Going Green with PLM and other Fashion Technologies

How technology can help the fashion industry with triple bottom line

July 12, 2011

By Kilara Little and Walter T. Wilhelm

Industrialization in the 20th century meant full speed ahead for manufacturing, regardless of the cost to society or the environment. Today, leaders and decision-makers are implementing policies to
correct the oversights of the past, and these green initiatives are changing the face of industry. This is no less true for the fashion sector, where product lifecycle management (PLM) has proven to be an effective strategy for apparel manufacturers. PLM’s effectiveness lies in its two-fold benefit: more efficient production
with less environmental impact.

While the practice of fast fashion has made it easier and cheaper for consumers to stay on top of fashion trends, it has also aggravated environmental concerns. Each year, an estimated 2 million tons of
clothing are purchased in the UK alone. A staggering 1.2 million end up in the country’s landfills. In the five-year period from 2005 to 2010, textiles went from representing 7 percent of total waste to nearly 30 percent in some landfills. According to officials in the British Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA), the culprit is a consumer tendency dubbed the “Primark effect” (after the
British low-cost giant): throwing away cheap clothes more quickly than ever before (Grey, 2009).

In the United States, Americans spent roughtly $325 billion on clothes and shoes in 2010, accounting for nearly a quarter of the world market (Zeller, 2010). A scant 13.8 percent of all clothing and footwear is
“recovered” for reuse. In 2009, nearly 13 million tons of textiles ended up in American landfills, according to the Environmental Protection
Agency (Schweigert, 2011).

While clothing companies and manufacturers have no control over consumer spending habits or whether a garment ends up in a landfill, they can take steps to make design and manufacturing greener.
Unfortunately, many companies suddenly chose to put sustainability projects on hold when the economic crisis hit, unconvinced of the cost-cutting potential. But experience shows that in many
cases, going green can actually boost revenues.

Justifiably Green Initiatives

Year after year, corporate experiences are proving that being green is as important to companies as it is to consumers. As a result, environmental and social compliance is gaining a foothold in the fashion industry, with major brands and retailers setting the pace. Consumer demand for more environmentally conscious clothing has led to a deeper evaluation of the entire supply chain and reforms appear to be on the horizon. Organized efforts on the part of industry and government have given rise to coalitions in the United States and Great Britain whose goals are to quantify the impact of the clothing industry on the planet and look for sustainable methods of reducing it, while at the same time increasing profitability for companies.

The newly formed US-based Sustainable Apparel Coalition unites industry-wide apparel brands, nongovernmental organizations, and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and counts Wal-Mart and H&M among its founding members. Their current priority is to develop an index for businesses to use to measure and evaluate apparel and footwear product sustainability performance. Part of this index includes finding technological innovations that will allow the industry to become truly sustainable (Sustainable Apparel Coalition, 2011).

The UK’s Sustainable Clothing Roadmap, launched in 2009 during London Fashion Week, has assumed the bold task of making fashion more sustainable throughout its life cycle, from design to retail. More than 300 retailers, producers, and designers, including H&M and Marks & Spencer, have joined the project (BBC News, 2009).
Environmental initiatives are no longer the priorities of a few niche companies. They are shaping the face of business, and brands that hope to do well will need to respect a new triple bottom line: People, Planet, Profit. PLM and related product development solutions offer fashion companies a way to optimize their operations from design to production. The practical advantages of these solutions—reduced material waste, faster time-to-market, enhanced quality control—are also what contribute to a greener manufacturing process. From optimizing fit through digital manipulation to minimizing shipping costs, fashion technology benefits companies and the environment.

Supply Chain Visibility for Quality Control

The textile industry is inherently dirty: heavy salts, metals, and other potentially harmful chemicals are used and produced in fiber processing, dyeing, and finishing. Many companies have addressed this issue by switching to more ecological alternatives and conducting more tests to ensure that garments comply with environmental standards.

PLM offers an easy way to track and store data related to fabric quality; for example, test results for restricted substances in materials and final products are linked to supplier references. Some companies avoid trim or final garment testing, but following the proper procedure is key to eliminating hazards. PLM systems provide a way to link testing results to individual products and report on what has been approved versus what is pending approval. By storing information in a centralized place and utilizing task and calendar capabilities, products or materials that have not passed testing requirements can be easily identified and dealt with. In the case of a defective garment, a PLM system that links the raw material supplier, the manufacturer, and test results gives the visibility necessary to ask pertinent questions from all parties—before the product arrives in stores.
Shipping cheap, shipping well

Each year, two billion articles of clothing are sold in Germany alone. With a single pair of socks traveling up to 28,000 kilometers (18,000 miles) to reach a German shop, it’s no wonder shipping can end up representing a large part of a garment’s carbon footprint. As petroleum prices fluctuate from year to year, shipping methods are coming under more scrutiny. Apparel companies are notorious for going
off-schedule, whether because of last-minute decisions, changing approval dates, miscommunication, or indecision. As a result, many resort to air shipping, the most expensive transport option with a carbon footprint 17 times that of sea transport. In an effort to curb costs and avoid waste-generating errors,
many companies are turning to PLM calendaring and workflow. This allows them to track individual product tasks and milestones in real time as compared to the scheduled dates of hand-offs and approvals. A strong PLM can address the problem of sourcing by simulating costing based on manufacturers, freight, ordering costs, and agents, and then propose online pricing scenarios to best
organize production location, delivery times, and pricing. The result is high-level visibility of individual product development progress as well as delivery deadlines to ensure the integrity of entire collections. Tracking product development with PLM provides the time to consider the most viable shipping options, both in terms of cost and environmental respect.

Constructing a Better Garment

Design is the first step to sustainable clothing. A product that doesn’t fit quite right or is poorly constructed will be less likely to stay in the wardrobe and out of the trash than
one that fits well, has seams that stay together, and whose buttons don’t fall off after just a few uses. Knowledge communication is central to good quality construction. Creating a library of approved construction methods with corresponding diagrams is something that many large
apparel companies manage in a PLM system. With the addition of technical drawings, these instructions provide a failsafe method of sharing construction information with factories. The result is a better garment built in a more sustainable way.

Going Digital

Today’s digital technologies make it easier than ever for companies to implement cost-efficient green processes
throughout product development.

Color Approval

Spectral color technology can help companies reduce their carbon footprint while saving time and money in the color validation process for fabrics, trims, and other components. One private label brand of a mid-size US retail company reported reducing the number of lab dip shipments by 42 percent after adopting a spectral color process. Color standards are measured physically but now communicated and compared digitally, such as with initial lab dip and strike-off approvals. For example, Pantone and X-Rite offer color management systems and measurement devices that enable accurate color scanning and monitor calibration. ColorMunki spectrophotometers can sample any object to find the closest Pantone match. Pantone’s library of Clariant color recipes helps companies reduce the number of costly lab dips sent between the design department and the dye house and the accompanying shipping costs. Using a pre-defined dye recipe increases
the change of a lab dip being accepted the first time from 30 percent to 80 percent.

Fabric Simulation

Digital textile design offers similar benefits. Print, knit, and woven simulations are developed enough today to offer extremely accurate fiber and surface rendering. This means
preliminary design decisions can be made without strikeoffs, lab dips, handlooms, and other samples, reserving these phyiscal methods for the most crucial final approvals. Fashion and textile design software can be used to visualize and archive trends, colors, sketches, and color ways and then share them digitally, saving on shipping costs and paper.

Data Tracking

Great fit starts with the right specifications, which most apparel companies define for their specific customer by product type. Digitizing this information reduces the large amount of printing and copying that is common to apparel companies. With these measurements stored in a PLM library along with relationships between sizes and products, data can quickly and accurately be assigned to a style, released to vendors, and checked by product developers. PLM systems also track sample measurements and hold comments on fit decisions and requested changes. These records and comments can be used as a reference for future products and carry-overs. Digitalization provides an easy way to share, change, and visualize information in a faster and less transportation-dependent way. And savings add up quickly: one boys’ apparel company in the United States reported saving over $70,000 a year in copy costs simply by moving to electronic specifications.

The Impacts of Sampling

Systain Consulting in Hamburg measured the carbon footprint of a white cotton blouse at 6 kilograms—nearly 20 times the shirt’s weight! The study assumed the shirt was approved after the first sketch and that no fittings were required, leaving out a crucial part of any garment’s life
cycle. Each sample increases a garment’s footprint by roughly 50 percent. And they add up fast: 150 samples is a very conservative estimate for a 100 piece collection. But there are ways to reduce this number and save companies time and money. Fit decisions can be made in less time by adopting the latest 3D fit technologies which allow realistic product renderings and changes to be shared from any location. Parametric mannequins show how fabric drapes and indicate ease to identify and correct fitting problems. Fabric simulation is advanced enough to allow for accurate manipulation and fitting of the product to a specified model. Other technologies such as 3D prototyping combined with CAD pattern-making can help reduce time-to-market and
minimize waste. Computerized pattern-making eliminates the cardboard and paper necessary to the traditional manual method. Virtual fit sessions allow development teams around the world to communicate about a model in real time. They can also use 3D modeling to simulate fabric
trim placement for a more accurate visualization of the finished garment. Fashion companies are thereby are able to reduce miscommunications, development time, and sampling. In addition, digital prototypes are easier to transfer and manipulate to make an accurate marker for cutting and result in fewer physical samples. One brand reported a savings of one fitting sample per style using 3D technology— that could represent up to 100 samples for a single collection. A reduced number of samples means less waste and a greener design phase.

Efficiency on the Cutting Floor

Marker optimization has enormous potential to maximize material usage in the factory. Cutters with the ability to identify material flaws and shift markers around them will help to make production “greener”: cutting more accurately means less waste and higher material yield. Automated cutting is also far more precise than manual cutting, meaning more pieces can be cut from the same length of fabric. Simply being able to put markers closer together can mean fabric savings of 2 to 5 percent. Savings of 20 percent were recorded in the case of one lingerie producer. Fabric savings translates into profit for the company and fewer wasted resources for the planet. In addition, digital printing yields cleaner water, creates less toxic waste, and uses less energy than traditional industrial printing practices, making it a greener, faster, and more
versatile method of printing fabric.

People, Planet, Profit: Tomorrow’s Business Goals

As the “triple bottom line” of people-planet-profit becomes more accepted as a business philosophy, environmental and societal concerns are becoming as fundamental as increasing profit. Consequently, green initiatives will be expected from more sectors. Many companies will no doubt see profits rise as they reduce waste and pursue efforts to limit environmental impact. Increasing visibility with the help of technology throughout the product development process enables greater efficiency every day. Green thinking must become a part of day-to-day operations without disrupting workflow. PLM does just that, helping apparel companies cut out the inefficiencies that eat into profits and contribute to environmental damage. In addition to its
traditional role of increasing compliance, visibility, and speed-to-market, technology now has the potential to be a vehicle for positive change.

Green initiatives in retail and apparel: a closer look at H&M

Each stage of a garment’s life cycle implies a certain amount of environmental stress. As a company
committed to the environment, H&M has taken multiple initiatives to reduce the impact of its supply
chain, starting with raw materials. The company is a founding member of the Better Cotton Initiative, an
organization created by the World Wildlife Fund and leading retail chains with the goal of improving
cotton cultivation methods and growing the market for sustainable cotton. By contributing to an
increased demand for organic cotton, H&M hopes to see more farmers switching to sustainable farming.
“We concentrate our efforts on areas where we have a major impact on the environment,” says Ingrid
Schullström, H&M’s corporate responsibility manager (H&M, 2011). H&M’s first collection made
with organic cotton appeared in 1993. In early 2011, they released the Conscious Collection, a line for
men, women, and children made with greener materials, such as organic cotton, Tencel, and
recycled polyester, all in shades of white. The goal now is for all cotton to come from sustainable
sources by 2020.

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