Unspun is a robotics and digital apparel company based in Hong Kong and San Francisco that builds custom jeans for each consumer on demand. Its mission is to reduce global carbon emissions by 1 per cent through automated, localised and intentional manufacturing. As part of Unspun’s unique offer, customers need to choose their favourite fit online and customise the details. The next step is to take a 3D body scan through the app on a mobile device, and a pair of jeans is designed based on the u
e user’s digital model. To create a digital avatar, the customer just needs to take a quick spin in front of the camera, and the iPhone will project over 30,000 dots of infrared light across the user’s body. As the individual rotates 360 degrees, the FaceID sensor will stitch all these depth maps together to create a 3D body model that is unique to the user. The result is a pair of perfectly fitting jeans. “Unspun was founded on the notion that we can create fashion on-demand to help eliminate the massive waste issue within the fashion industry,” Walden Lam, CEO and co-founder of Unspun told Inside Retail. Lam explained that during the planning process, the team spoke to over 300 potential customers, went into their homes and peeked into the closets. “What became clear was, for over 80 per cent of the people we talked to, it was hard to find [well] fitting bottoms, especially jeans. That’s how we narrowed it down to custom denim jeans as [being our] first product.” Unspun currently has stores in San Francisco and Hong Kong, but since the buying experience can be accessible to anyone who has an iPhone X and beyond, their growth is not technically limited by its bricks-and-mortar locations. “That said though, we get pulled into Europe a lot, given how progressive and conscious the consumers are,” noted Lam. As the world grapples with the consequences of global warming and climate change, Unspun’s narrative of regenerative and sustainable fashion is on point. Lam acknowledges that ‘actual sustainable fashion is a very lofty bar’. He believes that humanity is consuming way beyond planetary boundaries and currently only less than 2 per cent of all garments are being recycled, according to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation. The reality However, Lam is clear that there is still a lot of work yet to be done at Unspun. “Candidly, we cannot claim to be a sustainable company today,” he admitted. “As for regenerative consumption, most of the conversations today in fashion are around regenerative farming, especially for popular fibres such as cotton. We work with fabric mills that source from regenerative farming, but are currently not directly involved.” Lam feels that responsible consumption is probably the closest thing to sustainability that the company does. “By creating incredible custom denim jeans, one for one, on a zero-inventory model, we ensure no garment ends up in the landfill; and in our sourcing practices, we picked out lower-impact solutions where possible, such as using ozone and laser, as a replacement for highly toxic potassium permanganate wash,” he said. The company is also hard at work creating the world’s first 3D weaving technology. According to Lam, it will be akin to 3D printing, as they turn yarns into final garments, instead of relying on conventional cut and sew processes. This is how the company hopes to achieve zero waste and aspire towards circular manufacturing in its supply chain. A long way to go Internal research by Unspun has found that the production of one kilogram of fabric generates 23 kilograms of greenhouse gas emissions (GHG), and garment manufacturers account for 20 per cent of global industrial water pollution. Moreover, just one cotton t-shirt requires about 2,720 litres of water for production, about three years’ worth of drinking water for one person. Out of 100 billion pieces of clothing produced annually, almost 60 per cent of it is sent to landfills. Lam believes that for now, the company is trying to achieve a lower-impact production and consumption model. Through a zero-inventory and low impact material model, Unspun currently saves about a third of carbon emissions compared to conventional off-the-rack denim. On top of that, with custom on-demand production, Unspun’s manufacturing partners and their workers can benefit from a significantly bigger value per piece of garment created. “Our next step is to bring manufacturing onshore where consumption happens, enabling zero waste and reducing the footprint in relation to transportation. Our impact then will be closer to 60 per cent based on our life cycle assessments,” said Lam. Systemic issues Lam lamented the fact that global garment production is still very labour intensive, which is why the industry has to keep outsourcing its operations to places where labour costs are low. “When you walk into some of the fashion stores, and see mountains of$3 a piece clothing, you have got to ask who is bearing the cost on the other side of the world,” he observed. Lam believes that the current discussions around circularity, sustainability and climate change in the fashion industry is a ‘classic tragedy of the commons’ problem. “Mission-driven companies across industries try very hard to sell “sustainability” as a key benefit, only to find out that consumers do not care enough, or are not willing to pay a premium,” he said. “The bar we need to hit is a product that is so compelling that, in the absence of any sustainability claim, will still be superior to the alternative.” The bigger picture Saskia Fairfull, founder and community manager at Independent Fashion Advisory Board, is quick to point out that a lot of fashion brands are trying to get into the circularity theme these days. “From sourcing sustainable textiles and packaging, rolling out a take-back scheme to adopting circular design practices, there is a significant effort to change the system now, which is vastly better compared to a decade ago,” she noted. However, she feels that hyper-consumerism and fast fashion brands continue to harm the environment through textile waste and poor working conditions. “Unfortunately, the reality is if a social media fashion trend goes viral, it’s likely large fashion brands will bank on a trend over a sustainability goal.” The 3D design element that is being utilised by Unspun is a facet of technological innovation that Fairfull believes is the right way forward. “It is being used in the early design and sampling stages of garment production, this process becomes instantly more efficient when collaborating with several stakeholders, reducing the need to send multiple samples back and forth overseas,” she said. Another method becoming more popular with designers is creating zero waste patterns, as this ensures little to no textile waste in garment production, she added. At the end of the day, brands are in a tough position because on one hand, they can advocate for a circular economy and sustainable practices, but on the other, their entire business is about selling more products. “Tackling hyper-consumerism is a global issue, however brands can make incremental changes throughout their business and supply chain. There is also an element of taking responsibility and maintaining accountability,” she concluded.