An Accelerated Sustainability Agenda Is Here for Textiles & Apparel

By Cary Sherburne

There is no question that the past year has been one of the most difficult in recent human history. The pandemic has affected just about every aspect of our lives – and not in a good way. But it is also forcing some positive systemic change across a variety of industries, including textiles & apparel. While this systemic change was already starting to happen, prior to the pandemic, it was moving along at a relative snail’s pace. But as the frailties of the global supply chain were laid bare, and brands, retailers and suppliers alike suffered huge losses, many industry stakeholders were urging an acceleration of these plans.


For example, John Thorbeck of ChaingeCapital stated: “Apparel is an old industry that is not doomed to being low profit and low technology. It’s in the midst of a reinvention, and that can be very exciting.”


But he also added that if systemic changes were targeted for three to four years out, that is no longer a viable approach. One of the key systemic changes he highlights is on-demand manufacturing, saying, “On demand, and the growth in digital printing, provides us with a formula that allows us to be responsive but also responsible. It does open up the possibility for microfactories that can be anywhere. I’m working with several small ventures that are developing that model. Those will be the laboratories that will be instructive to larger brands. Larger brands may be hesitant because of scale, but I believe the ability to scale will be validated in these test beds.”


You can view the entire conversation here.


For some suppliers to the industry, perhaps there is a feeling that sustainability is not a key driver of their businesses, and that should be left up to manufacturers, brands and retailers. But that would be a mistake. I’m not alone in believing that we will be seeing dramatic change, largely driven by digital technologies, in the coming months and years, and that will require suppliers of equipment and other technologies to be prepared to support that change with new, innovative and more automated solutions.


To support that thesis, I like to take a look back at what happened in the commercial printing industry, starting with the elimination of a great deal of manual labor with the automation driven by computer-to-plate and desktop publishing technologies. On heels of those developments was the entry into the market of production class digital printing, first in black & white in 1990, followed fairly quickly by full color in the 1995 timeframe. Equipment and technology suppliers who ignored these trends were in a world of hurt, and some are not around anymore as a result. While print service providers were not necessarily quick to pick up on the need for on demand production, including shorter runs, more customization and faster cycle times (sound familiar?), their customers certainly saw the benefits to their businesses, and drove the change. And although we weren’t using the exact terminology back then. On-demand in commercial print was driven by sustainability needs – reduced waste in time, materials and resources across the entire supply chain where printed documentation played a role.


The same is true in textiles & apparel today. Brands are finally beginning to take advantage of the benefits of on-demand production as part of larger sustainability initiatives, and here, one of the key drivers is consumer demand for sustainable products. Especially as the percentage of total sales represented by younger consumers continues to grow, sustainability is rising to top of mind. They, as opposed, perhaps, to many of their older counterparts, understand the fragility of the planet and are putting their wallets and brand loyalty behind their concerns.


And it touches every part of the supply chain. For textiles & apparel manufacturers, this goes beyond such things as fiber content or printing technologies being used. Marci Kinter, PRINTING United’s VP of Government & Regulatory Affairs, who has been working on sustainability issues in both display graphics and textile manufacturing on behalf of the organization’s membership, states: “Sustainability is not just about the product going out the door. It’s how you are treating your employees [and suppliers]; are you in compliance with all environmental, safety and health regulations, which is, in turn, treating your employees well. Do you have any analog equipment on site? Really looking at the entire footprint of what you do and taking that into account. Then you can develop that sustainable benchmark. It’s not enough to say that just because I’m digital, I’m more sustainable than the person down the road who is doing conventional screen print. Because you really have to look at the total facility, not digital as a standalone.”


Manufacturers will be taking note, if they are not already. And they will be turning to their suppliers for help in getting there. Those that will be best positioned for long-term survival will be looking for innovative, and more sustainable, approaches to manufacturing. And, as occurred in commercial print, they will face threats from non-traditional competitors who are popping up all over the place, providing a wide range of on-demand manufacturing solutions – including innovative software and business approaches – not burdened by a “we’ve always done it this way” mindset.


Just consider that according to some experts, as much as 20% of apparel manufacturing could be transitioned to on-demand today if the infrastructure to do so were in place. Maybe 20% doesn’t sound like a lot, but 20% of a trillion dollars is a pretty substantial addressable market!


Making this urgent call for systemic change and a more sustainable industry requires all of us – consumers, brands retailers, manufacturers and suppliers – pulling together for the common, global good. Is your company positioned to survive – and thrive – in this emerging environment? Now is a good time to make sure you have an answer to that question!


About the Author

Cary Sherburne is an author and journalist who has been writing about on-demand production and sustainability for more than two decades. In addition to managing the textiles section for WhatTheyThink.com, she supports private clients with content creation services, which increasingly focus on sustainability. During that time, she has conducted thousands of interviews, published in video and print form, with executives across a wide range of business types, that have informed her writing with real-world stories of successes and failures in the realms of analog-to-digital transformation and sustainability initiatives.

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