Product customization: your path to increased sustainability.
Driven by consumer awareness and shifting preferences, brands are increasingly seeking ways to make their products – and their companies – more sustainable. Most of those efforts are focused on sourcing. Whether it’s recycled PET bottles being converted into fleece pullovers, organically grown cotton for denim, less water-intensive processing of raw materials, or simply a shift to renewable fabrics like wool, the focus has largely been on making the products less environmentally harmful.
These initiatives are certainly praiseworthy, but they don’t address a much bigger problem: the 50 billion garments sent to landfills every year. Fast fashion certainly deserves its share of blame for making what is essentially disposable clothing. But it’s the traditional business model – selling products to your retail partners 12-18 months in advance – that’s really broken. If you’re betting on consumer demand that far in advance, you’re betting against the house. . . except when the house wins, you don’t just lose money. You have to close out your products (at best) or send them to landfills (at worst).
It’s unlikely that you’ll ever get to the point where your company can design, develop, manufacture, and deliver your entire product line in just a few weeks. Not every company can be, or wants to be, like Zara. But using product customization for part of your product line will significantly reduce the downside of misreading the market, which keeps your products away from the discounters and out of the landfills.
For the segment of your product line that you devote to product customization, you hold basic inventory that consumers personalize or decorate themselves. That’s a powerful way to reduce waste, because instead of investing in risky inventory of finished goods – for example, unusual colors, styles, or trims – you hold a smaller inventory of raw materials that can be converted into a finished product when a consumer designs it on your website. Even if you’ve missed the mark on those materials (no one wants fuchsia stitching or camouflage pocket fabric on their jeans), you can save them for another season or use them for another purpose. You avoid both the waste of unsold finished goods, and all the scrap that comes from the cut-and-sew process.
Product customization also adds real value to the product and your brand. Customers naturally become more invested in your company when they have a role in creating a product. That increases brand loyalty and enables you to charge higher prices. It also increases overall sustainability, since consumers are not as quick to discard products that they’ve designed themselves.
Delivering on the promise of product customization will require you to rethink both your order management system and the way your factories manufacture. You’ll need to adopt many of the principles and techniques of lean manufacturing. The good news is that these changes don’t require a huge investment of money or implementation of unproven technology. They can be done, especially at a small scale, with a minor investment. The biggest challenge for you will be shifting your traditional product development mindset. But if true sustainability is important to you (and your customers), then it’s an avenue you have to begin exploring.
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