How tech can help build a more sustainable fashion future

Our digital tech both facilitates and mitigates waste in the garment industry. But can the technology that ramped up global fashion production also help us build a more sustainable fashion future?

'Shifting is going to take a lot of public pressure,' says expert

Future-facing creators like the Institute of Digital Fashion, push tech use for a more democratic and sustainable garment industry. (IoDF)

Originally published on September 10, 2021.

The average global consumer now buys 60 per cent more garments per year, but keeps them for half as long as they did 15 years ago. And a lot of that behaviour change is because of a huge shift in the fashion industry, which can be traced back to the late 1990s, says consumer culture and sustainability expert Elizabeth Cline.

Brands like Shein have made it easier to buy more for less. The Chinese clothing company recently overtook Amazon as the leading shopping app. The average price of an item on their website is $10 — a price scale that's facilitated massive hauls that have gained popularity on Instagram and Tiktok.

In that sense, technology has become a double-edged sword. It's helped brands (and not just those in the fashion industry) meet growing demand and made production more efficient, but it's also allowed for vast overproduction thanks to the demands of fast fashion. 

Author and consumer culture expert Elizabeth L. Cline (Keri Winginton)

Cline says garments, electronics, home goods and furniture are cheaper than ever before. Shopping is more convenient. "The experience of purchasing things is much more frictionless," Cline told Spark host Nora Young.

She added that social media has also helped accelerate trend cycles.

"I think that for a younger generation that grew up with fast fashion, it might be surprising to learn that at some point in the not-so-distant past, you wore your clothes sometimes until they wore out, [and] they were more expensive," she said.

Cline is a New York-based journalist and author of two books on ethical and sustainable fashion. In 2012, she wrote, Overdressed: The Shockingly High Cost of Cheap Fashion. It was one of the first books to uncover the impact of the garment industry on the environment and society. And it paved the way for the current sustainable fashion movement.

"There is an incredible generational awakening and interest in sustainability. Ethical and sustainable fashion is a much more mainstream concept than when Overdressed came out," she said.

"But then, the grand irony is, of course, that there's more clothing being manufactured every year than ever before, and the fashion industry keeps talking about systemic change, but it can't seem to figure out how to pivot. Or maybe it just doesn't want to?"

Over the years, apps like Tulerie, which facilitate peer-to-peer clothing rental, have cropped up. And while resale platforms like The RealReal, Depop and Vinted are promoting a circular economy, the problem needs to be addressed at the source.

Shoppers look for bargains on Amazon returns at a Krazy Binz store in Mississauga, Ontario. (Adam Killick)

Cline says the large scale of the resale and secondhand industry would not be possible without the impact of the fast fashion industry. ​​"The reason why there's so much incredible, gently used clothing is because there's such an enormous amount of overproduction happening, people are wearing their clothes for a shorter amount of time."

In an effort to offset their impact, some retailers offer recycling bins for used clothes, with the stated intention of repurposing them into new items. Cline said this isn't enough either.

She said many large brands are responsible for greenwashing — giving the appearance of being environmentally friendly, whether or not they really are, and providing little to no data on their impact. 

"If you are a corporation whose business model is really oriented around cycling through lots of products, how much of a difference does it really make if you're going to switch over to, say, more recycled polyester instead of virgin polyester or organic cotton versus conventionally grown cotton?"

She said people are starting to push back on some of the greenwashing in the industry.

"Consumers are savvy. When they see brands kind of overselling their environmental credentials, especially young people on social media, they pick up on it right away."

While quantifying sustainability is challenging, she says greenwashing does more harm than good, creating noise and mistrust.

"[Companies] are warding off the inevitable, which is that the fashion industry is going to have to fundamentally change for us to be sustainable."

She said it's going to take a lot of innovation.

Platforms like Cladwell and Save Your Wardrobe let users make a digital catalogue of their wardrobe and offer ways to upcycle their garments so they last longer. ​​Some online retailers are also offering virtual fitting rooms or virtual try-ons to help consumers find the right fit and reduce return rates.

AI can help designers produce more wisely

For London-based curator and creator Leanne Elliott Young, these apps are part of a much bigger shift in our technological future, into a collective, shared digital space where our physical and virtual realities converge: the metaverse.

Institute of Digital Fashion co-founder Leanne Elliott Young (IoDF)

​​The fashion industry has become increasingly dependent on digital technologies, as seen during the pandemic, when major marketing events like Fashion Weeks all moved online. 

"I think it was a really good moment that showed that we don't have to fly around the globe to see fashion, we don't have to be front row of fashion week to experience fashion."

She said the move to digital allowed designers to rethink their process, their message and the purpose of fashion week. "What happened during those fashion week seasons that we lost in COVID is the real contemplation on the future of fashion."

Young's work focuses on fashion futures, digital innovation and industry disruption. She's also the co-founder of the Institute of Digital Fashion, a platform that aims to build a more sustainable industry and restructure how technology is used as a democratic tool for change.

"There were lots of frustrations. So, we decided to come together and birth an institute which had a manifesto that was about how [we can] upend this broken system and be an emblem for change. Meaning, as we step into this new era of digital, into the metaverse, how can we make sure that we are going to look at building an inclusive and diverse reality," said Young.

She said the ability to use digital technologies in fashion not only opens up possibilities for consumers, they also offer creative avenues for designers to experiment, freed from the constraints of fabric budgets and wasteful nature of physical design. "Trying to bring some of the wild, immersive, fun regalia of fashion and the fantasy of fashion into the digital space is what argumentation has certainly allowed."

Young points to programs like CLO 3D, which allows designers to create true-to-life three-dimensional garment simulations.

"As a designer, if you're using software and creating a digital version of your design, you can click through and see lots of different fabrics. You can see [your ideas] in a silk and then in a python. And that's super exciting."

These digital designs produced through this software can be sold as digital-only assets, which can be worn by a thousand bodies thanks to augmented reality, and never age or falter. But this technology requires advancements in wearable devices and also raises new questions about ownership and the value of digital garments, which have yet to be explored, Young said.

She adds that artificial intelligence can help designers produce more wisely, guided by insights into customer behaviour.

But above all else, Young says there is a need for legislation to help regulate the industry and promote transparency. "Hopefully, our governments will align at some point and have some hindsight in the fact that if we're all singing from the same song sheet, we'll get there quicker, especially with the climate crisis we're in right now," said Young.

Similarly, Cline said there is a need for policy changes and public pressure to target overproduction.

"It doesn't mean that we have to go back to a world where we don't have any fashion. But can we continue living in a world where we're producing, what is it, 110 billion garments per year? No, we can't."

Written by Samraweet Yohannes. Produced by Samraweet Yohannes and Michelle Parise.