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Supporting Sustainable Fashion: how PLM can Make a Difference


Consumer demand for products that are sustainably and transparently produced is on the rise and the right technology can support sustainable business practices while reducing time to market, improving collaboration and achieving revenue growth.

“Sustainability is about reducing detrimental impacts on the environment and people involved in supply chains, but it’s also just good business,” explains Dr. Marsha Dickson from the Department of Apparel and Fashion Studies at the University of Delaware.

Dickson has been working in the area of sustainability in the fashion and apparel industry for over two decades and has seen a sea-change in how companies approach the issue.

“If companies are financially unstable, create challenging, unfair labor conditions or their environmental practices cause damage, ultimately they risk going out of business. Companies are recognizing that their own long-term sustainability is closely linked to sustainable processes and practices that are good for people and the planet.”

Her colleague Dr. Huantian Cao notes that large brands are now signing up to lead environmental and social responsibility programs. “Some fashion companies have been very forward thinking and have been at the forefront of programs such as the Zero Discharge of Hazardous Chemicals (ZDHC) and the Sustainable Apparel Coalition (SAC). Large apparel companies often share suppliers and vendors, so the combined effect on the supply chain is huge and others are following in their wake,” he says.

It’s clear that there’s a willingness to improve in the industry and that there is demand for products that are sustainably and transparently produced. But what does sustainability really mean for fashion and apparel companies and how can companies get on the path to more sustainable practices?

Read our top 3 sustainability Q&As before making your next environmentally-conscious move.

1. How can technology help fashion businesses become more sustainable?

Product Lifecycle Management (PLM) can help directly track the compliance, sustainability and social impact of the creation of each garment, starting with raw materials and going all the way through to retail.

“Software that is used to manage supply chains has a critical role to play in the movement towards sustainability,” says Cao. “Because apparel supply chains are so complex, stretching all the way from dye and textile manufacturers up to retailers, maintaining control requires a high level of good communication between the players involved. This is where PLM technology can make a difference.”

A record of the end -to-end design and production and retail process is in one place, so companies can deliver accurate, transparent information to the consumer and make smart decisions at every step of the product development process.

The improved efficiency and visibility that comes with using PLM makes for better communication and more predictable costs and timelines, which has a positive impact on suppliers.

“With sophisticated systems that have up-to-date dynamic costing, for instance, it’s easier to get a realistic picture of prices and avoid putting unsustainable amounts of pressure on suppliers to keep costs down,” explains Dickson. “If a change is made that means that production times will be squeezed, PLM systems should throw up a red flag. The right technology can promote awareness of the impacts that business decisions have on people and resources at the beginning of the supply chain.”

2. How do companies know if they are working sustainably ?

The SAC is partially driven by the Higg Index, a series of self-assessment tools that brands of all sizes can use to measure their environmental, social and labor impact.

Using the Higg Index is optional, and while it rates sustainability, it doesn’t have the ability to make intelligent recommendations. For companies still using Excel spreadsheets and emails to manage product lifecycles, with information everywhere, there’s no way to directly or easily pass a Higg Index reading on to labels or web copy.

Pooling from a central source of up-to-date, actionable data is critical for companies that want to track the sustainability of their product development and enforce the compliance of their suppliers. PLM can offer a ‘single version of the truth’ approach that makes it easy for internal teams and external suppliers to stay on the same page, as well as adding data (such as a Higg Index rating) to product information repositories in real time.

As Dickson notes, it is up to companies to take the initiative when it comes to assessing their sustainability progress, but they can benefit massively from investing in tools such as PLM that promote improved visibility and communication.

“At the University of Delaware, we’ve been involved in developing guidelines to help companies be more sustainable and now we’re working on the Better Buying project to improve purchasing practices. Companies benefit from assessing their progress with resources like these, but ultimately they need a willingness to change and systems that promote better communication, efficiency, visibility and control in the supply chain.”

3. How important is it to build sustainable practices?

Consumers today increasingly buy based on sustainability criteria growing ever more aware of how spending decisions can impact the environment so, maintaining sustainable practices is an important component of apparel business success.

Study conducted by transnational goods company in 2017 discovered that third of consumers are choosing to buy from brands they believe are doing social or environmental good.

The good news is that smart technologies can significantly help companies to address sustainability related issues and challenges. Using a modern Product Lifecycle Management (PLM) solution, apparel businesses can monitor every aspect of a product’s lifecycle, from the raw materials used in factories to vendors’ labor practices to the recyclability of packaging. PLM makes it easy to track and manage compliance programs and vendor certification, ensuring peace of mind about ethical concerns in the supply chain as well as more transparency for consumers.

PLM can also help companies plan collections with greater visibility and accuracy in terms of costs and timelines, avoiding panic situations where suppliers’ production is squeezed by time pressure and unexpected costs are passed back through the supply chain.

Companies that are committed to sustainable environmental, labor and financial practices are driving change across the industry, and the transparency and clarity PLM provides is an important resource for improving sustainability worldwide.