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Comment: How technology is enhancing sustainability

Tahira Taylor, strategy director at retail experience design agency Fitch, discusses how embracing technology, fashion brands can better evolve to create sustainable alternatives to fast fashion.

As young activists such as Greta Thunberg, organisations including Extinction Rebellion, and naturalists like Sir David Attenborough raise awareness around climate change, there has been a remarkable drive to make the fashion industry more sustainable. We’re seeing plenty of progress supported by a range of different technologies, right across channels and formats.

Shoppers are turning to the secondhand market for their fashion needs more than ever before. The UK’s secondhand clothing market is set to become 1.5 times bigger than the fast-fashion sector by 2028, secondhand fashion marketplace ThredUp’s 2019 Resale Report suggests. The infrastructure put in place through high-performance such as Depop, incentivised exchange platforms including Swish and social media marketplaces has enabled the take-off of this trend. Meanwhile, brands such as Rent the Runway in the US are showing that it’s possible to sustainably keep up with preferences to change outfits often, while saving money, the environment and space.

Predictive technology can help brands to find new ways for consumers to re-use, resell and recycle, enabling a huge new ecosystem that combines sales with sustainability. In the UK, digital wardrobe management app Save Your Wardrobe is tapping into consumer behaviours and data to drive further innovations in the space. The app encourages consumers to document their wardrobes and build personal databases to help shape future purchases. It provides users with visibility of all the clothes they own, and uses artificial intelligence to recommend personalised looks based on calendar events and history.

Using technology to facilitate and advocate re-use of high-quality clothing not only results in a reputation boost, it can also – with the right strategic process – be profitable, which will ultimately then lead to less production being necessary in the first place.

Out on the shop floors, reams of exciting new technology are being tested. Westfield’s “The Trending Store” combined the smart trending of online shopping via AI with a group of stylists who curated collections for the store.

At Fitch, we have recognised huge demand for sustainable innovation in retail, and are responding by developing new experience design models which weave mixed realities, digital activations and equipment in-store for consumers to interact with and enjoy.

It’s not just consumers that technology can enable change. Retailers are leveraging data for better purchasing and stocking processes to reduce wastage of new items in store. Partnerships with logistics platforms such as ZigZag Global, which analyse data from returned items, help to optimise production and future campaign planning.

The rise of fashion’s personalised and on-demand model is also turning a new page for production and textiles. Robotics and apparel company Unspun creates customised jeans for each customer using 3D body scanning and weaving technology. As a result, it holds zero inventory. Digitally native companies such as Queen of Raw operate to connect brands with deadstock for new creations.

Advanced production technologies are helping brands find ways to develop materials from new sources, too. Aquafil, for example, transforms rescued fishing nets into Econyl regenerated nylon. Biotech is certainly an area of focus and growth, so expect more trailblazing. 

Consumers are looking to reduce both their expenses and their personal waste, and they are starting to hold retailers accountable for their contributions. By embracing technology, fashion brands can better evolve into a community, one that is cultivated around a branded experience that proudly offers sustainable alternatives to fast fashion.

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