The clothing industry faces an existential crisis. If we look closely, we see an entire system that has failed to innovate beyond the concept of creating and chasing trends for decades – with severe consequences for the environment, the people employed in clothing production, and the fashion business itself.
Most brands produce more clothing than they sell. The rule of thumb is that it’s more profitable to make one item too many than one item too few. In 2018, H&M reported to be sitting on an equivalent of $4.3 billion unsold inventory. And during 2020, lockdowns and changed consumption patterns further escalated the problem industry-wide; unsold stock piled up in warehouses on a scale we had not seen before. And while some retailers have been successful at shifting this stock between channels, or even selling past seasons as new-season products, this overstock is not only detrimental to the planet; it’s also bad business. Excess inventory costs money to produce, money to store, and money to ship to an eventual resting location.
Like any industry, fashion faces pressure to become more profitable – especially when brands and retailers’ costs of goods are expected to rise dramatically this holiday season. But rather than questioning the system of overproduction, brands have instead focused on cheaper production as a way to secure margins. The result? Opaque supply chains that make brands complicit in human rights abuses are still the norm. The tragic collapse of the Rana Plaza factory in 2013 is a testament to the massive human costs that accompany our obsession with cheap, disposable clothes. While public commitments are being made, the fashion industry as a whole has made frustratingly little progress on transparency or meaningful change when it comes to manufacturing.
In recent years, organizations like the Global Fashion Agenda and Fashion Revolution have shone a spotlight on those hidden in the manufacturing and sourcing processes of the global fashion supply chain. But for many brands, the underlying problem remains: they simply do not know who makes their clothes. The disruption caused by the pandemic might have led consumers to care more about those people, but it has created little real drive for organisations to change.
Fashion has many issues, but one thing is clear: the clothing industry is everything but future-proof, from an environmental, social, and business perspective – partly because it relies so heavily on prediction, and on high-volume production that occurs out of sight.
Future-proofing fashion, then, means rethinking the way we make and sell garments. A simple transition from conventional to organic cotton won’t cut it, and neither will eliminating plastic in packaging with a fancy marketing campaign. We need to truly rethink the system of fashion production. The great thing is, there are solutions out there that are not only already possible but that are also better for all parties involved – the environment, garment workers, customers, and clothing brands. Sustainability doesn’t have to be a zero-sum game.
I believe made-to-order is the architectural innovation we need. Imagine a world in which we only produce what is needed, a world in which people want to keep what they have ordered and wear it again and again. Sounds like common sense, right? Unfortunately, in the clothing industry, it’s not, even though so many other industries would balk at the idea of creating so much product that is discounted or discarded.
It was the realisation that the fashion industry had so much potential to be better for everyone involved that made me found my own clothing company, Son of a Tailor, in 2014. My background is in engineering and manufacturing – looking at the lack of supply chain innovation in fashion I wondered: why couldn’t you apply lean manufacturing and technology to garment production? This would enable us to produce made-to-order, eliminating overproduction. And with one single piece as the minimum production unit, we could offer our customers the perfect fit by making the item specifically for them. Today, Son of a Tailor offers a wide range of custom-fitted essentials for men to a global customer base.
I am convinced that made-to-order is a better alternative to mass production – and here’s why:
Better for the planet – At Son of a Tailor, we flip the industry practice from ‘produce, then sell’ (usually less than what was produced) to ‘sell first, then produce’ the amount needed. The result? Mountains of unsold stock in warehouses, shops, and landfills disappear.
Better for garment workers – Instead of mass-producing with an anonymous web of suppliers, our business makes each garment individually. This means that we are in close contact with our production team, daily. We don’t only know the address of our production partners, we know every employee. And our customers can do too because each item comes with the name of one of the people who worked on it.
Better for customers – Fit is the most important factor for apparel customer satisfaction and bad fit is the number one reason for returns. And yet, it’s incredibly hard to find clothes that truly fit. Our Perfect Fit algorithm uses machine learning to create an individual pattern based only on the customer’s height, weight, age, and shoe size – in 30 seconds, no measuring tape required. In order to arrive at the best result, our algorithm has been through many iterations. We are continuously testing different machine learning techniques, which questions lead to the highest fit satisfaction, and how we can make the process as smooth for customers as possible. Returns or ill-fitting garments kept on the bottom shelf? With custom fit a thing of the past.
Better for business – A business model that is socially and environmentally responsible and that also makes customers happy – sounds too good to be true, doesn’t it? We are convinced that sustainability alone isn’t a strong enough selling point. To be successful, products need to be good products first and foremost. And this is where innovation comes in:
- For the model to work at scale, made-to-order and custom fit need to be easy, fast, and convenient for the customer. That’s why, at Son of a Tailor, we developed the Perfect Fit algorithm.
- Doing made-to-order and custom fit requires a minimum order quantity of one piece. In the past, the first question each potential supplier would ask is, “What’s your MOQ?” When I would reply, “one,” they would think I misunderstood the question. “No, how many of each size do you need?” “One.” Suffice to say, we were turned down many times when we were starting out. But, eventually, we convinced our first partner to restructure their production processes around single-garment, made-to-order production.
It hasn’t been easy. But it’s been worth it. This spring, we welcomed our 100,000th customer and our customer satisfaction (measured with NPS) is one of the highest in the industry. With high customer satisfaction comes a high lifetime value – over 50% of our customers return within one year. These achievements are of course encouraging for us but we also hope they can prove to other fashion brands that there’s a business in new approaches, that questioning the status quo and innovating pay off.
At Son of a Tailor, our mission is to reengineer the clothing industry to be better for all parties involved. Every customer who joins us on that journey is an important step in the right direction but we also strive to get the rest of the industry on board. That’s why we regularly attend conferences and panels, give talks, and contribute to publications – like this one – about ways to make clothing more sustainable. As an industry, we need to collaborate more, and share ideas that will help to elevate the baseline for what the fashion industry considers sustainable.
We are also a member of the United Nations Global Compact network. There’s really no excuse not to ensure that our industry’s strategies and operations contribute to the Sustainable Development Goals – becoming tools for lasting change, rather than short-term opportunities to capture the attention of conscious consumers.
About the author: Son of a Tailor is a Copenhagen-based clothing-tech company using lean manufacturing to reengineer fashion’s supply chain and deliver custom-fit at scale.
It all started in 2014 with the Cotton T-Shirt. Since then, we have expanded to offer a wide range of essentials, all made-to-order in Europe using our Perfect Fit algorithm.
We are reengineering the clothing industry to deliver for all involved: customers, garment workers, and the planet, profitably. Our Perfect Fit algorithm makes custom-fit effortless for our customers while the made-to-order approach removes inventory waste.