Clothing’s fundamental challenge: quick to buy, slow to make?

Beyond the Covid-19 pandemic, the global clothing, textiles and footwear (CTF) industry has needed to respond to other, at times dichotomous, challenges. These include rapidly evolving fashion trends and increasing demand for ‘newness’, greater ease of interaction and purchasing through online retailing, and increased consumer awareness of the environmental and social consequences of their purchasing decisions.

The CTF industry still struggles with a fundamental challenge – the gap between how quickly trends rise and fall and how slow it is to produce clothes in response to those trends. Globalisation, in both virtual and real-world senses, has exacerbated this challenge, as social media immediately transmits emerging trends throughout the entire world, while globally dispersed supply chains make it harder for retailers to respond sufficiently quickly to those trends. The rise of social media has led consumers to demand novelty, with research conducted by London based sustainability firm Hubbub noting that 41% of 18-25-year-olds feel pressure to wear a different outfit every time they go out. Research by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation found that despite an increase in clothing production from the years 2000 to 2015, the average number of times a garment is worn has declined.  Retailers, looking to meet the ‘next trend’ at its demand peak have needed to reconfigure their design and production models, underpinned by new technology adoption to reduce lead times and deliver on-trend items within the season to store.

Industry 4.0 technologies are thus emerging all the way across the value chain: from data driven trend analysis, 3D sampling and virtual clothing design, digitised and robotic cutting processes to advanced networks of smart sewing machines which provide real time performance data, including error indicators and machine diagnostics. Moreover, these smart technologies will be increasingly synchronised through fully integrated product development and production planning systems that offer real-time visibility throughout the critical path from concept to customer.

On the other hand, the industry has needed to acknowledge and respond to an increasing call from consumers and governments who are concerned about the industry’s environmental and labour practices. The Intergovernmental Panel of Climate Change calculates that the fashion industry, with its water-hungry production processes and global sourcing strategies, is responsible for 10% of global carbon dioxide emissions per annum, with an estimated 1.5 trillion litres of water used annually by the sector (Davis, 2020). The US Environmental Protection Agency estimates that in 2017, 10.2m tonnes of textiles ended up in landfills while another 2.9m tonnes were incinerated. In the United Kingdom an estimated 350,000 tonnes of clothes end up in landfill every year (BBC, 2020). While the World Bank reports that in certain countries, as much as 40% of clothing purchased is never worn (BBC, 2020). Many retailers, such as Primark, Inditex and H&M have been publicly condemned for their business models which are perceived to support ‘fast fashion’ – the trend of buying an on-trend item and wearing it once or twice before throwing it out.  Environmentally conscious consumers, especially Generation Z and Millennials continue to show their desire for sustainable products and brands.

The environmental impact of the clothing industry is a growing concern for young consumers, with 31% of US consumers in Generation Z (born after 1996) indicating that they would pay more for products which have the least negative impact on the environment, compared to 17% of Generation X (those born between 1965-1981) and 26% of Millennials (born 1982-1995) (McKinsey, 2020).

Global retailers have thus had to strike a balance between seemingly competing requirements the desire to meet trends at their peak and turn a profit in an increasingly competitive market, while maintaining their reputation with an important consumer base and meeting legislated environmental and labour laws.

As Cai Jinqing, Kering president for Greater China stated, “More brands, more companies in the fashion industry, they see the urgency from their own business perspective, from consumer perspective,”…”And also now with regulation and government initiatives, they really are at the […] tipping point to do some serious, in-depth transformation of the industry” (Fortune, 2019).

To read the full Clothing, Textiles and Footwear Intelligence Report (2021) visit:

Courtney Barnes

I believe buyer-led value chains are crucial to driving economic development and job creation. Overseeing several industrial clusters, I work with retailers and manufacturers, as well as national, provincial and local governments to power the profitable and sustainable growth within buyer-led value chains. With a background in Economics and business consulting, I have experience in developing national and local industrial development policies, executing large-scale, multi-year supplier development programmes and Quick Response implementation.