It’s no secret that the fashion industry is one of the most damaging to the planet, and one of the primary sectors contributing to the climate crisis. Fast fashion production is at an all-time high and many of the clothes we buy wind up in landfill sites, with the industry as a whole producing more than 92 million tonnes of waste every year.

But as knowledge of the issues affecting the environment also increase, more businesses are taking steps to produce fashion in a more ethical and sustainable way, and using technology to do so. These are four of the ways that the fashion industry is making the most of technology and digital innovations to create a more sustainable industry.

Global versus grassroots

Sustainability can’t be managed exclusively by those at the top of the chain, especially not in an industry as widespread as fashion. In this sector, sustainability is as much about the relationships brands have with consumers as it is about legislation or directives from governing bodies. From the way we care for our clothes to the way we connect with garments, sustainability in fashion really works when businesses incorporate ingenuity and resourcefulness with the garments produced.

A ‘bottom up’ approach to ideas and actions is vital to recognise grassroots skills and innovation, and allow it to flourish in an industry so desperately in need of change and a new perspective. SMEs can now take advantage of technology that previously felt out of reach for start-ups and small firms, adopting digitalisation early and building a foundation for digital growth as soon as possible. Social movements and discussions around sustainability in fashion are essential in increasing the demand for collective governance – in other words, global action can’t take place without grassroots participation.

The growth of hashtags like #WhoMadeMyClothes shows just how much consumers care about the lifecycle of their garments, something that start-up Provenance have taken note of. They created a digital platform that allows customers to access supply-chain information, from the quality of working conditions where garments are made to the materials used and the garment’s journey from start to finish.

Working with brands to showcase the facts surrounding the impact they’re making, their platform empowers shoppers to make better choices and to encourage progress through purchasing power. Their software turns supply chain data into buyer-facing communications that are backed to build trust in brands, which reduces greenwashing and enables businesses to digitise third-party certifications for increased confidence from customers. 

Consistent sustainability messaging across online channels

Consumers are demanding change and expect brands to be more transparent, and tools like hashtags and online messaging are making that possible to help consumers make smarter, more informed choices. Digital communication on fashion sites and via online platforms (that is replicated on physical marketing channels) succeeds at communicating a brand’s dedication and commitment to sustainability.

Luxury accessory and silk scarf designer, Shaku, demonstrate their dedication to sustainability as a ‘slow fashion mentality’ that “encapsulates responsible manufacturing, natural materials, ethical labour and timeless, durable garments. We know there is a long way to go, but our promise is to create rare, long-lasting and beautiful pieces that are made responsibly and represent the values of our customers.”

Communicating and sharing online messaging on digital platforms peaks their consumers’ engagement and loyalty, and sets an admirable precedent towards sustainability that weaves into and can be adopted by other luxury fashion brands.

Renewable energy and low water production

Fossil fuels are still the topic that few businesses want to talk about, but they’re such a huge component of what makes the fashion industry unsustainable. So many countries still subsidise fossil fuel production which puts renewable energy at a disadvantage. But in supporting renewable energy systems, fashion firms can lower their carbon footprint, save money on production costs and help the UK meet its carbon neutral targets.

Brands such as Ralph Lauren, Nike and Gucci have already made the swap and have pledged to upgrade to renewable systems, encouraging smaller firms to do the same.

Fashion also happens to be a thirsty industry, using billions of litres of water every year and polluting waterways with dyes and chemicals. While water pollution isn’t solely due to the fashion industry, this sector does contribute to local issues in developing countries where the majority of fast fashion is produced, leading to health and environmental impacts.

An initiative known as the Waste2Fresh project is tackling the textile industry’s contribution to water pollution through closed loop technology which integrates a novel catalytic-degradation approach to reduce the use of freshwater resources and increases water and energy recovery. It is a water treatment system that is scalable and accessible for fashion firms of all sizes.

As a water-intensive industry, fashion can take advantage of this technology to curb their usage of water, as well as run the equipment on solar power. In countries such as Bangladesh where freshwater resources are heavily affected by textile factories, technology such as this can have a huge impact on the environmental effects of fashion.

Artificial Intelligence and Big Data

There are few industries where Artificial Intelligence (AI) isn’t making headlines, and fashion is no exception. In fact, it’s a technology that can be used in numerous ways to create more sustainable processes. From trend forecasting to reduced waste and overproduction to supply chain management, AI can be used by businesses to curtail waste and help companies take a more informed approach to what they produce, based on customer demand and trends. It can also be used to monitor environmental factors and the impact that processes are having on the planet in real time, so brands can make changes sooner rather than later, based on fact rather than speculation.

Stylumia is a customer intelligence tool that uses AI to validate trends, reduce waste inventory and predict demand with data. The trend forecasting software uses one-of-a-kind ‘demand sensing’ machine learning algorithms. Using data and user-friendly AI-assisted analysis, their tools help businesses to deliver a better service to customers without contributing to wasteful practices.

This technology enables businesses to act on insights regarding orders and distribution, but it also features tools such as ImaGenie – a predictive analytics tool that applies AI to generate designs that are curated to a brand’s unique style. Designers can create concepts quickly, determine which are worth pursuing and create a visual design brief.

One of the primary ways AI is changing the fashion industry is with 3D modelling and virtual clothing. Before an item of clothing is put in stores, it goes through many iterations and samples. But brands using AI to create 3D models of clothing can reduce this waste while still getting a final product that works. It’s technology that makes the review process far less wasteful and more efficient, and also reduces expenditure for businesses too.

Virtual fitting rooms play on this idea, allowing customers to ‘try on’ clothes without needing to physically buy them first. Brands like 3D Look use mobile scanning technology to provide a personalised fit and sizing recommendations to shoppers, as well as virtual try-ons so they can clearly see how an item will fit and look on their body, while reducing returns and waste for businesses.

It’s believed that the global virtual fitting room market will grow to $6.5m by 2025, as more businesses adopt the technology. This technology can be created using augmented reality to scan a person’s body through a webcam to create a 360-degree model, or using AI algorithms to create 3D models of the shopper. It’s a way that businesses can deliver a great customer experience without the risk of producing as much waste.

Implementing digital change

Technology has evolved so much already over the past few decades, but in recent years, there’s been a definitive rise in businesses adopting tech that will help them reach sustainable targets. Businesses can use RFID (Radio Frequency Identification) to keep track of stock levels, and combine them with AI to coordinate more efficient product movement. Using AI can help fashion brands understand trends and utilise data insights to greater effect to minimise waste and respond to consumer demand more effectively.

Testing concepts digitally first can also help to minimise the need for physical resources and ensures that designs that come to market are more inclined to sell – a win-win not just for the environment but for business’ profit margins too. When it comes to technology saving the day in the sustainability fight, we need to look towards innovations in processing. As projects such as Waste2Fresh and Provenance have shown, small changes such as reducing the quantity of resources used in textile production can make a massive contribution to steps taken by the industry as a whole.