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How technology can help fight fashion waste

(Image credit: Image source: Shutterstock/violetkaipa)

From the earliest tailors to modern day runways; from the high street to The Devil Wears Prada, clothing as a form of art and self-expression has been at the heart of the human experience for centuries. Throughout that time, the fashion industry has largely operated on a push model, by using manual processes to make what designers wanted to sell, rather than what consumers wanted to buy. But the writing is on the wall for any industry that doesn’t put customer preferences and expectations at the heart of its model.

There are a number of ways technology, notably data, plays a vital role in today’s fashion industry. For example, there are many examples of successful retailers who use intelligent technology to analyse buyer choices and make predictions about what they will want next. Similarly, fashion planners often forecast trends based on consumers’ social media data.

But one of the lesser discussed uses might be part of the solution to one of the industry’s most infamous problems – the issue of fashion waste. In the UK alone, an estimated £140 million worth of clothing goes into landfill each year – a situation which could radically be reduced by rethinking how clothing is ordered and produced.

With the relatively recent ascent of retailers who can produce cheap, trendy clothes in a minimal time frame, fast fashion is increasingly commonplace. However, the fact that trends move quickly and the clothes come cheap are often the reason these products rapidly end up thrown away. UK citizens discard around a million tonnes of textiles per year. Charity shop donation rates are high, but around three hundred thousand tonnes of clothing still end up in household bins every year, with around 20 per cent of this going to landfill and 80 per cent incinerated. The Ellen MacArthur Foundation estimates that the fashion industry loses over £300 billion a year in unsold stock and waste, representing 15 per cent of all products.

Reducing samples

Globally, hundreds of thousands of tonnes of fabric are wasted at the design and production stage before clothing reaches the customer. When garments are cut out as patterns, for instance, as much as 15 per cent of the fabric can end up on the cutting room floor. And once the production runs are set up, the norm is almost always to over produce (risking wastage) rather than underproduce (risking sales revenue); resulting in yet more products that will likely not be needed. According to the BBC, three in five garments end up in either an incinerator or landfill within a year.

While many governments and household names in the fashion industry have made their own pledges and commitments to tackling this phenomenon through initiatives for collection, reusing and recycling, the need for further disruptive thinking and action is very clear. There are also a number of ways in which technological innovations could shape a more sustainable fashion industry.

For a start, there’s the notion of made-to-order (MTO) clothing, which is more likely to be worn and kept for longer than an off-the-rack purchase.

MTO technology, such as that of PlatformE, allows brands to launch rich made-to-order experiences on digital and retail channels (e-commerce, social media or in-store), adapting to specific brands' needs and being easily integrated into existing systems. The technology also enables the end customer to be part of the (co) product creation process, giving them the chance to combine different materials, colours, accessories and the possibility of creating millions of combinations before finishing their MTO production request

In practical terms digitalisation of the customisation process means drastically reducing the millions of sample products created and discarded. It can also significantly streamline large production runs, minimising the amount of unused clothes which end up in landfill or even burned.

A long way to go

Then there are the production methods currently in use, many of which can be automated and adapted to be greener. Automated processes and a localised supply chain would mean faster turnover times with reduced shipping and transportation costs. Sewing bots (or “sewbots”) are making their presence known on the manufacturing floor, helping with everything from spinning and weaving fabric to assembling complete towels, pillows, or T-shirts. Even footwear giant Adidas has turned to 3D printing to create midsoles for its Futurecraft 4D shoes.

Also, there’s the resource-intensive textiles currently in use throughout the global fashion industry, which will need to change as we progress the world’s transition to waste-free and full sustainability, in line with initiatives such as the G7 Fashion Pact. Natural fibres, such as cotton are resource-intensive. Making one cotton shirt requires 713 gallons of water — approximately what one person drinks in 2.5 years. Meanwhile, synthetic materials like acrylic, polyester, and nylon degrade very slowly, and can contain harmful chemicals. So, some fashion brands are turning to agricultural waste products such as leaves and rinds to create more eco-friendly textile alternatives. For example, British company Ananas Anam turns pineapple leaves into a leather textile called Piñatex. Fibres are extracted from pineapple leaves and after processing, emerge as a non-woven mesh forming the base of the textile. Similarly, Italy-based Orange Fiber extracts cellulose from the rinds of juiced oranges and converts it into a material resembling silk. New Zealand-based Formary creates new textiles from fibre waste, like WoJo (wool with jute from Starbucks’ surplus coffee sacks), Juton (jute and cotton), and Mibu (wool with rice straw, a waste product burned after harvesting rice).

For the moment, fashion still has a long way to go to achieve sustainability but the wheels are in motion, with both luxury, mainstream and boutique brands all looking for ways in which to reduce the environmental impact of their products and processes. Fashion waste is a huge challenge to overcome but it also presents many opportunities for innovation – always with an eye on offering customer satisfaction, brand engagement and opportunities to increase sales.

Ben Demiri, CEO and Co-Founder, PlatformE

CEO and Co-Founder Ben Demiri has a BSc from Birkbeck, University of London, an international research fellowship at Laboratories Echevarne in Barcelona and an MBA from the University of Westminster.