You honestly thought you needed that monochrome sweatsuit set when you ordered it from Amazon last week. It was chilly out and that pair of spandex shorts you were wearing felt a little snug. But in retrospect online shopping is so easy and tempting that you didn’t give it much thought. Now you recognize that it barely jams into your closet with everything else and the only nonzero chance you’ll wear it is if the rest of your wardrobe suddenly goes up in flames and you’re left naked to fend for yourself. Then maybe you’d wear it.
In the meantime, you have other options, so you decide to make the little Marie Kondo sitting on your shoulder proud and return it. It’s pretty easy after all – you find your “Previous Orders” section on the website and click “Return or replace items.” You don’t even have to type the reason: Amazon gives you a dropdown menu to choose from. Though you would love to tell them “I was seeing these fun matching sweatsuit sets plastered all over influencers’ Instagram stories and feeds and was convinced wearing one would also make me smile. When I received it, I realized I had no need for it and that actually I’d be embarrassed trying to pull off the slouchy look in public. So now I’m admitting defeat and returning it so that I can erase this guilt a little bit.” But since they had a choice for “Bought by mistake” you choose that. One more click and the funds are returned to your account within 2-4 working days.
But, wait, you think, “Don’t I need to actually send the sweats back to you, Amazon?” Apparently they don’t even want them. And neither do you. So who does?
It’s hard to say. Returning and re-shelving your product – even if able to resell it – costs Amazon more money than simply throwing it away. How does that make any sense? It’s too cheap to keep it: much easier to just trash it and start over with something else. When considering the careless practices that the fashion industry has been encouraged to adopt over the past half century, it makes a lot of sense.
If that monochrome sweatsuit of yours had been made in the mid-1800s, it would have been worth keeping. First, it would have been made of natural fiber since synthetics did not yet exist. It would have been made by hand with a hand sewing needle since the sewing machine wasn’t yet accessible. With how long it would have taken to make – especially considering it likely would have been made to your measurements and specifications, and by someone you know – it might have had sentimental value to you. Returns weren’t really a thing then: clothing was so intentionally- and well-made that it was unfathomable to think about sending something back.
If that monochrome sweatsuit of yours had been made a century later in the mid-1900s, it also would have been worth keeping. Sure, it might have been made of synthetic material since synthetics started becoming widely available especially after WWII, but the product would have been high-quality. It probably would have been made locally in a factory: over 95% of clothing in the United States was still made in the United States, for example. If you had been able to return it, the department store or mail-order catalog you likely had purchased the product from would want to resell the product because products still held value: an example deal would be a nylon dress from the 1955 Sears mail-order catalog that sold for $15 ($150 equivalent today).
But since your monochrome sweatsuit was made recently – post-globalization – it was probably produced with little regard for you, the environment, the people making it, or even for the product itself. So, if not made for the benefit of any of those things, why was it made in the first place? Pretty easy: for quick turnover and high sales margin from an absurdly-low cost. By tapping into the exploitation of globalization in the 1990s, we’ve been able to set up a system where quantity trumps quality almost every time. The pull of effectively zero regulation and dirt cheap labor costs from other countries became too strong and too easy with rapid improvements in transport, communications, and technology by the 1990s for localized clothing production to compete. Sewing was a prime candidate for offshoring since it is arguably the most labor-intensive profession in the world. So since then production has almost-entirely been offshored: today under 2% of the clothing in the United States is made in the United States.
The minimum wage in Ethiopia is nearly 50 times less than that of the United States. So, of course, clothing prices have plummeted in stores with offshoring’s production and material cost reductions. Demand for these cheap products has since skyrocketed: in 2000, 50 billion garments were made; now we make well over 100 billion garments per year. Order quantities at factories went from the few thousands midcentury to the hundreds of thousands and millions starting with globalization in the 1980s. Brands found that they could make clothing in excess, guessing what consumers would buy since the products were so cheap to make. And since consumers have come to expect more for less, they also expect more options and more seasons. They have become trained to expect rapid turnover at criminally-cheap prices. And they have even been trained to expect such poor quality that it reinforces the high turnover and high purchase cycle. It encourages people to buy without thinking, and it has led them to return their products thinking returns are benign.
How do we work the industry out of this downward spiral? Who will be willing to pay 10x for a product to be made in a better way, avoiding exploitation and senseless manufacturing? Why should it matter to consumers, since they are so far away from it all? To them, the exploitation effectively isn’t real and the returns are no big deal.
Although it seems like we should go back to how we did things in the 1800s to solve this problem, we really can’t. We now expect clothing prices to be comparable to those of a coffee, want choice to be infinite, and don’t mind if the quality is low. “Doing the right thing” can’t compete. So instead of working backwards, we’ll need to find a way to propel forward out of this spiral.
What if we could produce the perfect product on demand, where we make products that people have already paid for and already want before they exist? Despite all of those returns and that waste, this is possible even today. At unspun, we have developed software that uses computational geometry, pattern-making rules, and machine learning to turn a customer’s body scan avatar and preferences into the perfect pattern, automatically. A customer can get an in-store body scan or use their phone to scan at home. And then they design their product to their preferences. Today you can also experience this through our DTC brand or branded collaborations. To try it out, download our app and – in the app – design your jeans by choosing style, fabric, thread color, rise height, and hem length, and then scan your body with the phone so that the jeans that are made for you fit perfectly. These jeans are made using the current manufacturing method that we all know so well: cut-and-sew.
But soon enough, by employing a new manufacturing method we have developed called 3D weaving, the jeans built around your scan and preferences will be additively and automatically made by machine. Not only does this mean no material waste, but it also means just one-day leadtimes, a consolidated supply chain, MOQs of 1, and feasible and affordable localized production.
By making more intentional product when people want it, we are not only significantly reducing return rates but we are also building more-loyal and engaged customers – for good reason. They are receiving product that was made for their preferences, their body shape, and the future of their planet. By redesigning the way we produce product we can start to redesign the way that we recycle and break it down. Those returns won’t be trash anymore.
If there are any returns to begin with.