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What the fashion industry can learn from systems thinking

4 minutes Jul 27

Header Image: Nayanika Bharadwaj

by SupplyCompass in The Right Thing, Thought Leadership

First up, what is systems thinking?

Systems thinking is an approach — or philosophy — to problem-solving that views ‘problems’ as part of a wider, dynamic system. A more holistic view, seeking to understand a system by examining the linkages and interactions between the elements that comprise the whole of the system.

Systems are made up of 3 kind of things : Elements + interconnections + a function / purpose

Take the human body for example. Our bodies are made up of elements like the liver, kidneys, heart and other organs, each connected through blood vessels, muscle and tissue with a single purpose: survival.

Playing around hypothetically with the purpose or function of a system can offer up entirely new ways of thinking, new possibilities. What happens if you change the function or purpose of a system? What other behaviour modes are possible? What happens if we don’t change direction—where will we end up? And what works or doesn’t work well and why?

What to read to learn more?

Thinking in systems is really really hard. Our minds are designed to think about singular entities and causes that produce a single effect. We need to learn to step outside the limited information that can be seen from any single place in the system, and look at the whole from a zoomed-out view.

Read Leyla Acaroglu’s breakdown of the 6 basic tools for system thinkers:

Or for digging deeper, consider Thinking in Systems: A Primer, by Donella Meadows

What does the fashion industry have to do with systems thinking?

You know what we said earlier about a body being a system? Well, fashion is a system too.

It’s all connected. 

The fashion industry, spanning the world and directly involving hundreds of millions in its complex supply chains (and almost the whole world as its consumer base) is more than the sum of its parts. 

Take the fashion product life cycle as an example. With designing, building and delivering a product, you have many parts or ‘elements’ to the systems.

From designers, producers, manufacturers, growers, spinners, suppliers of materials and components to freight, courier, warehouse providers, retailers and the final consumer – all are interconnected through a digital and physical flow of information (data, emails, tech packs..) and products (samples, materials, components, bulk production, final goods). 

You can’t change things by just focusing on one part.

You can’t look at one part and affect change without considering it as part of a whole, convoluted, system. We need to hone our abilities to understand the parts across the fashion system,  and the whole, see interconnections and understand how information flows through these connections.

Applying a Systems Thinking Mindset to Fashion

Considering how parts of a system affect each other.

It’s really important to understand how the complex supply chain operates, the systems within which it sits and what happens beyond our immediate actions. The fashion supply chain is so long and complex, that brands who don’t put in the effort to dig deeper and search out the other entities in the system, will not be able to see or understand the impact of their decisions on people and places across the chain (or network).

For example, if a designer doesn’t hit the approval deadlines, there is less time available for manufacturers to finish bulk production and ship it out. This can lead to them subcontracting production in dubious work conditions, or making their workers work overtime, in turn affecting their workers’ quality of life. The impact of this ripple effect is often absorbed further down the value chain. This is largely because manufacturers are expected to deliver to their customers (fashion brands) demands, irrespective of obstacles or other conditions.

Reimagining the boundaries of the system is important as well.

The fashion industry isn’t just linked to what we buy and put on our bodies every day but has widespread impacts beyond what the normal person imagines. For example, the complete drying up of the Aral Sea in Uzbekistan is at least in part attributed to the water directed towards irrigating cotton fields—not a fact usually in the minds of consumers who buy the latest cheap trend. The fashion industry is linked to agriculture, mining, forestry, refinery, logistics, economic growth, poverty, politics and more which means decisions taken within the industry affect these other industries and vice-versa. 

Rethinking goals and purposes

Until now, the purpose of the fashion industry has been largely to create and sell new (or recycled) physical products. But imagine, in a purely speculative way, if the purpose of the fashion system was to reduce wealth inequality or waste, rather than to create goods. Or to enable more creativity, happier jobs, better relationships and more good. Should our singular goal be towards product and wealth creation or towards more unquantifiable, intangible values or concerns that demand our immediate attention?

Designing a system that can prove to be resilient

Productivity and stability are often considered the goals of a good process, but far more important is resilience. This is because systems are non-linear (where effects are not always rational or consistent) and despite our best efforts, are to a certain extent unpredictable—the COVID-19 pandemic is the best example. Supply chains were immediately cut off worldwide, and consumers could no longer go to physical stores to shop. Organizations who reacted quickly and were able to adapt their process or offering survived—the rest simply didn’t.

Understanding how to embed processes to help adapt quickly and effectively—be it streamlining processes, complete transparency or adopting the right technology—in an unpredictable future will determine how successful the fashion industry can recover from any future disruptions.

Balancing short-term and long-term goals

Fashion has long been short-sighted in its functioning, working rapidly from season to season, non-stop in its pursuit of immediate profit and economic growth.  All of it came to a screeching halt last year as the industry was forced to stop and rethink its fast-paced culture, which did not allow for any room to think about its impact or how to evolve, experiment and innovate with different models and workflows. 

It’s crucial now that we rethink time periods and horizons and look beyond seasons as consequences for actions taken now may not be felt for many more years.  Balancing short-term goals with long-term foresight and vision—be it imagining and investing in new immersive experiences for consumers, better communication systems or plant-based alternatives to non-renewable materials, that we will eventually run out of— can help businesses become more resilient and sustainable.

Embracing complexity and diversity

If there’s anything we’ve learnt in the last decade of the fashion industry starting to take sustainability seriously, it is that there is just no one approach to solve the big problems that face fashion today. Solutions emerge depending on geographies, cultures and other economic and environmental factors and what works in one place may not in another. 

Instead of singular, homogenous approaches and monopolies, the fashion industry should instead celebrate different models, sizes of businesses and innovations. From repair systems to rental models, made-to-order to seasonless drops, different models allow agility, resiliency and creativity to thrive. 

What we can do to ensure robust systems is establish the right purpose and goal, zoom out to view the whole system so we consider the flow of information and impact, and introduce feedback policies that help us to constantly adapt and redesign structures, when needed.

Understanding the leverage points in a system to influence.

Leverage points are the specific areas in a system that when shifted or changed create the biggest effects and impact. Call it the silver bullet if you will.

So what are the leverage points in the fashion industry? There are several that can be considered from beliefs or paradigms to purposes or goals. At SupplyCompass, one that we focus on is information flows.

I would guess that most of what goes wrong in systems goes wrong because of biased, late, or missing information.
Donella Meadows

With a lack of information or even the slightest of delays, decisions are made that can have unexpected or far-reaching, negative impacts. For example, when garment manufacturers do not have something as simple as the right version of the final tech pack, bulk production can start and by the time the mistake is found, can result in hundreds of pieces made and finally ending up in a landfill. All of this from the tiniest of errors. 

Or when LCA’s do not accurately gather information about the entire impact of a material, including how it’s used by a consumer, designers often cannot make the right material choice that has the lowest impact.

We think the importance of accurate and adequate data available at the right time cannot be underestimated. But this is certainly not the only leverage point that the industry can focus on as well.

We need to be courageous about system redesign

You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete
Buckminster Fuller

We believe that if a system doesn’t work, we need to be brave enough to redesign a new system and a new way of working, with a new purpose that can better meet our needs. 

Systems can’t be controlled, but they can be designed and redesigned. We can listen to what the system tells us, and discover how its properties and our values can work together
Donella Meadows
Thinking in Systems: a Primer

A NOTE: How we as a business see ourselves as a systems player

At SupplyCompass, we see our role in the ecosystem as the enabler, going beyond the direct brand-manufacturer relationships through creating a common system that includes experience, process and language.

Traits of an Enabler in the ecosystem

  • The enabler is a central entity that is fair and neutral, perceived as a partner, not a competitor. Value is to be fairly shared between all parties, failing which the ecosystem will break down. In simpler words, if it only works for one side, it will stop being effective and will not last.
  • The enabler helps define and build the structure of the system, encourages others to join, and creates spaces where accountability is balanced, clear and visible.

We focus on the connectivity between people+organisations across traditional company, industrial and geographical boundaries. We consider the flow of information as one of the key leverage points that we can influence, helping easier data collection, better decisions and more effective communication.

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SupplyCompass is a Collaborative Production Platform for Fashion that brand builders, production teams and their manufacturers use to collaborate on product from moodboard to delivery.

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