How PLM is Enabling Sustainability in Fashion

Prasham Kamdar, Managing Partner of Ptex Solutions, shares his thoughts on how PLM can support – and in some cases is supporting – true sustainability in our industry.

Sustainability is a word that gets thrown around an awful lot. True sustainability in Fashion must be driven from the top down; it must be part of a C-level strategy supported by a company’s board of directors, and middle management. The strategy must be communicated and acted upon across the business and all the value-chain partners that are involved in bringing a product to market.

In recent times we’ve all seen and heard negative news stories in this area, coming from a variety of sources including conscious consumers, NGOs and governments that are now operating in a more cohesive manner, helping to improve sustainable practices. Legally, certain things are no longer optional in countries that are leading the way in sustainability. And retailers and brands can expect greater scrutiny coming from the aforementioned groups, as well as new laws that will force each of them to deliver sustainable practices across their entire value-chains.

Consumers are increasingly curious about where and how their clothes are being made, going down to the detail of what’s included within a product – think materials, trims & components – and unless they can trust the provenance of a product, they may vote with their wallets and buy apparel and footwear that does reflect their sustainable values.

Equally, consumers will show support for brands and retailers that are socially and environmentally sustainable, and transparent about their business practices. In order to achieve, and indeed deliver on these goals we will need to use technology. Technologies like PLM, and other supporting best-of-breed solutions like 3D, Digital Printing & Digital Dyeing, as well as Fair Labour Costing tools. Combined with PLM – and used within a PLM solution itself – the use of these technologies will help to support design, development, and manufacturing processes.

So how might PLM be used to help deliver sustainability, and reduce negative impacts on the environment? Let’s look at some high-level use-cases that PLM currently supports, and how these processes can be extended to enhance a product’s sustainability scoring.

Sustainability & the Design Process

Today’s PLM implementations allow designers to select a wide variety of materials in the form of woven fabrics, yarns for knitting, threads, zippers, buttons, packaging, and so on. This is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the vast number of material options that will be held within a typical PLM materials library. Currently there is no simple way for designers to accurately understand how their choice(s) of materials will impact the sustainability of a finished product.

Today’s western designers no longer have the luxury of being able to walk to the office next to them and find the person responsible for developing, sourcing, testing and managing the raw material processes. And even if a retailer or brand operates its own material testing laboratory, it’s still highly unlikely that the manufacturing mill will be located in the same country – or for that matter on the same continent. Over the last few decades western brands and retailers have, to some degree, lost the detailed expertise involved in material construction and development. As these processes moved offshore, so too did the knowledge and expertise to measure the impact of the designers’ and developers’ choices, and, today, designers are not able to accurately measure their choices.

Materials & Sustainability

When it comes to environmental pollution, sadly the fashion industry is right up there as one of the largest negative contributors in the world today. And it’s not just pollution, but also material processing that contributes to excess consumption of water – 20 percent is the average amount of global industrial water pollution that can be tied to garment manufacturing, microplastic pollution, greenhouse gas emissions, soil degradation, rainforest destruction and landfill waste of epic proportions.

To resolve this problem, we need to support western designers by providing them with the knowledge linked to their material choices, construction methods and the processing of the materials that go into making a product. The good news is that some of the information required to improve matters can – and does – reside within PLM systems. However, it currently lacks the detail to deliver a sustainability scoring system, and this is something that many PLM vendors are working to improve.

This additional required data could come in the form of an interface to an external knowledge base (an expert sustainability solution), or it could come from extending the material capabilities within the PLM solution to include an extended sustainability knowledge base (scoring system) for its own materials. The latter could be delivered by working closely with your value-chain partners (mills, trim, and packaging suppliers) to share or allow them to enter composition details, and processing and sustainability scoring directly into the materials library, or share the values via an upload that can be added to the materials library.

This example could include a scoring system linked to a designer’s material choices that would provide the required scoring to highlight the positive or negative impact on the environment. Examples could include scores linked to all main material types: organic cotton, recycled cotton, organic hemp, organic linen, bamboo (linen), Econyl, recycled polyester, Lyocell, Modal, and paper-based buttons versus plastics. This list will of course run into hundreds or even thousands of choices.

Beyond high-level material choices, the PLM solution can be linked into your partners (mills & trim suppliers) using the composition and testing details of a material’s characteristics including: thickness, density, fabric cover, porosity, elasticity, stiffness, drapability, resistance to creasing, air permeability, heat insulation, electric properties, breaking strength, resistance to tear, resistance to abrasion, and chemical testing.

The Call for True Transparency

Do retailers and brands know where their products and materials come from? You shouldn’t be surprised to learn that many retailers and brands don’t honestly know where their products really come from. This is another area that PLM can help to resolve. By using vendor management, the PLM software can manage each supplier tier: Tier 1 being the main manufacturer responsible for producing the finished garment; Tier 2 being responsible for materials, component & trims; and Tier 3 being raw material suppliers. This list could be extended to include the farms and other originating materials that make up the final fabrics. As with the other scoring and approval methods used within a PLM solution, the vendor management module would allow the business to approve, monitor, inspect, certify, or disapprove companies from the vendor listings, linked to key performance indicators (KPIs) that, in turn, would enable designers and buyers to make educated and informed choices, based on the most up-to-date and accurate information.

Another example of how PLM can help support sustainability would be to link the PLM solution to the growing list of material platforms that not only share graphical images of materials and trims, but they also include material certifications and standards – including global recycling standards, the Recycled Claim Standard (RCS) and the Global Recycled Standard (GRS), the OEKO-TEX Standard 100REACHSATRA Technology’s various material and footwear certifications, Cotton Inc. etc.

How much of a certain material does a business use? Without PLM it would be almost impossible to calculate the amount of a specific material or trim that goes into making a product. The good news is that, with PLM, we are able to identify and calculate the detailed amounts of a given material based upon a season, year-on-year, or other date requirements. Calculations might include material or packaging weight per style, the use of pre-specified generic names of material and fibres, certification of the material or trim (based on a pre-specified list), the volume of material certified according and linked to approved standards – including the MCI which is a key component of Textile Exchange’s Corporate Fiber & Materials Benchmark (CFMB). This benchmark enables participating companies to measure, manage and integrate a preferred fibre and materials strategy into their business. The CFMB is one of few transparency benchmarks built on voluntary company disclosure.

These details can be calculated and rolled up to support the environmental footprint of the retailer and brand. Once implemented, this process allows retailers to measure their impact upon the environment, and allows each business to make changes to improve their performance when it comes to their sustainability and overall environmental impact score.

Material Processing

And it’s not just about the choice of materials, trims and components that designers and developers choose, but also the way that these choices are processed. Processing methods need to be scored in terms of the impact that outdated methods of manufacturing practices have on the environment. So, it’s clearly not just about the materials alone, but about how these materials are manufactured. In the future, we will need to obtain and develop a scoring mechanism (KPIs) to understand the impact of a designer’s choices. One example that comes to mind is traditional material dyeing versus modern digital printing. There’s simply no comparison when it comes to being environmentally friendly: traditional material dying takes vast amounts of water, and is limited to a certain number of screens due to the high cost of screens, whereas modern digital printing techniques use very little water, no minimum quantities, no screen costs and allow designers to choose from a greater number of colours – all without turning local rivers into the colour of the week! These digital printers and yarn dyeing technologies can be linked directly into the PLM solution, enabling sustainable practices, and greater efficiency for brands and retailers.

Going Further with PLM

We’ve talk about materials, the processes that they go through and the impact that these choices have upon the environment, but when it comes to PLM, we can go further. We can introduce new processes that will be able to support labour costing based upon fair labour from International Labour Authority (ILO) standards. These processes can be incorporated into a modern PLM solution and used to develop the Bill of Labour (BOL) and, combined with the Bill Of Materials (BOM), the PLM solution can define the total cost for any given product.

We are entering a new chapter of PLM, around how it can support our industry in becoming more environmentally friendly. Ultimately, it comes down to a combination of material choices, processing methods & supporting technologies, localisation, fair labour rates, ethical business strategies, and value chain transparency that, all combined within a PLM backbone, will go a long way to supporting true sustainability.