Q: Just how much waste does the global fashion industry generate?
Alptekinoglu: Roughly 100 billion garments are produced per year, and 30% of those are perfectly useable but never purchased. Clearly, that’s massive overproduction.
Q: Why is that?
Alptekinoglu: People want high product variety in fashion. The data also shows that consumers are buying more garments every year and holding on to those for shorter periods of time. Because it’s hard for brands to forecast where demand will go, and because they are producing well in advance, they overorder, not knowing on a per-item basis which items will sell and how much.
Q: Many stores now offer to take used clothes and recycle them …
Alptekinoglu: In reality, only 1% of clothing gets truly recycled—meaning turned into other clothing. Technology might change this over time.
Q: Your solution to this problem is mass customization. What does that mean?
Alptekinoglu: Producing on a mass scale and on demand exactly what customers want, according to their individual specifications. That means only producing after somebody says, “This is exactly how much I need, and this is exactly what I want.”
Q: How would it work?
Alptekinoglu: Essentially, consumers would say what style, color, and size they want of a particular garment, and they could determine some design elements to suit their taste. Smaller companies like RedThread, a women’s clothing company, and Unmade, a knitwear company, already operate on a mass customization basis.
Q: How would this work for mass retail?
Alptekinoglu: On a larger scale, companies like Zara could produce a few basic items in all categories, like T-shirts and jeans for stock or display, and allow customers to customize those at their stores. Transforming a large, worldwide supply chain to operate on a make-to-order basis through mass customization is a challenging logistical proposition, but I think it makes better business sense.
Q: Mass customization sounds more sustainable than mass production.
Alptekinoglu: Fashion is harmful to the environment—people buy more than they need, tend to use clothes less, and eventually throw them out. Our Smeal research has shown that people may be willing to hold on to mass customized products for longer, and that’s important to sustainability. Retailers could sell such clothing in lesser frequency because people are holding on to them longer, and they could charge more—so theoretically, retailers could also make more money through this model.
A professor of supply chain management, Aydin Alptekinoglu is the former director of the Center for Supply Chain Research.