The clothing industry has gaps among the product, their partners, today’s consumer, and even in their supply chains. Regardless of the ongoing initiatives, technology and data layered on top of legacy systems and infrastructure are not solving problems for the consumer and our beloved planet. Focus on the bottom line is falling victim to short-term thinking. The top obstacle preventing effective and productive change starts with the mindset in the C-suite. The United Nations Climate Week is over; now it’s time to get to work.
Beat The Clock
Collectively we have eight years to make effective progress to achieve net zero operations, the established goal to prevent further overheating and destroying our planet. I am by no means an expert in carbon emissions speak, but I understand it intuitively and in practice. I’ve committed my time to learning, sharing, and helping our industry take responsibility; time is running out and there are no more excuses. If established climate change criteria are unmet by 2030, some damage cannot be undone. This sets a challenge for everyone: businesses and individuals. My question is what is retail doing? What are you doing? According to Seth Godin in the recently released The Carbon Almanac, “It’s not too late.” I concur. It’s not going to be easy, and we need a sustained full-on press, to say the least.
If established climate change criteria are unmet by 2030, some damage cannot be undone. This sets a challenge for everyone: businesses and individuals. My question is what is retail doing?
Hear My Voice
“The retailer that has the attention and connection of the consumer will always outperform,” adds Godin (my latest podcast crush). How does that show up in real life? Imagine a world not far out in outer space but here where today’s consumer takes it upon HERself on social media to tell her friends of her awesome feel-good experience engaging and shopping your brand. She is not a celebrity nor getting paid to share and influence. Whether online or in store she’s seen, heard, and served. She easily finds her size, tries it on, it fits, she loves it, pays full price and the only return is when she and her 10,000 followers return for more. By the way, many of the fit and sizing advocates I follow on TikTok have tens of thousands, many hundreds of thousands of followers, many of which are uniting, seeking their new tribe awhile practically begging brands to make clothes they want and yes, clothes that fit HER/SHE/THEM/WE/US — today’s American consumer.
If These Clothes Could Talk
Quality clothes that fit. That’s the purpose. Richard Kestenbaum shared feedback on a panel he moderated this summer reporting that Gen Z puts quality and fit before price. You may find it interesting that these soon-to-be core customers run the gamut in demographics and wants. Robin and Shelley Kohan discussed some of these significant shifts on their podcast, “Get on the Build-to-Order Bandwagon” emphasizing the two major pain points dogging apparel retailers: the time it takes to design products and return rates. Paraphrasing Shelley, “If you can shorten the design time and get the fit more accurate you can minimize these issues.”
Think about it: Our clothes take an arduous journey starting with front-end creators traveling all the way to the final frontier and landfill. If clothes could talk, they would have a lot to say about not being valued. Think about it from their perspective: many of them are developed, produced, and then discarded. How would you feel?
No Easy Fix
Efforts to remedy this useless cycle continue to be downstream. Too many reactionary workarounds with “sincere” justifications to the Street have only done more damage burning through more dime and time. Workarounds can be empowering when leading teams to embrace change but it’s only a start in moving forward. Workarounds are not sustainable solutions, nor are they preventative. You’re not changing or learning if you’re always working around. We’ve been talking about return rates and the climate crisis for years, and there is a growing critical mass of people who have had it. We believe we have lost our way and most digitized legacy retail model fit systems are still not relevant.
What Size Am I Now?
Since my Dare to Fit article published six months ago, where I shared a bit of the history of fit and sizing as it relates to where we are today (particularly regarding returns), there have been even more fit labels added to the already confusing “what size am I?” queue. This time, however, they have been identified by the consumer, not by the industry. For example: according to the newly released book The Power of Plus by Gianluc Russo, a plus-size advocate himself, he has added these following labels to the existing list: Mid-size, Small-fat, Mid-fat, Super-fat, and Infini-fat. How will the industry respond now? How do these align with legacy size charts and fit labels? They don’t.
The Economics of Fit and Sizing
There is major structural damage in the operations infrastructure that needs rebuilding. Hierarchal organizations with linear siloed functions attached to legacy processes are operating with the wrong KPI’s. Continuing to layer “new” fit and sizing initiatives on top of legacy fit systems is not serving anyone– especially the consumer. The past is not the right measure to be successful in the future. Want to know where the real money is? Stop staring into the rearview; look forward to the future and get into the weeds in the front end.
The front-end phase on the brand side is where the product creation and approval processes take place. The CFT usually spearheaded by Design and Merchandising and supported by the Fit and Product teams often take nine up to 12 months before passing the baton onto the supply chain to then mass produce. This is precious lost time.
The traditional PLC (product lifecycle calendar) timeframe is filled with an abundance of meetings and related milestones has become a detriment. Give a talented Design and Merchandising team nine months to develop and approve and they will take all nine months. Too often I hear, “We have time for another sample,” or “We don’t pay for samples,” so they burn through this precious time of weeks and months belaboring, putting critical costly decisions on the back burner. But guess what? Once finally approved and shipped, too many of these massive inventories of clothes are returned, marked down, incinerated, or incarcerated in the pack and hold strategy. The true cost of just one more sample goes beyond the fifty bucks to cut sew and ship it. For sure, herein lies huge opportunity. Shein doesn’t get backed up in the front-end, neither should we.
Change the Bar
There is a ton of robust technology and data that most brands invest in. The temptation is to look at technology as a silver bullet. But tech is only as effective as the behaviors and practices of the organization. Is the right talent trained? Is the timeframe aligned with the best and most responsible outcome?
McKinsey asks, “How can CFOs rebrand themselves as innovation allies?” Apparel engineering is an essential skillset for the C-suite. I say give yourself permission to think and do differently with new math, metrics, and mindset. Seek to fill the seat still missing at the table. The seat held accountable for fit and returns to move the needle back to black. Find yourself a co-pilot with holistic vision to make the case and to rebuild the system. This leader must have an owner’s mindset to help recalibrate and raise the bar to profitable levels. Build a circular organization with redefined roles and constraints that purposely empower, engage, AND align the consumer, supply chain and technology in a meaningful, effective way. Shorten the front-end and reset the ruler to be eco- and fit-friendly. I can assure you that your future bottom line will be forever grateful.