How tech Is revolutionising the sustainability issue in fashion

Tim Williams, CEO of fashion-tech company YR, reveals how retailers and brands can adopt the latest technology to help cultivate a more sustainable fashion industry…  

In October last year, Stacey Dooley’s documentary Fashion’s Dirty Secrets revealed the staggering environmental cost of fast-fashion and cotton farming.  The Aral Sea in Central Asia, for example, was once the fourth largest lake in the world, but has since dried up into a desert because of the vast quantities of water required to produce cotton for clothes.

Although not a new narrative, Stacey’s documentary has raised mass awareness of a growing global epidemic, which consumers and retailers can help to change.

As it stands today, fashion is one of the most wasteful industries in the world because of constantly changing trends, bulk production and lack of recycling. Anything that is not purchased before it goes out of style is thrown out, often finding itself in landfill. And as many products are manufactured from synthetic materials, they can take hundreds of years to decompose.

According to a 2018 report released by the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe, the apparel industry produces 20 per cent of global water waste and 10 per cent of global carbon emissions, while 85 per cent of textiles — 21 billion tons — are sent to landfills each year. Consumers are purchasing more clothes, and keeping them for half as long, driven by fast fashion, fast marketing and a digitally driven thirst for newness.

So, what’s the solution to sustainability in fashion?  For me, the answer is pretty simple – technology.

Printing On-Demand

One of the biggest issues surrounding sustainability is that products are manufactured in bulk to keep up with current trends and subsequent consumer-demand. However, as technology develops, it has become easier for businesses to efficiently manufacture clothing as and when they are required, rather than bulk-buy in anticipation of the demand. The speed of direct-to-garment (DTG) printing means that the time taken to complete an on-demand or customized product customer order is decreased, making fast-fashion faster.

Advancements in technology are also allowing brands to produce apparel using far more sustainable materials. This either means that products are made to be more biodegradable, so that they do not stay in landfill sites for years after or are made from recycled products. Essential items could also be manufactured from more durable materials so that they do not need to be replaced due to wear and tear as frequently.

On a design level, 3D tooling allows creators to build virtual samples, which is eco-friendlier, and saves people travelling around to collect design samples. 

Customisation is King

A growing trend (globally) is customisation – or personalisation, as some people like to call it – and this is crucial to sustainability in fashion.

The problem with fast-fashion is the speed at which we discard clothes and replace them.  Would we be so eager to do that if had access to bespoke pieces of apparel and footwear?

The answer is no – because consumers will naturally develop a special attachment to a garment they have designed and curated themselves.

Technology has made personalisation super easy and accessible to consumers and retailers alike.  Nike, DKNY, Selfridges, Ralph Lauren and Levi are just some of the brands investing in in-store tech which enables consumers to create their own design and print on apparel live in store.

If more people are personalising clothes and shoes and therefore being more considered with their choices, it should naturally reduce the need for bulk-buying, which will ultimately have a positive impact on the environment.

I also think there’s a bigger part to play when it comes to recycling. Why not turn an old pair of jeans into shorts or a skirt etc? There might just be a bigger appetite for the product if recycled into something new as opposed to it being left for landfill.

The Future

With global textile production emitting 1.2 billion tonnes of greenhouse gases annually (which is more than international flights and maritime shipping), the challenges can seem insurmountable. However, sustainability is becoming more important to consumers in every part of their lives, from cars and homes to food and fashion. In fact, Neilson (2015) found that 74 per cent of millennials are willing to spend more money on sustainable products, which is a clear sign of things to come.

Technology is enabling a more sustainable fashion supply chain and brands need to constantly innovate and be open to evolving their product to ensure they do not get left behind.  Let Debenhams (sadly) be a warning of that.