November 27, 2020

How Digital Technology is Powering the Eco-Fashion Movement

4 min read

Dr. Scott Clarke, Vice President, Consumer Product Industry Lead at US digital consultancy Publicis Sapient, works with Fortune 500 companies across the retail and consumer products industries to help them understand and respond to the opportunities and threats posed by digital disruption. In his guest comment he talks about the role of digitization and the fashion industry’s environmental challenges.

“The fashion industry is the largest polluter in the world, second only to coal. Ten percent of the world’s carbon impact comes from the fashion industry. In fact, cotton, which represents less than 3% of the world’s agriculture production, uses up to 20% of the world’s most harmful pesticides. Moreover, the production of cotton textiles relies heavily on an array of toxic chemicals, particularly during the dyeing and printing process. Many people view cotton as a natural textile but it’s not so natural when you pull back the curtain and realize the human and environmental impact.

Many agricultural communities that are economically reliant on the cotton industry get trapped on what is commonly referred to as the ‘pesticide treadmill’. Farmers will use pesticides to maximize crop production but as insects build up a resistance to these chemicals the farmers are forced to use stronger and stronger pesticides. Eventually these pesticides begin to destroy the soil and the local water supply which has enormous economic and health implications for the adjacent communities.

The environmental issues facing the fashion industry are even more alarming when one considers the deep interconnection between food and fiber. Approximately 60% of the cotton plant finds its way into the food stream. Cotton seed is used for dairy feed and many of the oils produced from cotton are used for bread and other snacks. Hence damage inflicted on cotton plants by powerful pesticides and other toxins not only has broad, long term environmental implications but also immediate human health consequences.

The fashion industry’s environmental challenges are by no means limited to the agricultural process. Most of the carbon emissions attributed to the industry come from the burning of coal during the dyeing and printing process where a myriad of chemicals and copious amounts of water need to be heated to extremely high temperatures. Most alternatives, such as natural gas and biomass, have been rejected due to concerns either over cost, accessibility, and/or scalability. A significant investment in technology-enabled innovation is needed to seek more sustainable alternatives and cleaner energy sources, such as the use of 3D tooling to test new boiler concepts, possibly relying on solar or geothermal heating, and the use of AI and machine learning to experiment with waterless dyeing systems or at least the production of dyes that don’t need high heat.

With Millennials and Gen Z becoming an increasing focus for the fashion industry, and both of these cohorts placing a greater importance on sustainability and social responsibility, the industry must continue to seek out new and innovative ways of being more purposeful and giving back to the environment and community. Reducing the reliance on coal as a primary energy source will soon become an unavoidable priority for fashion brands who can ill afford to fall foul of environmentally-conscious consumers. However, the solution is not a simple one, and in order to fully embrace the eco-fashion movement, the fashion industry will need to work collaboratively with the science and technology community, environmental groups, and government agencies.

Eco-fashion is about making better choices like sourcing more sustainable materials and finding ways to use less water and fewer toxic chemicals across the fashion supply chain. And it’s about bettering the planet and the communities that share it at every step along the way. Eco-fashion provides three major benefits: greater transparency for the consumer by connecting the dots between the farmer, mill, dye house, manufacturer and distributor; more empowerment, economic security and protection for farmers and their communities; and more environmental sustainability by removing harmful toxins from the farming and manufacturing of fibers.

The ability to fulfil these objectives in parallel will continue to increase as the fashion industry learns to adopt a number of emerging digital technologies including but not limited to blockchain to enable complete transparency across the end-to-end supply chain, artificial intelligence and IoT to power precision farming and crop monitoring, and of course the continued investment in the bioengineering of fabrics which address many of the underlying environmental issues that currently plague the fashion industry.

Technology is allowing us to reimagine new, progressive approaches to sustainability and eco-fashion. To capitalize on this technology, fashion brands must begin to identify opportunities along existing supply chains to reduce carbon emissions and contribute to a sustainable fashion future.   This requires approaches that are human centric, data informed, and future oriented.

Of course, none of this will matter unless the fashion industry can find authentic ways of being more purposeful and giving back to communities and the environment. In a society that expects more from the companies it does business with, adapting fashion brands to deliver purpose at scale is more than just a good idea, it is critical to maintaining a competitive advantage in an increasingly unforgiving marketplace.”

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