Depop and Farfetch on digital sustainability in fashion

“Why is sustainability not an issue in the music industry?” asks Remo Gettini, chief technology and data officer at community-driven marketplace Depop. “It is because there is nothing that is physical,” he says speaking at an event organised by SupplyCompass, a supply chain company with a focus on sustainability. 

“Fundamentally if you want to solve the problem in the [fashion] industry, we have to push to remove atoms as much as possible. From the moment a designer starts to pick up a pen, to the manufacturer at the end of the chain – that is the only place where physical [should] manifest… there should be no samples that have to go back and forth, no materials that have to be stopped [and checked]… and digitalisation of manufacturing.”

He believes the capability is already there. “Every machine today is able to be connected to any of these platforms and receive information that is digitised to produce a garment.” Yet so many in the manufacturing process rely on patterns that have to be faxed and printed out, he notes.

The company recently launched a collaboration with London-based designer Richard Quinn – worn by celebrities such as Beyoncé, Kendall Jenner and Jennifer Lopez – for an exclusive sustainable collaboration of clothing with the platform. The series will include a range of clothes using end-of-roll fabrics from previous collections. 

“The idea of sustainability is at the front and centre of what we do,” says Gittini. “So we are honoured to have him associated with Depop.”

Gettini says he is “extremely excited to get out of bed and go to work” as the platform provides an opportunity for young people, often from small towns across the world, to sell clothing to an audience they wouldn’t have otherwise had. The London-based business has 17 million registered users in more than 147 countries, with 90% of its active users under 26.

Bottom up change

However, Gettini believes there is potential for huge disruption in the fashion industry, as many young designers could start making their own clothes at scale once the manufacturing process has become digitised. He likens this change to the arrival of the Unity game engine in 2005, which intended to "democratise" game development by making it accessible to more developers. 

“Previously, you had to have 250 people and £25 million in investment to make games. We are ready to bring Unity to the fashion industry and unleash the power of tens of thousands of designers.”

Carol Hilsum, director of Innovation at Farfetch – the global technology platform for the luxury fashion industry – agrees that a lot more people are launching direct-to-consumer brands. “They can use a platform [such as] SupplyCompass – they don’t have to go to a trade show where they are not allowed [access] to a supplier because they don’t have a five-year relationship with them.” She notes there are also a lot more accessible tools that people can use to design clothes without any specific training.  

Consumer driven change is additionally having an impact on the industry, with the popularity of apps such as Good On You, which  teach consumers how to shop ethically and responsibly.  

Farfetch has direct contact with a number of innovative start-ups via its Dream Assembly seven-week accelerator programme, which provides them with funding and mentoring. “I think start-ups and entrepreneurs love looking at big problems within the industry and the supply chain is the untapped problem,” she says.

But the challenge to shift to a truly sustainable approach is huge. “[It’s easy to] sit in a bubble think everyone is buying into sustainability,” she says. “Some of our businesses that are fastest growing aren’t really focusing on sustainability, they are focusing on eCommerce driven fast-fashion models. So I think it is important to not think the job is done.”

New models

For Hilsum, digital processes and ethical behaviour go hand-in-hand. She points to the revelations that major brands were using child labour in the 1990s. “I think it was a surprise because they’d lost sight or control of their supply chain... people were going back to suppliers to find out who was making their products and discovering they didn’t really know because they had been subcontracted out to various different places,” she says. “That is due to the lack of digitisation and the lack of being able to [see] who’s making the product.”

“There was no way of doing that because it was a completely analogue process at that time.” Digitisation should enable better tracking of the supply chain through data to provide a clear view of the supply chain process. She points to start-ups like Eon that provide a unique digital identity that lives with an individual garment throughout its life cycle.

Currently there is a "tech literacy" imbalance in the industry but she believes change is around the corner. “I think everything is there, people are building solutions, investors are investing. There are some great companies committing to really ambitious targets in their supply chain,” she says. “It just takes a bit of time for adoption.”

The next couple of years are going to see a huge shift, not just in terms of digital only fashion “but also the idea that we will have a digital version of many of the physical items that you have bought. And that will be used in different ways, whether around wardrobing, gaming, or social apps,” she says. "We will definitely see this as a big moment of transformation of the industry."

Gettini agrees. “We are on the cusp of an enormous change,” he says. And much like those in the music industry who failed to see the digital revolution coming “there will be casualties along the way."