The fashion industry is facing one of its most difficult times, and it seems like recovery is a long way off. The apparel and leather industry was estimated to be $1.05 trillion in 2018 (according to businesswire.com). Many Italian, Spanish, and Chinese production facilities were temporarily closed. Social distancing, lockdowns, and reduced spending have led to plummeting sales worldwide. In fact, BCG estimates that sales drop from the 2019 levels will be $450 billion to $600 billion worldwide.
What can fashion brands do to mitigate their losses, as well as make a quick recovery after the pandemic? Can they move towards a more sustainable supply chain? How can they use exponential technologies to achieve that?
Covid19 only revealed challenges that had already existed: managing supply and demand (excess inventory), optimizing supply chains, sustainability, and deteriorating working conditions in garment factories. By solving these problems now, they can mitigate future risks, in case they face another crisis.
Consumer behavior was changing long before the pandemic. Millennials and Gen Z are pushing for transparency around the entire life cycle of all products. In the last few years, we have seen the rising number of purpose driven brands to cater for these consumer preferences.
Effect on Unemployment and Garment Workers in Developing Countries
A report by Penn State University’s Center for Global Workers’ Rights (CGWR) and the Worker Rights Consortium (WRC) states that brands and retailers have canceled or postponed production orders due to COVID19. In many cases, they have refused to pay for clothing their supplier factories have already produced. This has resulted in the partial or complete shutdown of thousands of factories in producing countries.
Massive Transformative Purpose
Having a strong purpose will attract the right consumers, suppliers and employees. Consumers are most likely to be holding spending until after the pandemic is over. Anti-consumerism and slow fashion could become even more popular. Brands will need to rethink how they communicate with their customers. Having a strong MTP will help consumers relate to the brand more and will eventually drive more sales. What is the strong message that authentically connects consumers to the brand?
Using Exponential Technologies to Optimize Sustainable Supply Chains
Managing Inventory and Using Sustainable Materials – Using 3D Printing, AI, and IoT
Brands can avoid excess inventory at the end of the season by manufacturing only the products that customers order. They will need to leverage AI and 3D printing to achieve that. With 3D printing, items can be made on demand or in small batches. For example, garments and footwear can be printed within 24 hours. Prototyping is also cheap and time efficient with 3D printing.
AI can help companies detect new consumption patterns and deliver personalized products to customers through machine learning and data analytics. AI can also assist in better inventory management and faster product replenishment using big data to predict consumers’ future buying behavior.Moreover, using RFID tags and sensors can help with inventory accounting, which helps to improve stocking and reduce waste.
Transparency Across the Value Chain - Using Blockchain
Consumers expect full transparency across the value chain and blockchain technology has been used by ethical brands to do that. In simple terms, blockchain is a chain of records that holds transactional records in a secure, decentralized and transparent way. For example, it can be used to track garments for sustainability proof by tracking the clothing from the raw material to the consumer. Although the technology is not widely used yet (by both manufacturers and consumers), there are some examples in the market. Provenance, a startup based in London, uses blockchain and open data to gather and share key product information and journeys in a trustworthy and secure way. Several fashion retailers have collaborated with Provenance to provide transparency for their customers.
Local Manufacturing – Using Robotics
Sewing robots: There are a number of startups that were able to use sewing bots to manufacture for big brands. For example, Nike has been manufacturing shoes with Grabit, a robotics startup that uses electroadhesion to help machines manipulate objects. According to www.therobotreport.com , Grabits’ robots can make 300-600 pairs of shoes in an 8 hours shift.
Sustainable Delivery – Using Delivery Bots, Drones, and Artificial Intelligence
According to an OECD report, carbon dioxide emissions from freight transportation account for 30% of all transportation related carbon emission from fuel combustion. In addition, social distancing seems to be staying for a while and automating delivery can help in providing contactless deliveries. Delivery bots have been tested by Amazon where they autonomously deliver packages to customers. Although the technology is not yet widely used, it could be tested by fashion retailers. AI can be used in route optimization, robotics, and anticipatory shipping (using data and AI to anticipate orders before customers order them). Drones are also being used for last-mile delivery to reduce the carbon footprint.
Is this an opportunity for the fashion industry to press the reset button? Although it is difficult to predict the response of fashion brands to the challenges they are facing, it seems more likely that consumers will favor purposeful brands. Some of the technologies mentioned in this article will need more testing and might be adopted in the long term.