Fashion has a waste problem (and why we invested in Unmade)
We’re delighted to have announced MMC’s investment in Unmade, together with our friends at Octopus Ventures and Felix Capital.
I wanted to write about our motivation for investing, and why the problem they address is so urgent.
Our dirty little fashion secret
Fashion is one of the UK’s world-leading industries, with the apparel market worth $65 billion and employing millions of people. But the UK is also a centre for the huge waste problem blighting how we shop and dress.
Over 80% of manufactured clothing ultimately ends up in landfill, whether worn by a consumer or not. Much of what is made is never sold or used, because of overproduction and wasteful distribution. Swedish retail giant H&M said last year that it was sitting on $4.3 billion of unsold clothing, while British luxury fashion house Burberry admitted burning £30m of perfectly usable stock the previous year in order to protect its brand.
Globally, the Ellen MacArthur Foundation estimates that the fashion industry loses over $400 billion a year in unsold stock and waste, representing 15% of all products.
Here in London, textiles are the fastest-growing contributor to our landfill problem. But we also export our problem around the world, shipping millions of tons of waste to poorer parts of the world.
As those economies develop, they are pushing back. Countries such as China and Malaysia are banning or reducing the import of plastics and other materials headed for recycling processors, causing a headache for EU countries who ship the majority of collected recyclables abroad for processing.
It’s clear that we’re going to have to tackle the problem properly — at source.
Built for scale — but that’s the problem
The fashion supply chain is set up to mass produce standard designs in big production runs. This mostly relies on forecasting consumer demand 6-12 months in advance, trying to predict which designs, colours and sizes will sell in what volumes and where. Since these predictions are always wrong, brands and retailers figure it’s better to overproduce (risking wastage) rather than underproduce (risking sales revenue).
Fast fashion makes this worse. Seasonal trends pass quickly, and clothing is increasingly considered disposable. Again, the UK is one of the worst offenders — we buy more clothes per person than any other country in Europe.
The industry is slowly waking up to the problem, with prominent figures such as iconic designer Jean Paul Gaultier hitting out at the overproduction of clothes by the industry and describing the destruction of stock as “scandalous”.
A more sustainable approach
Unmade was founded by Hal Watts, Kirsty Emery-Laws and Ben Alun-Jones in 2014 with the ambition to reimagine both the design and manufacturing processes of fashion. They saw a way to organise the industry differently, with brands only making what is sold, and distribution much more responsive to demand.
The Unmade software platform enables clothing brands to create on-demand supply chains. Clothing can be customised using Unmade’s interface, then sent to a factory where Unmade’s Order Management System (OMS) fits it into a production run and takes over control of the actual manufacturing. Unmade’s tech overrides the clunky 1980s control systems that run all the industry-standard knitting, embroidery and printing machines, getting any old factory up and running with a complete end-to-end digital workflow.
How does this reduce waste? By enabling on-demand production of customised items with lead times of less than a week, brands’ merchandising and store teams can use Unmade to stock the right stores and warehouses with the right designs and sizes at the right time, responding to real consumer buying behaviour — no more guessing needed.
With a personal touch
Brave brands can go one step further, and put the same tools in consumers’ hands.
Consumers can customise their designs — and maybe do better than the brands themselves.
Unmade’s on-demand supply chain is built on customisability — whether by the brand’s internal team or the consumer.
Trend-setting in fashion is changing, with consumers leading the way this time. The industry looks to user-generated content on Instagram and YouTube to spot innovation and see what is working. Uniqueness and personalisation are more important than ever before, and responding to shifting demand quickly is critical for brands. More ‘pull’ and less ‘push’.
At the back end, the Unmade platform seamlessly integrates individual and short-run orders into existing production, meaning individual orders can be manufactured at the same cost and speed as mass-produced items. Surprisingly, the brand’s overall margin can actually increase: they can charge higher prices for customised items, reduce production waste and warehousing costs and avoid discounts and write-offs later on.
This is at the heart of Unmade’s collaboration with sportswear and lifestyle brand Rapha to create Rapha Custom. Sports teams can personalise their designs, choose their colours, upload their own artwork and visualise in real-time how their kit will look in the field, on real models. Unmade is working with Farfetch and several top global fashion brands to power their personalised offerings.
So what’s next?
Ultimately, the fashion industry will need to move towards a fully circular model — designed, sold, and used with longevity and recycling or re-use in mind. This means more recyclable or bio-degradable materials; designs that last longer; production closer to the consumer, in areas with clean energy sources; and a culture shift towards second-hand or other repurposing.
For now, technology like Unmade’s can be used to reduce the need for overproduction — all while offering consumers a more engaging brand experience and protecting retail margins.
We’re proud to be backing Hal, Kirsty, Ben and the rest of the Unmade team, as they build out a world-leading tech platform for brands and do some good for the planet at the same time.
MMC Ventures backed Unmade from the MMC Greater London Fund, in partnership with the Mayor of London. We are particularly proud to be working with the London Waste & Recycling Board, who provided funding and support for this investment.
If you are combining technology with a more sustainable approach, we’d love to hear from you.
Please recycle your clothes! To find out more about clothes recycling in London, check out #LoveNotLandfill here.
Sources include A new textiles economy: Redesigning fashion’s future, The Ellen MacArthur Foundation; UK parliamentary report Fixing fashion: clothing consumption and sustainability; and McKinsey report Is apparel manufacturing coming home?
This post originally appeared on MMC's Medium publication, MMC Writes.