As the number of coronavirus (COVID-19) cases exceeds 1.2 million worldwide, the global economy is in a stranglehold.  Interest rates have been slashed to historic levels, unprecedented stimulus, social safety, and rescue packages have been passed, and the stock market has seen incredible volatility as businesses and central banks attempt to make sense of the situation.

And as if the financial uncertainty weren’t enough, closed international borders – with no clear date for re-opening – have thrown into sharp relief the fragility of our interconnected supply chains, which rely heavily on sourcing regions such as China – the world’s leading exporter.

Governments are responding to the pandemic with varying degrees of success, but one thing seems clear at a global level: the near-term future will not look much like the near-term past.  New regulations, practices, and restrictions are likely to change how our supply chains operate – sooner rather than later. And in that context, fashion needs to turn to new technologies, quickly, to find a way of preparing for a drastically altered tomorrow, as well as dealing with the crisis facing the industry today.

Prior to the outbreak, China was still the world’s leading textile exporter, with 18% of its exports making their way to the USA, at a value of around $50 billion, while €30 billion makes its way into Europe each year. Whether this model can continue in the fallout of the current pandemic is uncertain.  With consumer buying patterns likely to change – as shoppers prioritise lasting quality over immediate quantity – the need for high-volume offshore production is likely to fall anyway, as brands shift manufacturing to more local regions.

But while we cannot accurately predict how different countries will step up to fill that manufacturing void, or how demand will shape it, one thing we can say with some degree of certainty is that no industry – fashion included – was well-prepared to deal with a global pandemic.  Bill Gates, in his 2015 TED talk, pointed out that pre-emptive preparation would greatly limit the economic damage caused by a potential outbreak, but as hindsight now shows us, not much of this preparation was done.  And now every industry is being forced to plan how to stay afloat, rather than planning for growth.

As part of that planning, The Interline believes that a key question industry leaders should be asking themselves, is how can they remain operational and productive when an outbreak such as this happens again in the future.  Is it feasible for the Western apparel and footwear sector to achieve similar levels of production output and quality to the previous offshore model, on its own shores?  The answer could be yes, but this will not be achieved using traditional manufacturing methods – not least because very little manufacturing expertise remains in-country.

The advent of new digital technologies, however, offers a new range of solutions for many retail and brand companies to develop their own regionally based sourcing value-chains. This would allow companies to take control over the production process and potentially move it closer to the consumer, or in fact move it in-house without being restricted by the complications or exposed to the risks that have characterised the global supply chain.

One particular technology that has been gradually working its way into the fashion and textile industries over recent years is digital printing, and The Interline would argue that now is the time for broader, more rapid adoption.

Digital printing is a mature technology which applies the methods of regular household inkjet printers to a textile or material of choice – including both natural and synthetic substrates. There are two main digital printing applications: direct-to-fabric, otherwise known as roll-to-roll, or direct-to-garment.

As the names suggest a direct-to-fabric or a roll-to-roll solution allows for the printing of digital images directly onto a blank roll of fabric, with the artwork coming from CAD, which can then be cut and processed into the desired product. Direct-to-garment instead prints directly onto a finished product, much like screen printing.

But while digital printing shares the same underpinnings as standard desktop printing, it allows for prints of much higher quality, with a wider range of colour options, and at a greater accuracy – with much higher-resolution outputs.  

Digital printing also offers dramatic efficiency improvements.  Speeds of up to 90 meters of fabric printing per minute can now be achieved via the use of printers such as the EFI Reggiani BOLT, used for direct-to-fabric printing. As a further benefit, following the initial setup of a digital printing machine, production can usually be managed by a single operator.  This is a dramatic change since the early days of digital printing: in the early 90s you could expect one square metre per hour, and the usage of digital printing was reserved for select prototyping and sampling, while standard screen printers were used for mass production.

In essence: digital printing can allow apparel brands to become functionally independent, while also improving their reaction time to new trends, opening new channels, and supporting smaller runs and personalisation. This approach also opens the door to create new direct to consumer models: direct-to-garment digital printing could drive an on-demand flow from an eCommerce platform, with blank initial garments being turned into customised products at a rate of up to 70 finished garments per hour, using a single machine.

Added to this, businesses that invest in digital printing – whether they place the machines in-house, in-country, or even further afield – will also benefit from real-time production tracking, allowing for inventory to be controlled to a greater degree, and helping to keep costs to a minimum. Conversely, buying in bulk – the business model of fast fashion retailers today – is unsustainable both for the business in the long run and for the environment.  Unsold stock is marked down at extreme rates, enticing consumers into buying products simply due to the price point and not the style or quality. Many of these products ultimately find themselves in landfill after a couple of weeks or months – with over 16 million tons of textile waste being sent to landfill each year in the US alone.

It’s worth noting that brands and retailers do not actually have to invest in digital printing themselves to reap the benefits, either; digital-powered production facilities are already being set up in consumptions markets, to offer the same speed, efficiency, and reactivity benefits within the confines of a more traditional brand / supplier relationship. 

Companies such as the UK-based Shirt Monkey have already added digital printing solutions into their workflow, citing low cost per print, ease of use and quality as the main drivers behind their implementation. Specialising in a print on demand model, Shirt Monkey can fulfil an order for a retailer with a 24 to 72 hour turnaround time. Krowmark, another UK-based workwear company also followed a similar route to Shirt Monkey, adopting a digital print solution which was comparably cheaper than setting up a modern screen printing operation, with the digital printer handling the pre-treatment and printing of the garment at exceptional speeds.  And these are just two examples of companies that are riding the crest of a wave of innovation, and coming out ahead of a change that nobody could have foreseen.

The impact on sustainability that digital printing offers is also appealing to any business, with over 40 billion litres of water being saved worldwide in 2018 thanks to the introduction of digital printing technologies according to FESPA. As digital printing also uses only 10% of the colour that would be consumed through conventional screen-printing methods, the environmental appeal for the introduction of digital printing into supply chains is unrivalled. The lack of pollution and contamination through the effective and conservative application of dyes and chemicals during the inking and finishing of products also protects the wider environment which props up the whole industry through the production of raw fibres.

The global textile industry is somewhat fixed in a model of wasteful manual production, with the Resources, Conservation & Recycling journal stating that the textile industry is China’s sixth-largest energy-consuming industry, however, the study also suggested that through conscientious technological application these greenhouse gas emissions could drop by 34% by 2030.

The ease of setup, global support channels and functionality of digital printing machines offered by companies such as Kornit, EFI, SPGPrints and HP raises the question of whether manufacturers, brand and retailers should be waiting for supply chain partners to take the first steps towards introducing these new technologies when they are presented with the ability to bring quicker, cleaner and higher quality production much closer to home or within their own premises.