Is Adopting Mass Customization a Path to Environmentally Sustainable Fashion?
Forthcoming in Manufacturing & Service Operations Management
70 Pages Posted: 28 Oct 2020 Last revised: 2 Feb 2022
Date Written: September 1, 2020
Problem definition: In high-product-variety businesses like fashion, mass production (MP) systems create environmental waste in the form of overproduction on a colossal scale. Mass customization (MC) has been proposed -- without solid evidence -- as a solution. In this paper, we analyze whether MC can indeed offer a win-win solution that helps both the bottom line and the environment. We also study the impact of three real policy options: promoting MC, charging a disposal fee for overproduction, and recycling.
Academic/practical relevance: There is increasing interest in mass-customizing fashion goods, not only because consumers value customization, but also because MC is perceived to be environmentally friendly. Our paper puts this advocacy for MC to test. We contribute to the literature, which has been largely silent on the issue, by uncovering when MC offers a win-win and relating such market outcomes to policy ideas.
Methodology: We develop an analytical model of an MP firm adopting MC (going hybrid). The firm’s profit-maximizing variety, price and inventory decisions then form the basis of our understanding the environmental impact of adopting MC and assessing various policy options.
Results: Adopting MC can be a win-win, but it can also increase overproduction and hurt the environment. Our policy analyses reveal two kinds of insights. First kind is about whether a policy expands win-win outcomes -- encouraging sustainable adoption of MC. Among the policy ideas we explore, only promoting MC so as to increase consumers' tolerance for waiting for mass-customized products can do that unambiguously. Second kind of insight is about whether a policy reduces the hybrid firm's environmental impact. Only disposal fee and costly recycling programs can do that unambiguously.
Managerial implications: For MC adoption to be a win-win, policy makers must (1) work on convincing consumers to wait for bespoke fashion, (2) target MP firms with low cost of variety (high product mix flexibility) with disposal fees or costly recycling programs, and (3) encourage those with relatively higher cost of variety to develop/acquire technology that would make recycling profitable.
Keywords: corporate social and environmental responsibility; mass customization; mass production; make-to-order; make-to-stock; overproduction; waste; postponement; product variety; fashion industry
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