Unspun's Walden Lam On Why The Sustainable Fashion Industry Is Just Getting Started
In the first episode of Gen.T’s new podcast Up to Speed with UBS, sustainable fashion innovator Walden Lam talks about what will drive fashion’s biggest sustainability successes, how his AI-designed jeans are today’s zero-waste kimono and why marketing dollars in sustainable fashion are spent on the wrong things
Our podcast Up to Speed with UBS delivers smart 10-minute business briefings on the ideas and trends shaping Asia’s future.
Our first guest, Unspun co-founder and CEO Walden Lam, is on a mission to make being stylish sustainable again—like the original Japanese zero-waste garment, the kimono—through AI-designed jeans and pushing for top-down change in a highly fragmented industry.
Lam sat down to answer our questions: why is everyone so obsessed with sustainable storytelling rather than sustainable action? How does Asia’s approach to zero waste differ from the rest of the world? And why do we need top-down leadership in order to incentivise good behaviour?
In conversation with Gen.T’s Lee Williamson, Lam shares why brands prefer to talk about banana materials over excess inventory, what’s more sustainable than a kimono (hint: not much) and what will drive fashion’s biggest sustainability successes.
ON WHY EVERYONE’S OBSESSED WITH SUSTAINABLE FASHION STORYTELLING
“Brands have been using [sustainability] as a tool for storytelling. It's much easier to talk about using banana materials in your fabrics, versus having to talk about excess inventory, having to talk about the water discharge during the process. Those are very hot things to tell a story around. And that's why that has been where the majority of dollars have gone into in terms of marketing campaigns.”
ON HOW WE REDUCE IMPACT
“In terms of the crisis that we're facing, in terms of planetary boundaries and the climate crisis, we absolutely have to look into emissions, into chemicals used end-to-end in order to be able to actually reduce impact.”
ON EASTERN VERSUS WESTERN VIEWS OF SUSTAINABILITY
“The Eastern perspective is definitely a lot more about art and culture. It focuses on the relationship between the users and the garments, for example, the kimono from Japan. In terms of even just technical pattern-making, it uses the whole fabric. The Western way of approaching sustainable fashion has a lot to do with science and materials and breaking it down into individual components, and doing calculations around impact.”
ON AI CUSTOM FITS TO REDUCE WASTAGE
“Fit is a very painful issue for consumers. So what we've created at Unspun is a 3D scanning and customisation platform where customers can use their iPhone to scan within ten seconds at home to create a pair of jeans that perfectly fits them. That allows us to avoid the excess garments that are created because every single pair is made uniquely for the customer.”
ON EXCITING ROUTES AHEAD
“There are a lot more exciting places where sustainable fashion could go, for example, 3D virtual NFTs, the metaverse, and on-demand and automation as a way out of the supply chain crunch that we're currently in, and rental and re-commerce as a way to extend the lifetime of garments.”
ON THE FUTURE OF SUSTAINABLE FASHION
“Ultimately, this is a game of standards. It took Tesla more than ten years to get to where it is today. And it's still less than 3 percent of the global car industry. Within the fashion industry, despite all the conversations that have gone on, we are only just getting started. It will take time, but the inevitability is there.”
Quotes are edited for clarity and brevity.