Sustainability
Supply Chain

A Modern Make

A New Generation of Business Models Combine Tailoring and Technology.
Clockwise from top left: Beth Esponnette, Chung Yu, Tara St James, David Prentice.

Concerned about the impact of fast fashion’s carbon footprint and spectacular levels of textile and apparel waste, today’s forward-thinking manufacturers are elevating the age-old concept of custom-make by investing in high-tech platforms built for efficiency, low minimums and transparency.

The latest thinking is that future supply chains will be defined by “localized on demand place-based manufacturing” fashioned for an environmentally and socially responsible industry.

“We need to go back to how clothes used to be made to understand the true cost of the good. In the last 50 years we’ve lost a relationship to how clothes are made,” explained Tara St James, founder of the ethical womenswear brand Study NY, and Re:Source, a textile library. “When you can by a t-shirt that costs less than a cappuccino there is a disconnect.”

Today’s forward-thinking manufacturers are elevating the age-old concept of custom-make by investing in high-tech platforms.

St James, speaking during the Fashion & Sustainability Summit 2020 (virtual) Series, added, “The future is about independent brands and new business models that will share a common thread of being able to adapt and pivot.”

A good example is Unspun, a hybrid fashion tech company that uses 3D body scans to create custom-fit jeans to order. Sustainability is the cornerstone of the business. Taking its cue from history and a custom-centric approach, zero-waste and zero-inventory is a top production priority at Unspun, according to Beth Esponnette, co-founder of the California firm.

According to McKinsey’s latest Fashion Climate Change report, of the 110 billion garments made in the world, 60 percent will go to landfill. Esponnette added that in the U.S. there is $5 billion worth of unsold inventory and 50 percent of all textiles go to waste.

“We are working on fast turnaround with the goal to make product in a couple of hours.” — Beth Esponnette

Adapted for today’s Covid-impacted world Unspun customers are now able to do their own body scans via a phone, to create a virtual avatar that supplies measurements and necessary fit information for individuals chosen style of jeans.

Speed and scale-ability are also paramount. The brand recently launched a collection with H&M in Stockholm. “They emailed body scans to the U.S., we did the tech and sent it back. It was all done digital,” said Esponnette. “We are working on fast turnaround with the goal to make product in a couple of hours.”

Similar sustainability goals of streamlining the supply chain to reduce inventory ring true at OnPoint Manufacturing. “Our mantra is sell one, make one, ship one,” explained SVP of sales Dave Prentice. Named 2019 Alabama Manufacturer of the Year, OnPoint can manufacture unique garments in any quantity on demand. “We are trying to shake things up,” said Prentice.

OnPoint’s factory model automates and integrates nearly every aspect of the manufacturing process from order entry to delivery. The integrated components, driven by complex software solutions provide SKU’s on-demand.

“Going forward you’ll put a design on a virtual platform and anybody can download it, knit it and own it.”
— Chung Yu

When Covid suddenly upended manufacturing, OnPoint shifted to mask making within 36 hours of the initial crisis. “We proved we could pivot,” said Prentice. “That’s where manufacturing is going: On-demand orders and quick turnaround.”

Tending to Customer Needs

Chung Yu knows all about adaptability. “Our business is constantly evolving,” explained Yu, director, MCM Enterprise, based in Brooklyn. “We adapt with the times. First we did private label, then more cut and sew, and now its more small-batch USA for fast turnaround,” said Yu.  

The company currently works with 100 different designers, whereas in the past the firm focused on three big retail customers. Yu explained that with an industry and economy that is ever changing, “we try to be more creative and problem solving.”

“When you can buy a t-shirt that costs less than a cappuccino there is a disconnect.”  — Tara St James

Another change is a strong focus on corporate sustainability. Stated Yu, “We’ve seen a lot of change around social responsibility since Bangladesh fire in 2012. How we treat workers has become priority. How we operate, and how the industry operates, are topics clients want to know now.” Yu continued, “In the old days it was all about numbers — sales. Now it is more about management and how we tend to customer needs.”

Yu believes sharing information and resources will be key in the future. “As the population continues to increase, and resources are demanded, we’ll either kill each other or learn to share,” offered Yu, who pushed that idea further stating, “Going forward you’ll put a design on a virtual platform and anybody can download it, knit it and own it.”

“Our mantra is sell one, make one, ship one.” — David Prentice

Unspun’s Esponnette, too, shares a belief that sustainable systems are the future. “The challenge is how can we help brands get on board with us to solve the problem of excess inventory. We need to help shift the mindset and bring digital to the forefront,” said Esponnette who is urging brands to take more than baby steps.

These execs, all of whom participated this summer in the Fashion Sustainability 2020 Summit series, are optimistic about sustainability continuing to re-shape supply chains for the better. However, they believe it will take industry commitment to investment in technology to make this a manufacturing reality.  “In the future individuals could knit something custom in three to five hours with a press of the button,” said Yu.