Making Fashion (and the Planet) Cool Again

How one startup is addressing fashion’s sustainability problem through customization


From 2000 to 2015, apparel production doubled from 50 billion units to over 100 billion units, and the average life of a garment shortened to under a year, according to Euromonitor and the World Bank, respectively. The current clothing supply chain is surprisingly efficient at turning natural resources into waste, and at scale. 


According to Circular Fibers Initiative, the fashion industry is poised to account for about a quarter of our carbon budget in 2050. Hope is not a strategy, and only change can guard humanity against runaway environmental destruction. 


Against this backdrop, my co-founders Beth, Kevin, and I founded unspun to create a supply chain that responds to what customers want. In our zero-inventory stores in Hong Kong and San Francisco, customers can personalize fit, styles, fabrics, trims, waist heights, and hem lengths. 


With our fit algorithms, we can now turnaround custom denim jeans within two to three weeks. We are also building a 3D weaving machine that will ultimately create custom garments within two to three hours, all inside our shops in a truly zero-waste fashion. 


We have chosen to start with denim jeans because finding that perfect pair is no easy task, as we’ve heard from customers. The current practice of dyeing and chemical processing simply has to change as well.


Our thesis is that if a small ten-person startup team can eliminate excess inventory, reduce waste, and shorten lead time and carbon footprint, then surely bigger and more sophisticated players will be inspired to do more.


We will be the first to admit that we have made mistakes, such as shipping laughable products that go against the grain, to say the least. Our pilot customers have allowed us to continually improve our product through their feedback. 


Compared to a year ago, we have made quantum leaps in our fit, sourcing, and retail experience. For example, we have started wear-logs to document how washes and wear affect fit over time. We also now have a selection of fabrics that are extremely comfortable and more sustainable, such as denim fiber that is made from recycled coffee grounds.


Lastly, we are working with other forward-thinking tech companies and brands to make scanning more accessible and visualization more accurate, bringing everything together in a wholly new retail experience. Through prototyping and partnerships, we will make our offering mainstream.


My wife gave birth to our baby girl last year. She is now a screaming reminder that the work we do directly affects generations beyond our own lifespans. Unspun’s mission is to combine technology, design, and business innovation to address this challenge, one pair of jeans at a time.


About the Author

Walden is a Co-founder and the Chief Hustler of unspun. He previously consulted with and invested in consumer companies at IDEO, GGV Capital and OC&C  Strategy Consultants. He most recently held a leadership role at lululemon. Outside of work, he can be found throwing around weights in crossfit gyms.

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