How technology is making the fashion industry sustainable?

Still far from achieving environmental sustainability, or carbon neutrality, the fashion industry is critically contributing to achieving the Sustainable Development Goals by using innovative technology.

fashion and style
 Min read
May 26, 2022

Within the past decade, with the rise of social media and conscious consumers, a fashion revolution has taken place. Customers who invariably influence the fashion industry along with millennial social media influencers are demanding a systemic change within the industry to become more sustainable and transparent.

The fashion industry has been at the forefront of innovation for decades, and this time as well, the industry is stepping up to cater to its consumers’ demands. The seismic shift is neither an easy task nor a quick one, the brands have realised that just marketing ‘green plans’ will not be enough and ground-level changes should be visible.

Undoubtedly, the fashion industry drives a significant part of the global economy. It is a $2.4 trillion industry and is responsible for an estimated 2 to 8% of greenhouse gas emissions, up to 20% of industrial wastewater and 24% of insecticides. The industry has a significant impact on biodiversity, climate and nature.

Still far from achieving environmental sustainability, or carbon neutrality, the industry is critically contributing to achieving the Sustainable Development Goals by using innovative technology. The usage of tech is ensuring waste minimization, circularity, responsible production and consumption, and innovation.

Using technology, the fashion industry is starting to implement sustainability within every facet of its business, from sourcing materials to manufacturing processes to recycling the products.

But can technology be used for making fashion sustainable?

To fulfil global goals of reducing carbon emissions, and creating sustainable living, new developments in tech are being used. There is a symbiotic relationship between fashion and tech. Currently, tech is being used in tracking water and energy consumption during the production process, 3-D and AI-assisted design, and data analytics in production and collection management. Technology can be implemented across the production to end-user consumption cycle from the nascent stages of material sourcing to the final stages of delivery, packaging and for user feedback.

So here are a few innovative ways to use technology in making the fashion industry sustainable.

3D virtual sampling

Shifting from the traditional way of sending physical samples, 3D virtual samples provide both designers and the retail buying teams with an accurate representation of the product. This is another fast-evolving technology which can be used after the design stage of a collection. Sending virtual 3D samples can drastically reduce carbon footprint and waste in both design and product development.

Along with it, 3D modelling is also available to determine the exact measurements and dimensions of customers. Using the same technology, brands can receive individual measurements of customers and can manufacture clothing to fit different body types. This technology results in consumers receiving clothing that fits and avoids the problem of mass returns of clothing. The sizes available on the websites are usually designed according to limited average body sizes.

Using virtual reality (VI), a combination of a customer’s dimensions and dimensions of a piece of clothing, brands are also creating an overall VI experience for customers where they can try clothes and zoom into details.

Alternative textiles

Technology is facilitating the development of sustainable textiles that are recyclable, regenerative, reusable and responsibly sourced. Some of them are fibres extracted from agricultural waste products such as leaves and rinds.

These sustainable textiles are made using biotechnology- the application of science and technology to natural fibres to create different varieties of textiles. Alternative textiles are also made by using bio-waste fibres and then combining them with existing fibres using chemical processes. For example, a German outdoor brand, VAUDE’s, use of QMILK felt fibre is made using 20% milk and 80% wool.

Another application of biotech to materials is lab-grown textiles which use bacteria, mycelium, and proteins.

Vegan leather

Companies are making innovative vegan leathers- leather which is not made from animal skins but from 100% natural materials in laboratories. It can also be made using materials such as pineapple leaves, cork, apple peels, and recycled plastic.

Vegan leather is produced with different chemicals and a totally different industrial process to real leather. Bonding together a plastic coating to a fabric backing is the most common way to make faux leather. Apart from other natural materials, vegan leather is also made from Polyvinyl Chloride, also known as PVC or Vinyl. It is an innovative and affordable plastic compound commonly used to create alternative leather products.

It is also made from Piñatex, which is an alternative leather product made from the waste parts of a pineapple plant, mainly pineapple leaves. Dr Carmen Hijosa introduced Piñatex to the market, with development starting in the 1990s in the Philippines. She used pineapple leaves to create an alternative for leather. Decades later, it has become a successful by-product of Pineapple farming in the Philippines, creating a secondary income source for farmers and supporting their economy.

Eco-friendly dye

The dyeing process is one of the highly polluting stages in textile manufacturing. The dyeing process varies on the type of fabric, for example, cotton dyeing is longer and more water and heat-intensive process. This means, that cotton takes up about 75% of the dye that is used and in order to make sure that the colour holds, dyed fabric or yarn is washed and heated again and again, producing huge amounts of wastewater.

A company named ColorZen uses a patented technology that pre-treats cotton before it is spun in order to speed up the dyeing process. The pretreated fabric reduces 90% of water usage, 75% of energy usage and 90% of chemicals usage.

Technology has helped in creating eco-friendly dyeing techniques to reduce the overall negative impact on the environment. Companies are also using the ‘Air Dye’ system that uses 85% less energy and 90% less water than conventional dyeing. AirDye uses dispersed dyes that are first applied to a paper carrier and with heat, it is transferred from the paper to the textile’s surface. This high heat process colours the dye at a molecular level.

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