How the Fashion Industry can become more sustainable

When you think of the fashion industry, fast fashion and poorly paid seamstresses in Asia might first come to your mind. In a personal report, our Master’s student analyses how can the industry solve some of its big challenges with the help of digitalization and become socially and ecologically sustainable.

Often, I wonder what motivated me to study fashion design fifteen years ago. I was neither a talented drawer nor particularly creative. I was probably just your average Brazilian middle-class teenager, doing what most of the Brazilian middle-class teenagers did in the early 2000’s: obsessing about clothes while trying to build an identity.

It was around that time when I read ‘The Fashion System’ (Roland Barthes, 1967) for the first time. It made me understand: The way people dress, is a speech in itself. Fashion is a product of culture and time. There is something beautiful about the phenomenon of trends.  From the second half of the 20th century onwards, the technological and social revolution allowed for a shift from custom-made to mass manufacturing. Fashion was democratized. With fast fashion, trends were now accessible to everyone, regardless of wealth.

Fast, furious and problematic

This ‘democratization’ was a beautiful thing, right? Now, almost everybody could follow the newest trends. And who does not want to let fashion give you a new identity? It goes to the core of the individual of our times: Our society asks us to be ready to constantly reinvent ourselves.

As we now know, this ‘democratization’ is not only beautiful, it is also furiously problematic. A t-shirt that costs just as much as a water bottle (speaking of Swiss restaurants, of course) might give you the freedom of reinventing yourself, but it probably will also at some point take away our freedom to live a dignified life. Fashion accounts for 10% of the global CO2 emissions (Ellen MacArthur Foundation, 2017), for 20% of industrial wastewater pollution worldwide (WRI, 2017) and tons of clothes that end up in landfills that were never supposed to be produced to start with. McKinsey reports that, as clothing production doubled between 2000 and 2014, people kept the clothes for half as long.

Image: Used clothes pilling in the Atacama Desert in Chile (Martin Bernetti / AFP)

Digitalization offers transparency

It is time to grow up. I’m not interested in reinventing myself so much anymore, I am interested in reinventing my business. I am not the first one, of course. In the last fifteen years, consumers started changing. They not only want to constantly reinvent themselves, they also want the following generations to have the chance of living a worthy life. A life that is not shaped by a derailing planet earth. Along with the consumers, brands started to take steps towards. Connected to this broad change of the collective consciousness is the appearance of the digital world, our complete immersion in it and the many possibilities that come with it.

For once, digitalization offers us the possibility of transparency. Brands should follow this path, not only because of obvious ethical reasons, but because that is what consumers demand (McKinsey, 2019). Currently, composition labels (whose content are not always accurate, by the way) are the main source of identification to ensure a proper recycling process. As you can imagine (think about the itchy labels you cut off of your clothes even before washing them for the first time), they don’t survive throughout the full life cycle of a product. Combined blockchain and luminescent pigment solutions, like FibreTrace, do. Not only do they enable accurate fibre composition scanning (yes, you got it right, FibreTrace allows full garment scanning forever and ever), they also register CO2 emissions and water use through every single step of the chain.

Even the disbelievers go digital

Although it is built on the foundation of constant change, the fashion industry has very traditional tendencies. Many times, in a not-so-distant past, I heard statements from professors, managers and colleagues like: ‘Oh, e-commerce will never be a big thing for apparel, people want to feel the fabric, they want to see how the garment fit’ or ‘Our e-commerce is only a branding tool, it will never sell as much as our stores.’ The Covid-19 pandemic convinced many disbelievers of the importance of digitization.

As strange as it may seem, the pandemic gave people the freedom to conjure new futures and to trust their imagination, even though they might seem unlogic or unfeasible with the structures that we have known our entire lives. Against this backdrop, ‘digital fashion’ can manifest itself in collaboration with the physical realm or in entirely digital formats.

A research undertaken by Carbon Trust measured the carbon emissions related to travels generated by the four major fashion weeks in one year. It amounted to 241,000 tonnes of CO2, equivalent to 51,000 cars on the road or lighting the Eiffel Tower for 3,060 years. Pushed by pandemic travel restrictions, brands bet on digital solutions for fashion weeks and showroom meetings. London Fashion Week held its Fall/21 edition completely online. Designers showcased their collections via catwalk, film, presentation, look book or digital installation. Helsinki Fashion Week went beyond, bringing, for the first time, a fashion week to a VR environment.

Video: Digital Village x OpenPlan x Helsinki Fashion Week 

A report from DressX, a digital-only retailer, found that the production of their digital garments emits 97% less CO2 than physical garment. And, on average, it saves 3300 litres of water per item. Even when the goal is to sell physical items, 3D modelling can save resources and add a lot to the design and production processes. It can eliminate the need for sampling, shorten production lead-times and even enable on-demand business models. Combined with body scanning technologies, it can mitigate the fear that my e-tailing negationists acquaintances always had, ensuring consumers a clear visualization of how products fit their bodies. That alone could impact return rates, deadstock, and overproduction tremendously.

The restart

I like the word ‘re-commerce’ very much. I like it, because it reminds me of ‘recomece’, which in Portuguese means ‘start all over again.’ In a way, that is what re-commerce and fashion circularity are all about, giving to products a new life, and by that keeping them away from landfills.

Powered by C2C apps like Depop, Vestiaire Collective and Vinted, the second-hand market overcame logistic limitations and grew, in 2019, 21 times faster than conventional apparel commerce did (Forbes, 2021). By 2025, it is expected to double in value, reaching $77 billion (Thred up, 2021).

The pandemic left a lot of people with the perception and reality of an economic uncertainty and looming crisis. In addition to the wish of a more sustainable lifestyle, this is another reason for the sudden interest in second-hand fashion. According to Thred up’s report, 82% of people have or are open to shopping secondhand when money gets tighter. This is an interesting parallel to fast fashion and the ‘democratization’ of it. Nowadays, there are more options when it comes to affordable fashion.

Would I study fashion design again if I knew what I know now? I am not sure. I know that I would be happy to have one more path to follow. The path towards a more sustainable and inclusive fashion industry. It’s never too late to start walking. That’s how new paths form themselves – by walking them. As I see it, there’s one fundamental question that matters now: Who do we want to have been?

About the Master Digital Administration

This article was written as part of the Master’s programme in Digital Business Administration at BFH Wirtschaft.

The programme provides the relevant skills to help shape the digital future of business and society. Thanks to current live cases from companies in the digital transformation, the study programme is strongly practice-oriented and provides hands-on experience in the use of current and emerging digital technologies.

You can find more information here.

Creative Commons Licence

AUTHOR: Luzia Volpato

Luiza Volpato is a fashion retail buyer and a master’s student of “Digital Business Administration” at the Berne University of Applied Sciences. She is particularly interested in understanding how digitalization can help the textile industry become more sustainable.

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