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Key takeaways:

  • With Earth Day 2023 and the tenth anniversary of the Rana Plaza disaster nearly coinciding, fashion is again demonstrating a fractured approach to both speaking about and addressing sustainability at a time of heightened scrutiny.
  • A new report, timed to match the World Retail Congress, wraps up both the strong market mandate for sustainable fashion (environmentally speaking at least) and the confusion that continues to reign amongst retailers; the majority claim not to know how to make progress.
  • A great deal of attention is – rightly – being paid to fashion’s footprint across resource utilisation, waste, and pollution. But even though progress has been made on elevating working conditions and improving equality, the contribution of people in the supply chain still often goes undervalued – especially by brands who have held off on becoming signatories to codified inspection and remediation programmes.
  • Following the launch of the first AI Fashion Week, the definition of what constitutes “a designer” is being challenged. And whether the competition is provocative on purpose or by accident, it highlights a looming discussion about whether core creative disciplines are about to become devalued the way technical and manufacturing expertise, which primarily exists offshore, has.

Major dates contrast with comparatively minor progress.

The past week has been a noteworthy one, with two major events on fashion’s calendar coinciding: the tenth anniversary of one of the industry’s most tragic (and avoidable) humanitarian disasters at Rana Plaza, and this year’s Earth Day. For the latter, brands and retailers have interpreted the even in some contrasting ways – some more welcome than others. And not coincidentally, a new report from Deloitte and the World Retail Congress (WRC) was published this week – timed to align with the WRC’s latest event  – benchmarking the market potential for sustainability and circularity.

First up, let’s talk Earth Day 2023, which took place over the weekend, and which saw a very conflicted set of approaches, initiatives, and attitudes to talking about and addressing fashion’s toll on the planet. A handful of brands and retailers used the opportunity to focus on the amount of sustainable materials that were already in their collections, while some retailers chose to spotlight the sustainable brands they stock. A few organisations engaged in direct philanthropy with one-off donations or capsule-wide profit sharing, and others flirted with impactful-sounding labels like “regenerative agriculture”… without making much in the way of concrete commitments. For others, the event was a chance to launch or draw attention to pre-existing circular marketplaces and secondary initiatives.

Overall, the most common criticism is that brands and retailers are still using what is supposed to be a day of reflection and awareness around conserving the planet as a marketing opportunity for “sustainable” products and practices.

For sustainability advocates, this trend of corporate co-opting is likely to be frustrating, but for the brands themselves the counter-argument remains that showcasing sustainable products, materials, and methods on Earth Day is an once-a-year opportunity to educate consumers on the fact that these products exist in the first place.

While it might be naive to expect commercial enterprises to simply stop selling for a day, the reality is that the amount of product that fashion shifts in any given window of time is a significant and inescapable part of the problem. The other major component is the industry-wide lack of visibility and transparency into the true scale of fashion’s environmental footprint – with there being a dawning realisation that new regulations such as the proposed EU Green Claims Directive will soon be mandating that public commitments to making fashion more “sustainable” are backed up by objective data that corresponds to identifiable and measurable metrics.

Further downstream, consumer attitudes towards those kinds of sustainability commitments – both environmental and humanitarian – are evolving. And this evolution is neatly summarised in the WRC / Deloitte report, which contains the following key findings:

  • Despite “the highest inflation in decades”, 47% of consumers are still choosing to spend more for sustainable goods and services, even though those attract a price premium. And more than 70% of UK shoppers use “brand values” to influence their buying decisions.
  • Estimates are that circularity will become increasingly widely recognised and valued, and that the circular sector (a woolly definition, to be sure) will create upwards of $4 trillion (US) in “economic benefits” (a similarly loose metric) by 2030.
  • More than 50% of retailers report they simply don’t know how to become more sustainable. Something of a loaded question, the results are nevertheless pretty damning when we consider the wealth of evidence to substantiate the idea that doing anything is better than being paralysed and doing nothing.
  • In 2022, upwards of $800 billion (US) worth of products bought online was returned, but technology is already helping to mitigate at least part of the logistical footprint of managing those returns, with the US Postal Service saving a considerable amount of fuel and dollars by switching to smart routing.

A positive picture for the consumer market, then, but a decidedly less so for fashion’s response to that demand. And notably, this report was mostly confined to environmental factors, when there’s evidence to suggest that consumers are increasingly starting to care about who makes their products, in what conditions, and for what compensation.

A 2021 report commissioned by UNiDAYS, the world’s largest student affinity network, looked into the approach of Gen Z – widely held out as the consumer of tomorrow – toward fashion, trends, e-commerce, and more. Over 18,000 students provided insights and around seven in ten (68%) of those surveyed demand that their clothes are manufactured to the highest ethical standards and 57% felt that brands championing sustainability, equality and diversity are on the right side of history.

Before now, even a little over a decade ago, sustainability sentiment was markedly different. For ten years fashion has operated in the shadow of an incredibly poignant case study for what happens when humanitarian  conditions are permitted to erode far enough that they lead to marked loss of life: Rana Plaza.

On the 24th of April 2013, the Rana Plaza building collapsed, killing over 1,100 people – most of whom were garment workers. Working in stupendously unsafe conditions, those workers made clothing for household names like Mango, Primark, and Benetton. And the uproar that followed the immediate disaster was as remarkable for its exposure of blind (or wilfully negligent) purchasing practices as much as it was for its sudden, catalysing effect on consumer awareness – and how quickly this led to industry action.

The most positive legacy of Rana Plaza was the establishment and the signing of what’s become referred to by its short name of the Bangladesh Accord, but which has the official title of The Accord for Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh. This was introduced shortly after the disaster, and was signed onto by more than 200 brands over the next five years, with a similar initiative later being introduced in neighbouring Pakistan.

As a practical standard, the Accord appears to be working as intended, mandating inspections that have been carried out more than 50,000 times across thousands of facilities in Bangladesh, and providing a framework for corrective action that has unambiguously improved conditions.

But the Accord is also notable for the brands and retailers who have so far refused to engage with it: companies like Gap, Amazon, and Levi Strauss. In theory at least, these brands should be out of lockstep with consumer expectations and should be seeing declining market share amongst Gen Z, but in practice so far neither regulations nor the court of public opinion has really held them to account in this case. These continue to be recognisable household names in fashion, and their supply chain practices continue to either go unscrutinised, or examined in a way that flies under the radar.

And now is an opportune moment to remind our readers that fashion as a whole has made very limited progress towards having verifiably fair wages in the supply chain.

All of which leads to a sobering thought: does the fashion industry care that much more about the environmental impact of clothing than it does about the people who make it? And what does that relative difference in the value placed on planet versus people tell us about how the various stakeholders in fashion feel about the value of human contributions beyond the supply chain, when the question starts being asked closer to home…

AI Fashion Week: re-evaluating or devaluing the idea of design?

The first AI Fashion Week took place in New York City last week, with most reports and reflections surfacing this week. The event was held in the form of a competition rather than a traditional series of shows, and drew in more than 350 submissions – with the top three being given the opportunity to partner with the Revolve Group to produce and launch their collection.

While certainly an innovative and zeitgeist-y contribution to the fashion technology landscape, certain elements of the event caught The Interline’s eye because the language their are couched in is quietly, but firmly, inflammatory.

First, let’s take a look at what’s implied in referring to this event as a platform for the “discovery of the next big talent in fashion” and for the uncovering of “AI fashion designers”. While the idea that AI art is democratising creativity has some merit, it feels like a stretch to describe what’s taking place here as design.

A more realistic definition would be that entrants to this competition have well-defined senses of taste, smart aesthetic sensibilities, and the ability to guide generative models, curate the results, and showcase something unique and consistent. On paper this is the designer’s job description, but there are a couple of key distinctions that make this an extremely murky area for influential fashion thinkers to just stray into – even if AI prompt engineers are now very sought-after individuals.

Consider that one of the ruling criteria for AI Fashion Week is an emphasis on “designs that are truly unique”. This runs counter to the output of most generative models that are trained on broad, public datasets (as presumably the models being used in submissions here are, i.e. Midjourney, DALL-E, Stable Diffusion etc.) And the elephant in the room remains the fact that these same models were almost certainly trained on a massive corpus of copyrighted material, without permission, which casts some doubt on how much individual ownership can even be assigned to the end result – let alone uniqueness.

The competition also aims to eliminate “prompt copycats,” which is something that feels strange to police, since the community model on which Midjourney et al are built has generated images becoming publicly visible, browsable, and available to iterate on and remix through prompt refinement and tweaking.

With all that in mind, it’s important to note that – just like digital fashion – using AI to bring ideas to life does open doors to people who might otherwise have been shut out of the traditional fashion ecosystem, and based on the submissions for this competition it  certainly seems as though body positivity, inclusivity, and diversity were all firmly on display here in a way that traditional fashion shows have continued to do a bad job of.

It’s also worth remembering that this is a pilot of an idea that exists at the very bleeding edge of innovation, as well as on an uncharted and hyper-stormy frontier of intellectual property rights – making it a difficult thing to judge, as well as being a provocative thing to conceive of in the first place.

Will some of these problems get ironed out over time? Probably. And while even some of the headline images for the event bear the clear hallmarks of being generated, we’ve already established in a previous analysis that generated images are set to be mostly indistinguishable from reality in the very near future.

Ultimately, though, the key takeaway is that there’s a very blurry line being drawn here around what it means to be a designer. And it’s one that raises questions of whether fashion is about to go down the same road that art and illustration are currently on: where people’s entire career choices are being invalidated on almost a week-by-week basis.

As a thought experiment, consider being a student of design at somewhere like Central Saint Martins – or even someone who’s learned their creative design and patternmaking craft in their own time, out of pure passion – and being told that AI prompting is now considered “design”. Would you feel empowered or devalued? And if it’s the latter, might you not feel some kinship with the people in the supply chain whose own skillsets are still compartmentalised as a cheap, disposable, commodity?

Thinking about creativity this way is, unfortunately, not necessarily wrong. It would be profoundly naive to assume that AI is going to stay away from your job – or ours – because the speed of progression suggests that there’s next to no chance of that happening.

As a case in point, it took The Interline less than thirty minutes to generate the image that occupies the cover area of this article and appears below. Is it completely photo-real? No, but it’s a short hop from here to there. Does being able to generate these kinds of results make us designers? We’d argue not.

So it’s remarkable on a moral and ethical level that we’re now inviting AI into creation – fashion’s most sacred space, considering the veneration that top-flight designers earn – not as an assistant, but as a discipline in its own right. And it raises some serious questions about the value we place on human endeavour.

Those questions, of course, have existed for a long time for anyone who’s taken a serious look at the fashion supply chain, and somehow people have accepted a huge gulf in how we think about human effort when it applies to human beings working, out of sight and out of mind, in factories and mills to make materials and manufacture clothing.

But is it something people are also going to accept now that it’s clearly coming for creative tasks that have sat on a high pedestal in fashion for a very long time, and that are performed by people who are much closer to home?

The best from The Interline:

This week we unveiled the next step in The Interline’s partnership with SOURCING at MAGIC, which will see us again curating the fashion technology programme live in Las Vegas, from 7th to 9th August. Together, we’ll also be releasing a two-part content series called “Fashion Technology Fundamentals,” designed to demonstrate the importance and the power of technology to all the different stakeholders who sit under the fashion umbrella.

We also published a new, exclusive, deep-dive into the microfactory business model, using Portugal – which has invested heavily at a state level to foster a network of small-scale, high-tech production facilities – as a case study. These microfactories are often held out as offering a way for fashion to quickly tap into sustainable, agile, local, on-demand production, but will they be able to sustain themselves long enough to scale?