Digital Fashion Design and Sustainability
Digital Fashion Design

Written by:



If there’s one key word coming out of fashion in 2024, it’s “sustainable.” And while there are many conflicting ideas on what the word means and ways to achieve sustainability, there’s one area viewed as not just eco-conscious but also cost effective: digital product creation (DPC), or digital design. Originally seen as clothing worn by personal avatars or heroes in a video game, functional digital fashion is the visual representation of clothing for real life using computer technologies and 3D software. And the connection between digital design and sustainability is real.

Originally seen as clothing worn by personal avatars or heroes in a video game, functional digital fashion is the visual representation of clothing created using computer technologies and 3D software.

Digital Fashion Design

“The reality of digital design really dropped in 2020 as a more efficient, effective and sustainable solution,” says Clare Tattersall, director of Digital Fashion Week and founder of The Drip, a haute couture digital fashion boutique, in an interview with the Lifestyle Monitor™. “However, I don’t think it represents one single answer for designers as the adoption rate is very wide, depending on the size of the brand. Those who have adopted digital design as an option recognize the benefits, but so many have not yet adopted it.”

To bring digital design alive, both novices as well as those familiar with the technology are invited to learn more about it and get hands-on experience through Cotton Incorporated’s CottonWorks™ virtual showroom and its FABRICAST™ library.

There’s another angle to DPC aside from designing clothing. Cotton Incorporated’s Katherine Absher, manager of fashion and digital design marketing, describes digital fabrics using 3D apparel design software such as CLO and Browzwear 3D. “You may have heard them described as digital fabrics, digital twins, virtual fabrics – and they all mean the same things,” Absher says. “Essentially, digital fabrics are like a twin for the physical counterpart. They recreate the look and the drape of the physical fabric.” Digital fabrics make the leap from the drawing board to the science of design.

Saving Resources

Here’s great news for manufacturers! Brands can save time and money with digital design. The technology enhances the design process and from a sustainability perspective, it reduces waste. By using digital fabrics and 3D design software, brands can replace some or all physical clothing samples. They are able to reduce their traditional calendar lead times and can make faster decisions. That frees them up to have more time to iterate – which can lead to overall better designs produced at a higher rate than physical samples.

For example, the traditional calendar can take a year from concept to point of sale and digital design can reduce that to six months. How? Consider that it can take 45 days to produce a physical sample. Any significant changes to the original sample call for revised samples, adding even more time to the original month and a half. By comparison, a digital sample can be made in 14 days.

People’s Choice

Further, when companies use fewer physical samples, they reduce consumption of raw materials and sample yardage, leading to reduced shipping costs and a lower freight carbon footprint. Sustainability isn’t just a talking point. It’s something that’s truly valued by today’s shoppers. Consider that an impressive 86 percent of global consumers say environmental change and sustainability are “very real” and require changes in our behaviors, according to Cotton Council international and Cotton Incorporated’s 2023 Global Sustainability Study.

Design Tools

Brands looking to improve their environmentally conscious quotient (ECQ) can turn to The CottonWorks™ virtual showroom to experience how sustainability meets technology. The meta world is a real tool to solve real problems. The virtual showroom starts designers on their journey in a sun-drenched cotton field then they are quickly zoomed up to a bright and airy space that demonstrates what modern cotton fabrics can do. The showroom currently features four uniquely curated fabric-related spaces: natural, denim, active and competition.

Each showroom space presents a variety of fabrics and fashion-forward garments aimed at sparking designers’ imaginations. The showroom promotes both specific products such as denim bottoms as well as entire categories like performance activewear. But the showroom goes beyond merely introducing these fabrics; it allows users to view pieces in 3D right on their computer screens. Additionally, users can take a snap of a QR code with their smartphone so they can view a garment right in their own showroom space. Designers can also learn about performance technologies that work with cotton, such as TransDRY® and STORM COTTON™ Technologies.


The CottonWorks™ FABRICAST™ library is another resource that offers designers a digital collection of cotton and cotton-rich fabrics mindfully curated by its product development team. Designers can view a portfolio of digital fabrics across a variety of constructions through downloadable files that are compatible with 3D simulation software programs. As a valuable service to the design industry, the library, showroom, downloadable files, and everything else available on CottonWorks™ are available at no cost.

“Independent designers are seeing the value of digital design, both as an efficient and effective tool, but also for the broad opportunities that this opens up for diverse revenue streams,” says Tattersall. “You have brands like Tommy Hilfiger that made a very rapid transition to be completely digital. They set goals and achieved them on a very tight schedule, which was pretty impressive for a large brand. Independent designers are more nimble and able to adopt new technologies faster, the most prohibitive factor for independents is probably cost. In the independent sector, there are so many designers like Republiqe, Loreine, Right Direction, KAIMIN that are truly phygital designers, layering digital and physical assets seamlessly.”

Reversing the Returns Crisis

Digital product design has another sustainability aspect: It can help brands reduce returns. Brands can use digital fabrics and 3D design to troubleshoot fabric choices and fit issues as well as fabric compatibility. Tech teams can match what is developed in 3D so there is a consistency between what customers see online and what they receive in real life. When customers feel like what they receive in real life is what was represented online, customer satisfaction increases while returns decrease.

April DigitalFashionChart

All Natural

Designers and brands are assured that all the digital fabrics in the CottonWorks™ library are sustainable because they are all-natural cotton. This is meaningful to consumers on multiple levels. For starters, fully 92 percent of consumers think better quality garments are made from all-natural fibers, according to 2023 Cotton Incorporated’s Lifestyle MonitorTM Survey. Further, nearly three-quarters of all shoppers (72 percent) are willing to pay more for natural fibers such as cotton.

Cotton and cotton blends (including denim) the favorite fiber or fabric of choice to wear for the majority of consumers (71 percent – eclipsing all others including silk, 4 percent, polyester 3 percent, and wool 1 percent. And 79 percent say cotton/organic cotton/recycled cotton is safe for the environment.


The Council for Textile Recycling reports an incredible 85 percent of America’s used clothes goes to landfills. And in this concerning behavior, how many of these items biodegrade? The fashion industry’s relationship with textiles matters to consumers, Mother Earth, and business overall. The care and disposal of garments and the biodegradability of raw materials, both natural and synthetic, is a critical issue throughout the supply chain. Studies show cotton is far more biodegradable than petroleum-based fabrics like polyester. In one study, cotton samples decomposed up to 77 percent in just 90 days, while most polyester fibers remained intact.  

Cotton biodegrades quickly because it is made of cellulose, the organic compound that is the basis of plant cell walls and vegetable fibers. The fibers break down naturally in landfills similarly to other crops such as food and plants. With sustainability and biodegradation in mind, Cotton Incorporated has developed viable alternatives to synthetic microfiber fleece by creating cotton and cotton/wool blend fabrics that are designed to insulate and provide warmth – while offering a natural, biodegradable option. Further, any fibers that shed from garments made with these fabrics easily break down in soil and water environments. Polyester fibers, conversely, contribute to the microplastic pollution problem and can take hundreds of years to decompose.

Digital Design and Sustainability

Whether it’s 3D design or discovering fabrics through digital libraries, digital product creation is still in its early days, giving designers and brands much to work with and think about when it comes to their business and sustainability goals.

“These are very broad concepts really, and it shows just how many options there are available for designers now,” Tattersall says. “Definitely in our community, we see huge adoption of technology and great excitement when a designer’s needs are met by innovation. Starting with design tools is at the root. And once you have digital designs, they can be translated to different formats – taken into the gaming industry, integrated into technology at the point of sale, and chipped for communication (think digital product passports) with the customer on a longer-term basis.”

Digital design and sustainability may not be the first connection you make, but they are intertwined in the art and science of the fashion industry. Learn more about the Cotton Incorporated Lifestyle Monitor™ Survey.



Scroll to Top
the Daily Report

Insights + Interviews right to your inbox.