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Fashion at digital speed

The rise of a digital supply chain is transforming the apparel industry

December 15, 2023  By Don Whaley

Digital production technologies is enabling on-demand fulfillment and allowing companies to capitalize on cultural trends while meeting consumer needs. Photos © Kornit Digital

If you keep pace with manufacturing and production, one common thread that arises repeatedly is how complex and slow-moving the legacy fashion and textile industry is. Offshoring, waste, and inefficiency are the rule, not the exception.

The industry is pegged among the worst polluters in the world. According to the World Economic Forum, fashion and textiles make up 10 per cent of the world’s carbon emissions. If that weren’t bad enough, more than 85 per cent of all textiles produced go into dumpsters each year.

The Harvard Business Review notes the industry is actually moving backwards, with reports indicating the call for sustainable fashion hasn’t translated into action during the past two decades. The manufacturing of shorts and shoes creates more waste than ever before, with 75 per cent of items produced ultimately being burned or buried in landfills.

What’s wrong?

So, why is material change not happening? Clearly a lack of widespread legislation to incentivize or force change is a key gap. One sliver of light is the recently proposed New York Fabric Act mandating the industry shape up or suffer the consequences. If passed, the legislation will require fashion retail sellers and manufacturers to fully disclose all environmental and social diligence policies.

A digital ID, a unique code existing as a twin both on the garment and in the cloud, allowing for universal traceability of products to slow down waste in the fashion industry is emerging in France.

Another good news is that the demand side of the market is likely to become a major driving force simply because mass customization, the velocity of changing consumer preferences, and the need to respond immediately will force more nearshore and onshore production.

Digital production is helping legacy fashion houses adopt nearshoring and eliminate supply chain disruptions.

Match the speed of culture

With the world experiencing a digital transformation like never before, culture is leading the way in change across industries. The digital-native generation has come of age, and their revolutionary mindset is making its presence felt.

Custom-designed fabrics provider called Spoonflower—now a subsidiary of Shutterfly—once spoke of an “Etsy army” that had populated their design library with 1.8 million digital creations, each of them ready to print on demand, to be fashioned into any number of do-it-yourself products.

Customers demand immediacy, capturing the moment as it’s experienced. Unfortunately, the one industry that has yet to catch up is fashion and apparel. That’s due to an analog supply chain built for the old way of production. At a popular fashion and textile sourcing event in New York, William Brenninkmeyer, global sourcing manager and lead of innovation at C&A, noted, “Chasing trends is impossible with an analog supply chain, where the lead time is six to eight months. But digital production technologies now enable on-demand fulfillment, so you can bring concepts to production to consumer in two days. It’s incredible.”

This new model is driven by digital production. Digital on-demand production are empowering producers to channel digital creator and consumer data encompassing buying behaviours, social media listening, and more into a fulfillment strategy – answers demand for a digital supply chain with greater agility and efficacy than the traditional 18-month forecast cycle. Further, it answers the sustainability imperative by aligning supply with demand, thus minimizing the waste that inevitably comes from forecast-based production. The approach also makes it possible to unleash customization and personalization for micro-communities and even the individual.

At the same conference, Aaron Day, CEO of Amaze Software, echoed these thoughts: “The analog supply chain was built to meet a certain need at a certain time, but that world has been disrupted by a cultural shift. When you account for all the associated costs, I think we’re nearing a tipping point where an on-demand t-shirt can be produced cheaper than one produced using a traditional printing press.”

For those entering the industry, adoption of digital processes might not be that difficult. Companies leading with digital production can fully embrace the power of ‘phygital’ technology, which bridges the gap between digitally created imagery and physical fulfillment of those concepts.

While these exciting technologies are a natural partner for brands with a considerable e-commerce footprint, the challenge is far greater for retailers whose sales model stays tethered to the fortunes of the physical, brick-and-mortar store. Consider European-based retail powerhouse C&A. Founded more than 180 years ago, with more than 1,200 physical locations worldwide, C&A embodies every attribute of powerful retail production. Yet, it is still vulnerable in the age of a web-driven ‘retail apocalypse.’ Counterintuitively, such a business sees considerable upside in web technologies. According to Brenninkmeyer, C&A is investing in digitization to drive ‘rightshoring’ for tailoring fulfillment strategies based on the most effective means of serving different customers and brands. Directly addressing the needs of a creator economy, on-demand, digital production makes it possible to digitize key pieces of their supply chains to adopt nearshoring more rapidly.

The same shift is playing out industry wide. Look no further than legacy brands like Nike and Gucci that are going all-in on NFTs and artificial intelligence. These brands realize this culture shift is demanding change in the way creators engage and produce. For them, it may not be a matter of adopting digital supply chains, but rather adopting pieces that work best for them. Companies are evaluating all new options on the table to avoid wasting time on things that won’t work, and zeroing in on technology that moves the needle the most.

The growing ecosystem of available digital technologies provides brands – from the designer who came of age in a digital world and dreams of establishing their own fashion label to the legacy retailer established before the advent of streetlights – with the capabilities to join and profit from the creator economy; deliver brilliant, uncompromising, high-quality physical goods; and better align demand with supply, eliminating overproduction waste. They can make the products people want, getting it into their hands faster, and minimizing the risks associated with today’s globalized marketplace. Finally, fashion is moving at the speed of digital culture.

Don Whaley is vice president at Kornit Digital Americas.

This article originally appeared in the September/October 2023 issue of PrintAction.


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