Could New Tech Solve Fashion’s Sustainability Crisis?
With technology increasing the pressure on brands to lower their carbon footprint and offering start-ups a handful of innovative, sustainable solutions, there’s still hope that the fashion industry can begin to make up for the damage done so far.
It’s no secret that the world is burning and that the fashion industry is fanning the flames. From water pollution caused by chemical dyes to the carbon footprint of unwanted clothes tossed into landfills, every step of the fashion supply chain has an environmental cost. But thanks to the development of new technologies, working sustainably has never been easier.
According to Gulnaz Khusainova, CEO and founder of AI-powered shopping service Easysize, one key benefit of tech is that it allows for more transparency and traceability. “New technology makes it easier and cheaper to have a traceable supply chain,” she explains, “so it helps fashion companies know where to focus their efforts and allows us – the public – to hold companies accountable.” Organizations like FashionRevolutionhave long harnessed this potential; by launching campaigns and research documents to pressure brands into transparency, they’ve sparked a shift in the way fashion discusses sustainability and made consumers more inquisitive. There’s still work to be done, but now we have the tools at our disposal to challenge brands and question their decisions.
But with the rise of the internet has come the rise of online shopping, which brings its own challenges. Sizes differ hugely between brands, meaning that finding the perfect fit – and especially one which actually looks good – is trickier than ever. Labels try to combat this by offering free returns, but research shows that the clothes you send back are often either tossed into a landfill or ‘downcycled’, a process that reduces the quality of the fiber. In other words, there’s no such thing as a “free” return.
Easysize uses AI machine learning to tackle this issue, generating sophisticated size and fit predictions for shoppers. “We want [them] to buy fashion that they will love and keep for a long time,” Khusainova says, outlining her specific desire to slash the number of online returns and, in the process, reduce carbon emissions. “We don’t require body measurements, garment measurements or size charts. [Instead], we combine deep, diverse data (12 million shopper profiles and their fashion preferences across 15,000 brands) with advanced algorithms.” On average, this combination has delivered an average 15-30% decrease in returns.
Thankfully, other companies are following suit; Yoox last year introduced a playful ‘AI-powered virtual styling suite’ for shoppers to “try on” new outfits; elsewhere, Carlings took things a step further by creating a range of digital clothing custom-built for the influencer generation.
As haul videos and outfit posts have increased in popularity across digital platforms, so has the number of influencers buying clothes specifically to film and then return them. Carlings aims to bypass this, offering a series of virtual looks that can be bought and “worn” for those all-important grid posts. It’s a novel idea, but one which hints at the potential of technology to reduce consumption.
Progress is being made with IRL clothing too, in the form of textile innovation. This year, Swedish company Re:newcell launched Cellulose, a new fabric made entirely of recycled cotton – which sounds simple enough, but was almost impossible to create a few years ago. Elsewhere, start-ups are sourcing huge investments to create fabric from cardboard, wheat straw, and even agricultural waste, whereas viscose – which, although comparatively sustainable, is made partially from wood pulp acquired through deforestation – has been given a makeover by manufacturers using recycled cotton waste.
Other savvy designers are using technology to cut down on costs, as well as fabric waste. Design duo ONEBYME – comprised of Elsa Ellies and Miles Dunphy – is exemplary; they use only a piece of cloth for each of their creations, and even host tech lab sessions to teach customers how to waste less.
London-based brand Birdsong has taken a different approach, launching a crowd-funding campaign as a way to take pre-orders for customers. This means they can avoid over-production (and, inevitably, landfill), work slowly on each piece and steer clear of rushing out a collection only to later burn the unsold stock. It makes perfect sense, and not just from a sustainability standpoint, as the relentless pace of fashion is notorious for causing designer burnout.
Discussions like these are complicated, and the vague language used to describe sustainability issues within fashion doesn’t exactly help. Brands are guilty of “greenwashing” their campaigns – in other words, using ecological buzzwords to lure in potential buyers – and fashion media is often too reliant on advertisers to effectively call brands out. This creates misinformation as well as a lack of transparency, which makes it more difficult for everyone involved to genuinely fix the issue.
Khusainova says there’s still work to be done, especially for fashion conglomerates whose supply chains branch out across the globe. But with technology increasing the pressure on brands to lower their carbon footprint and offering start-ups a handful of innovative, sustainable solutions, there’s still hope that the fashion industry can begin to make up for the damage done so far.
get 10% off for your first purchase