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Does A Sustainable Fashion Industry Depend On Digital Transformation?
Feb 18
6 min read

Does A Sustainable Fashion Industry Depend On Digital Transformation?

Header Image Source: Techspace

Fashion’s global supply chain continues to operate in a manual and fragmented manner. Following the introduction of mass production in the 70’s and rapid product range expansion in the 90’s, production was outsourced to manufacturing hubs abroad, divorcing it from the brands and retailers who previously manufactured in house or locally, often in their own workshops and factories. 

The opacity of the global supply chain and immense pressure on manufacturers for ever-lower prices with a ‘hands-off’ approach of many brands and retailers has allowed unethical and unfair practices to develop within the supply chain, including sweatshops using child labour, ‘off books’ sub-contracting, and unsafe and unfair conditions for garment workers in factories all over the globe, the UK included. 

The immediate need (environmentally and economically) for sustainable and ethical industry transformation has led to a renewed focus on transparency in the supply chain, but if the supply chain operates ‘offline’ without a data footprint to record every facet from fibre to the final product, how is this to be achieved? 
Brooke Roberts-Islam
Founder of Techstyler and BRIA, Forbes Contributor

The digitalisation of processes is thought to be the first necessary step on the road to transparency, and therefore, sustainability. The benefits of a digital supply chain include increased productivity, reduced lead times, reduced material waste, on-demand manufacturing (no more deadstock), accurate costings, increased creative scope for design (using 3D virtual prototyping), increase in skilled work and value-added product creation, data-driven metrics for better and faster business and sustainability decision-making, increased visibility over production volumes and work rates. 

Underpinning these benefits is the need for digital tools to help brands assess the relative sustainability of materials, manufacturing processing, textile printing, and finishing methods and more. Life Cycle Analysis (LCA) is the current gold-standard for environmental impact assessment of materials and products, but LCAs are done by independent 3rd parties, are prohibitively expensive and depend on high-quality data from all inputs and outputs across the entire supply chain, from raw fibre through to end-of-life of material/product. 

The digitalisation of all manual processes across the supply chain is crucial not only to reduce textile waste and carbon emissions but to capture and analyse data to measure sustainability, in an accurate and quantifiable way. 

To discuss the challenges of the digital transformation in the supply chain from a brand perspective, along with some exciting solutions currently in development and digital solutions that are ready right now, Brooke Roberts-Islam, Founder of Techstyler, moderated a panel discussion with pioneers spanning fashion technology, design, and manufacturing. The Panellists were Remo Gettini, CTO and CDO at Depop; Carol Hilsum, Director of Innovation at Farfetch; Farah Cohen, COO at Everpress and Flora Davidson, Co-Founder of SupplyCompass

With industry experience spanning digital transformation the film, gaming, and fashion industry, Remo Gettini explained that the digitalisation of processes within the fashion supply chain was being hampered by not providing the right tools to designers from the outset. Focusing on the beating heart of fashion, which is the idea and emotion behind the design, he explained that to transform film and gaming from analogue to digital it was necessary to digitise the process of sketching – with a tablet and stylus – not a mouse and keyboard. This is where 3D design software for fashion is going wrong, to his mind. 

In terms of providing tools to brands to facilitate digital supply chain management and transparency, Flora Davidson explained why SupplyCompass has met with their manufacturing partners in India, Portugal, and China to understand what tools and support is required by manufacturers to deliver products that meet the quality, fairness and sustainability targets demanded of by brands and consumers today. 
Brooke Roberts-Islam
Founder of Techstyler and BRIA, Forbes Contributor

SME’s (small and medium-sized enterprises) are in a difficult position of trying to source and manufacture in a global supply chain that they have little or no visibility over. SupplyCompass is providing a real-time dashboard that tells brands manufacturing with its partner factories what is happening with their production at any given moment. She conceded that the platform needs a critical mass of users to shape the digital data points being collected across the entire supply chain and formulate sustainability tools for brands using the platform, to aid decision making.

Farah Cohen of Everpress brought the perspective on a fast-growing consumer marketplace that brings together artists/designers with consumers to purchase made-to-order garments. Their biggest selling product is t-shirts, of which they sold over 200,000 in 2019. One of the greatest challenges they face is growing the business and responding to increasing production demand whilst ensuring they meet sustainability targets for materials – from textiles to packaging.

She explained having spent 8 months researching biodegradable and compostable packaging options and underlined how crucial it is to have objective and knowledgeable input from a supply-chain partner on every aspect of production. Ahead of commencing a production partnership with SupplyCompass later this year, she explained that the resources within their 25-strong Everpress team simply can’t extend to the sourcing, production and manufacturer visits required of a company managing its own global supply chain. 

Carol Hilsum explained that several years ago, the key focus for startups was on e-commerce and consumer-facing solutions. Now, the entrepreneurial appetite for tackling the highly complex and multi-faceted challenges in the global fashion supply chain is rising, and she cites the emergence of companies from the Farfetch Dream Assembly, including Good On You, as an example of startups delivering new levels of supply-chain transparency. 

Casting the mind of the audience to the near future, Remo Gettini expressed with certainty that the fashion industry will operate in an entirely different way in 5 years. His basis for this? The observed behaviours of the 17 million Depop users who buy, sell and present fashion in an entirely-online and community-based way, the evolution of digital fashion (you can already buy digital fashion files to wear on your avatar online) and the move towards industry 4.0, with widespread automation in manufacturing. Carol Hilsum agrees that digital fashion will be a facet of fashion consumption in the near future, and contests that manufacturing on-demand will be a necessity to reduce overstock. 

Final words from Flora Davidson impressed on the audience that the fashion industry is driven by people and that SupplyCompass is working to ensure that the voice of the manufacturing sector is heard alongside that of designers and brands. This seems to be an essential requirement for a transparent supply chain and fair pricing and conditions. It is also true that their digital supply chain platform is being created to serve both brands and manufacturers.

In explaining the supply chain challenges Everpress faces, Farah Cohen illustrated how having a degree of certainty and predictability over the fulfilment of products was crucial to meeting consumer expectations and supporting business growth. With Everpress’s commitment to achieving B Corp certification, working with a digitalised and transparent supply chain is pivotal to achieving this. 

This is the first in a series of Techstyler X SupplyCompass industry-insider events, aimed at demystifying key industry challenges and disseminating the pertinent and action-oriented information required to tackle them. Stay tuned for upcoming announcements and to request information on future events, contact margo@supplycompass.com

Brooke Roberts-Islam
by Brooke Roberts-Islam
Guest Contributor
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Brooke Roberts-Islam is an award-winning digital knitwear designer and consultant who recently co-founded the Brooke Roberts Innovation Agency (BRIA). At BRIA, Brooke and her team develop physical and digital materials and design solutions for fashion brands and manufacturers, directly combining her knowledge of the latest developments in the “fashion-tech” sector with her pioneering cross-discipline approach to developing new materials. In addition to her design and materials development work, Brooke is a “fashion-tech” and sustainability writer for Forbes.com, Chaos 69, Eco Age and Techstyler – a publishing platform she founded – sharing opinions and interviews from the crossroads of these sectors.

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