The list of impacts caused or precipitated by the COVID-19 global pandemic is lengthy and continues to grow as communities all over the world start to become familiar with the new ‘normal’ that we’ve inherited. Many of these impacts have resulted in disruptions and disturbances, such as the delays and congestion currently experienced within the global supply chain or the skyrocketing inflation that threatens to cripple family budgets. However, there have also been some that have accelerated evolutions like the digitization of the world around us, resulting in greater speed, ease and convenience around communication and information transfer. However, perhaps the greatest impact of the pandemic, suggests industry expert and Founder of Retail Strategy Group, Liza Amlani, is reflected by the galvanization of our collective consciousness around social issues and the influence it’s having on retailers and brands.
“There’s been a real shift in mindset among Canadian consumers toward greater consideration being paid toward social issues and causes,” she says. “It’s a trend that had been evident prior to COVID-19. But, just like with so many other things, the pandemic seemed to accelerate this concern among people. The situation over the course of the past couple of years has really made people take stock of their lives and reassess the things that truly matter to them. Through the retail lens, this is significant because consumers are starting to align more strongly with the brands that believe in and stand for the same causes as they do. And, they’re beginning to vote with their wallets as well. It’s putting pressure on those within the industry, particularly brands operating in apparel, to ensure that they implement and enhance practices around sustainable and ethical production.”
Holding retailers accountable
In fact, Amlani’s observations concerning the sentiment of Canadian consumers around issues related to sustainability in production are captured by a number of different surveys and reports currently in circulation. According to the most recent EY Future Consumer Index, an overwhelming majority of consumers (68%) are looking to retailers and other businesses to drive the sustainability agenda and commit financially to ensuring positive outcomes. Of those surveyed, 25 percent believe companies should reduce greenhouse gas emissions, while 28 per cent believe that large multinational corporations should reduce waste generated during production. They are issues that consumers are increasingly holding businesses accountable for. Fortunately, says Amlani, retailers and brands now have access to an array of tools that can help them reduce the negative impacts of their operations.
“The entire industry is being pressured to place more focus and emphasis on practices and the ways in which they can be made more sustainable and ethical,” she asserts. “However, there are obviously some verticals that tend to have a greater impact on the environment and the world around us, shining a brighter spotlight on their production practices and associated waste. The most noticeable of which is the apparel sector. There are a lot of different aspects of the apparel manufacturing process that are becoming less than desirable from a sustainability perspective. However, as a result of the recent digitization of our environment, a number of different tools have recently been introduced or become more affordable that retailers can leverage in order to begin reducing their negative impact.”
Reducing physical sampling
One of the aspects of the apparel manufacturing process that’s benefitting from the use of technology is that of sampling. An important part of the process involving manufacturer and designer development, the practice that includes the physical patterned material or fabric sample, is responsible for the creation of an inordinate amount of waste. However, with the use of 3D rendering technology, samples can now be shared electronically, reducing waste and, in fact, expediting the entire process. It’s an area in which Amlani says significant improvement can be made, and one that she believes could inspire similar evolutions within the production of apparel that will continue to streamline the ways garments are made.
“Retailers and brands and their manufacturer partners are all so used to sharing samples of materials and prototypes and iterations of product along the production process,” she points out. “It’s the way things have been done for such a long time within the industry. But, because we now have the tools necessary to provide an alternative to physical samples and eliminate the need for the waste that’s generated around them, retailers and brands are beginning to see the benefit of their implementation and use. In the end, the use of the right technological tools will help those operating within the apparel sector to not only improve their environmental impact, but create production efficiencies as well.”
Amlani also recognizes the fact that there is still a substantial amount of overproduction happening at the moment, exacerbating and adding to the negative impacts already inherent in production. However, it’s another area of the process that she suggests can be enhanced with the use of the right tools, adding that there are real opportunities for everyone involved, from development to manufacturing and at all points in between, to tighten practices and reduce waste.
“When you think of the number of vendors that are involved, all partnering together to create and bring a product to market, there’s actually a lot of time, effort and physical resources wasted along the way,” she asserts. “Digital tools can help dramatically improve the way retailers and brands connect with factories, creating real-time visibility across the entire product creation journey, allowing them to collaboratively work together in order to understand exactly what the demand is and the amounts of garments required to meet it in the market. In the end, the right digital tools are going to elevate communication between partners, leading to an improved impact on the environment and the creation of efficiencies as well.”
The power of data
Much of the efficiencies that Amlani refers to and the digital tools being leveraged to find them are supported by the generation of critical consumer and market data. The ability to access this type of data and properly analyze it are opening up extraordinary opportunities to gain a holistic view of the entire product creation journey and manage it most effectively. In fact, Amlani believes that, if leveraged to its greatest effect, data holds the key to a multitude of improvements for retailers and brands operating within the apparel sector.
“When you marry improved communication between retailers and their factory partners with the implementation of some of these advanced analytics tools, brands will be able to better predict and plan for the things that consumers are looking for. It will allow them to put the right product in the right place at the right time, removing a lot of the guesswork that has traditionally driven decisions around product and preventing testing at market. Using improved planning tools is going to be critical in helping retailers and brands to continue finding success, become even more customer-centric and produce less waste.”