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How Can New Technologies Help Make Fashion More Sustainable?

From bioengineered fabrics to innovative packaging solutions, VOICES Salon attendees discuss what measures the industry can take in order to manage growth in a way that is less damaging to the environment. 
Knitting machines for tight production inside the Wolford manufacturing facility in Bregenz, Austria | Source: Getty Images
  • Lauren Sherman
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OXFORDSHIRE, United Kingdom — Fashion's environmental footprint is one of the largest of any industry in the world, although it's nearly impossible to measure the true scope of its impact. (The oft-quoted stat that it's the second most-polluting industry in the world has been disproven several times over.)

However, according to a 2018 report released by the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe, the apparel industry produces 20 percent of global water waste and 10 percent of global carbon emissions, while 85 percent 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.

And yet, while revenues increase when consumers buy more clothes, there is also evidence that implementing sustainable practises can actually increase profits. Allocating resources more efficiently, building better working conditions and using sustainable materials could boost margins by 1-2 percent by 2030, according to a 2017 report released by Global Fashion Agenda and Boston Consulting Group. When companies hold themselves accountable publicly, it can also create goodwill with consumers.

But how can the industry do better overall? That was the big question in a salon discussion at VOICES, BoF's annual gathering for big thinkers in partnership with QIC Global Real Estate, held in November 2018. The group, populated with industry insiders leading the sustainability conversation, determined that fashion can make immediate changes by investing in biotech, sustainable packaging, air and climate and the circular economy.

When it comes to bioengineering fabrics — which some argue carry a lighter environmental impact than natural fabrics — the challenges come in scalability. How can substitutes for leather, for instance, be made easily available? As one participant noted, the industry “really survives on 10 fabrics,” many of which were developed hundreds of years ago. “Ten years is a blink of an eye in biotech,” one expert said.

In order to scale as quickly as the industry wants them to scale, the companies developing bioengineered materials — from biodegradable materials to lab-grown leather and synthetic diamonds — have raised hundreds of millions of dollars in hopes of meeting industry demand, even if consumer demand is currently minimal.

If we can start to design virtually in 3D, we can save people from travelling around the world.

The environmental impact of these manmade materials is another consideration. As these businesses scale, they will need to carefully measure whether the alternatives are indeed less harmful than the original.

Cleaning the air — both in factories and in retail stores — is one way brands can almost instantly reduce their footprint. (Technology companies like Airlab make it possible to do so.) Labels are also looking for ways to reduce waste by using sustainable, biodegradable packaging — made from components such as sugarcane — and recyclable materials, like fabrics made from recycled plastic. But it’s important to go even further upstream, pinpointing moments on the supply chain when using less is both the responsible and economical thing to do.

On a design level, 3D tooling allows creators to build virtual samples. “The money the industry wastes in samples is beyond,” said one participant. “If we can start to design virtually in 3D, we can save people from travelling around the world. What an incredible impact we could make.”

What’s more, increasing speed-to-market decreases overall inventory counts, creating less waste and in the best circumstances, increased profits.

In order to move forward, fashion must also embrace the idea of circularity, according to the participants. That could mean creating brand-specific return programmes like that of Patagonia, or partnering with a resale site like TheRealReal, as Stella McCartney has done, to create an incentive programme that serves as a customer retainment tool. (Customers who consign a Stella McCartney item on The RealReal in 2019 will receive a $100 credit to spend at any directly owned Stella McCartney store.)

Of course, programmes like these require consumer participation. “How do we empower a consumer to use clothing responsibly?” asked one attendee. Others suggested that the next generation will expect responsible practises from luxury brands. “For me, a key point of luxury is desire ... we must create desire to be sustainable,” someone said.

The consensus was that better global regulation will be key to widespread change that is unlikely to come from the industry alone.

“We can’t underestimate the role of government and regulation in all of this,” a guest said. “If we just rely on select players, we are never going to get there. We’ve found that there are few people who want to do the right thing. We find that most companies only do the right thing when they have to. It has to be top-down, through legislation.”

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