According to research by Optoro, a software company that helps brands process returns, 5 billion pounds' worth of items returned by customers end up in landfills in the US. And, when it comes to waste, both manufacturers and consumers are responsible.
Because the cost of producing garments has been driven down so much over the past few years, fast-fashion factories are able to overproduce. To scale a fast-fashion brand, sizes have to be somewhat standardized, which often doesn't take into account the many nuances in body shape and height. On the flip side, people frequently buy garments in multiple sizes to see which fits best, before returning the rest. And, because neither brands nor customers are held accountable, the cycle continues.
Not all returns are integrated back into a company's inventory and supply chain for future sales either. Amazon, for instance, has come under fire for sending returns directly to landfill – most of them unused, functional and in their original packaging. One warehouse in Scotland sends 130,000 items to be destroyed every week, it emerged, because it's cheaper to dispose of a product than it is to try to resell it. Ultra-fast fashion brand SHEIN is also part of this problem: because the cost of each garment is so low, it's more profitable for the brand to just send any returns to the trash.
Customization at scale
Before the emergence of low-cost fashion, tailoring and custom garments were much more common. But customization is challenging at scale, especially at the pace that fashion brands currently churn products out. Some brands are tackling the issue of overproduction at the source, using technology to try to predict demand and making garments to measure.
3D body scanning works by capturing images of a person from different angles and stitching them together to produce a 3D model. In the context of fashion, it means that brands can produce custom-fit garments according to the measurements that the scanner has taken. Depending on the technical complexity of the scanner, it could set a business back by at least five figures.
Fashion brands that specialize in denim, such as Unspun and Weekday, have introduced 3D body scanning to extend the life cycle of their jeans. Atalyé, a made-to-measure fashion brand based in Amsterdam, offers 3D body scanning in its studio, as well as fabric and design options for customers to make a garment their own. In New Delhi, customers of clothing brand Samshék can put on a 3D-scanning bodysuit that takes 150 measurements in five seconds.
No more waste?
Although a body scanner can, in theory, eliminate waste garment production, it isn't always the most financially accessible technology, particularly for a small or independent fashion business. To break even after buying a 3D body scanner, brands will most likely look to pass on the additional cost to customers in the form of hiked prices.
And it's not just money that brands will need to have in abundance: it's physical space, too. Although Atalyé offers customers the option to get fitted both in-store and online, it encourages them to do the former to get the full experience of customization. A number of remote 3D-scanning apps and technologies have launched in recent months specifically for the apparel industry, such as NetVirta. These might help businesses that don't immediately have access to a physical space, but brands will have to work out how to seamlessly integrate a customer's measurements into the online ordering process as well.