What is the rationale behind the throwaway business model? What do we forfeit by allowing this to endure? Below was my experience in intimate apparel and the fast fashion frenzy, which at the time, had just began to emerge.
Some years ago I worked as a Design manager for a supplier company where we product developed and manufactured for clients across the sector. The client list was healthy and varied from top end luxury through to high street, catalogue and supermarket.
I fought to secure one of the ‘big clients’ for my team because they were considered the life-blood for our company. Plus my own ambition dictated I could make this successful.
In a previous post I mentioned that a 40p margin on a garment was considered a win. This was not always the case; sometimes it was far less and sometimes more. But what I see playing out currently (with retailers failing and manufactures compromised to the extreme) is the real cost to the industry. The chasing down of these punitive margins and the damage this has perpetuated.
When I worked with my ‘big client’ the drivers for them were their competitors. There only bargaining chip in leveraging their offer over their counterparts was to offer it cheaper.
They also knew, that for the consumer, the psychology of being able to purchase a pretty bra for £5 was akin to buying a coffee and a sandwich. If it didn’t fit too well or the bows fell off after a few wears no one was going to complain.
However this experience, of a system built on tight margins, was from nearly 20 years ago. It was completely unsustainable then. Suppliers, fabric mills and manufactures alike were not able to shoulder this for long.
So they didn’t. They made changes and adapted as best they could.
For some this meant stepping away and resigning to the fact that it was “great while it lasted” and calling it a day was the best plan.
For others in the chain this flexibility was impossible to exercise. Factory units needed the order volume to stay afloat. The opportunity to drive profit had been dropped in favour of keeping the machines switched on, staff working and the banks at bay with a steady cash flow.
Then head back down the supply chain to the material suppliers. Their margins were smaller still and so once caught in this cycle they were engulfed and had zero capacity to make a change.
With feet firmly nailed to the floor, the best prospect in gaining back control was to reduce processes, employ cheaper labour and extend working hours.
Fast forward to today and the legacy of this situation is evident across the board.
Sales, sales, sales
These signs litter out high street like its very own brand. These are not sales, they are the real cost of the garment. The price before the ‘sale’ is a nod to what it could be if everyone up and down the supply chain could expect to be paid a true value.
Seams crack, hems fall, straps snap.
But the stall has been set out. Consumer expectation is that clothes bought today will not last more than a few wears- they hold no value. So why would they pay more?
T-shirts gain random holes as if by magic. Food spills become a permanent badge that never wash out. And if it can be washed the joy and colour is lost in one wear.
All great empires die from withinTerry Bradshaw
All of this is testament to a legacy of slowly driving down the costs of clothing. Now everyone is stuck and no one is on top. And so, much like before, many retailers and stalwarts of the high street have conceded and called it a day as well.
This could be considered harsh given the current Covid situation. However this fragile business model has been skittering around the edge for longer than this one disaster.
Economies are guaranteed to rise and fall; train strikes are inevitable and very often it does rain in July. The system is so weakened by its own momentum, that it’s not only susceptible to these external factors but a slave to them. One move in the wrong direction can bring the model to its knees.
As a designer and product developer this side of the industry was a stressful and servile environment. At the time I elevated my ‘big client’ to a 250k turnover in one quarter- a big achievement at the time. Was I proud of this? At the time yes, it validated my position and place in my industry but now, not so much.