Tech Solutions for Sustainability

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I recently discussed the sustainability issues in fashion that are plaguing the industry in The Zero Waste Revolution. Priorities to shift thinking and operations include adopting circular business models and decelerating overall production. Now my focus is on one of the most impactful solutions—implementing new technology in each stage of the fashion supply chain. From using AI for accurate forecasting to managing returns, there are tech solutions available to fashion retailers to make achieving zero waste more attainable.

The United Nations Economic Commission for Europe stated that the apparel industry accounted for 10 percent of global carbon emissions and 20 percent of global water waste. Additionally, most clothing that’s mass-produced utilizes manufactured textiles like polyester, nylon, and acrylic that have introduced microplastics into water systems.

Building A Sustainable Fashion Supply Chain

Business consulting giant Accenture shows that there are five critical areas in the supply chain that directly impact sustainability efforts. They are planning & design, materials sourcing, production, distribution, and retail merchandising. Larger brands tend to have more involvement with each stage of the supply chain while smaller brands are at the mercy of full-service manufacturers. Still, there are tech solutions that can help any brand no matter the size.

Planning & Design

Planning and design begin with innovation or forecasting. The innovation stage is creating a design based on an idea and, in best cases, is something that’s never been done before. Since creative control is with the designer it can be difficult for the innovator to create an item that will resonate with a mainstream consumer base. This is where forecasting comes into play.

A great forecaster gathers data from sources from fashion shows, fashion influencers, and credible forecasting agencies, but the main problems with fashion forecasting is that it cannot keep up with the rapidly changing trends and inevitable human error. Harvard Business School professors, Marshall Fisher and Ananth Raman, estimate that presale forecasting errors range between 50 and 100 percent. Significant forecasting errors translate into either too little production or, in the case of fast fashion, mass production of clothing that doesn’t sell.

Paris-based forecasting tech company, Heuritech, creates more accurate forecasting models using artificial intelligence (AI) for brands like Jimmy Choo, Adidas, Louis Vuitton, and more. According to their website, their technology analyzes real life images shared on social media and translates them into meaningful insights.“Heuritech empowers fashion brands to forecast demand and trends more accurately, produce more sustainably, and achieve unprecedented competitive advantage.”

Better data produces more accurate results and nearly eliminates the chance of human error. AI can also be used to enhance the planning and design stage through sustainability forecasting to more accurately assess future environmental impact.

Materials Sourcing

The United Nations Economic Commission for Europe stated that the apparel industry accounted for 10 percent of global carbon emissions and 20 percent of global water waste. Additionally, most clothing that’s mass produced utilizes manufactured textiles like polyester, nylon, and acrylic that have introduced microplastics into water systems. The long-term effects are still relatively unknown.

In 2017, a Reverse Resources white paper estimated that one-quarter of fashion manufacturers’ purchased materials are wasted every year — but this report came with a disclaimer that the number of wasted materials is grossly underreported.

Seattle-based circular textiles manufacturer, Evrnu, is using new technology to produce textiles from recycled materials. It’s known as NuCycl. The tech has been used in a partnership between Adidas and Stella McCartney to create the Infinite Hoodie that’s 100 percent recyclable. Enrnu’s goal—to create engineered fibers with extraordinary performance and environmental advantages, made from discarded clothing. The technology uses repolymerization to convert the original fiber molecules into new high performing renewable fibers. Even the toughest type of textile waste – 100% post-consumer – can be turned into new materials with NuCycl.”Infusing tech into the textile and materials sourcing process can set the stage for more brands to start their product lifecycle with sustainability as a priority. 

Production

In the early stages of production, samples are created by pairing the designs with the raw materials. The sample process involves creating a mockup of the final design and revising until the desired design is achieved. This means up to 20 samples can be produced for just one item. While some brands have sample sales to offload any unused samples, most are discarded. But this can be avoided during the planning and design stage by using accurate forecasting.

An alternative is 3D virtual modeling. Daniel Grieder, CEO of Tommy Hilfiger, committed to using 3D virtual modeling to create, develop and sell samples starting with the Spring 2022 collection. In 2021 PVH, the brand’s parent company, beta launched a platform called STITCH to scale 3D design capabilities that would include not only samples, but digital showrooms as well. Manufacturing companies like the TAL Group currently use the digital sampling technology in its clothing factories across Asia. And according to the CEO, Roger Lee, the results could be phenomenal. “If our clients alone all switched to this new technology, we would see savings of over 300,000 yards a year,” states Roger Lee.

Alvanon, an apparel product development consultancy, was an early pioneer of 3D modeling. The virtual Alvaform is a solution that helps retail brands cut costs and improve accuracy during the apparel production process. This is a goal that CEO Janice Wang refuses to take lightly. In a 2021 statement Wang voices the brand’s commitment to reducing waste. “To move the industry towards sustainability calls for abandoning our old ways of doing things and replacing all the efficient processes that digitalization can deliver. Alvanon can contribute to this in various ways, most of all by helping the industry streamline inventory.”

Distribution

When it comes to distribution, global concern for the environment is already forcing fashion brands to deliver their product sustainably. In the United States, electric vehicle requirements are being rolled out across the transportation industry. It’s part of the global 30×30 campaign where over 112 countries have pledged to enact policies that would offer protection for 30 percent of the environment by 2030.

Aside from transportation logistics, the distribution process is also being revamped to include proper traceability for products. The European Commission is currently looking into legally requiring brands to use digital product passports (DPP) to improve transparency. A DPP works like a QR code or RFIDs to display detailed information on products to include sourced materials. Fashion brands like Chloé and Net-A-Porter have already tapped into this technology to inform their consumers and to effectively track the success of their sustainability efforts across the supply chain.

Retail Merchandising

Retail merchandising is arguably the most important part of the supply chain since it deals directly with customers. It’s already widely reported that consumers are demanding clothing that has the least impact on the environment. Most of the work will fall on retailers to make sure they are building sustainable supply chains, but customer satisfaction can make or break their efforts.

At the beginning of 2022, CNBC reported that apparel has an average return rate of 12.2 percent. Now, that may not seem monumental but that contributes to the yearly 4.7 billion metric tons of CO2 emissions caused by customer returns.

Statista estimates that the reason for 38 percent of returned clothing in 2021 was due to improper fit followed by ill-suited items at 15 percent. This number could be higher when you factor in that 30 percent of global fashion retail purchases are made online where customers have to guesstimate on size and suitability. This reality, along with deep fake technology, inspired the founders of DeepGears to create a virtual try-on plugin for online retailers.

The plugin works by allowing customers to create a virtual avatar based on their real-world body type. Clothing inventory from the retailer is then coded to fit the customer’s virtual model helping them to visualize how the garment will realistically fit. The tech is also versatile enough to be used across the customer journey. Italian fashion brand Liu Jo used the technology to boost user engagement via email through the animation of their denim collection.

With so many companies offering free returns, the cost is eventually reflected in the not so free impact on the environment. According to Dalpane and 180 Degrees Consulting, up to 2 kilograms of CO2 can be saved for each avoided return. “Even as little as a 5% reduction in returns, if achieved at scale, can make a huge difference to carbon emissions and I believe that is something well in DeepGears‘ reach,” says Pietro Dalpane, Co-Founder.

Another aspect of retail merchandising is customer experience, and London based Dressipi is equipping retailers with advanced personalization solutions that will increase customer satisfaction. The “personalization experts” at Dressipi are hyper focused on using AI to assist with digital personal styling for every customer. The technology shows customers how their garment can be styled in a variety of ways to increase wear longevity and reduce overall returns.

Zero Waste Begins at Ground Zero

From the ideation of new trends to the first customer interaction, achieving a more sustainable future in fashion starts with the implementation of innovative tech from the beginning. As clothing moves through the supply chain, it should be clear at each stage that environmental impact is being prioritized.

With so much technology being within reach of most fashion retailers, there should be little to no excuse as to why fashion waste isn’t significantly decreased by 2030. The resources have been made available and it’s up to retailers to make the decision to enter and nurture a circular ecosystem.

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