sustainability fashion

The fashion industry is starting to clean up its act — with a little high-tech push.

After years of being prodded by activists, the industry has started to embrace sustainability with vigor. It’s an awakening that can been attributed to technology and timing since Millennial and Generation Z consumers don’t just buy things. They buy into a brand, a mission, a cause.

“Being always connected to the Internet, today’s consumers typically are better informed than those who try to sell them things. And in an ever-changing world, they look for guidance and authenticity,” said Daniel Langer, chief executive officer of luxury and brand development firm Équité, in an interview last month.

The notion of cheap, “entry-level” products appealing to young shoppers is the biggest misconception on the part of brands, he said. “Affordable line extensions often create irreversible damage as — and this is the second surprise for many managers — the youngest consumers are the most demanding.”

Langer’s point on branding helps explain the momentum behind green fashion.

The Internet can heighten awareness of environmental cost and sustainable sourcing. And that can cast brands with a mission — think ethical sourcing, pesticide-free textiles or water-conscious production — as trending crusaders.

The supercharged news cycle only puts a finer point on the matter. Issues like climate change and ethical production, along with online headlines and tweet-storms around a White House that turns a blind eye to them, dominate news feeds and social channels. Against that backdrop, the latest eco-fashion movement is resonating with urgency.

Fashion’s Dirty Not-So-Secret Secret

On Black Friday, the administration of President Trump released a federally mandated climate change study. The timing looked like an attempt to bury the findings.

No such luck. The media widely reported the results of the report, which revealed “the global average temperature is much higher and is rising more rapidly than anything modern civilization has experienced, and this warming trend can only be explained by human activities,” according to David Easterling, director of technical support at the NOAA National Centers for Environmental Information.

Those activities stretch over a variety of sectors. Fashion, notably, doesn’t top the official list of environmental offenders. But that doesn’t mean the industry is off the hook.

“The [Environmental Protection Agency] hasn’t really fully acknowledged that fashion is one of the main contributors, just because they haven’t gotten to do the proper research,” said Taryn Hipwell, founder of Beyond the Label, a nonprofit sustainable fashion group based in Los Angeles. “But the things above it are agriculture, transportation, oil — and those are all things that the fashion industry uses and contributes to.”

Some technical advances have exasperated the problem. Synthetic materials that don’t easily break down sit in landfills and the growing e-commerce sector comes with its own costs.

While tech may be part of the problem, it is also part of the solution.

Hipwell points to an emerging service called Common Objective. Born of the Ethical Fashion Forum, the service bills itself as a “intelligent business network for the fashion industry,” but functions like an online business match maker for fashion professionals and businesses. “They made it their goal to connect with designers and craft schools to get them the best resources,” she said.

The group prioritizes high ethical, sustainability and quality standards. So the greener the operation, the higher up it will show up in search rankings and the more visibility it will get.

New Approaches to Old Problems

Some of the latest advances might not have been possible at an earlier time, and a lot of it is happening behind the scenes across design, sourcing, production, distribution and more.

“I see the most exciting applications of technology and sustainability happening around circularity, production and new materials,” said Pierre-Nicolas Hurstel, founder of ReMode, a conference geared toward the fashion industry that held its inaugural edition last month.

Take jeans. In one session, legendary denim designer François Girbaud, an outspoken proponent of environmentally responsible fashion, decried some denim trends. “They use acid wash, but we know it destroys the environment,” he said, in an onstage conversation with Italian designer Adriano Goldschmied. “That’s a crime against humanity. We know it’s a danger now.”

But Girbaud and Goldschmied are both heartened by a new generation of tech tools. “I’m working on something right now…we can do that item with one glass of water,” the latter teased.

In another panel, Levi Strauss & Co.’s Paul Dillinger, vice president of product innovation, was a bit more forthright. He discussed how the brand’s laser technology reduces the number of chemicals required to produce jeans.

Digital technology lasers “aging” into a pair of Levi’s.  Justin Chung

The tech can also enable last-mile finishing in distribution centers or stores, reducing overproduction and waste.

That just scratches the surface. “Companies such as EON are developing end-to-end connectivity, Unspun is pioneering on-demand manufacturing, and SourceMap is creating radical supply chain transparency,” ReMode’s Hurstel said. “Circularity and closed loop manufacturing technology especially have the potential to completely transform the fashion industry’s supply chain.”

The circular economy has become a hot topic in the fashion universe. The concept takes aim at linear production and its high input, emissions, energy and waste, and instead champions a circular or looped model that emphasizes durable design, remanufacturing and upcycling.

According to Hurstel, apparel brands are increasingly viewing textile waste as a valuable resource, reintroducing recycled fibers and other materials.

Some of the most fascinating work is being done in laboratories. Bolt Threads has been developing alternative textiles such as Mylo, an organic faux leather made of mushroom mycelium.

Fabrics made of sugar, based on spiderweb silk and even using bacteria are on the bleeding edge of alternative organic or bio-driven textiles. It sounds like science fiction fare, but scientists in places such as Bolt Thread, MIT Media Lab and other organizations are weaving inspiration and science to explore new generations of alternative, earth-friendly materials.

mylo bag mushroom mycelium

The Mylo special edition of the Bolt Threads’ Chester Wallace Driver Bag features a faux leather made of mushrooms.  Courtesy Photo

The Business of Making Green

Eco-friendly merchandise once seemed like a niche business that prized its green cred over its style cred, appealing more to activists or “woke” customers than the masses.

But the new crop of sustainable brands skew more mainstream and don’t sacrifice fashion for the cause. In some cases, they don’t wear their eco ways on their sleeves. 

“One thing we haven’t been supervocal about that tends to surprise people is that around 40 percent of our products are made sustainably,” said Noah Palmer, founder of Gap Inc.’s digital-first Hill City brand. “If they’re a synthetic nylon or polyester, it’s postconsumer recycled. For a lot of our naturals, we’re using organic cottons. We’re using sustainable fabrics wherever we had the option to or wherever we’re able to.”

Others have stepped out more into the forefront, including Eileen Fisher. As one of the leading names in the responsible fashion movement, the company pledged that 100 percent of its goods would be sustainable by 2020. At least 63 other fashion brands have pledged to go move toward greener operations by 2020, including Inditex, Ganni, Asos, Zara and H&M.

Some of those decisions are driven by conscience. But the larger movement is an acknowledgment that, in the modern era, going green is just good business.

According to a Nielsen survey in 2015, which polled 30,000 consumers across 60 countries, 66 percent of consumers worldwide are willing to pay more for sustainable goods. Zoom in on Millennial shoppers, and the number goes up to 73 percent.

Where they shop also matters. This digital generation has made giants of e-commerce operations, which puts issues like distribution and shipping services in the crosshairs. But a healthy dose of creativity is firing on all fronts. 

For years, UPS has routed its deliveries to prioritize right-hand turns whenever possible. By doing so, the company saves millions of gallons of fuel annually and emissions comparable to that of more than 20,000 cars. Online retailers that offer ship-to-store, receiving lockers or other central drop-off locations also help lessen the industry’s environmental impact.

Many of these approaches would have been impossible or prohibitively complex without technology. And other fixes loom in the horizon.

For both physical and online retailers, supply chains and logistics have been highly intricate, often opaque systems spanning different geographies, stages, vendors and invoices. Now companies are exploring blockchain technology, a distributed ledger that’s considered largely unhackable. As a tool for transparency, it helps companies track and record logistics data, and ensure efficiencies and responsible practices up and down the supply chain. 

Technology Finds Its Place, Eventually 

The once-hyped promise of 3D printers was supposed to mitigate some of the complexities and waste of doing business. In theory, these machines were poised to reduce the need to truck in goods as people downloaded plans and printed their own products. Companies like MakerBot even began touting bioplastic printing material made from corn.

That future didn’t quite crystallize, though MakerBot still makes printers for the professional crowd, including designers transmitting prototypes to production facilities.

But some still find the tech too alluring to ignore. Like Adidas.

Adidas alphaedge 4d 3d printing

Adidas’ Alphaedge 4D with 3-D-printed midsole.  Courtesy Photo

Earlier this year, the sneaker brand introduced a $300 Futurecraft 4D sneaker with tech-start-up partner Carbon. Despite the 4D moniker, the twist is actually 3D printing, in that consumers can craft their own midsoles, which the company then produces with a 3D printer. Adidas said it expected to move 100,000 pairs by the end of 2018, and millions of similar shoes over the next few years.

A company spokeswoman says the expectation still holds. As proof of its commitment, Adidas even debuted another model recently. “With the introduction of the Alphaedge 4D in November we made the 4D technology available worldwide and in larger quantities for the first time,” she said.

At that kind of scale, larger companies are poised to make a major and more immediate impact. Now, more than ever, they’re showing the desire, will and technical savvy to do so — which could mean that sustainability in fashion is ready to become more fixture than a fad.