The fashion industry, responsible for 10% of the world’s carbon emissions, is facing broader pressure to reduce its environmental impact. Somewhere between 80 to 150 billion individual garments are produced every year globally, a doubling in only 15 years, and only 15% of it is recycled or donated. Every second, a garbage truck’s worth of clothing and textiles gets incinerated or tossed in a landfill, according to a 2017 report from the Ellen MacArthur Foundation. To make things worse, most of these garments are made of synthetic materials, which are derived from oil and petroleum production. Unlike natural materials like cotton or wool, synergic fibres don’t biodegrade, so they will be sitting in the landfill for over 200 years.
Undervalued and expensive dead inventory is estimated to cost the US retail industry as much as $50 billion dollars a year. Given that this already represents a great expense for brands, it’s unlikely that many of them are genuinely concerned about the added cost of responsibly recycling their dead stock either. This is why H&M destroyed $4.3 billion worth of unworn clothing and Burberry burnt £28 million of stock as we found out back in 2018.
The pandemic has also thrown up plenty of hurdles to making and shipping products. Global transportation bottlenecks have slowed the time it takes a product to make it from the factory to the customer from a few weeks to two-and-a-half months. Lockdowns have forced brands to close their retail stores, sales have gone down and they struggled to get rid of their stocks.
The fashion industry is in the midst of a supply chain crisis as a result of globalisation and due to the pandemic and restrictions. Brand’s are searching for alternative business models that are more sustainable and efficient while less dead inventory weighing on their shoulders.
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The Fashion Industry is Changing
Alternatives are slowly gaining popularity. Some fashion brands have adopted business models that help them change their approach to excess material and inventory, including incorporating the use of headstock fabrics and made-to-order models. Young designers and small brands are turning away from the traditional fashion business model and calendars in an effort to produce more sustainably. They avoid overproduction altogether by only producing what’s going to be sold, and often keeping the production geographically close.
Made-to-order means that manufacturing will only begin once a customer places the order, rather than producing garments without any insurance that they will sell. This drastically helps to reduce the levels of the surplus stock ending up in landfills.
It’s about going back to the way it used to be. Up until the mid-to-late 20th Century, people either made their own clothes or purchased items made uniquely for themselves. People know who made their clothes, who made the fabric, and how much resources went into producing the clothes.
However, since the arrival of fast fashion, we have lost the connection with the clothes we wear. Nobody knows where their clothes come from or who made them. Even the brands who sold the clothes don’t know where their products came from. Clothes are now considered disposable items which have created a throw-away culture in consumers.
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Adopting Made-to-Order Model at l’amour est bleu
At l’amour est bleu, we have adopted the made-to-order business model because we believe that the model helps us to reduce waste and reliance on natural resources which is the key to operating a sustainable fashion business. The Made-to-order model also allows us to offer customers customised or made-to-measure garments to the customer’s specifications – down to the size, colour, detailing and even add-ons such as zippers. It ensures that the garment fits the customer perfectly.
Of course, made-to-order means that customers will have to wait longer for their garments. In an age where consumers can get anything at their door the next day they place the order with a click of a mouse, the concept of made-to-order requires a mind-ship for some consumers. But we don’t want to just produce sustainable garments, but also educate the consumers and allow them to purchase and consume fashion items sustainably more.
There’s something special about the experience of having a garment made for you, the concept offers an emotional value to the consumer that fast fashion brands cannot offer. The emotional connection with the garment makes the consumer appreciate and cherish it more and is likely to keep the garment for a long time. According to the Clean Clothes Campaign, a staggering 100 billion garments are produced each year and 3 out of 5 of them will end up in landfills within a year. To keep all of our garments out of the landfills, we must make our clothes last.
With this article, we’d like to share our journey with you by interviewing the founder of l’amour est bleu, Thien Huynh.
Founder of l’amour est bleu, Thien Huyhn
- What was the reason why you decided to change your business model and adopt made-to-order?
Already in the founding phase of l’amour est bleu, the made-to-order model came to my mind. I didn’t know it was called made-to-order at the time, I was just thinking about how I could produce fashion in the most sustainable way. But when I shared my idea with friends, I only got negative feedback and they told me that in a time when Zalando and Amazon deliver the next day, nobody would be willing to wait for 2 to 3 weeks for their garment. So I lost heart and pre-produced the first three collections as all fashion companies do.
After the third collection, I was overcome with dissatisfaction because I could not sell many garments and they were piling up more and more. To be honest, I no longer had the financial means to pre-produce a new collection, so I gathered my courage and dared to offer the new collection Made-to-order. The current events with H&M and Burberry, which were burning billions of euros worth of clothing, also benefited me so that I could promote the made-to-order model as the sustainable future of fashion. And the concept worked: We started with a delivery time of 2 weeks and customers accepted it. The first made-to-order collection was much more successful than the previous ones and since then we offer all collections according to the made-to-order model.
- What are the biggest advantages and disadvantages of the made-to-order model?
The biggest advantages are the sustainable aspect and the personalisation for the customer. We only produce the garments in the colours and sizes that the customer really wants, so we have very few surpluses. Of course, we also have returns, but within a manageable framework.
The made-to-order model is resource-saving in every respect: no surplus is produced and the tailors don’t work for free either.
Normally, every new collection requires a lot of work because the cuts are made for all sizes and then garments are produced in all sizes and colours. For us, only size S is sewn as a sample as standard and we create the remaining sizes on request. Other colour variations are retouched on the photos using Photoshop and we only order the fabrics when a customer orders a new colour variation. The made-to-order model allows all parties involved not to work “for free”.
Another advantage is our high flexibility to respond to customer requests. We can make any garment to measure or customise it to fit the customer best. This service is well received and I am happy to produce perfectly fitting garments for customers that they really enjoy wearing. At the same time, through close interaction with our customers, we can quickly improve new models and thus reduce our returns.
The downside of the made-to-order model is that we have to move very quickly to meet our 10-day delivery time. This summer we received more orders than ever before and at the same time we had structural changes in production as well as staff restrictions and delivery delays due to the pandemic. It made my stomach hurt, but our customers showed great understanding for the most part.
- Would you ever consider going back to the ready-to-wear model?
Never. I had briefly thought about pre-producing basics and bestsellers to convince more “normal” customers of our sustainable fashion. But since the pandemic, the attitude of many consumers has changed and we even sell basics with a delivery time of 10 days. Let’s see how consumer buying behaviour develops, but I am happy about this positive development away from fast fashion.
- If a brand owner is considering incorporating a made-to-order model, what’s your advice?
My suggestion would be to really make it 100%. It takes courage, especially if you have pre-produced beforehand. But you can only benefit from the advantages mentioned before if you really do it 100%. For this, it is very important to have well-functioning processes so that your business can easily grow with the demand. We noticed with the growing demand that our processes were not working smoothly and we had to improve them afterwards, which caused a lot of headaches, especially for me.
It is still a learning-by-doing process for us because we are pioneers and have hardly any role models to learn from..
The made-to-order model certainly has a significant role to play in moving towards a more sustainable fashion industry. It is a far more ethical and sustainable approach because there is no overproduction, reducing the risk of excess unwanted stock going to landfills. It also avoids encouraging a culture of buying more and more new items and discarding them at rapid speed. Instead, it promotes slow fashion and the love for a garment that is well-made just for the customer.
What are your thoughts on made-to-order fashion? Let us know what you think!