Research Highlight Will 3D printing make the mass fashion industry more sustainable?

Hailed as exciting technological progress, additive manufacturing, or industrial-scale 3-D printing, has transformed design and industrial logistics. A duo of ESCP researchers explored how this new technology could reshape global supply chains in the mass apparel industry. They warn that the resulting power dynamics between producers and suppliers may worsen working conditions in ‘the Global South’.

Viewed as a decisive element of the industry of the future, additive manufacturing (AM) has applications in many domains, including the automotive, aeronautic, healthcare and construction sectors.
AM, which creates objects by adding material – as opposed to traditional “subtractive” manufacturing – can be described (very roughly) as the industrial application of 3D-printing, or creating physical objects from a 3D digital model. This ultra-flexible process is relevant for producing prosthetics, spare parts for machinery or even allowing teenagers dabbling in their high-school science lab to make (and successfully market) fidget spinners.

The fashion industry: AM in its infancy

In the fashion industry, the use of AM so far has been mostly restricted to prototyping and single runway pieces, or niche markets of high-end customized accessories, like XYZbag's handbags and Viptie's neckties.

Although global retailers have started experimenting with AM, like Adidas which ran two “Speedfactories” in Germany and the US for three years before transferring the AM technology to its Asian suppliers, large-scale applications in the mass apparel industry are just emerging. They are limited by high energy and procurement costs, as well as technical drawbacks, since present AM systems do not process natural fibres (cotton, wool) well.

The technology's emergence stands to significantly affect the governance mechanisms of current supply chains which, in turn, is likely to alter existing social sustainability conditions.

Yet it is only a matter of time, most experts believe, before AM becomes a key manufacturing tool for the mass fashion industry. It means that different items with complex geometries and shapes may be produced with a single machine, enabling the personalization of products and reducing the need for assembly and therefore the demand for manual labour. Greater design freedom and decreased labour costs could disrupt the industry. 

Exploring the disruptive potential of AM in the mass apparel industry

What will the practical consequences be for the industry? PhD candidate Marlene Hohn and Professor Christian Durach from ESCP Business School (Berlin campus) explored the subject in a recent research article. “As AM may bring significant change to how and where goods are produced, the technology's emergence stands to significantly affect the governance mechanisms of current supply chains which, in turn, is likely to alter existing social sustainability conditions,” they explain.

The question of the impact is particularly worth exploring in the mass apparel industry as supply chains are highly disintegrated, with retail firms yielding significant power over suppliers. Scholars have repeatedly draw a link between these governance structures and the industry's severe social shortcomings, such as child labour, excessive working hours and unsafe conditions.

To investigate the impact of the implementation of AM in the mass apparel industry, the researchers conducted two Delphi studies, rounds of surveys with recognized experts in order to obtain informed predictions. They first picked the brains of their selected experts to develop the most likely scenarios for how apparel mass production could be reshaped by AM technology. The second study built on these potential changes in apparel firms' ecosystems and focused on the potential impact on supply chain governance and social sustainability issues.

Reshaping the industry through complementarity or reshoring

The experts identified two possible uses for AM: as a standalone or complementary production technology – based on the assumption that it will reach technological maturity at some point.

  • The “complementarity” scenario
    First and foremost, the experts agreed that introducing AM to current production processes would facilitate the design process, with easier prototyping and mass-customization. One likely scenario also suggested that “as factories can 3-D print machine spare parts independently, downtimes due to machine failures (...) will be significantly reduced.”
  • The “reshored production” scenario
    As components of existing apparel items (such as bags or shoes) could be produced using AM, the relocation of these production steps to main consumer markets becomes possible, as does the repair of such items.

    In both cases, a likely consequence is a decrease in demand for manual labour.

Mixed consequences on supply chains and social sustainability

What would be the impact on producers in a “complementarity” scenario? For one, the experts believe that safety concerns are likely to be less of an issue in potential AM machine-operating jobs than in traditional unskilled jobs, and would be better paid. Upstream, producers would potentially decrease their dependency on suppliers of components such as zippers, subcontract less, and as a result better monitor social working conditions.
Notwithstanding, the experts remain sceptical about who would reap the potential benefits, rather suggesting that “more powerful actors in the downstream supply chain will capture any resulting economic gains, for example due to the decrease in order lead times.”

For the “reshored production” scenario, the study data suggests that new supply chains will likely be based on governance structures “very similar” to current ones. Indeed, the expert panel believes that the high-value-added activities surrounding the AM-based printing of apparel items will be dominated by a few big firms, with AM-based production possibly relocated in ‘the Global North’ and input material production in the Global South. This would likely merely reproduce the current power differential between manufacturers and their supply chains, with new supply chains facing similar social sustainability issues, for example regarding unpaid overtime.

Finally, in the short term, a partial transfer of production to the Global North is likely to increase competition, threatening the jobs of the unskilled workers in current producer countries. However, write the researchers, in the long run “the reshoring trend may lead some apparel producers to change their cost-leadership business strategy to a differentiation strategy” and refocus production “toward high value-added items produced under improved working conditions.”


Marlene Hohn - ESCP Business School  - Berlin Campus Marlene Hohn PhD candidate at ESCP Business School
Christian Durach - ESCP Business School  - Berlin Campus Christian Durach Professor at ESCP Business School