It’s no wonder that sustainability has become a strategic focus area for fashion retailers. The confluence of consumer awareness and very clear scientific evidence that our consumption patterns aren’t ecologically nor socially tenable have taken sustainability from topic of niche activism to the boardrooms of retailers across the globe. It’s a complex topic, as sustainability has many different applications including but not limited to: providing working wages to those involved in the production and selling of your products, the environmental impact of materials and the production process, and even how the end consumer uses and cares for your products. With such varying and complex issues in play in today’s global supply chains, it’s no wonder that many retailers have doubled down their efforts, with teams focused on rewiring their processes for the good of us all. But powering all these efforts is emerging technology that makes it easier to improve, inform, and measure the efficacy of retail’s sustainability initiatives. Let’s take a look at some of the emerging technology that is changing how we think about sustainability in fashion.
Blockchain isn’t just for those interested in trading Bitcoin. Without going down the rabbit hole of one of Google’s most asked questions, in a sentence, blockchain enables data to be stored in a decentralized location, making that record secure and simultaneously easy to verify. Still trying to figure out how in the world blockchain connects with sustainability? Simply put, you could use blockchain to trace the origins of a product - so from the starting materials to where it’s sold - a consumer would know precisely where that item comes from. In a day and age where a brand’s claims on sustainability can be difficult to concretely trace and confirm, this would provide unparalleled visibility into the origins of our stuff. In fact, it’s not some crazy space-agey idea, as Walmart has already begun using the technology to internally trace some categories of food it sells, and diamond producer DeBeers has utilized Blockchain to ensure its diamonds are procured in a non-violent manner.
The next evolution of Blockchain, and it’s not one without many considerations to weigh, is for companies to figure out how to share this information with consumers. The hope is that a more transparent supply chain will help build brand equity and customer loyalty and ultimately enhance the understanding of a product’s real value.
What do acrylic, polyester, and nylon all have in common? Aside from being some of fashion’s most widely used fabrics, they’re also some of the most environmentally damaging ones. What’s more, even natural materials like cotton and silk get treated with lots of nasty chemicals on their way from source to store shelf. So what’s an informed consumer to do, aside from walking around in a paper bag, to make more responsible fashion choices? Well, it turns out that technology mixed with a bit of cutting-edge chemistry is the new fashion. One example? Kelp based materials. Yep, that’s right, that seaweed is not longer just for snacking. It grows fast and a team from a company called AlgiKnit has figured out that it can be woven into a very sturdy bioyarn that could potentially replace some of today’s more common synthetics. Not a seaweed person? Lab-grown leather, which was pioneered by a company by the name of Modern Meadow, is quickly becoming the material of choice for those looking for animal-free, leather doppelgangers. It’s made possible with some pretty incredible science and technology involving fermentation, and the company is set to release some high-profile fashion collaborations in 2019 using their namesake Zoa material. Still skeptical? You can see one of their products as part of a permanent exhibit at NYC’s MoMA museum. Smart, beautiful, and sustainable? We’re on board.
As we’ve talked about here before, AI is transforming and automating many of retail’s most time-consuming and manual processes ranging from production to the data collection. In the world of production, where many humanly catastrophic errors have been made, there are forward-thinking brands like Adidas, who has opened two Speedfactories, one in Atlanta and one in Germany, where its sneaker production is completely automated. It’s a revolutionary process, and yet it’s one that isn’t without an impact on off-shore workers whose jobs these machines are taking over. While in the fashion space completely automated factories aren’t yet the norm, they do have the potential to help brands be more agile, responsive, and responsible in today’s rapidly shifting retail landscape.
But let’s take this one step further - what if the answer to fashion’s sustainability question isn’t about what we make, but rather what we don’t? While it might be a tough pill to swallow, the truth is that we all probably need to be making and consuming “fewer, better things.” (In fact, this is the tagline of emerging DTC fashion brand Cuyana.) But how do retailers begin to embrace this new reality without sustaining major negative impact to their bottom lines? The answer lies in the universe of data that retailers own, much of it powered by AI, about the consumer and what sells. In a nutshell, data analytics have the power to inform brands on what to make less of and instead produce the products the consumer truly desires and will keep on fashionable rotation. In a day and age where a growing majority of consumers say they’re willing to pay more for responsible fashion, the answer to our sustainability questions may very well lie within retail's digital and physical walls.