Recent innovations in technology have been awe-inspiring, and almost every industry has changed how it operates as a result. The fashion industry is no exception, and the priority now is sustainability. Up until recently, the industry had been focused on making clothes that kept up with ever-changing trends, but the impact on the environment has been devastating. Now, fashion brands are looking to find ways to curb emissions and support a circular culture that’s better for the planet and for workers.

What does circular success look like?

A circular economy provides the opportunity to respond to consumer demands and grow businesses without it impacting the planet. Circular success in this industry requires a fundamental shift in the design of the sector, to a model that increases clothing reuse and offers solutions to transform existing clothes into new products.

Rachel Thompson, Head of Sustainability at MPB, states that “being circular is essential to sustainability for a few reasons. Nature is being depleted and polluted at completely unsustainable rates and basic recycling is not a sufficient response. At the same time, reusing products and materials over much longer time periods and through multiple owners and users creates additional financial value and supports a wide variety of skills and jobs”.

Circularity in this industry is focused on the longevity of a garment, not only in its visual appeal but in the durability and length of wear. It’s a step back from the value system of the fashion sector which prioritised new items, and instead leans more towards a recover, reuse and recycle approach, which provides revenue opportunities for brands as well as reputational benefits as waste materials can then be reinjected back into the economy.

But in order for circular systems to have a positive impact, we need the logistics and infrastructure in place to implement changes, as well as consumers to play their part. Until brands understand what’s holding customers back from participating in this movement and contributing to the heavy lifting required, nothing will change. The ways in which brands communicate with customers about sustainability and circularity is crucial, and that’s where technology can help.

QR codes tackling traceability

Over 85% of all textiles are thrown away every year, and the equivalent of an entire rubbish truck of clothes winds up in landfill every second. Our fast fashion trends have resulted in us buying and also throwing away more in the western world. Adopting a circular approach to fashion requires transparency and customers want to know how the businesses they buy from are working to reduce waste and create less pollution. We’re getting more educated on sustainability matters in an increasingly digital age, and consumers want access to the data to help them make more informed decisions and to help them buy with confidence.

Image courtesy of Skopes & Lyfcycle

QR codes and NFC tags are one of the ways that companies are providing to customers that they’re as good as their word, providing them with end-to-end information about the products they’re purchasing – from materials and production through to distribution. Customers want the information they desire to be accessible.

Many sustainable and green brands are already adopting this form of transparency for their own products. Skopes, a Leeds-based suiting brand who uses plastic bottles to create their garments, started including QR care labels on their products in 2020 so that customers could see precisely how their items were made and how to care for them for the long-term. Using a company called Lyfcycle, they are able to create a transparent traceability loop that takes the customer on a journey from raw materials through to delivery.

The fashion industry has made enormous strides in becoming more transparent and responding to customer demand for this data. QR codes are one of the ways that tech is being infused into the very fabric of our garments, making it easier than ever for customers to see where their clothes come from and the impact they’re having on the environment.

Closing the loop in fashion requires brands to encourage shoppers to send their used goods back so that they can either be resold or recycled. QR codes can help to adopt a circular transition within this sector. They provide a route to transparency and traceability throughout the whole supply chain which customers really value, but in order for more consumers to adopt this type of technology, trust needs to be nurtured. Research by TRICK found that around half of respondents surveyed felt reassured if an item of clothing provided more information. And that’s precisely what QR codes have the potential to do.

As more brands implement QR codes, whether that’s to showcase the product’s journey, direct customers to the brand website or educate them on how to properly care for an item, the more relaxed customers will feel about using them. Encouraging the customers’ trust in this technology is vital for it to be fully adopted, but it offers huge potential in reducing textile waste, demystifying the supply chain and educating consumers.

Image courtesy of eon & pangaia
Image courtesy of eon & pangaia

Science-backed brand Pangaia teamed up with Eon to create digital passports for every sweatsuit sold within their Horizon collection. With this, customers can view information about warehouse facilities and the manufacturing process, but also how to dispose of the garment when it’s worn out and view data on the resources used to create it. A similar strategy that brands are adopting is to offer repairs to encourage longer-term use and decrease the number of clothes thrown away unnecessarily.

3D printing to reduce fabric waste

3D printing enables us to create clothing that’s in harmony with the planet, reducing waste and minimising the stress on our land and water resources. Since the introduction of 3D printers, more brands have been creating garments on demand, opening up opportunities for customisation and creativity, as well as more sustainability. 3D printing has the potential to revolutionise the ready-to-wear industry as printers become more affordable and accessible to brands of all sizes.

While 3D printed items take a long time to create, the resulting garments produce far less waste and are less labour-intensive than other forms of manufacturing. 3D printing has the potential to completely transform the fashion industry. Big brands are already embracing this technology, creating conceptual items and high-fashion pieces that are at the cutting edge of technology but also sustainable.

In particular, it’s being used more and more by sports brands for performance shoes, such as Nike, Adidas and New Balance who have all experimented in recent years with 3D printed uppers and midsoles for better performance. The lightweight nature of 3D printed items makes it ideal for this application, but it offers far more benefits for brands.

This technology leads to less wastage, addresses the water consumption used in traditional manufacturing and reduces the pollution caused by dyes which are a major source of water pollution around the world. And for larger brands, 3D printers could prove to be completely transformative in terms of the speed at which they could get items to market.

For brands, this technology eliminates the need to wait months for products, as items can be constructed in smaller batches. This enables items to hit the market faster but in smaller batches to reduce waste, and means that items can be reproduced quickly when they’re out of stock so large volumes don’t need to be printed all at once, running the risk of being wasted.

Image courtesy of Iga Węglińska, for Emotional Clothing Project
Image courtesy of Iga Węglińska, for Emotional Clothing Project

The garments and accessories being crafted with this technology are likely to be easier to recycle but also breathable and long-lasting, so they’re more durable. There’s also opportunities for smart clothing, integrated 3D printing with other technologies for anything from mood sensing clothing to colour-changing garments and innovative designs that combine high-tech and textiles.

Blockchain creating a connected supply chain

Blockchain is an advanced technology that has been a focus in recent years, and it offers opportunities in the fashion industry when it comes to creating a transparent end-to-end supply chain. Blockchain provides the ability for a complete audit trail throughout the whole of the value chain, and for the clothing to be connected with the addition of IoT.

Blockchain can be used to record a variety of data types, from transactions to events and suppliers, and it makes it easy to track a product through the entire supply chain. It enhances traceability and transparency for brands, and helps designers protect their intellectual property by verifying authenticity.

The data integrity of blockchain technology provides greater transparency for businesses, allowing decision-makers and supply chain participants to gather deeper information about a product at any stage of the journey. Circularise is an end-to-end traceability platform tracing materials across the supply chain using blockchain to allow businesses to gain an insight into their CO2 footprint – which enables them to build that all-important trust with customers and credibility in their sustainable efforts. Blockchain facilitates trust enabling, not just in fashion but in other industries such as renewable energy and healthcare, where the origin of a product is extremely important to customers.

Brands in recent years have started to look to blockchain for their sustainability efforts. Luxury conglomerate LVMH partnered with ConsenSys and Microsoft to create the platform Aura which ensures traceability of products and offers a range of useful data, from proof of origin to lifecycle tracking.

And in 2020, sustainable fashion brand ArmedAngels joined forces with TextileGenesis to create a pilot programme that uses blockchain to trace the origins of 45 products from supply chains across six countries. The pilot issues digital tokens to the physical shipments of items that creates a unique fingerprint for authentication, so there’s a chain of custody across the supply chain.

Blockchain improves sustainability performance for brands, ensuring visibility of operations for all supply chain partners, from how responsibly items and materials have been sourced to the processing and distribution. This, in turn, enables businesses to improve their operational efficiencies by reducing excess inventory and increasing fulfilment rates through using the information stored in blockchain systems.

It’s a tool for better collaboration and cooperation between teams, suppliers and partners, allowing for better decision-making and traceability. But it can also be used to sense market trends and collate information in one place to assess supply chain risks and globalised trends, so brands can see precisely what’s selling, what’s not and what changes need to be made moving forward.

The Potential of Technology

There are still challenges to overcome when it comes to creating a circular economy, but technology offers so much potential for greater transparency, reduced waste and pollution, and helps customers make more informed decisions.

It is not enough to merely focus on recycling. Instead, the entire fashion sector should invest in innovative platforms and solutions, to educate and communicate patterns and ideas that unify and expand efforts to reduce waste and increase sustainability. Brands need to shift their focus on a trio of recovery, reuse and technology to create new revenue streams that can be reinvested and reinjected back into a circular economy.

Tech solutions, such as 3D printing, QR coding, blockchain technology and traceability platforms  assist in this holistic approach and eco-journey. Therefore, by improving logistics and supply chain challenges, smart-tech solutions can result in better interconnected routes on the journey of raw products through to their end-user destination.