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Key Takeaways:

  • Investment continues to flow into alternative materials, despite setbacks for some of the most-talked-about companies aiming to industrialise the possibilities. And the same is true for renewable energy, with several major brand groups committing to eliminating fossil fuels from their logistics – even if the timeline betrays a lack of real urgency.
  • H&M has opened up wider access to its Creator Studio, packaging up the supply of own-brand blank garments, print-on-demand garment decoration capacity, and fulfilment in a single first-party solution that seems intended to challenge the regional third parties that have seen success in this space.
  • The Creator Studio also incorporates what appears to be a largely off-the-shelf generative model, allowing users to create artwork that can then be printed onto blanks – but limited guardrails mean that the model can stray into copyright infringing territory with no direct prompting, further challenging the idea of brand safety in an era of AI.

Fashion Moving Forward: Innovative Materials and Renewable Energy

As usual, there is a steady stream of sustainability-related news this week in fashion. First: Gozen, a startup originating in Turkey but now based in San Francisco, has raised $3.3 million in seed funding for its biomaterial called “Lunaform.” The startup’s flagship biomaterial is produced by microorganisms during a fermentation process and is distinctively free from both plastic and animal components. And the vegan, plastic-free material has already had its high-fashion debut, unveiled during Paris Fashion Week at the Balenciaga Spring/Summer 2024 show. What sets the innovative material apart from other composite plant-based leathers that are assembled in layers, is that it is a singular, fully formed material, giving it an apparently remarkable tensile strength and natural flexibility.

Balenciaga LUNAFORM™ Maxi Bathrobe Coat

With more brands moving towards using alternative materials, how they are made is usually a significant consideration. The Interline has written before about the use process of creating and commercialising bio-fabricated materials, but by and large the industry still leans towards fabrics that incorporate some portion of synthetic fibres – either virgin or repurposed – to deliver against performance expectations. And this is effectively establishing a baseline for the industry’s use of petrochemicals.

Beyond materials, then, the wider use of clean energy as a viable alternative to fossil fuels, will be a key component in creating a more sustainable fashion future. And things are looking up in this respect, according to the International Energy Agency (IEA) in their  World Energy Outlook – published this week. With renewables now the cheapest power source on a global level, solar and wind energy are loosening fossil fuels’ chokehold on the worldwide economy, and are set to contribute 80% of new power capacity by 2030. (Obviously there are regional variations to this figure.)

Zooming in on the fashion industry – what would it take for fashion to quit fossil fuels entirely – eradicating them in other business activities beyond materials? A mindset change and an action plan, it would seem. Last month, a campaign called “Fossil Fuel Fashion” launched in New York during Climate Week and has been calling on fashion to eliminate fossil fuels from commonly used materials, to commit to ambitious climate targets, and to staunchly support systemic legislative action. The reason that campaigns like this exist? Even though brands are aware of renewable energy opportunities and technologies to use for a cleaner supply chain, they aren’t willing to act and ensure scalability by themselves.

An example of a collaboration aimed at scaling the use of renewables in the supply chain is the one between Zara parent-company Inditex and container shipping and logistics behemoth Maersk which was also publicised this week. The pair are now working together to reduce global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by incorporating alternative fuels in their shipping routes. The ECO Delivery Ocean programme aims to replace fossil fuels on Maersk ships with alternatives like green methanol or second-generation biodiesel, resulting in an estimated 80% reduction in GHG emissions. H&M Group and Amazon are among the others to sign onto the programme. Inditex, (who is also the parent of Massimo Dutti and Pull&Bear) plans to switch all of its ocean freight to vessels powered by zero-carbon fuels by 2040. This is a welcome move by these industry heavyweights, as the importance of transitioning to renewable energy within the fashion sector arguably surpasses even the endeavours to curb emissions.

Cornering the creator economy, with a blunder along the way.

Speaking of H&M, the retailer took an unexpected and frankly perplexing step into the world of AI this week, in a move that The Interline staff is struggling to make sense of.

First the part that makes both commercial and creative sense. The mega brand has invited customers to play designer, using their new print-on-demand merchandise service Creator Studio. Built on top of H&M’s investments in direct-to-garment printing, the Creator Studio is, on the face of it, a fairly straightforward proposition: H&M takes the blank garments it would normally decorate itself – t-shirts, hoodies etc. – and leverages economies of scale to provide them to both independent businesses and individual creators (at a margin, obviously), allowing them to digitally print custom artwork onto them and then have them shipped to the final consumer directly. This is, in effect, making H&M a full-service print on demand partner – but one that can translate its massive supply chain reach into an attempt to effectively corner some of a market segment that has so far been ruled by third parties.

The ethics of monopolising and then effectively sub-leasing supply chain capacity are… murky. It’s easy to argue that this service will open doors to some new creators and communities who have been shut out of the traditional fashion infrastructure, but just as easy to argue that big brands dominating capacity was the reason they were excluded in the first place.

creator studio

What’s much harder to argue is why H&M chose to integrate generative AI into this service the way it did.

At the time of writing, the Creator Studio tool uses Stable Diffusion (an open-source generative-AI model) and allows anyone to mock up and produce garments using AI-generated custom visual artworks based on text prompts provided by the user. From there, users will put H&M’s robust manufacturing and logistics network to work for the production of their digital designs that are printed onto clothing items and sent directly to the customer, wherever they are in the world.

Initially reserved to a small community, the floodgates of Creator Studio are now open. And it takes all of thirty seconds for its generative AI to start providing the user with images that have extremely clear, copyright elements from other brands incorporated into them – and suggesting it’s time to print those onto H&M products.

This approach is baffling. Prior to trying it for ourselves, The Interline’s team had assumed that the model H&M would open to the public would be either bespoke or, more likely, trained through high concept windows and brand-neutral datasets to avoid generating images that recognisably come from the product photography of competitive brands. This is not the case: while H&M seem to have added some of their modifiers and elements on top of the model, it appears to be otherwise basically off-the-shelf, which means it comes saddled with a training legacy built on the work of competitors.

It took The Interline literally one attempt, using extremely non-specific language, to receive two image suggestions that very clearly show the emblem of one of the world’s most recognisable brands. That brand’s name was not mentioned at all in the prompts, either directly or indirectly. We simply asked the model to generate some artwork of a shoe, and this was the first result.

the interline’s creator studio prompt.
the interline’s creator studio result.

Now, while the Creator Studio review cycle – which is likely a manual approval process – would probably prevent these images from actually being printed and shipped, the fact that any brand saw fit to integrate generative AI into a new service this way seems deeply misguided.

For context: many artists, writers, and companies have initiated legal action since the wide roll-out of generative models, alleging that AI developers have violated their intellectual property rights by training AI models on their copyrighted materials without obtaining the proper consent.

The area is also still plagued by stories of AI “hallucinating” – making mistakes – and to the point where, earlier this year, ChatGPT’s maker, OpenAI, was accused of defamation that risked tarnishing Australian regional mayor, Brian Hood’s career. OpenAI ultimately decided to remove the false information, a flash of what may be a go-to strategy for AI companies in future cases – thus setting no precedent and leaving the door open for the challenges around holding others in the same position accountable.

So why is H&M wading into the murky waters of AI now? A possible explanation could be that the Group is looking for a financial boost following their recent sales being negatively impacted by unseasonably warm weather in key markets during September. Another potential motivation is that the company felt the need to get involved before the hype cycle ends and the next AI winter begins.

In light of the numerous uncertainties and absence of accountability for errors, it appears that H&M, along with others, is adopting a “let’s just do it” approach to AI. They are by no means the only organisation happy to simply roll out AI capabilities and seemingly let the market take care of the uncertainty; this is the same strategy of most businesses that incorporate generative models (whether they’re uni-modal or multi-modal). But if creators are going to be empowered, especially by the biggest names in the fashion industry, trust, safety, and IP protection would seem to us to be essential guardrails that should be put in place before testing (and muddying) the water.

Overarchingly, when it comes to AI, there is a lot of responsibility for those working in its orbit. Even in relation to fashion, the ever-evolving landscape of AI demands vigilance, ethics, and a commitment to ensuring the technology serves humanity in ways that are beneficial, productive, and, ultimately, legal.

Survey: The State Of Supply Chain And Sourcing Strategies

There’s still time to complete our anonymous survey on the state of supply chain and sourcing strategies. We’re looking to build an objective benchmark of how the objectives of sourcing teams are evolving at a time of disruption, and how technology is – and isn’t – supporting them.

The best from The Interline:

Jake Hanover of Avery Dennison kicked off this week exploring how Digital Product Passports will help consumers maintain their garments for longer and offer a way to engage and educate consumers ahead of tightening regulations.

In partnership with CGS, The Interline spotlights the journey that boohoo has undergone to expand its international reach, post-pandemic, through a global network of wholesale partners.

We talk to the Co-Founder & CEO of Made2flow about accelerating decarbonisation in the fashion industry through accurate, granular impact measurement at the material level.

In collaboration with SOURCING at MAGIC, we write about why this season’s fashion events exploded through a mix of tradition and technology.