This is an opinion piece by Megan Brosterman, co-founder of Victoria Road, a brand which discovers and supports designers and artisans in emerging markets who are creating modern, sophisticated fashion inspired by their vibrant cultures.
Thousands of tons of garments wind up in landfills each year, many of them never worn.
And it’s not only the fast fashion mega-brands that are the culprits. The way today’s market works, there’s actually no way out of the cycle of waste if a brand wants to sell enough clothes to stay in business. Right?
To understand why, let’s talk about what it takes to get a design from the concept phase through production and into a consumer’s closet. First, there is the patternmaking and sampling, itself a waste-ridden process. Then the brand places an order with a (hopefully fair trade) garment factory. Most suppliers have minimums that need to be met; this means a brand has to order a certain number of garments, which can range from a few hundred to thousands per style, for the factory to agree to work with them.
The brand might already have some orders from wholesale customers – boutiques and department stores. Or it might have some pre-sale orders from a Kickstarter campaign to go towards fulfilling that minimum. They put in the order, and a couple months later, it comes back, often with flaws that necessitate trashing the whole thing and starting over again.
What’s more, nowadays most buyers don’t want to wait. Retailers and individuals alike put a premium on immediacy – we see it on Instagram, and we want it. And we saw in this year’s fashion weeks how far even the top global brands are willing to go to give that to them.
So you need inventory ready to go in a box and out the door to your customer. And when you build up inventory, there is always a chance that some – or all – of it won’t sell, leaving you with mountains of clothing to get rid of.
This see-now-buy-now business model, which rests on a foundation of overstock, is the antithesis of the zero waste principle. So we went the opposite direction and built out a factory.
We’re definitely swimming against the stream, but for us, vertical integration has been the most important step in our plan to disrupt the usual global fashion supply chain and actually develop a viable, ethical alternative to fast fashion.
To be clear, when I say vertically integrated, I’m not just talking about scooping up a factory in Bangladesh, while the design team and management work in New York City. Unlike most brands, our design, pattern development, materials sourcing, sampling and production processes take place under the same roof in our dedicated facility in Lahore, Pakistan. Our CEO, based in Dubai, spends time here bi-monthly working alongside the local team.
We believed – and our experience has born this out – that the value we can provide to both our customers and our communities due to our small-run, minimal waste model far outweighs its hurdles. And we think that, as they learn more about why we are doing things this way, more folks will catch on.
1. We produce close to no waste.
Because we own the facility, we aren’t constrained by minimum purchase requirements. This allows us to produce our collections in small runs, keeping minimal inventories. Our wholesale shipments are made to order. We keep only a small amount of stock for our online store, relying on pre-sales for much of our retail sales.
Have we lost some sales because of this? Absolutely. But we’re gaining loyal customers who will come back for the quality of the garments, which are made to last both in construction and in style.
2. It makes us more nimble.
Using a small, vertically integrated facility allows us to be nimbly adaptable and creative in today’s real-time fashion environment. Because the design, development and production are happening under the same roof, our team can respond quickly to market preferences with new styles, style updates and modifications, even mid-season. All without the environmental disaster created by the “let’s order a million units and see if they sell” model.
3. We get to be innovative.
Our zero-waste policy also sparks innovation – we use practically all scrap fabrics leftover in cutting, usually in children’s pieces or other one-off pieces. We re-purpose leftover raw materials and even rejected samples and unsold inventory to create new designs. For example, last season, a run of fully custom embroidered fabric came back with a major flaw running through it, which made it unusable for a woman’s size dress. Instead of discarding it, our team worked out a way to use every usable part of the fabric in new girls’ dresses, and thus began our children’s line!
4. We control the quality.
We provide our salaried team of talented producers with training in stitch techniques and quality control so that they take their time to make high quality garments that will last – not end up in landfills. Our sourcing team builds relationships with local suppliers of high quality natural fiber fabrics that will weather 30+ wears. Finally, by staying true to our globally influenced, sophisticated aesthetic, our design team creates styles that won’t expire at the end of the season.
So, would we have a greater reach as we enter our third year of business if we’d built our business model on satisfying our customer’s want-it-now whims? Probably. We could have spent the time and capital we’ve been putting into setting up our integrated supply chain and paying our producer salaries on loads of PR and advertising, as well as on larger inventories purchased from outsourced manufacturers.
For us, however, it’s far more important to grow within the framework of our quality standards and sustainability principles (even if that means a little more slowly), than to chase growth too quickly.
Otherwise, we’d just be adding to the pile.