Clothing worth 40 million US dollars ends up as “deadstock” in the warehouses of the fashion industry. Big companies like Burberry and H&M hit the headlines last year for the incineration of over-produced clothing. In Germany alone, consumers have around 2 billion shirts and trousers in their wardrobes they don’t wear and throw away after three years at the latest. According to an estimation by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), 16 million tons of textiles went into the rubbish bins of US households in 2015. Only 15% of this amount was recycled. There is too much clothing that is not worn and too much waste that cannot be used.
The latest “The Pulse of the Fashion Industry” report, which is published yearly by the Global Fashion Agenda, Boston Consulting Group and the Sustainable Apparel Coalition, makes quite clear in what kind of mess the industry is in. It shows that the more the industry grows the more it harms the environment. To stop that something needs to change. The report also shows where solutions can be found – in the fourth industrial revolution. New information and communication techniques are changing society and the world of production and work. For the first time ever, digitalisation allows mankind to democratise information and communication. The specific use of mass data – also known as “big data” – can help separate economic growth and resource depletion. Bid data is already being used to make design and production more sustainable. The tool of the new era is artificial intelligence (AI).
AI: All intelligent decisions
“Stop guessing what you can calculate”, says Arti Zeighami, Global Head of Advanced Analytics and AI at H&M. He is not referring to “artificial intelligence”, but to “amplified intelligence”. He states that big data can help those who create fashion to make decisions that are more intelligent. The Swedish fashion retailer has access to information from 900 transactions a year. “With the use of data, we can make sure our customers get what they want,” says Christopher Wylie. The 29-year old became known as the Cambridge Analytica whistleblower in the Facebook data scandal. Today, he is working together with H&M on how to make sure that the right amount of the right products is at the right place at the right time. The aim is to find a solution to the present problem of over-production, to reduce warehousing and transport. According to H&M, the use of AI helped the company reduce its carbon dioxide emissions by 10%.
IBM and the DTech Lab of the Fashion Institute of Technology (FIT) did research for Tommy Hilfiger on how AI can chance retail. In April this year, they announced they would continue AI research that includes exact trend forecasts and better market insights, changed product design and improved supply chains. Michael Ferraro, director of DTech Lab, confirms that decision making has improved in all areas, from design to sale, and states that “countless amounts of data will change the way of thinking and show how it will influence many aspects throughout the fashion supply chain”. The recent IBM report “The coming AI revolution in retail and consumer products” forecasts that in three years, 80% of all companies will work with intelligent automatization.
Combined with two other technologies of the fourth industrial revolution, AI takes another step closer to the idea of creating the perfect piece of clothing. 3D scanning and the virtual visualisation of the finished product can cut down on long transport journeys and save resources. In May last year, the “Digital Textile Micro Factory” of leading clothing and textile producing trade show Texprocess demonstrated that this is already happening. Exhibitors at the trade show also pointed out with “Impact 4.0” how forward-thinking digital innovations can become reality in the industry now. The products presented by US software and hardware group Gerber Technology exemplified how digitalisation can be practicably applied to existing processes of the textile supply chain and what the possibilities are for increasing efficiency and doing less harm to the environment. For example, new pattern scanners can not only speed up the process of designing, refining and producing, but can at the same time globalise workflows that use less resources.
Circular ID: Unlocking the circular economy potential
How can we achieve economic growth without depleting resources? We already know the answer. Experts think that circularity is the solution to realise the United Nations’ Agenda 2030 with its 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). The issue is as pressing as ever. At the beginning of the year, Google Cloud and SAP launched the “Circular Economy 2030” competition and Nike published a “Circular Design Workbook”. The European Apparel and Textile Confederation, the International Apparel Federation and the Sustainable Apparel Coalition have also developed a “Manifesto on Circularity”.
Around 630 billion US-dollars could be saved in the European Union alone by switching to a circular economy. Why isn’t the circular economy concept not being implemented? Producers are stalled by poor quality of recycling material, vast research and the lack of transparency. But the gap between concept and reality can be closed. The solution is the “Internet of Things” (IoT). “The Internet of Things is among the most powerful enabling technologies for circular economy. It is also one of the most transformative technologies facing retail,” says Natasha Franck, founder and CEO of Fashiontech Start-Ups EON. EON’s Connect Global Fashion Initiative is working together with market leaders like H&M Group, Target, PVH and Microsoft to create transparency during the product’s entire life cycle. Clothing items have a “digital passport” that gathers the information needed to make it reusable. The goal is to establish a global standard for the identification and management of products that lives up to the principles of circularity. The solution becomes manifest in the “CircularID”, the term “Circular Connectivity” and the “End-to-End Visibility” concept are born.
RFID fibres and digital twins – the industry is striving to make circularity real on a large scale and in this attempt is confronted with two challenges in particular: identification at the product’s end-of-life and isolated data management. Pioneers are offering first solutions. At last year’s May edition of Techtextil, the leading international trade show for technical textiles and non-woven fabrics, Amann Group presented “Smart Yarn”. This special yarn acts as an RFID antenna and transmits data to a software allowing information to be embedded in the physical product. Companies like EON, Lukso and Provenance are working on a way to create a digital twin for every product that is added to blockchain. Information like origin and authenticity, material content and dyeing procedures are uploaded into the Cloud. “When we create open infrastructures and an open source mentality, we are up to a good start,” said Marjorie Hernandez, founder and CEO of Lukso, during the panel discussion “Responsible Digitalisation” at the Fashionsustain conference in July this year, which was part of trade show Neolyt, the hub for fashion, sustainability and innovation in Berlin.
Fashion turns into a favourite item – over and over again
Things are going too slowly. According to the “The pulse of the Fashion Industry” report (2019), the fashion industry’s sustainability efforts were down by one-third last year. “We need fashion tech to actually power this sustainable revolution,” says Natasha Franck. The key to the reuse of original material and the maximisation of its economic value is to standardise product data and communication between all players involved. “Like everything in nature, products in the fashion industry should have circular lifecycle. By leveraging the Internet of Things and Digital Identity to power intelligence, communication and transparency, it’s possible to unlock a global circular future,” confirms project partner Shelley Bransten, Corporate Vice President of Retail and Consumer Goods Industries at Microsoft Corp.
The goal is to improve profitability, efficiency and innovation. The data exists, we only have to use it properly. The new tools of the new era can empower the industry to create clothes that are loved and actually worn. Intelligently tailor-made dresses and shirts will last longer. Consumers will now own their clothing. And even when trends change and new clothing items are created, the fashion industry no longer has to waste resources – everything is already there.
 Jon Bird: „Fashion’s Dirty Little Secret And How It’s Coming Clean” 2018, Forbes
 Greenpeace e.V.: „Weggeworfene Kleidung“ 2015
 World Economic Forum „Towards the Circular Economy: Accelerating the scale-up across global supply chains” 2014
Lena M. Kaufmann
Photo: Franki Chamaki
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