By Aman Advani, CEO and co-founder of Ministry of Supply.
There were 15.1 million tons of textile waste in just a year, according to the EPA. To put that into perspective, that's as much as 500,000 Boeing 787 Dreamliners and nearly 700,000 times the weight of Stonehenge. By any account, that's epic. So, why is this happening? A huge driver comes down to a simple word: overproduction. While it might seem like an easy one to solve (just produce less!), it's actually much more complicated. Retailers generally overproduce with the intention of planned waste, where capturing all of the demand with a high degree of certainty often means overestimating your production needs and scrapping what doesn't get sold. The alternative -- stockouts --often have great negative impacts on the business, and while the environment wins, there's no line on your income statement to reflect that. The implications are horrendous and two-sided:
- Waste during production. In other words, there are massive losses during the production process. Imagine cutting out the fabric for your shirt or pants from a flat piece of fabric. Like any arts and crafts project, you end up with quite a bit of unusable fabric. The scraps from the process account for a good percentage of the fabric going unused.
- Too many garments. At the end of a season, retailers have a few choices. They can discount unsold inventory, they can donate it, or they can trash it -- or some combination of the three. Clearly, the latter plays into the epidemic at hand in a big way.
Retailers and consumers talk a big game about wanting to reduce waste and overproduction, but few put it into action. This is mostly because, over and over, consumers prove that they want sustainable, responsible products but prefer to not pay much, if anything, for that standard. This McKinsey survey brings to life our actual willingness to pay, which is low -- and knowing this information is self-reported, it's possible even this number (low as it already is) is an over-estimate.
So, how can brands deliver on green promises, without having to pass that cost on to the consumer? Here are three simple changes to a supply chain that could make this possible:
1. Order smarter. One of the greatest drivers of waste isn't actually overproduction; it's producing the wrong items, often due to poor forecasting. Retailers can't predict exactly what a customer will buy, often because it's the first time they've produced that item. No order history means a lot of guessing in the forecast. But, what if we all just shared our data so retailers would have a jumping off point for a new product and could order smarter? If brands invested in and improved their order volumes, obsolete goods (and the resulting sales and waste) would decrease tremendously.
2. Reuse. Stating the obvious, we'd make and consume a lot less if we got more use out of what already exists. Think back to the old "reduce, reuse, recycle" campaign where most of our conversation revolves around recycling and reduction. Our company encourages a "one in, one out" policy, where you'd donate one item for every one you buy, ensuring a second life for your old clothes, appliances and more.
3. Invest in 3D printing. With significantly less waste (in fact, almost none), 3D printing makes sense across the board. As the technology becomes ubiquitous, costs go down, too, making this option both green and affordable.
To brands: Step up and stop assuming that sustainability is expensive. In many cases, it's quite the opposite. Explore creative solutions beyond the obvious that can move the needle on the inevitable requirement to protect our precious resources and curb overproduction.
To consumers: If you actually care about reducing waste, then vote with your wallet. Demand that your brands and retailers have a net positive footprint and are actively working to improve that. Today's brands are much more in touch with their consumer basis directly, so an email to your favorite brand could just make the impact you were hoping for.
Aman Advani is CEO and co-founder of Ministry of Supply, a menswear company.