With the help of new technologies, fashion could become a more sustainable industry. Although there is still a long way until this transformation happens, little by little progress is done and the whole chain of clothes production is revolutionized. 

For centuries, the textile industry has helped to shape the economy of a lot of countries around the world and with the evolution of technology, it has been able to produce more and more but the historic success story has taken bad habits over the past years, which has led the sector to be one of the most polluting ones.  

Most of the big clothing brands have gotten used their customers to a business model that does not let any chance for clothes to be wearing more than three times before there are replaced. As environmental consciousness is raising, waste and contamination are not compatible any more with the new standards of the manufacturing sector digital transformation.  

It is time for the industry to take a giant step to a more sustainable and efficient way of producing. The arrival of new technology such as 3D printing or Artificial Intelligence and the use of science could help the sector to rethink, redesign and reproduce and maybe establish new sustainable rules in the sector.

Why must the Fashion sector change the way it produces clothes? 

According to the UN Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTD), fashion is the second sector that contaminated the most the planet. For the UNCTD, the facts are clear: “It takes around 7,500 litres of water to make a single pair of jeans, equivalent to the amount of water the average person drinks over a period of seven years.”  

A part of being the second-largest consumer of water worldwide, the polyester fibres, the most common fabric used to create clothes need around 70 million barrels of oil. In addition, the UN Environmental programme assured that the equivalent of one garbage truck full of clothes is burned or dumped in a landfill every second: “If nothing changes, by 2050 the fashion industry will use up a quarter of the world’s carbon budget”.  

Inevitably, with those numbers the main concern for the fashion industry today must be the transformation of the polluting sector into a sustainable one, creating new clothes without producing a negative impact on the environment. Customers’ but also the industry’s consciousness were needed, but it is not enough anymore. Could technology be the answer to apply some important changes in the industry?  

How imaging the future can help the industry to create sustainable clothes? 

How do you imagine the clothes of the future? The following video recorded by the British Pathé in 1939 is a short film that shows what the fashion designers of America predict women will be wearing in the year 2000. It is about transparent knit, aluminum dress, the disappearing of the skirt, and electric belt that adapt the body to the climatic changes.  

Nevertheless, there is not such as an electric belt today, but the fashion industry together with Scientifics have work on new fabrics. Nasa and MIT Scientifics have been designing intelligent wearable that optimizes the temperature of the body or monitors the vital signs with wearable monitoring. SpaceTex is a Nasa study designed to investigate which textiles during sports exercise on ISS are evaluated as the best by the astronauts.  

The study tests new fabrics to improve heat transfer and sweat management during exercise: “T-shirts with ultrashort drying times would be very useful to athletes, as well as firefighters, mine workers and members of the armed forces”. Many brands are already selling clothes that retain the heat or sportswear that uses textile innovation.   

Even though breathless clothes seem to be an evolution, there are only the beginning of the revolution of the fashion industry. The new fabrics that are on study or already on the market will for example make clothes change colours via ultrathin wires using a phone app but also adaptable to the weather conditions with the use of biohybrid material or anti-surveillance stealth-wear clothing to avoid cameras.  

Marina Toeters and her business by-wire.net is an illustration of the reflection that is made on the collaboration between new technology and fashion. The designer and researcher in fashion technology have been tired of the sector’s lack of innovation. Her creations are wearable electronics and textile products that are developed for medical or sports applications to check the well-being or stress level.  

Nanotechnology could as well be an answer when thinking about the future of fashion: Data could be recollected from the clothes wearied by a person. Furthermore, the personalization of clothes is definitively something that could provoke the end of size reducing the need of mass production.   

How the fashion industry can become sustainable? 

Since “fast fashion” is the business model that dominates the industry and the prices are getting lower and lower, it seems complicated to reduce the production that has doubled since 2000. The nowadays technology allows creating new kind of fabrics, for sure it is a matter of time before it gets into the hands of people.  

What about using natural material? The problem with natural materials as much as with organic cotton is the need of water along with the quantity of pesticide necessary to maintain it. Would it be more efficient to use recycled or reusable materials? In the case of recycled polyester fabric, the issue would be the polyester itself that takes hundreds of years to decompose.  

Using organic waste could participate in the sustainable transition of the fashion industry. The process of creative transformation of waste materials is called upcycling. In the 1960s, 97% of the fibres used in the garments and materials were natural, today it is only 35%. Some fashion businesses are already making their products with pineapple leaf fibre, citrus juice by-product, by-products from potatoes chip, wine waste, banana plants, mushroom roots, etc.  

The industry must change but our relationship to it must also be upgraded and our behaviour should be more rational when buying new clothes. 

The new technologies Additive manufacturing and Artificial intelligence  

3D Printing, Artificial intelligence, automation, and more, all those technologies can help the fashion industry to adopt a more ecological way of producing from the creation of the fabrics to the shipping of the final product.  

Printing garments would be a quite stunning improvement in the field. 3D printing also called additive manufacturing (AM) has the potential to imagine a new way of making clothes, reducing the cost of production and especially offering the customers a tailor-made experience.  

Currently, AM is mostly used to create complements, art pieces of clothing that are not meant to be wear daily but the possibilities that allow this type of technology are infinite. For the moment, it still takes time to print a piece of cloth and brands usually use 3d printing to create prototypes or tools that can help to create an accessory. The challenge for brands is the creation of fabrics adapted to the machine that must be as flexible and comfortable as traditional fabrics. 

Nowadays, 3D technology is used in a mainstream way to design clothes but also to knit them. 3D Knitting though a digital design can create a piece of clothing at the exact size of a person: “In its simplest form, you download a pattern from the internet and size it digitally to fit the person it is intended for. You then feed the machine with the yarn and let it get on with its job.” One of the advantages is that garments are manufactured as one piece but the biggest one lies in the huge flexibility and stability of the products created.  

Regarding the application of artificial intelligence (AI) in the fashion industry, it has the same goals as in other manufacturing sectors: reducing waste, eliminate defects and optimize the supply chains. There is also a possibility of creation and anticipation with that technology. It is not a surprise knowing that some of the biggest brands in the market have already integrated AI. By analysing data, they can improve the design process, reducing time in production, offering the most stylish clothing choice to its customer or monitoring the customers’ activities.  

While the industry will change forever the way of creating clothing by integrating automation processes or other technologies, there is a part of the world which depends entirely to textile production that will have to face the revolution before it is too late for the millions of workers that depend on it. The fashion industry can change and adopt more sustainable attitudes, but the consequences that could have an enormous impact on some places in the world cannot be forgotten. 

Article by Marjorie Grassler – In-House Consultant at Mobile World Capital Barcelona