How fashiontech is cleaning up fast fashion’s dirty big secret
Anna Wintour is widely credited for turning fashion into a necessary topic in our cultural dialogue, ushering in an age where dreams are made of Chanel Jumbos and 4.5-inch Hangisi pumps.
Whether or not one subscribes to this lifestyle, there’s no escaping the reality that we’re often judged by the way we dress, which endows the fashion industry with considerable power in shaping our identities and, by extension, our consumption habits. But headlines about fashion week are now frequently overshadowed by the industry’s underbelly, which is made up of two words leaders like Wintour do their best to distance themselves from: fast fashion.
According to Alternet, the garment industry is the second dirtiest in the world behind oil, and much of its pollution problem stems from consumers’ insatiable demand for fast fashion. Over 100 billion garments are produced each year (Fashion Revolution), 73% of which will end up in a landfill and around half of all fast fashion items will meet that fate in less than a year (Ellen MacArthur Foundation).
With influencer culture continuing to escalate the pace of changing trends, the number of times a garment is worn before it’s disposed will only decrease year-on-year, already down 36% from 2000 (Drapers).
The fashion industry’s sustainability problem is complex because wastage plagues every stage of a garment’s lifecycle. According to the Smithsonian, a t-shirt uses 120 liters of water and creates 0.01 kilograms of carbon dioxide per wear from dyeing alone, without accounting for supply chain emissions. Rapid turnarounds for new collections often mean that the t-shirt won’t stay on the rack for long, whether it’s discarded as unsold inventory or destroyed to protect the brand’s exclusivity, further generating carbon emissions from incineration.
An ever-growing body of research about the scale of environmental destruction has instigated action from a bottom-up and top-down level. Greenpeace International launched an early grassroots effort with their Detox My Fashion campaign in 2011, which pushed brands including Adidas, Puma, and Nike to eliminate hazardous chemicals from their product lifecycle by 2020.
In the United Kingdom, the Parliament’s Environmental Audit Committee invited Amazon, Asos, Boohoo, PrettyLittleThing, and Misguided to provide evidence on their practices regarding garment lifecycle, recycling, and unsold inventory in November last year. However, market solutions have proven to be the most holistic, where fashiontech is working to address concerns all along the value chain, from manufacturing to supply chain to retail.
Current fashiontech innovations
Manufacturing is rapidly changing from the textile and garment production side. Bacteria-produced dyes, lab-grown leathers, and alternative silks are gaining popularity among designers. Silicon Valley-based Bolt Threads raised $123 million last year following the success of its spider silk and recently introduced a leather made from mushrooms called Mylo, which is being used by Stella McCartney.
In terms of garment production, supply chain solutions are cutting down on manufacturing inefficiencies by overhauling how the system fundamentally operates. New York City-based retail intelligence firm Fashion Tech Consortium (FTC) bridges manufacturers, retailers, and legacy brands with the innovation economy, or their portfolio of more than 80 enterprise-ready startups.
“The days of producing products brands think their customers want are over. Predicting in advance what will sell by style, color, fabric, and quantity will greatly assist the industry,” says FTC’s President Michael B. Reidbord.
According to Reidbord, it currently takes companies 40 weeks to design, merchandise, produce, and distribute apparel. This lead time often means the final product won’t meet fast-changing consumer tastes, generating unnecessary carbon emissions from the supply chain and incineration process.
He considers ‘Supply Chain 4.5’ as the way forward, which is a “hyper-lean manufacturing and distribution process encompassing the newest technologies for design, merchandising, manufacturing, and logistics.” Some examples of this process include 3D visualization tools to replace physical samples, blockchain technology to increase supply chain traceability, computer vision to reduce wastage in textile mills and manufacturing facilities, AI algorithms to predict defects, and data to bring about inventory accuracy.
Retail experiences are also transforming, where the focus is shifting towards more targeted engagement strategies and on-demand production, providing consumers personalized apparel at an affordable cost. Hong Kong-based The Mills, an experiential retail and heritage space with a “techstyle” incubator called the Fabrica Fund, emphasizes the importance of co-creation between consumers and brands. Its retail store, Techstyle X, is dedicated to brands that are leading customization innovation. For example, the Fabrica Fund’s portfolio company unspun (more on page 43) held a pop-up shop that allowed customers to create denim jeans based on 3D body scans to fit their body perfectly.
The Mills Founder and Managing Director Vanessa Cheung believes supporting startups and fashiontech entrepreneurs are the most direct ways to disrupt the current retail model, which is why Fabrica Fund’s portfolio companies must “have a strong focus to create meaningful impact for the industry or community such as sustainability.”
“Eventually, the best way to drive adoption is for these innovations to achieve cost equilibrium, which we believe will come once the scale of these innovations increase,” adds Cheung.
The way forward
While fashiontech has alleviated the industry’s environmental burden, environmental activists and other stakeholders have voiced concern that the root of the issue–or the general overconsumption of fast fashion–remains ignored. Education, for both brands and consumers, is the favored approach among industry players as the way forward.
A recurring educational theme for fashion’s sustainability problem is circularity, a term first popularized in the industry by Dr. Anna Brismar. She describes circular fashion as keeping a garment “in society for as long as possible in their most valuable form, and hereafter return safely to the biosphere when no longer of human use”–a concept that’s now widely adopted by consumers and brands alike. Global Fashion Agenda launched the 2020 Commitment in 2017, which asks brands to commit to their own cyclability targets. The Commitment has 94 signatories including fast fashion giants like Asos, H&M, and Target as of March 2019.
While circularity has the potential to disrupt the linear system that’s currently in place, this concept isn’t without its faults. According to the Center for Clean Air Policy, source reduction is the most preferred method for sustainable development in the waste sector, followed by reuse, recycling, resource recovery, incineration, landfilling. Additionally, efforts are also inevitably countered by the world’s growing population and rising middle class. The circularity movement will be fighting an uphill battle as the $1.3 trillion fashion industry is set to increase by 63% by 2030 (Global Fashion Agenda).
Industry leaders like Cheung and Reidbord agree that actions speak louder than words in terms of educating consumers and brands. Last year, The Mills–together with the Hong Kong Research Institute of Textiles and Apparel and Garment-to-Garment–launched a store where customers can bring their old clothes to be recycled.
“The best kind of education is through experience. It’s one thing to hear about something, but when consumers are actively participating in the process itself, they are more likely to believe in the idea,” says Cheung.
Similar to this sentiment, Reidbord believes that showing manufacturers about how sustainability solutions are also beneficial to their business is the best way to get buy-in from them.
“If I were a company who faced fierce competition on several fronts, I would be looking for ways to save money, go-to-market faster and eliminate waste and inefficiency,” he adds.
The industry’s outlook for sustainability is positive, considering the attitude displayed by contemporary brands and future generations. Cheung has sensed a growing awareness among consumers, who now feel empowered to boycott brands that don’t align with their values, as seen with the backlash Burberry faced after they reported destroying $36.8 million worth of merchandise in 2017 to preserve its reputation.
In contrast, Reidbord applauds brands like Patagonia for encouraging customers to bring in their damaged items to be fixed for free, so the items don’t end up in landfills.
“The thought process here is changing. Young people today are not necessarily looking for throw-away clothing that they buy the day of the party and then discard,” he adds.
The fashion industry is at a crossroads, where brands that are embracing sustainability movement are rewarded, but little can be done to those who do not. But just as the industry’s problems are multifaceted, its solutions from within are, too. Fashiontech companies and consumers are slowing down fast fashion and eliminating waste at the source. Such efforts, coupled with education about making smarter wardrobe choices and prioritizing environmental sustainability, will pave the way for a cleaner industry and more mindful consumer behavior.