Did you know that it takes 2,700 liters of water to produce the cotton needed to make a single t-shirt? Or that producing a single pair of denim jeans takes enough water that a human drinks in ten years?
The $3.5 trillion clothing industry produces 20% of the global water waste, 10% global carbon emissions and deposits 20 billion tons of waste into landfills every year. That’s more than the emissions by all international flights and maritime shipping combined! At its current rate, the apparel industry will produce more than one-fourth of the world’s carbon footprint by 2050. Consumers are gradually getting more conscious about the environmental impact of their fashion purchases. On the other hand, brands are also taking note of the neo climate conscious consumer. Consumers are steadily accepting sustainable fabrics, upcycled clothing and organic materials that reduce waste.
Brands like Everlane and Adidas have released lines of clothing made from recycled plastic bottles and other reused materials. In fact, Adidas doubled its number of shoes made from recycled waste last year. Zara and H&M have pledged to only use organic, sustainable or recycled fabrics in its clothing by 2025 and 2030 respectively. In a nod to the ethical consumer, Stella McCartney became the first designer to launch the world’s first faux fur made using plant based ingredients.
According to Porter Novelli, 90% of Gen Z consumers believe companies have a responsibility to not only highlight environmental issues but actively work to overcome them. However, with 45% of Gen Z shoppers likely to seek additional information on a product or company before making a purchase, it’s important to increase transparency in the apparel industry’s supply chain process. In the fashion world a massive ton of clothing gets trashed before it is even sold – this could be due to faulty manufacturing, not meeting standards, order cancellations or even errors in the supply chain. That’s another reason to increase transparency in the supply chain. Since consumers increasingly want to see how truly brands are committed to sustainability, some companies are using blockchain technology to create an online public ledger that generates a permanent and unchangeable record of transactions. So users can track the journey of the item, from the production of the raw material to the shop floor, simply by scanning the item’s QR code on an app. Blockchain can be effective in securing transactions but can be limited in performance, scalability and confidentiality.
Some clothing companies are using a fairly disruptive innovation – 3D virtual sampling – to decrease product development time. In the past, physical samples were required in the design, manufacturing and selling lifecycle. Oftentimes twenty or more such samples were necessary for designers and retailers to have an accurate representation of the final product. Tommy Hilfiger will only use 3D design to create, develop and sell samples from its Spring 2022 apparel collections onward. This reduction in waste and decrease in production time will bring huge cost advantages to the company.
To address the concerns around labor conditions and waste caused due to human errors in the supply chain, companies are using automated manufacturing technologies such as industrial robots to assemble products. Softwear Automation’s robot was developed at Georgia Tech’s Advanced Technology Development Center. Their sewing bots or “sewbots” have vacuum-powered grips that feed fabric into a sewing machine, adjusting it accordingly using machine vision. Fashion for Good, a global initiative to make fashion more sustainable, estimates that Softwear Automation’s sewbots can help lower emissions by around 10% by creating products closer to consumers and reducing material waste.
While I agree that consumers are gradually becoming aware and mindful of sustainability in fashion and clothing, it is still not widespread enough. Changing buying patterns take time, but with positive influence and active conversation, it can be accelerated. I genuinely feel that more consumers need to pay attention to how their clothing is sourced, what happens when you dispose or throw away clothes and most importantly how the incineration of certain fabrics and chemicals leaves our planet worse off. By passing this information along to consumers transparently, brands can build trust and loyalty – important factors when making purchasing decisions.
To start off, given how active the younger generation is on social media, I think more companies should use social channels online to highlight how new technologies can be put to use to curb our carbon footprint. Another solution could be having a mandated global consciousness index such as Fashion Transparency Index – to incentivize major brands to share policies, practices and supply chain transparency. Finally, consumers need to realise that when they buy a T-shirt, they’re buying more than a piece of clothing – they’re buying into resources.
I think it’s fascinating how using emerging forms of technology can not only help companies but also help (conscious) consumers be more data-driven. I’m sure a lot of us would like to see garment companies evolve and be more transparent. The question I ask you is, how many of you would like to be an evolved consumer who cares beyond that T-shirt?