Skip

Shaping Tomorrow

Sustainability 2.0 – Opportunities in digitalising the textile and fashion industry

Smart factory, smart clothes, smart services – smart everything. The digitalisation of the textile and fashion industry is changing production processes and products, opening up new business models and opportunities for businesses. But what does this mean for the environment and for working conditions? What opportunities are available if digital change is actively pursued under the banner of sustainability? An exclusive article by Mira Hein.

Shaping tomorrow

Sustainability 2.0 – Opportunities in digitalising the textile and fashion industry

Digitalisation and disruptive technologies – few ideas are currently as electric in their effects; few developments have caused such a rethink. Business practices are being completely revolutionised; existing systems, which were still functioning even in the last decades, have long been overtaken. This digital transformation is providing major opportunities, not just to enhance affluence and quality of life; society and the environment can benefit from these developments.   

Smart factory

A good example to illustrate these developments is that of digitally networked and automated production. From procurement of raw materials, all the way to final disposal of waste – at each stage of the textile value-added chain disruptive technologies and innovations are creating profound changes. 3-D printing, high-speed, mass personalisation, the first robot sewing machines and on-demand production are the new coordinates in automated manufacture. The sports-goods manufacturer Adidas, in particular, is setting the pace – with running shoes personalised at the point of sale, for instance. Following a treadmill analysis, customers can have a running shoe tailored to their physiological data directly in store – all made possible by a midsole produced in 3-D print or through digital light synthesis. And, under the name of “speed factory”, the German company from Herzogenaurach is already realising a pioneering vision of product manufacture, using automated factories. Here highly functional sports goods are produced, using intelligent robot technology. The benefits: “The Adidas speed factory gives us rapidity of production, combined with the flexibility to rethink traditional processes, so that our customers get what they want and whenever they want it”, comments Glenn Bennett, member of the Adidas Group board in charge of global operations.       

What a rapid and flexible state-of-the-art production chain for clothing may look like, on the other hand, was shown recently by the “digital textile micro-factory” at the two trade fairs Heimtextil and Texprocess 2017. In partnership with the German Institutes of Textile and Fibre Research, the organiser, Messe Frankfurt, demonstrated for the first time an integrated, completely networked clothing-production system – from CAD design, to digital print and automated cutting, all the way to a ready-made clothing manufacturing process incorporated in the workflow. “The digital textile micro-factory makes it possible to produce individualised products competitively, regionally and in accordance with need – through the digital networking of automated processes”, explains Sabine Scharrer, head of Heimtextil.    

In this, Scharrer is already sketching some of the benefits of the new production methods. On the one hand, these include commercial factors such as raising productivity and reducing throughput time. On the other, both the environment and conditions of work will benefit from a complete rearrangement of the existing production chains. Automated processes make it possible to shift production to the place where a brand’s consumers are to be found. This immediately entails a number of positive effects on the environmental balance: local products save transport-related emissions. Moreover, the business is near to its most important markets and can respond flexibly to customer preferences and the needs of the market, thus preventing over-production and saving resources. The latter is also assisted by computer-controlled, highly accurate manufacturing techniques, digital production, and a seamless networking of production stages, ensuring optimum use of materials. As regards working conditions, a backward-integrated verticalization, as exemplified by Adidas – in which dealers become manufacturers again – must of necessity lead to more entrepreneurial responsibility in upstream production processes.

Smart clothes

It is not only production which is changing in the wake of digitalisation. At product level, too, digital functions are incentives, opening up completely new possibilities. New, innovative functions are constantly being integrated in textiles. If, in product development, sustainability is thought of from the start, then smart clothes and accessories may be created, such as the “shock harvester”, a shoe developed by researchers at Hahn-Schickard, which generates energy, e.g. for wearables, through walking. In shirts, jackets or rucksacks, too, integrated solar panels are currently a popular option for using renewable energy sources intelligently – to be seen, for instance, in the work of Danish designer Pauline van Dongen or the Danish Knowledge Cotton Apparel label. In this way, every time he is outside, the wearer can utilise the potential of solar energy to charge his smartphone or laptop, thus saving fossil energy from fuels such as lignite, natural gas or coal on a daily basis. Along with these minor life-style contributions, a further factor of smart clothes with regard to sustainability should not be underestimated: the increased appreciation which people feel for intelligent clothing.       

Smart Services

Along with smart factories and smart products, smart services form the third focus of digital development in the textile and fashion industry. The opportunities offered by the new business models and platforms for increased sustainability are numerous: starting with sourcing platforms such as Sourcebook, which focus on reshoring, relocation of production from abroad, or Common Objective, which specialises in global sustainable procurement, and continuing to self-assessment tools such as the Higg Index of the Sustainable Apparel Coalition, or the CPI2 know-how tool of the Carbon Performance Improvement Initiative, by which clothing companies can measure the ecological and social impact of their products along the entire textile value-added chain and take corresponding measures of improvement, right up to platforms for circular networking, such as the “extended closed loop” model of the designer Ina Budde. Through recyclable design, circular business models for reutilisation and infrastructures for closed-loop recycling, the German designer is putting into practice the vision of a closed textile cycle. The key element in this transferable business model is a QR code in the item of clothing, leading to a product-specific website, which networks all participants with each other, from the designer, to the consumer, to the recycling firms. If, for example, the consumer wants to get rid of a piece of clothing, he will receive a return label to that effect – thus, depending on the condition, he can send it to the label in question, to the retailer, or directly to the recycling firm dealing specifically in the material.      

Technical facilities which make the textile value-added chain more transparent for the end consumer, too, can make a major contribution to positive and sustainable development. Along with tracking via a QR code sewn into the item of clothing, which provides a detailed list of its production stages, as used for instance by the German label Jan ’n June or the Swiss organic-textiles manufacture Remei AG, there are further pilot projects promoting transparency in the fashion industry – using blockchain technology, for example. This comprises a central database which secures contents and transactions through storage of data linked one on another. This cryptographically protected linkage means that data can no longer be subsequently altered. The benefits: open-source technology has the potential to build confidence, while showing that digitalisation and its possibilities are not the exclusive preserve of the rich global players.

It is just this potential which designer Martine Jarlgaard and the technology company Provenance are exploiting, together with corporate consultants A Transparent Company and the Fashion Innovation Agency of the London College of Fashion. Starting with the staff at the British alpaca firm who sheer the animals, all the way to Martine Jarlgaard herself, who designs and works on the clothes in her London studio, everyone engaged in manufacture record their personal production stage, using the Provenance app. Thanks to blockchain technology, the process creates a digital history with technically verified information about the production sites, production processes, materials, temporal sequence and people behind the products. Finally, by scanning the label on the end product, customers can access exactly this information and trace the creation of their piece of clothing. “Full transparency and traceability become a seal of quality, enabling consumers to make decisions in an informed way – and without extra costs”, says Jarlgaard. The consequence: tracking via Provenance creates a link between manufacturers and end consumers, thus leading to a rise in appreciation of the manufacturing process and of the clothing.    

One thing is clear: these digital changes come with numerous challenges and problems – including challenges and problems for society and the environment. At the same time, it can be seen, as regards all three focal issues – smart factory, smart products and smart services – that sustainability and high-tech are mutually fruitful, whether as an integral component – e.g. through automated production on the spot – or through the utilisation of new possibilities, such as those afforded by sustainable sourcing platforms. Digitalisation offers an opportunity to redesign commercial systems in an active way – to include sustainability.