On Demand Manufacturing for an On Demand Market

If you’ve been paying attention to the apparel industry over the last couple of years, then you’re likely familiar with the term “fast fashion.” Fast fashion has been a seemingly unavoidable go-to phrase in the industry, as it articulates a shift to faster manufacturing and tightened delivery timelines. Fast fashion captures runway trends -- new, emerging styles can be on shelves and in the hands of consumers within months, and often with a relatively low price tag. Think brands like Zara, H&M and Forever 21.

However, other associations with fast fashion aren't as positive. Many of these brands are thought of as being low quality and wasteful. In fact, almost 32 billion garments are created for domestic markets each year, with 65% ending up in landfills. All of that textile waste makes fashion the second-most polluting industry in the world. And according to McKinsey and Company, the average consumer purchased 60% more items of clothing in 2014 than in 2000. The implication being that clothes wear and tear more quickly since the shift to fast fashion business models.

That being said, many manufacturers argue that the industry can increase speed to market without sacrificing quality and risking an over-surplus of items.

The answer is on-demand manufacturing. On-demand manufacturing is a business model that embraces technology, innovative manufacturing techniques and smarter shipping solutions. Some boutique manufacturers are thinking about supply chain differently. They are able to utilize real time customer feedback to improve products and capture trends without delay. What this end up translating to is a reduction in waste.

If a product is performing really well, they can respond to that demand and make more, and vice versa. If a new line is not selling, they can rollback manufacturing. Technology-- for example online orders and returns-- allows manufacturers to respond in real time to demand, resulting in less unwanted, unsold products. You only make enough for what people want, instead of filling stores with garments that will never sell.

“There is a long held assumption in the apparel industry that in order to produce items quickly and cost-effectively, then quality must suffer,” says Morgaine McGee, co-founder of manufacturing company, The Vertical Collective. “But we have found that there are creative solutions to maintain a high standard. Additionally, by embracing more efficient shipping strategies, we can tighten delivery windows and allow more time for production.”

For retail giants, like H&M and Zara, this high-quality, low-impact approach may not be entirely possible. That being said, many big brands are taking steps to change by participating in recycling programs and other initiatives to make up for the overstocking. These efforts are being driven by consumer demand for environmental consciousness and more sustainable materials, less waste.

Overall, an increased demand for faster delivery, runway looks, sustainability, and the option of personalization via online retailers is changing the landscape. And, there are manufacturers who can do it all-- industry veteran Katherine Zabloudil sums it up perfectly, “When it comes to accelerated, custom and quality, you can have your cake and eat it too.”