Nike's Air manufacturin innovation center.

Disruption has hit shopping and returns and advertising and the notion of retail itself, but manufacturing is one area of the overall apparel sector that has remained largely the same for decades. 

The biggest change is the rise of fast fashion, but even that was a few large players simply forcing an existing model to work faster. Not better, or cleaner, or with less waste and damage to workers and the environment.

Fast fashion exploded at the start of the last decade and pushed the entire industry toward a new culture of “throw away” apparel — inexpensive, once worn and maybe never even washed before settling into a landfill or being destroyed. As chains like Uniqlo and H&M signed up for design partnerships with everyone from Karl Lagerfeld to Missoni, even high fashion made its way into more production than ever, feeling the need to feed a consumer appetite being trained to want new things constantly. Compared with 15 years ago, annual apparel production overall has doubled to over 100 billion units, according to a Euromonitor report.

The increased production of all levels of apparel has primed a still archaic manufacturing system for disruption. A simple shirt is still a process of a fabric sourcing, dying, cutting, sewing, washing, finishing, packaging, using tons of water (1,000 liters for a T-shirt) and create tons of waste byproducts (fashion accounts for 10 percent of global carbon emissions). With more conversations and broad understanding of fashion’s effects, the 2020s may be the decade some overdue manufacturing changes finally start to become visible.

With major sustainability efforts coming out of luxury conglomerate Kering, which has pledged to reduce its carbon output by 40 percent in the next five years, and long time eco-champion Stella McCartney, companies are starting to agree to incremental changes within their supply chains.

The decade will likely see an increased existence and use of “smart factories,” or manufacturing facilities that are largely automated and self-servicing, and so able to operate on more of an on-demand basis. This is expected to reduce waste from manufacturing products that are never purchased or recycled. If such facilities ultimately employ technologies like 3-D printing and manufacturing, material waste from scraps can also be avoided completely. The prospect of on-demand and personalized order for consumers also creates the possibility that packaging waste and emissions from the delivery and returns process will be greatly reduced.

Another area of manufacturing that seems to be gaining traction is textiles themselves. A majority of textiles are either Cotton- or plastic-based, and make excessive use of water and chemicals to produce. Organizations like the Ellen Macarthur Foundation are pushing fashion companies to make better use of existing textiles, recycling and promoting length of wear. But new sustainable fabrics like Tencel and Modal are also becoming more widely used, both of which are natural but use far less water and resources, and are biodegradable to boot. On the more luxurious side, there’s organic cotton, which uses far less water than nonorganic, and increased branding around humane and sustainable methods for fabrics like cashmere and wool are starting to take hold. 

Although truly sustainable luxury products are still few in number and there is a long way to go for fashion to be sustainable, technology is starting to meet financial demands and growing consumer concern. The 2020s could well bring a new, better phase of manufacturing to fashion.