Cover Buying jeans can be a frustrating process due to inconsistencies in fit across brands. The company Unspun is making the process simpler and more accurate, while using fewer of the earth's resources. (Photo: Getty Images)

Beth Esponette, the co-founder of Unspun, shares how her company's scanning technology stands not only to revolutionise buying jeans, but also make fashion greener

The days of browsing racks of denim and hauling 20 pairs of jeans into a fitting room only to decide that none suit you might become a thing of the past if the body scan technology pioneered by Unspun is anything to go by. The fashion company, founded in 2015 and based in both Hong Kong and San Francisco, uses scanners to take digital measurements of the person’s body using rapid 3D scanning and artificial intelligence, producing a pair of jeans tailored to their measurements. The ten-second scans are completed via an app on the customer's iPhone or with Unspun's machines in its shops—both techniques yield the same degree of fit accuracy.

Read more: Walden Lam Of Unspun Is Using 3D Weaving To Create Sustainable Denim

The process of making denim is water- and energy-intensive, and pollutes the air and waterways around factories with toxic fumes and synthetic dyes if emissions aren’t properly taken care of. However, even with regulation around pollution and well-managed waste, the jean industry is just the indigo-coloured tip of a global garment manufacturing industry where clothes are made and sold as cheaply as possible, before being thrown away after only several wears.

Unspun’s goals are admirable: the company is not only poised to reduce its industry’s emissions by 30 per cent, but global carbon emissions as a whole by one gigatonne by 2050. As a result, the company was named onTime magazine's 100 best inventions list of 2019.

Founder Beth Esponnette, from the US, is a product designer who started in the outdoor gear and apparel industry, and gained attention within the eco-conscious design world in 2016 when she produced an experimental vest made from chia seed shoots in a demonstration of how fashion and nature can mix. Now, Esponnette and her Unspun co-founders Kevin Martin and Walden Lam, stand to revolutionise the fashion industry on a global scale, starting with one of the world’s most commonly worn items of clothing.

Here, she reveals her company’s journey and potential, what it's like running a company between Asia and North America, and who she regards as her mentors.

Why jeans instead of another garment?
Jeans are really the first thing we three founders settled on as a team. We had already started developing 3D-weaving, and denim jeans were a great place to start. We interviewed and surveyed hundreds of people: three-quarters told us they had difficulty finding jeans that fit and made them feel good. Jeans are ubiquitous: everyone wears them, and they have historically been one of the worst offenders within fashion for waste, pollution and greenhouse gas emissions. There are almost no reasons for us to not go after jeans.

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What is the difference between self-scanning using a phone and visiting one of Unspun's studios to get scanned? Does one yield better results?
It depends on how much you miss your commute! We have been so happy with both phone scanning and in-person scanning. Phone scanning is generally more convenient because you can scan from basically anywhere you have internet, but you do have to spin around because the sensor is only in one place. In-person scanning is very easy because there are sensors all around and so you don’t even have to spin. If you’re within distance of one of our stores I recommend going in to also see the denim options in person and meet some of our awesome team, but otherwise scanning from home is great.

How does Unspun incorporate the concept of circularity?
At Unspun, we don’t think true sustainability—the earth being able to sustain the industry’s practices  indefinitely —is possible without circularity. The alternative to circularity is a linear product life, where everything is destined for landfill, and that definitely isn’t sustainable. We have taken steps toward circularity where it is possible today, especially through collaboration with the Ellen MacArthur Foundation’s Jeans Redesign initiative. But we know clothing recycling is nowhere near where it needs to be for real circularity, so we are designing a higher-level system that skirts a lot of the challenges around recycling. Our technology will, long-term, turn yarn into products and then back again.

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Are there any other garments Unspun technology could be applied to?
Our tech can be broadly broken into custom-fit software, which allows a customer to get a body scan and then have jeans (or any product) made just for them, and 3D-weaving hardware, which takes yarn and weaves it into products almost like basket-making. Our custom-fit software can be applied to any product but is most useful for products where fit is important and/or difficult. Those are things like pants, suits, and jackets. Our 3D-weaving hardware can make (super cool!) woven products, as opposed to knit products. We are focused on pants right now because... who doesn’t love and need pants? Over half of the apparel market is woven: jackets, pants, button-down shirts, raincoats, outdoor gear, etc.

What are the opportunities and challenges of operating a business between two cities? Do the business needs or approaches differ for each?
Of course, operating a business in two places has its challenges: we have early mornings and late nights because of the time difference; we have very intentional meetings instead of relying on organic interaction; and we have to juggle logistics for two separate places, which is especially difficult during Covid-19 when protocols are constantly changing. But we still benefit so much from the two locations: we have global insights with varied perspectives. It has kept us agile, open-minded and ahead of the curve. The business needs are similar, except that we find Hongkongers ask for lighter weight materials and shorts, for obvious reasons.

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How do you plan to continue to grow the company while reducing emissions?
Growing the company is exactly how we will reduce emissions. We were lucky that when we started the company we didn’t have any shareholders or bottom line or anything to report to yet, so we were able to pause and ask ourselves how business and the fashion industry should be set up given the context of the world. If we were to completely start from scratch, how would we do it? We nearly halve emissions for every unit, product line and brand that we partner with, so we’ve made it a goal to get out there and collaborate. We don’t make any products until a customer buys the product rather than recklessly pumping out products. Making on-demand possible is the first thing, but the model becomes zero-waste when we tie in 3D-weaving and we hope to implement our circular model soon. 

What setbacks have you encountered and how have you overcome them?
Just like any startup, we run into setbacks daily. It’s impossible not to when you’re taking on huge issues with very few resources. But that’s part of the fun. Something that is really challenging about what we are doing is how multifaceted it is: we are trying to start a fashion brand at the same time that we are inventing a new machine and a new way of selling and manufacturing. There are times when we feel we are spread too thin, but then we remind ourselves of our goal to make on-demand the norm of the industry and, in changing the industry, reducing global carbon emissions by 1 per cent. We also have seen over time how much more defensible what we are doing is because of its difficulty. Since what we are doing is so multifaceted we have found it easier to ignore much of the way clothing is done today and build it up ourselves separately. That way, we aren’t reliant on the current industry to prove or disprove our offering: we’ve already proven it on our own.

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Do you have any mentors? If so, who are they and what is the best piece of advice they have given you?
There are so many amazing people in my life, many of whom come through Unspun, and I’m so grateful to them. David Kelley, a well-known design thinker, reminds me to test and fail faster, and that assumptions can be the death of seemingly great ideas. Linda Molnar, a strong ambassador for science in business, reminds me to take advantage of my minority perspective. Jonathan Cheung, a denim jedi, reminds me that just having a quality product is not enough, you need to be relevant and top-of-mind. Shuo Yang, the most human venture capitalist out there, reminds me that asking for help and asking for how I might be helpful are strengths. Lucy Litman, pretty much our branding advisor, reminds me to even think creatively about where I bring my creativity.

What is one surprising thing about you that most people don’t know?
I guess I must come across as pretty granola because people are always surprised by how much 90s house music I listen to. I swear nothing else I do ever surprises people, unfortunately, from long-distance running to the chia vest creations.

During Women’s History Month (March), what are you most grateful for?
Women's month should remind us that none of us would be here and certainly not thriving without women.


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