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The future of sustainable fashion:
transformative new technologies

The fashion industry is one of the fastest moving industries in the world. And yet clothing is still produced and tailored by hand. With large production volumes, this leads to the maligned ‘fast fashion’ industry we all know – in other words, short-lived fashion that is produced under poor working conditions and with dire consequences for the environment. However, as technology evolves, so must the fashion industry. Best case scenario? Innovations that make the fashion industry sustainable again. Let’s take a look at the latest transformative technologies in the fashion industry, and try to understand what role they could play in the future of sustainable fashion.

In one of our latest blog posts, we explored an exciting set of new, bio-based fabrics that could reduce fashion’s impact on animals, biodiversity and people. You can read more about this here. But bio-based materials alone are not enough to make the industry more eco-friendly. New processes need to be created in the manufacturing, designing and development phases of fashion to avoid overproduction, waste and emissions. Let’s take a look at a few exciting technologies that could help fashion go green.

Here’s a quick overview of the latest technologies in sustainable fashion:

  • Digital 3D samples to reduce waste in the design process
  • Blockchain for more supply-chain transparency
  • Artificial Intelligence to reduce overproduction
  • Virtual Dressing & Mobile Body Scanning to reduce shipping emissions

Digital Samples

To create new fashion items, samples need to be produced. They can take up to several weeks to be made and, consequently, generate a whole lot of extra waste. And if that sample isn’t satisfying? Back to square one! What if this could be all done digitally? That’s the premise of 3D samples that could offer a quick, inexpensive and sustainable way to test designs before they are manufactured. The production of these digital samples is not only much cheaper, it also drastically reduces waste, as no materials (except a computer) are needed. Not only that, 3D samples can be created in a matter of hours – as opposed to regular samples that often take up to several weeks to be made.

But how realistic can these 3D samples be? How accurately do they reflect the fabric and the product? Amazingly well! Even the way that fabrics drape and move can be taken into account in these brand new, shiny 3D models. This approach also provides the opportunity to test designs on a variety of body types.

Currently, Hugo Boss is the only large brand to pursue 3D sampling, using its own technology for virtual catwalks. Tommy Hilfiger also aims to use 3D design for all design processes – from sketches to sampling to the showroom. And while it’s not yet clear when and if 3D samples will completely replace regular samples, they can save a lot of time and money during the brainstorming phase while allowing companies and designers to be selective about which pieces they actually want to bring to life.

Blockchain

A key aspect of sustainability is transparency – and blockchain is one technology that could bring more transparency into fashion production chains. As a public and immutable ledger, a blockchain makes it possible to transmit information in a tamper-proof manner. Meaning, once you write to this database, nothing can change the record you’ve made. How could this be applied to fashion, you may be wondering? Well, every single step along the entire supply chain – from the raw material to the finished product – could be written into such a blockchain. In this way, consumers could trace and verify the whole supply chain their clothes went through, and assess its alleged sustainability.

That said, it should be noted that most blockchain technologies require an ungodly amount of energy (electricity) to process transactions — until we can make sure all these transactions are made through sustainable energy sources, blockchain remains (for the most part) an environmentally taxing technology. Still, a blockchain running on 100% renewable energy would be an ideal tool to offer more transparency in the fashion industry.

AI in sustainable fashion

Artificial intelligence is also predicted to play a role in the future of sustainable fashion. The analysis of huge amounts of data from social media, eCommerce and smartphone feeds could, if carried out with respect to user privacy, make it possible to predict buying decisions and anticipate purchases, and thus reduce overproduction. What if through small imperceptible signals, AI could predict you would want to buy a sustainable, vegan leather backpack next month? Examples of such efforts to predict buying behaviors can be found on the roadmaps of companies such as Zalando, Amazon, Hugo Boss, but also at Uniqlo and Nordstrom.

Enhanced by AI and machine learning, augmented reality could also reduce fashion’s footprint. On this front, Smart Mirror or Virtual Dressing Room are both exciting technologies that show great potential.

Virtual Dressing & Mobile Body Scanning

Why would a Virtual Dressing Room lead to more sustainability in the fashion industry? Mobile body scanning, paired with virtual try-ons, could more accurately determine whether the garment fits or not. And as a result, online shopping decisions could be made more selectively without having to order multiple sizes to try on and send back. Essentially, trying on a garment is comparable to exchanging data: a consumer has certain measurements, and so does a garment. Until recently, the only way to exchange and match these measurements – or this data – was to try on multiple sizes.

However, 3D technology radically simplifies that process, digitalizing what used to be a very manual process, by sharing fit information through a digital platform. Using thousands of data points to create a three-dimensional image, mobile 3D body scanning allows buyers to virtually determine how the clothes will fit them. At the very least, thanks to this technology, shipping emissions for returns could be greatly reduced.

Conclusion: the future of sustainable fashion

These are just a few examples of how new tech could transform the fashion industry over the next years. However, the future must also be determined by us: the people who buy. With our higher awareness, shift in mindset and reflective shopping decisions – combined with new technologies, circular processes and bio-based materials – fast fashion could hopefully soon be a thing of the past!

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