Sustainability has become one of the key issues highlighted by the fashion industry, with global brands such as Nike and Chanel letting the world know that they’re striving to be environmentally conscious. After all, the Ellen MacArthur Foundation says the fashion industry is one of the largest contributors to global warming, reportedly being responsible for around 20% of the world’s industrial water pollution.
Yet according to various reports, this statistic is merely an assertion that is backed by minimal evidence. There is reportedly a lot of misinformation regarding the statistics and data on fashion waste — even from reputable organisations such as The United Nations and The World Bank.
Nicole Bassett, co-founder of upcycling company The Renewal Workshop, says a big reason as to why there has been such widespread misinformation in the fashion industry is that, historically, companies have collected data that is too vague, rather than tracking and collecting “impact data”. For example, when tracking supply chain data, companies often do not have data collection processes in place to track how much water is being used, how energy is used, or how much carbon is emitted.
“What unfortunately I think has happened is that because there isn’t a central place to go to gather every single impact metric related to every single brand, the way that we’ve been extrapolating data has probably been too vague, and I think that’s why there’s been a lot of concern that the data isn’t good,” Bassett told TechRepublic.
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Amina Razvi, who is the executive director of the Sustainable Apparel Coalition’s (SAC), said the fashion industry has been slow to understand the importance of accurately measuring sustainability impacts. The SAC, founded in 2009 by Patagonia and Walmart, is a developer of a suite of tools, called the Higg Index, that is aimed at collecting and evaluating the “relevant and impactful information in the industry.”
“Like any multi-billion dollar industry that is on a journey to improve its entire value chain, change takes time, investment, and a commitment to sustainability and innovation. It also takes all partners along the value chain to be part of the change we’re trying to achieve together,” Razvi said.
“Each company should know its value chain as well as it knows its own business. Once you have this data, you can set goals and targets to make improvements year over year depending on what your biggest impacts are, what is material to your business, and what your values are as an organization.”
Sateri, a textile company that produces viscose fabrics that are recyclable or can be decomposed, told TechRepublic that fashion companies are still not always wary of devoting resources and collecting data that allows them to design and manufacture clothing with their end-of-life in mind.
“Making garments from a single, biodegradable material that can be recycled or decomposed, such as cotton and viscose, can have a huge impact if collectively embraced. Furthermore, they should consider the footprint of not only a garment’s primary material but also other items which can contribute to environmental pollution, such as polyester labels and plastic buttons,” said Sharon Chong, Sateri vice president of textiles producer.
With these data gaps in the fashion industry, which creates over $2 trillion in sales every year, this has also meant there are vast opportunities for fashion companies to embrace technology to become more sustainable and improve their supply chains. This gap has translated to an increased demand for technical roles, from software engineers and data scientists to chemical engineers and R&D scientists, to deepen understanding of associated environmental impacts in creating textiles and clothing.
“I think it’s changing. I was just this weekend with an old colleague of mine who has been in the industry a long time, and I was asking her about her team and she said ‘oh yeah, well now I have a data scientist on my team, and now that we’ve collected baseline information, we’re going to start to set targets’,” Bassett told TechRepublic.
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The Renewal Workshop, which comprises of software engineers and sew technicians, took SAC’s advice on board when turning discarded apparel and textiles into renewed products, upcycled materials, or recycled feedstock. For its upcycling processes, it collects data and creates tools and pathways, which are then given back to fashion companies they work alongside — like Carhatt and Eagle Creek — to help them improve the production and design of future products.
The data collected by The Renewal Workshop falls into two buckets, Bassett explained. The first is data focusing on what is required to make the product in the first place, such as the amount of materials, water, energy, toxic chemicals used, along with the amount of greenhouse gases emitted, among others.
The second bucket of data is focused on the upcycling of the product, such as how easy is it to re-use the materials of the garment or the amount of time required to repair certain elements of a garment, which can help fashion brands understand the repairability of their products.
“We replace [a fashion brand’s] zipper in 45 minutes, but for the average, it is 40 minutes. Why are [their] zippers more difficult to repair? And so that starts engaging their design team in a dialogue of what it means to create a durable product for a circular economy,” Bassett explains.
This data is then built into a lifecycle analysis system to calculate the environmental impact of each garment from the front end of producing it, all the way to the back end when it is upcycled or repaired.
Moving forward, Bassett believes the fashion industry will take on more technology professionals due to this growing need for traceability and better data. According to the Renewal Workshop co-founder, technology professionals will be expected to not only trace the origins of pieces of clothing, but also build out analytics tools for sustainability.
“It will be an interesting process for us to see who is interested in sort of thinking outside the box, and how to really connect that technology programming world to the user in a different kind of environment which is not just on the computer typing away and buying things, but actually like manufacturing products,” Bassett said.
This need for traceability tools is a pressing one, according to a report [PDF] published by Boston Consulting Group. Analysis performed by the consulting firm indicated that the fashion industry would need $20 billion to $30 billion of financing per year to develop and commercialise technological solutions to meet sustainability needs.
While soft technology solutions have attracted considerable investment so far, especially those that capture customer data, Chong said there is still a great technology gap for hard-tech innovators — creators of physical, capital-intensive assets such as dyeing machinery, new fibre production lines, and recycling infrastructure — due to the lack of investors with the expertise and risk appetite to invest in asset-intensive solutions.
“Asia’s status as the global textile hub for both production and consumption means it best placed for recycling of pre- and post-consumer textile waste. However, the lack of infrastructural support — including collection and sorting processes and the establishment of fit-for-purpose distribution and handling centres — is preventing it from fulfilling its recycling potential,” she said.
With investors needing more data to be comfortable with investing into hard technology, and fashion companies requiring disruptive technology to fulfill this need, the fashion industry faces a “chicken or the egg” dilemma of sorts, Bassett said, where it is unclear what needs to happen first.
For the SAC, it hopes that a standardised approach to measuring sustainability performance will go a long way towards bridging this data gap between fashion companies and investors so more investments are put into sustainable technology.
SAC’s Higg Index, which was first released back in 2012 and has since grown to become a suite of sustainability and social impact assessment tools, measures the environmental impact a product makes throughout its life-cycle — much like the tools being built by The Renewal Workshop. It can also measure greenhouse gas emissions, waste, water use, labour practices, and wages, among other environmental and social impacts, helping to assess and address hotspots in the process.
“The development of the Higg Index content has been a collaborative process driven by deep member engagement. Each tool has been built by subject-matter experts from within the SAC membership, with input and feedback from all members, representing all parts of the value chain, at key points of development,” Razvi said.
“The Higg Index content — the assessment questions and scoring methodology — are then built onto the Higg.org platform by the SAC’s technology partner, Higg Co. After tools are released, user feedback is collected continuously and used to prioritise future enhancements to both content and the user experience.”
SAC hopes companies can use these tools to choose materials or create products that use less water, energy, and chemicals, and result in lower greenhouse gas emissions, and in turn, demonstrate the financial viability of these approaches.
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Those approaches may be using lower-impact materials, integrating artificial intelligence into the design process to reduce emissions, or upgrading factory equipment to reduce water and chemical use, Razvi added.
In facing these sustainability issues, Bassett and Razvi told TechRepublic that they remain optimistic about the trajectory of technological uptake in tackling this issue despite it still being early days.
“Historically, adoption for sustainability tools has faced challenges due to a variety of reasons, including a lack of commitment in some cases. But with more and more companies realising that this work needs to be core to their organizations, we’re seeing a change in the tide,” Razvi said.
Looking at her peers, Basset said the fashion industry has come a long way as baseline data collection was “barely a thing in the fashion industry three years ago, and did not exist five years ago”.
“I think that the reality is sinking in that brands who want to make change need more information to make better decisions … they are no longer trusting the generic data and they want their own supply chain data so they’re going after it which I think is encouraging,” Bassett said.
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