Is sustainable fashion possible? AI thinks so

Instead of fast fashion predictions, the sector could be better served by using AI to address threats to the ongoing viability of business models

June 4, 2021

6 Min Read

From personal recommendation engines to augmented reality fitting rooms, there is no doubt that emerging technologies are transforming the world of fashion.

Despite this, there is a sustainability crisis casting a shadow over the industry, with market watchers estimating that the industry accounts for four to 10 per cent of global greenhouse-gas emissions every year.

The good news is that the industry is taking steps to address the crisis.

In 2021, the British Fashion Council continued to drive its Institute of Positive Fashion - an initiative focusing on three key sustainability pillars - reinstating the clear message to the industry about the importance of innovation for sustainable fashion.

Over the past year, the fashion industry has had one of the biggest shake ups ever experienced, brought on by the pandemic. And whilst this was a global issue, the pandemic brought to the forefront what sustainable fashion truly is and how every single person has a role to play in striving for a more sustainable industry.

For example, the pandemic has spotlighted the ‘essential worker’ beyond nurses and doctors and casts a spotlight on the farmers, producers and artisans in the fashion supply chain, with people now connecting the dots in where the very clothes on their backs come from. This realisation and recognition beyond the fashion industry is putting more pressure on fashion brands to accelerate their efforts; now with innovations and solutions to solve these challenges coming from emerging technologies like artificial intelligence (AI).

A study conducted by IBM in 2020 asked respondents which technologies will have the greatest impact on sustainability in the future and interestingly, one third answered AI. As AI in fashion continues to demonstrate its potential, the use of AI in fashion has focused invariably on the potential to better predict trends and guide the design process, however there’s an argument that brands are missing an opportunity to leverage AI to address the big issues facing fashion. Whilst it’s true AI can be very effective at providing these kinds of insights, helping designers select colours, patterns and materials that will resonate with consumers, people are also pretty good at this. So, instead of fast fashion predictions, the sector could be better served using AI to address threats to the ongoing viability of business models.

Sustainability and business performance

In recent years, improving sustainability has become increasingly important to commercial success. Modern consumers expect brands to employ ethical business practices and manage their environmental impact. In March 2021, IBM Institute for Business Value (IBV) surveyed over 14,000 consumers in nine countries, with 84% indicating sustainability as being very or extremely important to them when choosing a brand. And they are making purchasing decisions accordingly, with more than half willing to change their purchasing behaviour to help reduce negative impacts on the environment.

While specific brands may have had issues in these areas, the sector as a whole is responsible for creating an enormous environmental footprint. Each year, carbon emissions exceed global aviation, dyes, finishes and microplastics that regularly find their way into food chains, and that’s all before considering the 300m tonnes of fashion waste that ends up in landfill.

Environmentally friendly fashion

Like other industries, there are high hopes AI applications will help to reduce the environmental impact of fashion. The beauty of emerging technologies like AI and blockchain is the ability to integrate and adapt these technologies to address the environmental impacts of fashion. By revealing the entire lifecycle of a specific garment through the uses of blockchain, businesses are empowered to create more efficient and sustainable supply chains.

KAYA&KATO, a German textile company that manufacturers uniforms and work wear is a good example of companies leveraging the powers of blockchain to create transparency within the industry. From garment origins to increased consumer knowledge around the sustainability of their clothes, KAYA&KATO in collaboration with IBM, developed a blockchain network for the fashion industry to document and trace the supply chain for textiles, allowing suppliers and customers to leverage these insights.

And the use of blockchain doesn’t just refer to stages of production, like where raw materials are sourced from, the manufacturing techniques used, or the associated logistics. It can play a part in creating a circular economy for every item. The success of Depop, a peer-to-peer shopping app with 11 million users and 2.5 million monthly active users in the UK alone, has shown us that there’s an appetite for clothing rental and resale. AI can help to interpret the data and maximise the sustainability potential of this emerging space.

AI informed ethics

AI also has the potential to steer brands away from the reputation damaging indiscretions that have made headlines over the years. While creativity and originality are highly prized in fashion, it’s important to remember that nothing is truly new. And whilst Stephen King probably didn’t say “sooner or later, everything old is new again” in relation to the fashion industry, it’s fair to say that most of the designs we see on catwalks and shop shelves today are riffs on old ideas, reimagined for a new generation.

This presents several ethical considerations for brands. Where does homage stop, and plagiarism begin? Likewise, how do they avoid being the next label accused of cultural appropriation and insensitivity? Used in tandem with computer vision tools, AI can review work alongside huge archives of imagery, flagging similarities with other designs. If required, designers utilising these technologies in advance can make necessary revisions and avoid inadvertent plagiarism or insensitivity.

Evolving industries

While helping fashion brands to address major industry challenges, AI will reshape the sector and the business models it employs creating and augmenting more roles than it eliminates. Today, the industry has quite static, segmented roles – AI will change this. Where we have individual buyers and merchandisers, for instance, in future these roles will become much more fluid. The one key thing they will require is the ability to understand and apply data insights. We’ve already seen this at some of the more progressive fashion houses and even on the high street, with Marks & Spencer’s initiative to turn staff into data scientists.

As brands adopt AI, it will be important for them to remember that the IT sector itself is also evolving. Whilst AI is a core technology across various industries, it still plays an emerging role within fashion with the full capabilities still being discovered and experimented with. When deploying AI to drive greater sustainability in fashion, brands need to be careful when selecting a technology partner. Using AI, there are a range of broader ethical considerations that need to be considered. Most important to achieving sustainability goals will be to ensure partners can guarantee certain standards, particularly when it comes to transparency and data protection.

As consumer behaviour and expectations change, the world of fashion is becoming increasingly intertwined with that of technology. AI has the potential to drive a seismic shift for the benefit of not only the fashion industry but for our environment as well.

Luq Niazi is General Manager, Global Distribution Sector & Global Managing Director, Consumer Industries at IBM

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