Positive change: how fashion is using tech for sustainability

Covid-19 has forced the fashion sector to work in more sustainable ways, but it still needs to be more focused when looking at where innovation and technology can play a role, says Jalal Hoora, VP of raw materials at Burberry.

“It was very common for fashion industry people to travel across the globe at the drop of a hat to take care of sourcing-related issues, ethical concerns, auditing, inspections, approvals etc... I think what these circumstances have brought to light is with very simple technology, some of these elements can be achieved very well from a distance,” he told delegates at London Tech Week.

“There were a huge amount of sceptics in the beginning, including within my own organisation - where certain things were deemed not feasible without being physically present. What [this] forced us to do was pilot [new ways of working]. And I think that was the best thing to do in terms of proving the point that something could be done. 

“And as people tried out new approaches, they realised that they can take entire chunks of processes and digitalise them… I think a big part of this change is permanent as we’ve realised it’s possible.”

Digitising supply chains

Hoora says a lot of Burberry’s focus is on waste elimination, climate change, reducing its carbon footprint and digitalisation - “a huge opportunity for creative problem solving.”

In practical terms he believes that can be extended to product creation, approvals, prototyping and manufacturing, all of which can be moved into the digital space to increase efficiency and agility. 

One such area is the auditing process, where there are a number of innovative companies emerging to provide secure digital platforms and are AI assisted. “So they basically map out the entire process and known risks within regions… and then highlight where issues could potentially come up.”

There is also a lot of interest around image-recognition software and more cameras being installed in the production and manufacturing process, so some activities can be performed remotely. But rather than being used as a surveillance tactic, he says there needs to be a focus on how technology can reinforce trust with suppliers, transferring accountability and greater responsibility to those being audited. 

“Different parts of the process can go digital to the point where you can actually review an entire audit electronically. So you don’t need to be physically present.” 

However, compared to other sectors, the industry remains behind when it comes to using technology for demand and supply planning. “Fashion is sometimes viewed as unpredictable: you are appealing to the desires and don’t know how a customer will react to certain things,” he says. “But… as our ability to handle big data improves all those elements become more predictable.”

Binning disposable 

Jane Shepherdson, chair of rental marketplace My Wardrobe HQ, agrees there is too much waste in the production process.

“We need to address the issue of overproduction in the industry and this is where technology is starting to help - we are seeing more sophisticated forecasting tools and algorithms to try and predict how much of something we really need. There is a staggering amount of product that is not being sold.”

Part of the problem is that brands factor in the cost of marking down of stock into their models from the beginning, rather than trying to forecast smarter. 

“This year so many brands I’ve spoken to have looked at the dead stock and said, ‘you know what? I can sell that next year.’ … [As this is hitting] everyone’s bottom line, they are starting to think how they can make it work in a more positive way.”

She notes the rental market was beginning to gain traction until the pandemic hit. “Lockdown had a huge hit… as of course there are no events to go to,” she says. “But I’m still optimistic that events will come back again.”

Not only is it a more environmental-friendly model, with one item getting far more reuse than a one-off purchase bought for an event, but it also democratises fashion. “The fact you can rent these incredible pieces, that can be shared by another 20-30 people. It’s such a [brilliant] way of making it accessible for people.”

For Tom Fiddian, creative industries lead at Innovate UK, the fashion sector needs to create more opportunities for digital innovators to come in and disrupt the ecosystem from the outset, although he notes when it comes to sustainable fashion, there are no easy answers. 

“There is a first move disadvantage, if you are the first person to make yourself fully sustainable, you are probably going to be at a competitive disadvantage.”

He believes the government can play a role convening research and industry. “And also invest some money to prime the market, it only needs to be a relatively small amount to create an incentive and get all these innovators to come in and it will be more sustaining going forward.”

Infrastructure investment in things such as recycling centres could help the UK become a world leader in this area. “There are other interesting projects happening in Europe but if we don’t do anything, we’ll just be following someone else’s processes.”