how tech shapes eco-fashion: recycling, sizing and transparency
It is easier to see the results from innovative applications of technology directly onto fashion, such as on textiles and recycling. But there are other aspects of the industry that are being radically influenced by technology - like how much time we use social media and the data generated from how we shop. These directly affect the expectations that shoppers have for clothes, and the abilities that brands have for meeting those expectations.
We have seen bioengineering make animal-free leather that makes less hazardous waste and uses fewer chemicals. Fiber innovation has also given us new types of fabrics made from plants we haven’t been able to turn into textiles before, or new ways of making rayon that use sustainable sources and non-toxic manufacturing processes. Tech has also been used to recycle blended fabric - a new process that was invented in a partnership between The Hong Kong Research Institute of Textiles and Apparel (HKRITA) and the non-profit arm of the apparel corporation H&M Foundation.
HKRITA, H&MF and two Japanese universities worked together to develop a method with the end goal of closed loop textile recycling. This reduces waste not only by eliminating the need to use new cotton and polyester, but by using a “hydrothermal process [that] uses only heat, water and less than 5% biodegradable green chemical, to self-separate cotton and polyester blends.” The partnership found results in about a year after starting their venture, and they plan on licensing it to any companies that want to use the resulting product: a high quality recovered polyester that’s ready to be made back into apparel.
In addition to reducing the demand for resources for new clothes, a trend in childrenswear addresses how quickly kids grow. Both SproutFit and Petit Pli have created collections based around a multi-sizing concept that means parents don’t have to buy new clothes every time they go from infant to toddler sizes, or across children’s sizes. SproutFit uses bamboo that’s been processed sustainably, and redesigned the silhouette of classic infant sizes to offer just two options: 0-12 months and 12-24 months. The result is clothing that babies can wear 4 times longer than standard brands, which creates less waste and saves a lot of time and money for parents. In the case of Petit Pli, instead of creating a different silhouette, the pieces are made from pleated fabric that expands as kids grow. Currently making outerwear only, Petit Pli garments are weatherproof and designed to be durable enough that they take the place of multiple rainwear and outdoor jackets.
While there is a significant direct impact that technology has on clothing, it also creates a huge effect on how we interact with clothing brands. Especially influential is how much time we spend on social media, which increases access to brands large and small, local and global, fast fashion and artisanal. Because of all the awareness of who is making or wearing what, it is easy to be aware of business practices. According to Inhabitat, 60 percent of consumers say sustainability and fair business practices are a part of purchasing decisions. But interestingly enough, many of us don’t want to pay more for ethical fashion.
Transparency when it comes to sourcing, manufacturing, and all other aspects of the apparel industry is becoming much more common. Since we can see all manner of products on Instagram or other channels, we have less brand loyalty, and companies are pivoting madly to accommodate this. While they see how consumers appreciate good business practices, sales are based on people making choices after weighing cost, quality, convenience, values and newness. A 2018 Business of Fashion report has shown that all of these are important factors in the purchasing process. So what is in for brands to address sustainability, and give consumers high quality at an affordable price-point?
Direct-to-consumer is a quickly growing business model across industries, but especially in fashion. The speed that trends must make from fashion week or influencer to a quickly delivered package is ever-increasing, and the main response to that has been Fast Fashion. But since Fast Fashion is notorious for poor quality and horrible labor conditions, smaller labels and pivoting larger brands are adopting a mode that connects designers to consumers more directly. Skipping traditional brick-and-mortar shops and other conventional fashion marketing modes saves enough money that the brand can make clothes ethically, and provide a product that can compete with conventional products price-wise. As Damon Ahola, an NYC-based product designer, describes it in The Guardian, “Looking at technology from a big data viewpoint, the fashion industry is going to get a lot more transparent. Consumers will be able to see where their clothes are made, where and by whom. In this sense, factories will have to become more sustainable since their practices will be more public facing.”
Whether it’s in the lab or on social media, biology or data science, tech is helping us make the second most polluting industry in the world a little easier on the planet. This will also help make independent design more viable. Sustainability is intrinsically a healthier model as it takes a holistic approach: what is better for individuals is better for their communities, and what is better for communities is better for the world.