Image Credit: Springkode
With new initiatives such as Springkode and Chantuque opening up the possibility of direct-to-consumer selling in fashion, ethical fashion writer Ruth MacGilp investigates whether this new business model could be the industry’s long-awaited answer to overproduction?
Long gone are the days where antiquated fashion business models rule the roost. With industry-wide calls to rewire the fashion system, moving away from 6-month lead times, mid-season collections, department store buying patterns and mass discounting, new kinds of direct-to-consumer models are rising up to prioritise the triple bottom line.
During the pandemic, supplier-brand relationships were thrown into a state of flux after brick-and-mortar stores shut worldwide and clothing consumption plummeted. Over 70% of European and US consumers plan to cut back spending on apparel in 2020, according to The State of Fashion 2020 Coronavirus Update. This rapid decline has sent shockwaves to fashion’s biggest victims – garment workers – leading to one of the most successful grassroots movements in fashion history, the #PayUp campaign. Since surpassing over 270,000 signatures and $22 billion unlocked in unpaid orders, the campaign has now grown into a long-term project that demands top fashion brands to take action across their supply chains, beyond just reimbursing cancelled orders.
How do we ensure that the cancelled orders crisis never happens again? Of course, using your voice as a consumer through petitions like #PayUpFashion can make a huge difference in protecting garment workers from further exploitation, but fashion is in urgent need of a more systemic shake-up. With countless contract breeches and ethical exposés over the past few months, brands are quickly losing public trust, so manufacturers themselves are redefining their own relationships with consumers.
Direct-to-consumer ecommerce brands have largely cashed in on lockdown online shopping without the usual support of traditional retailers. For example, despite multiple labour scandals, Boohoo’s sales surged 42% in the first few months of restrictions. Manufacturers have a similar opportunity now to reach the market directly by utilising direct sales channels and elevating their own branding. This model has the potential to cut out textile waste, pass on savings to the shopper, and help meet the increased market desire for supplier transparency. It may also help curb overproduction through small batch on-demand production, and reduce some of the emissions from traditional distribution transport and warehousing.
Image: Transparency within the Springkode’s supply chain
One project trying to shift towards a more transparent and sustainable supply chain is Springkode, a marketplace which connects consumers directly with independent manufacturers across Europe. The platform sells a range of high-quality, ethically made collections of no more than 50 units per design, produced using deadstock fabrics and shipped out from the factories themselves. Their aim is to bridge the gap between the people that make clothes and the people that wear them.
“It’s hard work but there is a huge potential,” says Reinaldo Moreira, co-founder of Springkode. “We firmly believe that the industry will move towards more transparent and integrated business models, pushed by a new and more conscious consumer. Therefore, it made sense to connect manufacturers and consumers and work on connecting the dots.”
With Springkode’s business model, the product is only moved from its original production plant upon sale, which reduces the carbon emissions usually released from transport between warehouses, distribution centres and physical stores. “Our business model is a smart solution to the system and its flawed rationale,” adds Moreira, also highlighting the affordable prices made possible by dispensing with those logistical costs.
Another brand hoping to normalise fashion fresh from the factory floor is Chantuque, a sustainable denim manufacturer with hubs in Turkey and Egypt. One of their key eco initiatives is a cutting edge laundry facility, where water consumption is reduced by 80% and chemical use by 60%, an important breakthrough in the resource-intensive denim sector.
In addition to producing for both small independent and large international brands with no forced minimums, Chantuque has an in-house design team that develops its own products to help to educate their consumers and collaborators on innovative sustainable design. For example, a recent project involved producing a collection of re-cut garments such as denim jackets from waste fabric, and recycling offcuts into new denim with 50% recycled cotton content.
“As the manufacturer, we are at the core of the product. We feel that we have a responsibility to help to educate not only the brands and retailers, but also the public,” says Ellen Brookes, Head of Design and Sustainability at Chantuque. “We decided to make some products where we had control of every element, from the recycling of the factory offcuts into new fabric, to the sewing and finishing of the garment, as a way to showcase how things can very easily be done differently with less of an impact on our earth.”
An alternative attempt at connecting manufacturers with the end user is Lost Stock, who work directly with factories to provide consumers with clothing that was unsold due to Covid-19 cancelled orders. Over 100,000 £35 mystery parcels of unbranded fast fashion goods have been sent out, each promising to “support a garment worker for a week”. Unfortunately, they’ve largely been received with a mass of negative reviews from customers who feel like the project’s lofty aims have been something of a scam.
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Looking at preventative, rather than reactive, measures to stop unsold stock from piling up with nowhere to go and no income to pay suppliers with, on-demand manufacturing could be just the solution fashion needs. There are dozens of independent fashion labels, usually led by a singular designer-maker, that operate on a made-to-order basis such as Megan Crosby and Olivia Rose. Luxury brands like Roland Mouret, Emilia Wickstead and Jenny Packham also produce made-to-measure collections, but the price tag remains inaccessible for the majority. What’s missing here is on-demand manufacturing at scale, a step that could transform the mainstream industry’s outdated retail calendar. This kind of shift would require brands to develop closer relationships with their suppliers, and for consumers to accept longer lead times, but it could help accelerate the transition to a slow, seasonless and sustainable fashion system.
Conversations about disruptive business models like these open up even greater possibilities for a utopian model of localised production hubs, where manufacturing is led by communities and celebrates the specialist skills of local artisans. Imagine a world in which winter clothing is crafted in cold climates where consumer demand is highest, revitalising declined textile industries and providing fulfilling employment too, such as in the Scottish Borders. A world that nurtures regional textile ecosystems that work with the land, not against it, as seen with the ‘soil-to-soil’ system from Fibershed. A world where each community decides what kind of fashion legacy they want to share, honouring local heritage and traditions, built from the ground up and disconnected from the reliance on global imports.
Ultimately, until radical transparency is achieved across the fashion supply chain, the idea of brands and consumers working in equal partnership with manufacturers remains a utopia. Until brands publish full supplier lists in plain sight with full disclosure of ethical standards, it’s up to the factories themselves to reclaim their power and overthrow their original captors. “The wheels are already in motion,” says Springkode’s Moreira. “Sustainability is becoming the new normal, and transparency is the fuel for this revolution.”