The fashion industry is staying on trend with sustainable business practices, both in the United States and abroad. In fact, here in the U.S., sustainable apparel has breathed a bit of life back into the long-dying manufacturing job sector. But on a broader scale, the industry understands that sustainable apparel is a global fabric, one that has a complicated pattern, with one very important stitch.
From unsuspecting discount retail giants, to enviable haute couture, here are three ways that the apparel industry is fashionably mending the urgent issue of environmental and social impact, with one really precise needle: technology.
Generally, there are three components to sustainability: planet, people, profit. In order for manufacturing to be sustainable, its processes to create products must have minimal negative impact on the environment, as well as conserve energy, and natural resources. The human side of sustainability enriches employee and community by way of fair wages, safe working conditions, and safe products. And of course, all details of sustainability must make economic sense. But there is a fourth component to sustainable manufacturing that while it doesn’t garner as much attention, is key to true sustainability: artificial intelligence (AI) machine learning.
Based on vast amounts of input data, machine learning tools allow researchers to create virtual experiments that model the impacts of given processes. This artificial intelligence (AI) is of particular importance in the fashion industry because not only can it determine the environmental impact of chemical dye processes (a major source of water pollution), but it can also determine the success rate of myriad innovations. Think algorithms, think data mining. In an industry that is cited as the second dirtiest in the world, this technology can reverse a most unflattering reputation.
Shoe apparel giant Adidas already makes use of these superior solutions, and online personal styling service Stitch Fix is based on it. By way of surveys, Pinterest posts, and body measurements submitted by subscribers, Stitch Fix uses the algorithms to completely customize your fashion. This process works really well, as told by customer testimonials, and the young company’s success. According to Harvard Business Review, the five-year-old company also employs its AI in several research and development subjects, including service delivery.
Sustainable sourcing is no doubt essential to business these days. Consumers, investors, and other businesses want to know that they are transacting with environmentally and socially ethical companies, especially in terms of suppliers. Despite the welcomed upsurge in sustainability policy blurbs on corporate websites, true sustainable sourcing needs something far more vetted.
One way that the fashion industry seeks to address this is through the Higg Index. Created by the Sustainable Apparel Coalition (SAC), the Higg Index is a suite of online tools that allow apparel manufacturers, fashion brands, and retailers to assess their social, labor, and environmental impact of a product, or the company overall.
The SAC itself is a collaboration of retail giant Walmart and progressive outdoor apparel company Patagonia that began in 2009. With huge names like American Apparel, Burberry, and Levi Strauss & Co. as members, the SAC has quickly grown to an extensive network of not just fashion brands, but manufacturers, suppliers, academics, governments, and NGOs. But no matter which sector of the apparel business they hail from, each member joins to address urgent social and environmental changes throughout the fashion industry.
Some of the coalition’s primary goals by 2020 are: to ensure that the Higg Index is the worldwide standard tool for measuring sustainability for apparel supply chains; to assist apparel and footwear in achieving full sustainability transparency; and that shoppers will regularly use the Higg Index to make apparel purchasing decisions.
It is likely that the old days of fashion only being released twice a year (Spring and Fall) were more sustainable in terms of delivery. But quickly cloaked by ‘fast fashion’, with upwards of six to ten releases per year, the apparel industry has seen a dramatic rise in transportation costs, which in turn increases negative environmental impact. Moreover, consumers are ordering clothing more frequently, and in much smaller qualities.
So to combat this more trying element of working toward sustainable apparel from manufacturing to delivery, in a fast fashion world, many experts agree that one solution would be for the apparel industry to actually promote buying less, but with garments that are of a longer-lasting, higher quality. Patagonia is known for this philosophy as well as recycling gently-used clothing back to stores; and several others are catching on. Recently, H&M announced its intention to be 100% circular and renewable by 2040.
Another development from the sustainable apparel industry (in the United States) has been a shift back to American factories, as opposed to overseas. Several clothing start-ups like Yogasmoga having taken the environmental and social impacts of an apparel company to heart, and opted to build their business at home. This option greatly reduces overall emissions from shipping (be it sea or air), and creates jobs within their communities.
In the end, service delivery is complicated. It seems simple to work with a package delivery service that employs low-emission vehicles. But every business scenario is unique, and oft times it will make more sense to do business overseas, increasing the environmental impact (be it sea or air). And once again, we return to the technology, we input the data, run the innovative hypotheses, and find solutions.