Material Exchange

Fashion industry goes digital

Fashion’s digital transformation

2023 has officially begun and with it, a deluge of resolutions for improvement, growth, progress. Whether you thoughtfully tabulate your intentions for the year ahead or prefer to avoid the subject entirely, change will happen. Based on the results of Material Exchange’s recent Digital Sourcing and Sustainability Survey, one industry where things are changing in a big way is fashion. Traditionally one of the most polluting industries on the planet, the apparel and footwear sector is overdue for improvement. Keep reading for what’s happening when it comes to fashion and digitization.

hanger with different clothes

Digitization: not just a trend

When Covid surfaced, the world shut down and in-person events came to a sudden halt. The trade shows and meetings that fashion industry players had so long relied on to do business were impossible; digitization became a necessity.

Today, although travel is once again accessible, the need for digitization is still relevant – and increasingly so. As consumers’ interest in and savviness around sustainability grows, so too does the demand for sustainably made goods.

There are a number of factors which contribute to this sought-after sustainability label – factors which are shifting toward the norm. Digital alternatives to physical samples (samples which eventually become waste) as well as removing the need for transportation (transport which equates to emissions) are being prioritized. In fact, 60% of respondents to our survey – a group made up of brands, suppliers, NGOs, academics, and more – find the digitization of physical swatches and material samples is very or extremely important to their current businesses.

What’s more, for the last two years, the majority of respondents to our sourcing survey rated tier 2 digitization in particular to be either important or extremely important. Bottom line: digital is the word.

55% of brands are often or always using 3D design programs to develop their products. It’s clear that brands are seeing the benefits of digital processes in optimizing their businesses and their bottom lines.

Suppliers’ outlook on digitization

For suppliers of materials and components, it’s critical to be able to effectively share their collections with prospective buyers. According to our survey results, this is most commonly done through trade shows and in-person visits as well as by sending physical samples. Digital material libraries can be an excellent complement to these physical initiatives, allowing seamless follow-up and sharing. In fact, 64% of the suppliers we heard from have digital libraries. For those that don’t, cost was the biggest barrier. But with the cost of travel and shipping costs rising, this barrier will likely be reduced.

Now let’s dive into suppliers’ digital experiences. This group of survey respondents rated themselves rather modestly here with a moderate level of experience when it comes to connecting with brands digitally and listing their materials digitally. That rating sank to a low level of experience (or lack of entirely) around creating 3D scans and visuals of their materials. Based on our experience in supporting suppliers with their digitization, it’s sometimes just getting started that’s the most difficult hurdle.

Brands’ journey toward digital

Shifting over to the brand side of the equation, compared to our 2021 survey, we’ve seen a marked shift in the regions from which today’s brands are sourcing. While sourcing from China has decreased by 2.4% since 2021, sourcing from India has increased by 8.5%. Sourcing from North America and from Vietnam have also both increased in the last year, by 7.7% and 2.4% respectively. As regulations around supply chain transparency are instated, brands are reassessing from where they choose to source and are prioritizing areas with more clarity in labor and environmental practices. Digitization makes it possible to get that clarity with necessary details instantly accessible.

When it comes to digital libraries on the brand side, just 39.5% have them – but this number rose by 7% compared to 2021. As with suppliers, rising costs around in-person visits and sample transport will increase the use of material libraries in the coming months and years.

And lastly, with a rise of almost 20% since 2021, 55% of brands are often or always using 3D design programs to develop their products. It’s clear that brands are seeing the benefits of digital processes in optimizing their businesses and their bottom lines.

These shifts are not happening overnight. They won’t take over the market today, or tomorrow. But as industry players start to take small steps in the digitization direction, the entire industry will shift – and is already. It’s a new year and we’re working and learning in a dynamic industry. Resolution or not, perhaps this is a good time to start upgrading your workflows if you haven’t already.

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