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Construction Role Models: 5 Lessons Builders Can Learn from the Fashion Industry  

If “fashion” sounds like the polar opposite of “construction” to you, then you’re likely not alone. These two industries epitomize delicate handiwork and rough outdoor exertion, respectively–two approaches that are pretty hard to reconcile.

At root, though, construction and fashion aren’t so different. Both industries seek to create new products from basic materials. By combining these materials in new and unique ways, both construction and fashion boast results of utilitarian function, high value and often, incredible beauty.

Our opinion? It’s time we asked what we can learn from fashion to design and build better structures.

Which leads to a larger point: What can we learn from industries beyond fashion as well? That’s the goal of this new series, Construction Role Models, in which we take a gander at organizations, enterprises and trends that would ordinarily fall outside the limits of the building industry. We believe that in so doing, we can leverage the successes (and failures) of other fields, helping us innovate further in construction, draw valuable insight and push forward into the future.

In our last installment of the series, we looked into what builders can learn from the fast food industry. This week, we’ll turn to the fashion industry–and what construction teams can learn from it, both right and (occasionally) wrong.

Leverage Data for Better Decision-Making

Big data and business intelligence are making a big impact in the fashion industry, says Visual Next.

“Fashion brands can measure customer reaction to samples and ideas, then adjust their product accordingly,” says the apparel authority. “In this sense, consumers are literally taking part in the design process. Such a high level of consumer buy-in all but guarantees a product’s success.”

Moreover, thanks to the Internet of Things–in which tiny computers get embedded in everyday items, enabling them to “talk” to one another–the various systems in a factory can now communicate freely on a real-time basis. This is huge, says Visual Next, adding that this also enables factories to do away with the roadblocking middle man of central communications:

“In an intelligent factory, all the separate machines and systems required to create a product are connected with each other,” they explain, “rather than being connected via a central controlling unit.”

This is more than academic theory. According to McKinsey & Company, a South African textiles retailer inflated its operating margin by an impressive 1.5%. How? Via more targeted pricing, which they finetuned with the help of big data gathered from their own customer base–and their competitors’ as well. We’re seeing this here at home, too, with big companies like Nordstrom jumping on the bandwagon, proving it’s no minor trend.

Construction can also leverage big data for better decision making for their projects and jobsites. The intelligent use of data enables construction professionals to:

  • Predict market trends
  • Optimize processes
  • Better understand end-users
  • Slash budgets and timeframes
  • Make better use of personnel

It’s safe to say that if construction wants to enter the 21st century, leveraging data in a way to make more informed decisions is going to be key.

Sustainability Is the Future of Fashion and Construction

As we’ve discussed before here on the blog, construction is taking a considerable toll on the environment. The building industry is one of the biggest consumers of natural resources and it’s also a massive producer of waste. Luckily, going green can not only save money, but it can also save the Earth–a fact the fashion industry has been taking more seriously in the last few years.

Fashion has also traditionally been a huge consumer of natural resources and a producer of waste. With the rise of fast fashion, this became an especially critical problem. With new product lines every season, made as quickly as possible with an emphasis on cost-cutting, fashion has the capacity to become truly conscienceless.

However, consumers and businesses alike have started asking for real change. With the rise of brands like Everlane, it’s clear some consumers are demanding more transparency, and brands that focus on sustainability are baking this value into their DNA.

“Around the globe, fashion consumers are becoming more environmentally conscious,” McKinsey & Company adds. “They expect ecologically unobjectionable fabrics, a conservation-minded use of resources, reduced emission of pollutants, greater social commitment, and fair treatment of employees in production facilities.”

In addition to making better, less ecologically disruptive products, several fashion companies have also taken bold steps to combat environmental challenges outside their immediate purview. Apparel businesses such as H&M and Levi’s have tackled textile waste. Working in partnership with I:CO, a company dedicated to creating a closed-loop fashion economy (in which fashion items later become new fashion items rather than trash), they help collect clothing and footwear for future use.

Patagonia is another excellent example. In addition to its expertly branded rep as a company that will repair damaged products almost endlessly–for free or very little charge–it also takes back used clothing for recycling and reuse. C&A, an international chain of retail stores, has committed to organic-only cotton products by 2020, adds McKinsey.

Construction could similarly commit to the use of more sustainable construction materials, adapt lean processes to reduce waste, evaluate its supply chain for less impact and engage in collection efforts to reuse materials that still have life left in them.

Focus on the Field to Stay Ahead

A field-centric approach has proven very valuable in the fashion industry. For instance, Zara relies on its “field” staff to make decisions about its direction. They collect information about what consumers want, what’s working and what’s not, better enabling them to serve the needs of their consumers–and helping them avoid the creation of products that won’t sell (and will, therefore, go to waste).

Not only that, they use data to study the needs and desires before ever starting the design process. Instead of trying to predict fashion’s whims a year in advance and then designing a collection for 9-12 months down the road, as most clothing and accessory companies do, Zara designs, manufacturers and stocks within a month.

In so doing, they’re using up-to-the-minute (or at least, up-to-the-month) information from their teams, sales and consumers to design only what will sell then.

So, how can construction learn here? By listening to field staff feedback for important decisions such as the types of technology that work and use the data they collect to drive decisions. This is a major need right now, as we found in our Construction Disconnected report: “52% say the needs of field staff is a top consideration for tech but only 28% of construction firms actually receive feedback from potential users of new technology before purchasing it.”

If construction companies want to get an edge, it’s time to drive more decisions directly from the field.

Adaptability Is King

Powerhouse Urban Outfitters has remained an “adaptable storyteller” in fashion retailer and continues to connect with its millennial core. Even five decades after its opening, it remains relevant to the younger generations, while other retailers struggle to adapt and fall quickly into antiquity.

Part of their success comes from the fact that they treat every store like an “experiment,” reports Fashion United. The company takes a minimalist approach to furnishing and design, letting its clothing shine through. It adapts to different countries and cultures, flows freely through styles and seasons, and even updates its logo on a frequent basis to match weather and moods. It is, in other words, a paragon of adaptability.

Construction can learn by striving to not take a one-fits-all perspective on projects, especially when it comes to innovating with project delivery methods and technology. By keeping employees open to change and exhibiting a strong willingness to embrace new technologies, building companies can create this same adaptable cushion to maximize future success.

A Mobile Strategy Is Essential

Mobile shopping has increased steadily over the years, and fashion is capitalizing on that well. As McKinsey points out, “Primarily thanks to mobile devices, global online clothing and shoe retailing is growing at a rate three times that of the market overall.” This trend is helped by the fact that some stores are trying hard to turn physical shopping into a more online-like experience.

“One forerunner in integration is Burberry, which has equipped all of its store associates with iPads that help make a customer’s store experience closer to that of online,” explains the marketing giant. The integration of technology with daily life meets consumers expectations while tailoring the experience ever closer to them.

Construction is getting more comfortable with mobile too. Again, according to Construction Disconnected, 78% of GCs and subs provide mobile devices to project managers and field supervisors. Disappointingly, though, only 18% consistently use these apps. Construction clearly needs to improve the adoption of mobile devices by making it easier for teams to use. This, in turn, means prioritizing simple but powerful apps that provide a seamless user experience.

Keeping an Eye on Fashion in Future

Of course, there will always remain huge gaps in the goals, technologies, materials and consumers of fashion and construction. It’s inevitable in two fields that cater to such very different needs. That said, the above points make clear that there’s much each can learn from the other, which is why we’ll continue to keep on major trends sweeping the design and fashion industry globally.

Be sure to join us for the next installment of Construction Role Models, so we can keep bettering the building industry together.

Grace Ellis

As a Content Marketing Manager at PlanGrid, Grace is the managing editor for the PlanGrid Construction Productivity Blog. With over eight years of experience in marketing, communications and PR for technology companies, she is specialized in high-quality content creation across both traditional and digital media platforms.

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