Welcome to the ‘Fashion, Nature and Technology’ Method. Centre for Sustainable Fashion have teamed up with global technology and consulting company IBM to introduce you to the relationship between technology and sustainability. The Method is structured into five sections:
Section 1: An overview of fashion, nature and technology, including key definitions, how technology impacts fashion and nature, and what nature needs from technology.
Section 2: An ‘in conversation’ with IBM and CSF on IBM’s approach to sustainability.
Section 3: A look at different technologies that can be used to support living nature.
Section 4: Industry examples of innovative sustainability and tech practice.
Section 5: Some critical questions to help you starting thinking about valuing nature through your own fashion practice.
This method will help you begin to:
- Understand the relationship between fashion, technology and sustainability. - Recognise challenges, gaps and opportunities in how fashion and technology can support nature. - Gain insight into the work done by IBM and other technology organisations in this area. - Understand how you can begin to address fashion and nature in your own work.
1.1 What is technology? Why is it important to fashion?
According to the Cambridge English Dictionary, technology is “(the study and knowledge of) the practical, especially industrial, use of scientific discoveries.” (1)
This definition encompasses almost all of the ways we create fashion, from the use of a simple tool like a sewing needle to more complex systems utilising multiple tools, like a dyeing facility or cotton farm. It enables us to make fashion products, either at home or industrially and add functionalities to them; it facilitates the creation and distribution of fashion media, like photography, film, journalism or communications; it connects us to other fashion users and experiences through the Internet, social media, or even augmented reality.
1.2 How does technology impact fashion and nature?
Technology is an essential component of the fashion system we have today. Without technological innovations and developments in farming, mining, textile production, mass manufacturing, logistics, transport, distribution, retail and disposal, our global supply chains and production systems – including communication tools and distribution channels – could not exist. Technology’s relationship with capitalism in particular has given rise to major developments in fashion history – the industrialisation of textiles in Northern England in the 1800s; the invention of Fordism and the factory assembly line; and the creation of global supply chains.
Of course, these developments come with both positive and negative consequences. Though technology gives us new ways to realise our visions and engage with fashion, for many years its ecological or human impacts have not been considered in how it is developed and used.
Technology impacts all stages of the product life cycle:
Raw materials and sourcing
The development of agricultural technology has given us the ability to grow cotton, wood, flax and other bast plants at a commercial scale, from which plant fibres can be extracted and processed into yarns; and the ability to farm animals or insects for their fur, wool, skin or silk fibre. Mining technology and chemical science has generated synthetics made from fossil fuels, bio-based oils or even milk. (2)
The availability of fibres on industrial scales gives the fashion industry many creative possibilities but also contributes to extensive environmental degradation. For example, irrigation systems, fertilisers and pesticides are technological interventions commonly used in cotton farming to help increase yields and protect crops from insects, enabling us to grow more cotton than ever before. But these technologies also contribute to water scarcity, create pollution, and negatively impact soil fertility, pest resistance and biodiversity.(3)
Fibre processing and textile production
Once raw materials are mined, harvested, slaughtered or otherwise extracted from natural sources, they are processed into usable fibres and textiles. Some of these technologies are millennia old (the earliest evidence of silk dates from 8,500 years ago(4); others are in development at this very moment.
Textile production technologies, from weaving to dyeing to printing, are a significant form of cultural expression. They tell stories about local history, capture significant socio-political shifts (like the transfer of Indonesian batik to West African wax print via Dutch colonisation) or shared traumas(5), reflect cultural values and identity in visual form (like Samoan siapo, Ghanaian kente cloth and Peruvian taquile), and keep craft histories alive (like byssus, sea silk).
As with raw material production, commercial textile technologies are not often developed with the environment in mind. Hazardous chemicals are used for washing, bleaching, dyeing, softening, emulsifying, anti-pilling, water or stain resistance and other processes,(6) leading to pollution of land and waterways at production facilities and damaging the health of workers, local communities and animal and insect populations.(7)
Design and manufacture
It’s hard to imagine fashion without the sewing machine. Modern clothing production relies on commercial equipment, often with very specific functions (such as button-hole machines, cloth cutters or overlockers). Though many cultures and geographies have long-standing histories of making fashion without machinery (such as handmade Indian Kantha embroidery and Vietnamese Nón Lá), and some designers (like Phoebe English or Roberts Wood) experiment with alternative methods of making, commercial fashion is shaped by these technologies.
Mass-manufactured clothing production generates vast amounts of waste: cutting pattern pieces from cloth creates offcuts; orders are cancelled after production has already taken place; unsold pieces are left with no clear use. Some innovations aim to target fashion’s waste problem, such as zero-waste patternmaking or knitting, 3D printing, circular design, and made-to-order, just-in-time or on-demand manufacturing.
Technology also provides a source for creative expression through image-making. Cameras and digital software (like Adobe Photoshop) enable us to design or capture others’ designs through photos, film, illustrations and other visual communications.
Logistics and supply chains
A key characteristic of the global fashion system is its complex supply chains. These make it possible to source materials from one part of the world, process them into textiles in another, send the textiles to different factories for production, then on to distributions centres or retail stores all over the world.
Though the political economy is a contributing cause for the inefficiency of shipping pieces across multiple countries for different production stages (an amalgam of labour costs, modern slavery, worker rights, raw material supply, agricultural subsidies, production expertise, and environmental policy, among other factors), technology gives us the ability to do so. It enables the physical means to transport these materials and products all over the world – via land, air or sea – as well as logistical systems and software to manage them, ensuring the right pieces are in the right place at the right time.
One of the most influential applications of technology to retail – in this case communication and distribution – is e-commerce. Aided by the commercialisation of the Internet in the 1990s(8), companies such as eBay and Amazon created a new kind of business that provided an online marketplace to consumers.
As COVID-19 continues to shutter bricks-and-mortar stores globally, the role of e-commerce in retail has accelerated in response. Digital channels are seen as the “silver lining that presents the biggest opportunity in 2021”(9) by fashion executives, with technology providing new ways to engage audiences and sell products.
But e-commerce is not without negative impacts to nature. Shipping individual products to individual consumers incurs a higher environmental impact than a shopper visiting a store in-person and leaving with a product, and on average, 40% of online purchases are returned.(10) Fashion also currently utilises a ‘push’ model for production and sales: marketing campaigns, advertising, trends and retail experiences are all designed to incite us to purchase more, leading to wasted, little-worn products and unsold inventory.
End of life
Landfill or incineration are increasingly unacceptable options for the disposal of unwanted garments or unused raw material. Here, technology has developed a wealth of new ways to ‘close the loop’ on materials in the fashion system. From recycling waste streams into new textiles and fibres (like EcoNyl® or REFIBRA™) to recyclable packaging, such as Burberry and Fashion for Good) to peer-to-peer resale platforms (like E-bay, Depop or Vestiaire Collective), technology provides an alternative to traditional methods of disposal.
Technology can also help to support end-of-life logistics, ensuring products and materials are directed to the places that can make use of them, such as recycling or composting facilities, new wearers, new designers, or factories that are able to disassemble pieces and repurpose them into something new.
Technology can further help to enable circularity, such as RFID tags or QR codes on labels that can track the movement of garments and products across their lifecycle, and store information such as care instructions or material classification for recycling. Examples include circular.fashion’s circularity.ID, and Avery Dennison’s atma.io, tested with adidas.
1.3 What does nature need from technology?
We need to re-orient sustainability mindsets from ‘doing less bad’ to ‘doing good’, shifting fashion’s relationship with nature from extractive to regenerative. This approach re-orients our priorities to ask, what does nature need from fashion? And what can technology do to meet those needs? The below points begin to respond to this question.
Apply innovation and scientific development to fashion
New inventions or discoveries across field (from chemistry to the earth or material sciences) may have benefits or implications for the fashion system. Scientific innovation and emerging technologies from other industries can be applied across the entire fashion lifecycle, from raw materials and textile production to use and end of life. Taking these developments and applying them to fashion is a key strategy in ensuring our industry tackles the climate emergency quickly and effectively.
One such example is the Stockholm Resilience Centre’s nine planetary boundaries,(11) which have been taken up by the fashion industry at large. The boundaries have been used for setting science-based targets – the University of Cambridge Institute for Sustainability Leadership partnered with Kering to explore their use in developing sustainability strategies and targets based on ‘fair share’.(12) They have been also used by H&M in collaboration with the Ellen MacArthur Foundation and the Stockholm Resilience Centre to develop a framework to measure the current impact of fashion on the boundaries, and identify areas for action focusing on the circular economy.(13)
Understand our current impact
One of the key environmental needs that technology can help to meet is understanding fashion’s impact on the planet. While some are clear or measurable (for example, pollution caused by chemical run-off from a local factory, or an area of land converted for agriculture or landfill), the aggregate impacts caused by a product over its lifetime are much harder to understand. Multiply that across the billions of garments, accessories and footwear produced every year, and the complexity of measuring fashion’s effect becomes obvious.
We have to understand where and how we’re doing damage in order to make effective change. Newly-maturing technologies have a key role to play in giving brands, designers and fashion wearers the ability to measure these impacts at scale, identify priorities, and track progress – especially against global indicators such as the planetary boundaries.
For example, IBM uses technologies such as machine learning and Internet of Things (IoT) to gather, monitor and understand environmental data. Their Green Horizon research lab in China applies these technologies to air quality, renewable energy integration and energy efficiency. In a fashion context, their fleet management software makes use of big data analytics to track pollution-creating driving behaviours in order to reduce emissions from freight logistics. IBM also is one of the member companies of World Business Council for Sustainable Development (WBCSD) engaged in the Value Chain Carbon Transparency Pathfinder project – an initiative aimed at addressing the lack of transparency for Scope 3 emissions.
Transform the way we produce and consume fashion
As noted, fashion currently operates on a ‘push’ model of growth logic(14) – companies aim to continually increase their profit. This is usually done by selling more product every year – which increases not only profit but environmental deterioration and accelerated climate change. To put it simply, the fashion industry overproduces, and stimulates demand to meet that production.
While common sustainability efforts can reduce environmental impact through efficiencies (for example re-using waste or running on renewable energies), technology has the opportunity to change production and consumption models in a transformative way. New ways of creating and making – through 3D design (such as Unspun, which uses body scanning to create bespoke jeans), collaborative design (as offered by customisation platform Unmade) or service design (as explored by researchers Timo Rissanen, Lynda Grose and Vibeke Riisberg) – can help wearers build a long-lasting relationship with their clothes. New production models can ensure only clothing that is wanted is made – for example Careste offers on-demand products with a custom fit. Digital spaces such as Etsy and depop can help wearers to avoid mass-market products completely by finding pre-existing pieces or connecting with makers.
Technology has the power to mediate a new approach to fashion – one that is fulfilling and regenerative – by providing the channels, processes and platforms that can bring it to life.
These three themes are only a few of the changes our planet needs from technology – there are many other ways it can support fashion to make the shift from extractive to regenerative. Roberto Battistoni, Consumer Products Solutions Lead at IBM, outlines the IBM perspective:
“Technology is a human enabler.
If humans are not willing, then nature will not be regenerated. Humans make up society and every society is based on a system of incentives. Economic survival is a very strong incentive especially in the short term (vs. species survival, which is a long-term incentive) – therefore technology needs to align with this concept. The practical implication is that every nature-enhancing initiative must also have a commercial benefit of some sort, and this is the reason why we talk about a triple bottom line (People, Planet, Profit).
If you reduce the impact of fashion pollution across the supply chain by, for example, ensuring mills run on renewable energy, dyeing doesn’t pollute rivers, water consumption is minimised, logistic is optimised (minimising CO2 emissions), fabric waste is reduced and the fabric used is re-used – then you must make sure that this also helps you differentiate your brand in the eyes of the consumer. You must communicate this work effectively and truthfully (because greenwashing is as bad as polluting in the eyes of the consumer). You generally must also ensure that this helps you run more efficient operations, and this could be to do with the fact that having visibility of your operations helps you comply with industry standard quicker, with fewer people, more accuracy, or in a way that optimises inventory and reduces overstock.
Technology can enable all of the above today and the industry is at a special crossroad because sustainability has become a true differentiator in the eyes of the consumers, the employees, the investors and increasingly the Government. We have seen more interest in sustainability driven projects in the past six months than we ever have. To put it into our clients’ words, ‘addressing sustainability is finally urgent – and urgent means it’s a strategic priority.’“
2. IBM and Biodiversity: In Conversation
To explore IBM’s perspective further, we sat down with Roberto to discuss the relationship between tech and sustainability. He spoke to Dr Anna Sammarco, Materials Engineer, Innovation and Sustainability Expert and Head of Knowledge Exchange at Centre for Sustainable Fashion, to give a behind-the-scenes insight into the work IBM is doing in this space.
3. Fashion technology to support nature
With new technologies emerging and maturing every season, fashion has a wealth of innovations from which to draw new ways of creating, wearing and re-making clothes. In this section, we profile some recently matured technologies – responsible computing, blockchain, 3D modelling and material innovation – that are being applied to fashion and sustainability, exemplifying mindsets that are moving from extractive to regenerative.
3.1 Responsible computing: big data analytics, artificial intelligence and internet of things
What are they?
IBM defines big data as “data sets whose size or type is beyond the ability of traditional relational databases to capture, manage and process the data with low latency. Characteristics of big data include high volume, high velocity and high variety.”(15) Big data analytics, therefore, is “the use of advanced analytic techniques against very large, diverse big data sets that include structured, semi-structured and unstructured data, from different sources, and in different sizes from terabytes to zettabytes.”(16)
In simple words, big data analytics is about taking large volumes of data, analysing them, and using insights from that analysis to practical applications including data visualisation, machine learning, AI and statistics.
Artificial Intelligence (AI)
“In computer science, the term artificial intelligence (AI) refers to any human-like intelligence exhibited by a computer, robot, or other machine. In popular usage, artificial intelligence refers to the ability of a computer or machine to mimic the capabilities of the human mind – learning from examples and experience, recognizing objects, understanding and responding to language, making decisions, solving problems – and combining these and other capabilities to perform functions a human might perform”.(17)
The Internet of Things (IoT)
“The Internet of Things is the concept of connecting any device (so long as it has an on/off switch) to the Internet and to other connected devices. The IoT is a giant network of connected things and people – all of which collect and share data about the way they are used and about the environment around them.”(18)
How can they support fashion and nature?
These recently matured technologies can work closely together to change the way fashion impacts nature. There are endless possible applications that are still unexplored, but some of the key ways responsible computing can impact fashion include:
Understanding and measuring fashion’s impacts: big data analysis, machine learning and the IoT can work in tandemtogether to enable brands and businesses to monitor environmental and social or ethical factors(19) – for example water, energy, land or chemical use – to evaluate impact and measure progress.
Customer-centricity: data analysis and AI can help businesses to better predict customer needs, switching from ‘push’ to ‘pull’: manufacturing based on customer demand, rather than manufacturing demand. These alternative models – including designing to predicted customer demands,(20) just-in-time or small-batch production – can help to reduce waste and overstock.(21)
Green supply chains: making use of logistics and supply technologies such as fleet management software to monitor emissions and traffic, or digital supply chain software ecosystems of tools to manage on-demand manufacturing, assess sustainability of materials, develop products with global suppliers, and increase transparency.(22) Machine learning can also help to optimise supply chains to reduce transportation times and costs, and increase efficiency.(23)
How are they used in the fashion industry?
The World Wildlife Fund has partnered with Google to develop an environmental data platform to support designers and brands to source more sustainably, bringing together Google’s big data analytics and machine learning with WWF’s raw materials expertise.
IBM collaborated with multi-brand fashion company BESTSELLER to launch Fabric.ai, utilising IBM Watson® AI tools to reduce unsold waste and produce to demand by forecasting sales, product mix, and mark-downs – helping designers, product developers, buyers and merchandisers to make informed decisions aligned with customer needs.
Algorithmic Couture is a project run by Japanese research collective Synflux, which uses 3D scanning technology, computer-aided design and machine learning to create made-to-measure garments that optimise pattern efficiency.
Supply Compass is a technology company that offers fashion businesses an integrated ‘product platform’ – an ecosystem of fashion software that integrates design, product development, sourcing, order management and production to enable more efficient supply chain logistics, on-demand manufacturing, more sustainable design decisions, and match-making with certified factories.
How can you test them out?
IBM offers open-source Activity Kits for school-age learners and projects you can get involved with on their Tech for Social Impact page. At a higher level, their competitive Extreme Blue internships offer students the opportunity to apply technologies to real-world challenges. In 2020, the programme interns partnered with Burberry to prototype a product traceability system.
Supply Compass runs a sustainability-focused blog that profiles new technologies and their application to fashion supply chains.
3.2 Block chain
What is it?
As defined by IBM, “blockchain is a shared, immutable ledger that facilitates the process of recording transactions and tracking assets in a business network. An asset can be tangible (a house, car, cash, land) or intangible (intellectual property, patents, copyrights, branding). Virtually anything of value can be tracked and traded on a blockchain network, reducing risk and cutting costs for all involved.”(24)
In simple terms, when a transaction (movement of an asset) occurs, it’s recorded as a ‘block’ of data. This data can include “who, what, when, where, how much and even the condition”(25) of the asset. Once this block of data is recorded, it’s shared with everyone in the network, and can’t be deleted or removed. The next transaction connects to the previous block, and so on, forming “a chain of data as an asset moves from place to place or as ownership changes hands.”(26)
It’s important to note that because of this proof-of-work algorithm, blockchain can have a significant environmental footprint through energy use. As electricity is predominantly generated by fossil fuels rather than renewable sources, this can contribute to climate change.(27)
How can it support fashion and nature?
Blockchain’s characteristics have interesting implications for fashion. A blockchain could theoretically record all the movements of a material across its entire lifecycle, giving us the ability to track and trace its movements through the fashion supply chain from raw material to end of life (and onto the next one if the material is recycled).
Blockchain, therefore, can help to enable the following benefits for nature by contributing to transparency and linking with other contributors such as legislation, certifications or impact measures.(28) These contributions could include:
Validation of where materials, components or products were sourced, processed, manufactured, and sold (e.g. made locally);
Validation of what materials or components a product is made from;
Validation that a product or material is sourced from a more sustainable supplier (e.g. one who has been independently certified as meeting regenerative farming practices);
Auditing the use of chemicals, water, land, energy and other environmental resources during production – which can also help to validate that a facility meets independent sustainability standards;
Assisting with circular economy supply chains by validating material composition and therefore applicable re-use strategies for materials (e.g. proving a product is 100% cotton and therefore able to be recycled).
How is it used in the fashion industry?
IBM collaborated with Italian mill Piacenza and French supermarket chain Carrefour to apply IBM’s Blockchain Transparent Supply (BTS) platform to track the manufacture of fabrics from source to sales – including the conditions they were made in.
London-based technology company Provenance works with brands to verify their sustainability and ethical trade claims using blockchain. In 2017 they partnered with designer Martine Jarlgaard and tech start up A Transparent Company to track an alpaca fleece on its journey from farm to textile processing to finishing to customer, accessible via a smart label.(29)
Indian technology company TextileGenesis™ is developing a blockchain-enabled transparency platform to verify and track more sustainable fibres from production to retail.
How can you test it out?
For students, designers and early-career innovators: to help increase accessibility for like-minded innovators, Provenance offers its innovations as open-access, open-source resources. Available at https://open.provenance.org/
For brands looking to scale enterprise-grade solutions, IBM offers market-leading blockchain products that use open-source architecture. Available at: https://www.ibm.com/account/reg/us-en/signup?formid=urx-34579
3.3 3D modelling
What is it?
3D modelling uses specialised software to represent an object (such as a fashion product) in a computer simulation, creating the object in a three-dimensional digital space.(30) Computer-aided Design (CAD) programmes such as Gerber have long enabled users to digitally patternmake, but newer applications including Browzwear V-Stitcher, Optitex and Clo3D give users the design, product development and sampling capabilities, including the ability to collaborate directly with suppliers in a real-time before any physical piece is produced.
As well as digital design, 3D modelling gives fashion the ability to communicate in new ways. When Covid-19 prevented live fashion shows from taking place, digital events became a new conduit for showing collections to buyers and industry. Virtual or augmented reality technologies, freed from the limits of physics, offer new ways and spaces to create and engage with fashion.
How can it support fashion and nature?
3D modelling and visualisation gives us new ways to create fashion that don’t necessarily use any materials at all. The below points are just a few of the ways 3D modelling and design can enable us to be creative without being environmentally destructive.
Design and product development:
3D design allows sampling – a process that involves making mock-ups before production and shipping them back and forth between supplier and brand – to be done digitally, eradicating sampling waste and shipping emissions.
Communications and marketing:
Physical fashion shows can involve a huge amount of materials, though emissions from a show are near-impossible to calculate.(31) Digital shows offer a creative alternative that not only cut down on event production waste, but do not require buyers and journalists to fly between locations.
3D modelling can make a positive impact on the number of returns from e-commerce by offering virtual fitting rooms or ways to ‘try on’ a product digitally before making a purchase – helping to cut down on delivery emissions and unwanted product waste.(32)
It’s important to remember that digital fashion is not free from environmental impact. When we spoke to Roberto Battistoni at IBM, he noted that digital spaces also have a footprint – computers, servers and data centres all consume energy, and this consumption is accelerating alongside our growing use of digital technologies. While there are ways to reduce this (including switching to renewables and increasing efficiency), its planetary impact can’t be discounted.
To help mitigate this impact, IBM’s Turbonomic uses AI to reduce the energy consumption of data centres (which power technologies like blockchain or cloud computing) by increasing efficiency and making use of existing infrastructures.
How is it used in the fashion industry?
Zero waste designer Holly McQuillan uses Clo3D to develop her pieces digitally, eradicating toile waste and expanding her creative practice.(33)
Fashion house Fabricant creates digital-only clothing and experiences, pushing fashion in a new direction where physical materials are left behind.
DIGI-GAL, a global community of womxn and non-binary 3D creatives, recreated key pieces from Selfridges collections for a digital campaign.
Israeli fashion-tech company Zeekit works with brands and retailers to give their customers a way to try on clothes through 3D modelling.
Companies including ASOS offer a Fit Assistant service to help customers get the right size first time.
How can you test it out?
For fashion professionals: consider implementing digital sampling or design at your company, making use of full-service ecosystems such as Stitch 3D.
For femme-identifying digital designers: connect with DIGI-GXL, a global network of womxn, intersex, trans and non-binary creatives who specialise in 3D and animation, to explore immaterial fashion.
3.4 Material innovation
What is it?
Material innovation is an area of science and technology that explores alternatives to today’s standard materials. These can include existing fibres or textiles that have been re-discovered and re-engineered for the modern fashion industry (such as milk fibre or nettles), or completely new materials developed from alternative sources to conventional fibres (such as bio-mass, bio-waste or CO2(34)) with a lower environmental impact or more desirable functional and/or aesthetic properties.
How can it support fashion and nature?
Material innovation has a vital role to play in restoring fashion’s relationship with nature. According to the Higg Materials Sustainability Index, “up to 80% of a product’s environmental footprint comes from the raw materials used in its production”. This is an area of focus for circular fashion, as it can provide technologies to help meet the circular economy principles: designing out waste, keeping products in use, and regenerating natural systems.
This could mean turning unwanted waste (from fashion and textiles, other industries such as the food industry, or even air pollution) into a desirable material through recycling. Material innovation can help to create more durable products that last significantly longer than comparable textiles (for example Kyorene® Graphene). Another approach is to make use of ecologically-embedded materials and processes, focusing on innovations taken from nature – for example fermentation, synthetic biology, algae, or even seaweed.
These innovations align creativity with environment, reducing the waste produced by human life and applying natural processes in ways that give us new aesthetic possibilities.
How is it used in the fashion industry?
Wearwool is an early-stage start-up exploring biotechnology to develop textiles with tailored performance or aesthetic properties, such as stretch or colour, designing the fibres at DNA level rather than using textile processing chemicals.
Genomatica is a bio-engineering company that has developed a 100% bio-based nylon, processed into a fibre by Aquafil.
Ecovative has developed a mycelium-based textile, growing the leather alternative from mushrooms.
Parley for the Oceans upcycles marine plastic waste into Ocean Plastic®, an alternative to virgin plastic that has been used for footwear and sunglasses by brands including adidas.
Worn Again is a technology start-up working on scaling recycling technologies for polyester-cotton blends.
How can you test it out?
For emerging designers and fashion professionals:
Check the environmental impact of the raw materials you use on the Sustainable Apparel Coalition’s Higg Materials Sustainability Index (MSI) to help understand your current impact.
Always ask for material certifications, such as organic, recycled, or bio-based certifications. These can include Global Organic Textile Standard, Organic Content Standard and the Global Recycled Standard, among others.
Ask for transparency on energy and water consumptions associated with the raw material, textile or product manufacturing.
Ask for a lifecycle assessment (LCA) or request comparative test results to verify the footprint of your raw materials.
Make sure the chemicals used in production are compliant with the Zero Discharge of Hazardous Chemicals (ZDHC) MRSL.
For textiles and materials designers:
4. Industry examples
Now that we’ve introduced some of the technologies that can help to strengthen fashion’s relationship with nature, let’s have a closer look at industry examples of innovative sustainability and tech practice. These projects – a collaboration between IBM and German workwear manufacturer KAYA&KATO, and a London-based technology start-up Compare Ethics – look at two different ways technology can support nature.
4.1 IBM and KAYA&KATO
The partnership between IBM and KAYA&KATO focuses on a key challenge for the textiles company – the development of a transparent supply chain. While KAYA&KATO have offered garments certified by GOTS, OEKO-TEX and GRS amongst others since the early years of their business, they faced difficulty in extending this approach to the origin of their pieces.
Working with KAYA&KATO, IBM have collaboratively developed a blockchain platform that aims to create greater transparency by developing a ‘secured protocol’ for materials traceability: a ledger of information that tracks the raw material through to the final product. This provides a guarantee for all stakeholders that the product is sourced, processed, manufactured and distributed in accordance with certified standards.
In the words of Christian Schultze-Wolters, Director of Blockchain at IBM, the platform “helps foster trust among companies and their suppliers, businesses and especially their consumers. We want to set an example within the industry and offer other companies the opportunity to join us in advancing development and helping to create solutions for supply chain."(35)
Focusing on organic cotton, the platform uses blockchain to create a ledger shared with permitted stakeholders, creating ‘blocks’ of data that track each step in the production and distribution process. Those who are granted access include suppliers, manufacturers and retailers – everyone who has a role in the supply chain from raw material to product – in order to transmit and view the changes made to the cotton using a mobile web app.
For KAYA&KATO, this gave them the ability to track organic cotton from the farm in Uganda “through yarn spinning, weaving, dyeing and finishing of the fabric to the garment manufacturer and its delivery”(36) to the company in Germany. The system includes the use of QR-coded labelling, meaning that end-user customers can learn about the garment’s origin and production stages.
The initiative has ecological benefits for fashion – not only does it validate claims that products and materials are truly sourced from certified origins, combatting greenwashing, but it also enables brands to better understand
environmental impact across their product offering. It encourages uptake of organic cotton by creating a greater competitive advantage – the material has a verifiably lower impact than conventional options, helping to meet increasing consumer demand for products made in more sustainable ways and ethical conditions. For products made with 100% organic cotton, the QR labelling also supports circular systems by proving that the materials are free from hazardous substances and able to be recycled.
4.2 Compare Ethics
Compare Ethics is a London-based start-up launched in August 2020 that aims to verify ethical and sustainability claims made by fashion brands and retailers. Their online platform offers fashion wearers a ‘good, better, best’ scale for individual products or brands: a higher score than the industry average (good), a much higher score (better), or a score that sets a higher standard for industry (best.)
The Compare Ethics founders, Abbie Morris and James Omisakin, developed an algorithm in partnership with Imperial College London to scores products in line with industry averages based on third-party data sources (such as certifications), big data analytics and machine learning. This algorithm includes ten “key verification attributes”,(37) weighted according to value assigned by the team, and aligned with the UK’s Advertising Standards Authority Green Claims Code. A product or brand must score a minimum of 40% on the scale.
These evaluation categories include a wealth of sustainable practices such as blockchain traceability, lower-impact processes (like vegetable dyes or low-water washes), lower-impact materials (like organic or recycled), manufacturing (like renewable energy factories, small-batch or hand-making), plastic-free packaging, third-party certifications, vegan (no animal-derived materials), and initiatives such as upskilling workers, women’s empowerment, or other not-for-profit projects.
Not only does the platform help to clarify and verify social and environmental claims, it engages fashion wearers with the different ways a product can be made more sustainability – helping to broaden their understanding of ‘what makes a product sustainable’ beyond materials. This can encourage more diverse sustainability practices by increasing informed customer demand, clarifying exactly what actions have been taken (as opposed to using ambiguous terms such as ‘conscious’ or ‘responsible’), and by clearly highlighting gaps or lack of in action on the part of other brands.
For example, if a brand claims to be sustainable based on its organic cotton product offering, Compare Ethics helps to contextualise its actions against industry averages – as its only sustainability work is the use of lower-impact materials and third-party certifications, it falls short on other categories in the algorithm and may not even receive a rating. This helps to combat industry greenwashing, places the focus on brands who are setting a higher standard, and encourages others to improve their sustainability efforts at risk of being left behind – helping to drive change for the industry as a whole.
5. Critical questions
In this section you’ll explore some questions that relate this Method back to your own practice, whether you’re a student, graduate, fashion professional or technology buff. We’ve touched briefly on how you might begin experimenting with the different applications of technologies – now it’s time to think about how these can be explored in greater depth. How can you foster a greater sense of connection with nature through fashion? How can you use technology to benefit Nature?
So, to get you started, use the following prompt questions (aligned with our three programme perspectives: design, media and tech) to reflect on your practice. These prompts can help you to address nature in your own work, or can help you to develop an idea for the Fashion Values Challenge brief.
Design focus: how can technology support the development of fashion products, services and systems with nature in mind?
We’ve looked at some of the ways that new technologies, like blockchain and big data analytics, can help to develop ecologically-focused products (for example by verifying organic sources, or designing in line with customer demand). But what other possibilities are there?
Do some desk research. What are some of the areas of the design and product lifecycle that haven’t yet been explored from a technology perspective? From raw materials to textiles production to design and manufacture to logistics to retail – where are the gaps in innovation?
From the perspective of a designer or product developer, where can you see gaps for technology to help support more sustainable practices in your design process? Where could technology help change your impact on the planet?
From the perspective of a technology expert or innovator, how can these technologies be made more accessible? How can you help to build on open-sourced options that are available for everyone, like smaller or independent brands?
Media focus: how can technology communicate about fashion and nature in new ways?
We’ve also looked at the ways technology can use communications and media (like online platforms, e-commerce, or digital fashion shows) to engage people with fashion. What are some of the ways this could further be applied to sustainability?
From a communications perspective, how can you engage fashion wearers with sustainability in a meaningful way? Compare Ethics is a great example of this – they use technology to score sustainability work, then communicate those scores in understandable ways with potential customers.
From a digital design perspective, what new narratives can you build around fashion and nature? How can you create fashion that doesn’t require materials or leave an environmental footprint? What does immaterial fashion look like to you?
From a technology perspective, what new innovations need to be communicated about? How can media and technology work together to create a clearer picture of fashion’s impact on nature? The Good on You platform is a good example of how media and technology can better communicate on these issues.
Technology focus: how can new innovations be applied to fashion and nature?
Fashion as an industry can be slow to take up new technologies. For those with a background in technology (whether it be responsible computing, digital design or materials innovation), this provides a real opportunity to explore new applications.
What area of tech expertise do you have that you feel is unexplored by the fashion industry? How can you apply this expertise to fashion and nature specifically?
What does nature need from you? What are the environmental issues that you feel most passionate about, and what skills do you have that could address these?
What are your ambitions for fashion, technology and sustainability? What goals can you set to help set a course for these ambitions?
What’s your sustainable tech start-up idea? Do you have any ideas you think could transform the fashion industry?
These prompt questions can help you to respond to our Fashion Values Challenge, a global call-out for transformational ideas. Use your answers to define your sustainability ambitions, identify opportunities for you to create change, and brainstorm ideas and concepts in response to the Challenge question:
“How can Fashion value Nature?”
The brief calls for applicants to demonstrate how their idea will help to shift the fashion industry towards a more sustainable future: one that restores Nature rather than extracts from it. Reacting to biodiversity loss and the climate crisis, we ask applicants to consider how fashion can become part of the solution rather than part of the problem. The questions above are a great starting point for relating your practice and skills to the Challenge brief.
Do you have an idea you think could help transform fashion’s relationship with nature? Got the next big thing for fashion and nature? Find out more about the Challenge on our dedicated page.
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