The apparel market, which is worth $65 billion, has an enormous waste problem. Whether worn by a consumer or not, over 80% of manufactured clothing ultimately ends up in a landfill. Last year, Ellen MacArthur Foundation estimated that the fashion industry loses over $400 billion a year in unsold stock and waste, representing 15% of all products. As the industry attempts to tackle the problem, more and more startups, like London based company Unmade, are leading the way and showing us how we can reimagine fashion’s design and manufacturing processes.
Although the industry is slowly waking up to the problem, now is the time for fashion businesses to change how they do business. Forecasting consumer demand 6-12 months in advance is a business model that no longer works—trying to predict which designs, colors, and sizes will sell in what volumes and where has been identified as a wasteful process that is leading to overproduction of clothes.
Overproduction and wasteful distribution have meant that the textile industry has continued to be the fastest-growing contributor to the landfill predicament. We have witnessed entirely usable stock destroyed by luxury brands looking to protect their brand. In 2018 highstreet label H&M admitted that they were sitting on $4.3 billion of unsold clothing. So what could be the solution? Well, Unmade offers a more sustainable approach, a software platform that could help the fashion industry pushback from being one of the fastest-growing contributors to the landfill problem.
On Demand-Driven Supply Chain
In 2014, Unmade was founded by Hal Watts, Kirsty Emery, and Ben Alun-Jones. This week I had a one on one conversation with Ben Alun-Jones, who spearheads product innovation, conception, and development, on how Unmade is enabling clothing brands to create on-demand supply chains. “When we first started, we had to show brands that it is possible. In earlier phone calls with factories, they would tell us it’s impossible. And as we add new capabilities, we have found that bigger companies are starting to have more belief”, explained Alun-Jones with a smile on his face.
Unmade’s sustainable approach introduces an Order Management System (OMS) designed to take over control of the actual manufacturing. What this means is that the back end of Unmade’s platform was created to integrate individual and short-run orders into existing production seamlessly. Therefore, personalized orders can be manufactured at the same cost and speed as mass-produced items.
At the beginning of the interview I had with Alun-Jones, we started our conversation with their direct to consumer offering. “Unmade’s business models enable a b2b solution for bigger businesses to be able to make things in a demand-driven way”. Taking a pause, he continued, “We are trying to change the industry, rather than trying to do it alone. It is much better to do it with great business, great innovators across the industries, and amazing factories and partners we work with.”
Intrigued, I wanted to find out how they choose who to work with and how they have managed to steer away from the trap of ‘marketing stunts.’ “We work with companies that have a firm belief and the same vision as us. That is an obvious signal to us that it is not a flash in the pan”. Adding “The businesses that we work with really believes that the future of the supply chain is demand-driven and that the way they need to engage with their consumers needs to change and is going to change. And the way they design and make products needs to be different”.
When it comes to how Unmade is changing fashion’s supply chain, Alun-Jones confided that they focus on the ability to take a design and use the relevant data to drive production and create a direct link between consumers. The founders place great importance on the “ability to connect the demand directly to product choice. We have focussed our efforts to enhance the supply chain,” revealed Alun-Jones.
On mass customization, Alun-Jones’ educated me on a few facts. In my experience, I have found leading fashion companies hesitating to improve their supply chain because it always works out to be expensive to invest in something different, even when it is more sustainable to do so. Alun-Jones’ challenged the ‘excuse’ that fashion companies use not to innovate. “It should be much easier for bigger businesses to invest, but they struggle to shift out of business as usual.” He proceeded: “Yes, many businesses in this industry do not have the budget, but I do think that the value attached to innovating the business model is low. It doesn’t take a lot to invest in that first step; there needs to be a willingness to test”.
I understood where Alun-Jones’ was coming from. The fashion industry does need to value innovation more than it does because it is the out of the box thinking that is going to repair the broken supply chain and reduce the need for overproduction while protecting retail margins. Technology has been and is still playing a pivotal role in helping the fashion industry future proof itself. “I think that there is no point trying to put out the small fire over here, while there is a huge fire raging in the background. Even if you make 10% in improving the material you use (in your product), but you make 30% too much product…if we can reduce the fact that we are making too much of the wrong stuff, it gives us the headspace to be able to get into the detail on how to make the product better.”
Customization is not only targeted towards consumers, but it is also the perfect tech tool for businesses. “Not every product in the future is going to be customized by the end consumer,” explained Alun-Jones. “We are enabling the flexibility in the product, the agility so businesses can use it to drive a new trend, to drive collaboration, it can all come through the same supply chain. It does require the supply chain and the business to change, though,” remarked Alun-Jones. As the conversation continued, Alun-Jones talked about the hyper-local products and the idea of using a customizable supply chain. Without mentioning names, he spoke about some pilots that are in the works. “You will be able to zoom in using the power of customization. That can come through the same factory, the same factory network. That is how we see things,” he stated. Adding, “You will only then make what you need, and be able to make some cool stuff at the last minute.”
Although Unmade is unable to share who they are working with, they did share with me about their collaboration with sportswear and lifestyle brand Rapha. Unmade helped Rapha to personalize their designs, choose their colors, upload their artwork, and visualize in real-time how their kit will look in the field on real models.
Championing sustainable fashion throughout the entire supply chain is not an easy feat, so I wanted to know how Unmade was confronting the challenges brought on by trying to shift the fashion industry towards a fully circular model. “The real big one has been to try finding other businesses who really share our vision, share that desire to invest, innovate, and risk trying something different.” He continued: “If we are talking about moving this enormous ship and turning it around so we can start making things in a completely different way, that requires great factories that think differently, that requires great machine factories that are willing to invest themselves. It is about bringing the whole ecosystem along with us. So our challenges are getting the brands to sign up and willing to go with and getting the ecosystem to deliver on that promise, on that demand.”
Education is vital when it comes to change. Alun-Jones’ doesn’t think that they are going to convince the industry that customization is the thing. Still, he does believe that they might be able to convince the industry that a customizable manufacturing supply chain is the way forward. For change to happen, we need to accept that the role of the designer, factory manager, the retailer will change. “That is the scary thing for everyone, right?” asked Alun-Jones. Nodding my head, I agreed with the Unmade founder, the evolution of job titles are ‘big picture stuff.’ True, it’s not going to happen now, but it will happen.
Continuing on education, I asked Alun-Jones about what changes he would like to see in this space. “We employed a recent graduate. She is further ahead than me in a lot of areas, but I do think, particularly on the design side, that there is still an overdependence on what your collection looks like? In a world where you need to create products that are adaptive to customer needs or are agile when it comes to where they are made and where they are delivered, that is a very different design brief and a very different design challenge, and that is not collections”.
“What we demonstrated in some of the customizable products is not talking about the story of the collection, but talking about the story of the product. Too much education is about ‘let’s produce a collection that we are going to sell to wholesalers, and that is how we make money, and that’s what we are training you to do.’ I don’t think that is what the industry is going to look like in even 18 months,” said Alun-Jones.
Unmade’s on-demand supply chain is built on on-demand production of customized items based on real consumer buying behavior. The platform makes it easier for brands to put the same tools in their customer’s hands, allowing them to customize their designs easily. If consumers are allowed to make design decisions, does this mean that they have the power to drive change in the industry? “Yeah, I think they do have the power to change the industry. In a way, I am sad about that; I think other industries are more visionary about what the future looks like and take a strong stance ahead of the market. I have not seen that, well Patagonia, but there isn’t really that strong brand that took a stand ahead of consumer demand.”
Continuing our exploration of the customer’s journey further, Alun-Jones explained: “Consumers are rapidly catching up. They are adapting faster than brands can adapt, which brings us back too if you are making products 18 months ahead how adaptive you can be. The great thing about fashion and the great hope about fashion is that fashion is designed to respond to consumer demand, albeit slowly”.
Looking a few steps ahead of where the market is, our conversation moved onto the buy-now-consumer. There is no denying that today’s businesses still cater to the customer, who is yet to evolve into a conscious consumer. So I asked Alun-Jones’ to share some knowledge on how their platform can help fashion businesses whose consumer is less about sustainability and more about the money in their purse. Pausing to think first, Alun-Jones’ answered: “You need to know your customer, that is the golden goose that can be used to drive the supply chain.” He continued: “If 80% of your consumers want to walk in a store and want to walk out with something, then there is a particular strategy that Unmade can help you with to make your business work better”.
On a roll, Alun-Jones added: “(For businesses) they can use the customizable manufacturing supply chain to solve that problem. Businesses can still have a product to fulfill the buy-now-consumer. For us enabling this new agility means that we are able from a technology standpoint work with three different volume levels; direct to customization, hyper-local and stock management”.
As we concluded our tete-a-tete, I asked Alun-Jones’ what his thoughts were on how Covid-19 is affecting fashion’s supply chain. “The mood has changed. The conversation has changed,” he said. Continuing: “The industry is going to look very different because it has to deal very painfully with the problem of making too much stuff too far in advance. So I think that most businesses are at the stage of fighting that fire. We are having many conversations with different businesses on what things will look like on the other side.” As we said our goodbyes, Alun-Jones told me Unmade’s secret sauce: “Converting digital into real-world stuff, that is our secret sauce.”