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Key Takeaways:

  • Climate-driven, spike-y shifts in markets pose a significant commercial threat to brands and retailers, as they risk losing out on revenue and market share by failing to meet the fast-changing needs of consumers beset by extreme and unpredictable weather conditions.
  • The power of traditional forecasting to beat climate spikes is extremely limited. Fashion technology companies like unspun (which secured new funding this week) and the emergence of micro-factories as a potentially viable proposition for on-demand, near-shore production, present a possible way for fashion to react in time – as well as making some headway at the root causes of the industry’s environmental footprint.
  • While sustainability regulations are on the horizon, their implementation may be gradual and lengthy compared to the financial consequences of brand and retail businesses not being adaptable enough to respond to the visible face of climate change, providing a strong incentive for brands to change their ways of working as a matter of urgency.

The science could not be clearer: human activity is changing the climate and making the planet, as a whole, warmer than pre-industrial baselines. And that warming is already translating – even faster than experts predicted – into devastating crises in some areas of the world, and into pronounced shifts in weather., and associated consumer behaviour, in other areas.

As a case in point, this week saw devastating wildfires in eastern Canada – casting an eerie orange hue across the northeastern United States, with the most pronounced manifestation occurring in New York City and its environs. While wildfires are not uncommon in Canada, the prevailing conditions of an exceptionally warm and arid spring have contributed to an elevated risk and severity of these fires throughout significant portions of the country. And in New York, masks were back on the outfit list all of a sudden.

And while the outcome was different, a similar root cause affected the UK this week, where temperatures rose to over 30 degrees celsius (86 fahrenheit) in some parts of the country.

(This may not sound hot to some readers, but it is a full 11 degrees higher than the average high for June. It also comes almost a year after record heat – exceeding 40 degrees celsius in some parts of the UK – prompted a national emergency. And given the UK’s ageing housing stock and the country’s precipitous tilt towards remote working, coupled with the fact that only 5% of UK homes have air conditioning, these temperature spikes have a very real effect.)

Obviously the effects of climate change are more devastating, more personal, and more widespread in low-lying and already-hot countries where an increase in temperature means life or death. But the impact of such extreme weather is also keenly felt in retail markets in countries that are – so far at least – spared the worst. In the UK, for example, sudden heat waves have prompted consumers to seek weather-appropriate products, and to branch out beyond major retailers – who may not have the right stock for a variety of reasons – to find them. This presents a significant challenge for brands that meticulously plan their collections a year, or even six months, in advance, as consumer preferences fluctuate rapidly in response to the ever-changing environment.

For direct-to-consumer (DTC) brands and retailers, the challenge arises when unexpected hot weather conditions occur, but their assortment fails to cater to these kinds of climate-catalysed demands. Unlike pre-loved stores and smaller independents that can exhibit more flexibility, the inability to respond promptly becomes a significant hindrance and a missed sales opportunity. To put it bluntly: retailers can’t sell what they don’t have, and in the face of capricious weather we’re likely to see this discrepancy between demand and supply occur more frequently.

Why? Traditional forecasting and planning methods are just ill-suited to a world where the weather doesn’t behave as expected (be it uncertain rainfall or scorching temperatures) simply because they are so intertwined with the idea of predictable seasonality.

The alternative, though, is not a better model of advance forecasting. Because unpredictable weather means exactly that: weather patterns, and ensuing changes in consumer demand, that occur unexpectedly, in contravention of normal models. And while brands and retailers can, in theory, plan for the unplannable, a more realistic definition of this is building the flexibility to bring new products to market quickly enough to catch these spikes while they’re happening – i.e. a shift towards a different product lifecycle and new production methods.

In essence, effectively addressing these challenges necessitates a heightened level of agility in inventory allocation and production networks, enabling the ability to manufacture and stock items in closer proximity to the actual demand.

And this is by no means the only drive for fashion to rearchitect the way it thinks about sourcing and manufacturing. This week brought with it poignant reminders of the humanitarian disaster of Rana Plaza in the form of the most recent tragedy in Morocco, which serves as a stark reminder of the ethical and humanitarian imperatives associated with fashion production. Moreover, the looming threat of rising sea levels put major production regions at risk, adding urgency to the need for adaptive strategies.

In the spirit of transparency, it is important to acknowledge that on-demand production has yet to reach its full potential. However, a notable development this week provides encouraging evidence that the concept is progressing in a positive direction: fashion technology firm unspun, announced the close of a $14 million funding round, that will see their operations expand from body-scanning technology into 3D weaving manufacturing.

The new 3D weaving technology that unspun will use is set to assist brands to “realise a zero-inventory, onshored, circular and automated supply-chain for woven products.” Unspun has long been working towards redesigning the way products are produced, using 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. The result is making more intentional products to suit customers’ preferences, for the benefit of the planet. And through their observations, they have witnessed a notable decrease in the number of product returns and a concurrent rise in customer loyalty and engagement.

This is not going unnoticed by the industry, with more small-scale, high-tech production facilities popping up all over the globe. Just like unspun, the capabilities of micro-factories are inherently aligned with the goal of minimising waste and overproduction – primarily achieved through the production of garments in limited quantities, precisely tailored to meet demand.

Most of the time, these factories leverage cutting-edge technologies such as 3D printing, digital knitting, intelligent yield optimization, and other digital processes to create garments with minimal waste. But in order to ensure the success of micro-factories, substantial investments in technology and equipment are essential, alongside the implementation of continuous training programs to enhance the skills and knowledge of the workforce.

If achieved, in the foreseeable future, these factories are poised to assume a heightened level of importance, potentially serving as catalysts for economic growth at local and regional scales – especially given the extreme weather patterns that are here to stay.

Or, to put it another way, a network of in-country or nearshore microfactories could become necessary as consumption markets are increasingly being hit with extreme, unpredictable weather.

So, while a slew of sustainability regulations for the fashion and textiles industry are on the horizon, their implementation may be a gradual and lengthy process. For example, the Ecodesign for Sustainable Products Regulation – that serves as the cornerstone of the Commission’s approach to more environmentally sustainable and circular products – is not yet binding law. And the timeline on when it will be remains unclear. Coupled with this is EU’s Strategy for Sustainable and Circular Textiles, which is only set for 2030, almost giving the industry permission to be complacent at worst, and slow-moving at best.

However, an immediate impetus for brands to take action could emerge from these abrupt climate shifts in markets – the kind that result in a shortage of suitable products to meet consumer demands.

And the threat to brands is significant: being unable to meet the changing needs of consumers due to climate-driven shifts, they risk losing out on potential revenue and market share, all ultimately affecting their bottom line.

It may be a cynical framing, but it’s likely an accurate one: this potential financial impact is more likely to compel brands to embrace change more urgently than regulatory measures alone can accomplish. While regulations and policies play a crucial role in promoting sustainable practices, the financial consequences of not adapting to climate-driven shifts provide a strong incentive for brands to proactively address the environmental impact of their operations.

And taking swift and meaningful action can be a win-win: brands can not only mitigate potential revenue losses but also position themselves as leaders in sustainability, gaining the trust and loyalty of environmentally conscious consumers.

The best from The Interline:

This week, we published the definitive instalment in fashion’s longest running dedicated PLM market analysis. For more than thirteen years, The PLM Report has tracked the evolution of one of fashion’s most vital, foundational technologies – and captures the most accurate picture of what PLM does in fashion, who the key players are, and how the global market for it has evolved in the last twelve months. Like all content from The Interline, this detailed fashion PLM report is completely free to read, with no strings attached.