From runway to retail: how supply chain can drive sustainability

As the infamous London Fashion Week draws to a close, the New West End Company has predicted a £600 million sales bonanza in the West End alone. Fast fashion outlets across online channels and in physical stores are working around the clock to churn out wares seen on the catwalk to eager consumers. This extends beyond the runway to the audience, too, with social media boasting images of outfits worn by influencers and audience members driving the same level of online demand for replica outfits as the catwalk itself.

Although this is no new phenomenon, it is clear that London Fashion Week has transcended into a mass consumer event. Peak retail events are known by retailers to drive historically high levels of demand, however, it is not just the traditional online sale events that are driving these peaks. More frequently retailers are seeing the effects of these live, physical ‘events’ such as LFW or the Grammys, to even a royal appearance, where consumers are quick to identify clothing worn by iconic figures and purchase them online. Many will have heard of the ‘Holly Willoughby’ effect, or the £45 M&S jumper which sold out minutes after Megan Markle’s second royal appearance in Brixton.

Having previously been known as a coveted showing designed to provide media and designers with previews many seasons in advance, there is no doubt that LFW has demonstrably evolved. It’s a year since Christopher Bailey’s Burberry collection was not only streamed live across social media, but wares (in short supply) were available for purchase immediately afterwards. This was recognised as an innovative and pivotal marketing campaign, but the resulting behaviour is also driving a more wasteful consumption pattern as retailers are forced to predict demand without seeing how products are received in advance. More frequent collections and the lack of structure that fixed seasons once held has resulted in a much bigger churn of fashion items, and that’s before taking into account the weight of returns, too. eCommerce is fuelling demand for individual deliveries, resulting in more packaging and air pollution. Beyond a pure environmental impact, pressure on meeting consumer demand could result in compromises elsewhere in the supply chain, such as sourcing cheaper labour or unsustainable materials. However, the growth in consumer focus on ethical consumption and visibility (#whomademyclothes) is beginning to counter this impact.

Coinages such as ‘Runway to Retail’ and ‘See now, Buy now’ are defining customer expectations, which have huge implications across the supply chain, not least in terms of retailers’ ability to reach customers in a timely way, but also maintaining the mandate of ethical consumption and sustainable retail, too. This year’s LFW brought ‘Positive Fashion’ to the fore, with more focus than ever being placed on the ethical sourcing and journey of goods through the supply chain (and their packaging/disposal) and any environmental ramifications, too. Headlines were made by environmental protests in Westminster, and even as far back as November, we read of Parliamentary debates damning the wasteful ‘fast-fashion’ culture promoted by popular online retail aggregators. In response, many of these retailers are now slashing their inventory counts, reducing the choice available to consumers but also the waste. It’s this dichotomy of the impact of product choice, customisation, availability and immediacy shaping consumer behaviour and demand, versus its detrimental environmental impact and an accelerated focus on ethical, transparent consumption.

Is there a world where both can exist in a sustainable way? Supply chain management plays an integral role, and there are elements of this which can help retailers manage this interplay. Retailers now need to reach customers when, where and how they demand it. Having stock (and visibility) in the right place and at the right quantity demands alternative warehousing solutions, with quick and sustainable access to end consumers, whilst also maintaining the flexibility to allow for more frequent peaks and troughs. As London in particular continues to grow and evolve as a city and needs to be serviced, there are still underlying supply issues. At the start of 2019 there was only 12.4 million square ft of industrial and logistics space speculatively under construction across the whole of the UK, and of this, only 3% was being built in London.

There are several ways that the right network and supply chain can help, and the most important of these is data. We may have seen robots on the runway in 2018, but the real genius lies behind the scenes, with proper systems in place to analyse and share data and promote visibility up and down the supply chain. This insight can help retailers to manage suppliers, optimise fulfilment and manage waste, as well as enhancing accountability to consumers through more accurate information on where products were sourced. With the right analytics in place, retailers can build a predictive, rather than a reactive supply chain, which will transform their ability to meet the increasingly personalised needs of consumers, suppliers and manufacturers.

Let’s not forget that the product journey doesn’t end with the consumer. Extending the supply chain to include returns and the recycling of products can help everybody to reduce their carbon footprint and unlock value from unwanted goods. This circular system requires more warehousing to accommodate the storage and processing of returns and recyclable items. In many senses, consumers have become retail suppliers in their own right, and managing the movement of goods back to retailers in the event of a return is integral.

The fashion industry is definitely catching up with other sectors in terms of sustainability, and this is primarily consumer driven. However, greeted with more choice, convenience and variety, consumers are also influencing a more responsive service which could contradict that sustainable mandate. By focusing on elements of the supply chain, its complexities, logistics, warehousing and delivery, retailers can manage these two challenges more visibly and effectively to make sure that the £28 billion fashion sector is a sustainable one.