From outside its Brooklyn-based factory, Thursday Finest looks like any other men’s accessories company.
The difference is that behind its walls, 3-D printers are chugging away, making custom-made ties and scarves with nearly no product waste and no inventory. The company is one of a number of rising businesses adopting 3-D printing, applying personalized designs while cutting down on environmental waste.
The impact of 3-D printing on sustainability remains to be seen. There’s little analysis of whether the technology is mitigating environmental damage in the industrial sector, which accounts for a fifth of global carbon emissions. A University of California at Berkeley study found that while 3-D printing can be nearly waste-free, its impact also varies widely depending on materials used and the way the machines are powered.
Lauren Slowik, outreach coordinator and design evangelist at Shapeways, a 3-D printing company also based in New York, acknowledged the fraught relationship that 3-D printing has with sustainability, nothing that the machines can be an “energy hog.”
Despite that, she said one of the biggest advantages of 3-D printing is the ability for companies to design on demand, a stark difference from retailers like H&M, which are required to forecast inventories they often overshoot. She cited a 2010 incident in which a Manhattan H&M store was discovered to be setting its overstock items on fire.
“[3-D printing companies] don’t have to predict a year in advance how many sweaters, shorts, and shoes they think they’re going to sell and then commit to a long process of supply chain production,” said Slowik, who is also a part-time professor of economics and ethics in fashion at Parsons School of Design.
Beyond smaller inventories and less waste, 3-D designers like Julia Koerner, founder of JK Design GmbH, said she looks forward to seeing recyclable materials that can be used with the printers, including biodegradable filaments.
The rise of companies like Shapeways and JK Design GmnH has paved the way for fledgling startups like Thursday Finest. Harbick, along with co-founder Michael Carolson, recently completed a 12-week stint in the New York Fashion Tech Lab program, an accelerator for promising new businesses.
Harnick said that while it’s faster and cheaper to make 10,000 ties at a time rather than one, the industry needs to find more cost-effective ways to produce custom items on a smaller scale.
“Conscious consumption really starts with conscious manufacturing,” Harnick said. “I think sustainability in the past has been not a very sexy thing to talk about. It’s also been largely about dyes and muted tones.”
Thursday Finest and Shapeways let consumers be part of the production process, selecting colors and styles. However, Slowik said designers and retailers have unfairly put the burden on consumers to push along the sustainable fashion movement.
“That’s really a big cop out,” Slowick said. “Consumers only have the options put in front of them, and yes, we can vote with our dollars, but that doesn’t trickle up into the supply chain or brand consensus.”
Another added benefit of 3-D customization is it reduces the need for returns, which are not only cumbersome and expensive for brands, but also harms the environment as a result of emissions from shipping items back and forth or driving to and from stores.
Having 3-D printing machines located in the markets they serve has also helped reduce shipping emissions. It may sound futuristic, but Korner said she anticipates a world where households have their own 3-D printing machines.
“It’s definitely something to think about — you can already buy small-size printers commercially and you can have a 3D printer at your office,” she said.
While 3-D printing is helping the fashion industry take steps to curb overproduction and increasing localized sales, industry sources also said that the fashion industry can’t on its own solve industrial sustainability problems.
“No one technology is going to be the silver bullet,” Slowik said. “It’s going to take people networking and combining the knowledge of their industries.”