement for synthetic nylons entirely from human hair.
2. Avatar Shopping
Despite having constant access to a seemingly endless supply of garments, modern-day consumers remain plagued by inconsistent sizing and unpredictable fits. Most shoppers will return ill-fitting clothing, significantly contributing to the shipping and packaging carbon footprint of the $527 billion apparel market. As a result, many industry experts predict avatar try-on technology will soon become the norm.
Synergistic use of artificial intelligence with augmented reality was on the rise even before the pandemic, and developers continue to update and improve the technology necessary to create accurate, lifelike icons. It’s possible that our virtual counterparts might offer a better idea of how different items look on us and make fashion disasters a thing of the past (sizing ones, at least).
Some futurists even predict the Direct-to-Consumer marketplace will transform into the Direct-to-Avatar market, with shoppers bypassing traditional shopping entirely in favor of dressing their online personas. The first fully digital couture dress sold for a whopping $9,500 in 2019 and virtual clothing sales have only skyrocketed since then. Out with the old, in with the new (virtual) you.
3. Resale Industry
A wise man once said, “I’ma take your grandpa’s style, I’ma take your grandpa’s style — no, for real, ask your grandpa. Can I have his hand-me-downs?” Young consumers are taking a cue from Macklemore and bringing back more than just the mom-jean and puff-sleeve trends: they’re hunting for the originals.
Gen Z is leading the resale and vintage movement by popularizing thrifting, upcycling, and consignment shopping, and marketing their one-of-a-kind finds as integral components of their self-expression and identity. As more social media influencers champion second-hand apparel use, used clothing is transcending its old connotations as a last resort and becoming a chic, contemporary alternative to fast fashion. ThredUp researchers predict the second-hand clothing market will eclipse the fast fashion industry’s 20% growth by 165% in the next ten years.
The financial, environmental, and social benefits of repurposing garments are varied and vast. Consumers find unbeatable deals, retailers are incentivized to scale back mass manufacturing, and used clothing stays out of landfills.
4. On-Demand Manufacturing
It's inventory management 101 to match supply to demand, but apparel manufacturing methods have warped the formula for all but the biggest brands. Manufacturers sign agreements with brands based on large minimum order quantities, creating an upside-down system in which it costs less to overproduce. This puts brands in a tight spot, forcing them to overbuy products on forecast alone and boxing them into an end-of-season discount process before they've produced a single garment. While this system has created unmovable deadstock for years (in 2018 H&M had $4.3 billion worth of unsold clothes), the pandemic brought its inefficiencies to light. Imagine a brand ordering 1,000 units of a sparkly NYE dress in February 2020, right before a pandemic hit and we all turned into cave-dwelling bread-makers. With no New Year's Eve plans in sight, consumers were more interested in silk pajamas than party dresses.
But some intrepid manufacturers are rewriting the model of “bloated supply, unpredictable demand.” In an on-demand model, brands order runs based on actual demand, e.g. purchases or pre-orders from their online store. The product is only restocked when it's bought, so brands aren't left with excessive waste in the form of last-season's hot peasant top. As more manufacturers build out on-demand capabilities, the next question will be scalability—can the entire apparel industry run on demand?
5. Exclusive Collections
The rise of mass manufacturing popularized industry-wide production models that create an unsustainable abundance of fast fashion collections. As retailers compete to keep up with ever-changing trends, some brands design for as many as 52 different “micro-seasons” annually. This is environmentally and financially costly, creates unmanageable inventory, generates excess waste, and requires constant marketing campaign changes.
But sometimes less truly is more. Several companies are drastically reducing the size and frequency of their collections, opting to produce only two to four a year. Other retailers also add the occasional small capsule collection to create a sense of exclusivity that ignites a thrill-of-the-chase mentality in shoppers.
Brands that publicly tie their scaled-back offerings to sustainability are also likely to win in the court of public opinion. Young people especially are willing to pay more for ethically made clothing, with some studies reporting members of Gen Z will pay up to 50% more for responsibly made clothing from brands that prioritize sustainability. Fewer collections, less waste, and potentially more revenue? It’s a style win.
6. Real-Time Consumer Data & Trend Forecasting
Have you ever noticed your Instagram feed suddenly becoming inundated with Ben & Jerry’s advertisements the day after you ordered three pints of Chunky Monkey? As members of the digital age, we are constantly updating our social media and leaving a detailed trail of our preferences and habits.
Retailers today have access to this infinite supply of relevant, real-time consumer data and utilize media monitoring to develop accurate customer profiles, track and predict emerging trends, create marketing campaigns, and tailor advertising to appeal to their target audiences. In other words, trend tracking minimizes merchandising approximations to make sure every piece counts.
Brands that leverage fine-tuned consumer data can more accurately match supply to demand. Retailers can also use this specific, personalized feedback to gauge consumer sentiment regarding sustainability and scale up the practices that are well-received by their consumers.
Businesses are incentivized by more than just environmental friendliness; representatives for trend forecasting software provider Trendalytics claim their clients save 60+ hours a quarter by subscribing to their service rather than tracking trends manually.
7. Smart Factories
Smart watch, smart phone...smart factory? The smartest apparel retailers are racing to adopt principles of Industry 4.0, the fourth Industrial Revolution that is reconfiguring the value chain through automation and integration.
Many manufacturing facilities are restrained by inflexible equipment that can’t be easily adapted to meet the needs of today's brands. Smart manufacturing technology can vastly improve every step of the production chain, from initial design to quality assurance, and 86% of manufacturing executives in a Deloitte study believe smart manufacturing will continue to drive competition in the apparel industry.
What makes smart factories so, well, smart, is that they’re a win-win-win for retailers, shoppers, and Mother Nature. Production is faster, more sustainable, and better quality at any scale. Customization is morphing from a luxury to a necessity, and Industry 4.0 technology enables manufacturers to satisfy customer needs without sacrificing margins. Human error and garment inconsistencies are drastically reduced, while purposeful differentiators and customizations are enabled, creating all the desirable uniqueness without the loose seams.
Cyber security remains a concern for businesses considering adopting smart factory technology. One study suggests that up to one-fifth of manufacturers were victims of cyber attacks in 2019, so the key to successfully implementing Industry 4.0 is an equally aggressive approach to cyber risk management.
8. Influencer Culture
Businesses leverage trend monitoring tools to identify the products and services that are most likely to be successful. Much of this information is gathered via social media channels, where an estimated 96% of US and UK users engaged with influencers in some way, shape, or form before the pandemic struck. COVID-19 only accelerated the shift to approachable and interactive advertising. As a result, social media influencer marketing has skyrocketed in recent years.
Gen Z-ers prioritize social activism and public protest and are outspoken about the serious environmental issues exacerbated by excessive consumerism. In other words, the tide is turning away from lipstick kits selling out in 30 seconds and toward a more progressive climate of environmental awareness.
Sustainability influencers are becoming more popular, drawing attention to the apparel industry’s troubling global footprint and heavily influencing social sentiment. Legacy brands seeking to appeal to a new generation of shoppers are likely to partner with "genuinfluencers" who craft an environmentally friendly narrative, forging powerful partnerships that could reshape the fashion sector’s approach to sustainability.
9. Last-Mile Shipping
Modern-day consumers are accustomed to getting what they want, when they want it. Amazon has revolutionized last-mile delivery by stocking warehouses near population hubs to decrease shipping costs and increase delivery speeds. The cherry on top for buyers? Free shipping with Prime. This closer-to-home shipping model is being replicated by companies of all sizes as they strive to keep up in the increasingly competitive apparel market.
Although last-mile shipping done wrong can contribute to environmental concerns, experts believe the use of electric delivery vehicles and droids will drastically reduce C02 emissions in the long run. The industry-wide race to localize shipping will simultaneously accelerate sustainable business practices, with some studies suggesting localizing fulfillment centers and changing delivery practices could decrease a company’s carbon footprint by up to 26%.
10. Digitally Replicating the In-Store Experience
Ecommerce served as a critical lifeline to apparel brands after the COVID-19 pandemic disrupted the supply chain and shut down numerous brick-and-mortar stores. Many retailers have attempted to recreate the in-store experience digitally in an effort to maintain the momentum built online. These virtual alternatives take the best of in-person shopping (try-ons, customer service, community building) and leave the worst (long lines, sold-out items, actual social interaction). More importantly, virtual alternatives to in-person shopping trips eliminate the need to travel to and from stores and cut carbon emissions.
In cases where going fully digital isn’t an option, retailers are exploring technological replacement options for in-store items. Rather than keep 50 of the same dress in stock, for example, a brand might have one “digital hanger” that customers can use to view a variety of garments before placing an order made specifically for them. Similarly, virtual mirrors show shoppers how different garments might look on them and easily swap out colors, patterns, and other details to provide a more accurate idea of what a final item could look like.
Innovative changes like these will immediately cut excessive manufacturing and cap unnecessary inventory, saving time, space, and money in the process.