How technology and science are helping transform fashion from unsustainable to on-demand

How technology and science are helping transform fashion from unsustainable to on-demand

We know that Australians are the second largest consumers of textiles in the world (US has the dubious honour of first place), and that every year, we each purchase about 27 kilograms of new clothing – only to throw away 23kg to 31kg of it, depending on who you ask.

These statistics are meted out so often they risk becoming meaningless, yet they’re anything but. 

What these numbers represented visually are mountains of clothes, many worn less than seven times, dumped into acres-large areas. In some parts of the world, farmers are even able to predict the ‘it’ colour of the next fashion season by the hue of their rivers, tinted unnaturally by run-off dye from the textile industry. 

Like with so many industries, some answers (but not all – brands and consumers need to make some uncomfortable decisions too) lie with fashion adopting technological and science-based solutions to some of its most wasteful and unsustainable practices. 

Pete Smit, founder and CEO of StyleAtlas – an Australian startup that is using 3D technology to replace the traditional model of making sample garments – says much of the waste in fashion occurs in those early stages of production, where the sampling part happens.

Making samples simpler

It works like this: a designer comes up with the idea for, say, a dress. They sketch it out, figure out which fabric they want to use and any other decorative features they want to include (buttons, zips, seams, stitching etc). Then they put together something called a “tech pack” (short for technical pack), a document used to communicate the product’s requirements to the manufacturer. A tech pack usually includes a sketch, size specification, materials, trims, artworks, colours, construction information and labelling.

“The tech pack is sent to the manufacturer, who is sometimes local but most often overseas, from which the garment will be constructed and sent back to the brand,” Smit explains. “The brand will then fit it to a person, make notes and adjustments and send it back to the manufacturer.”

This process is usually repeated as many as four times before the brand signs off – four times of back and forth between Australia and China or Bangladesh (where most Australian clothes are made). Each trip takes between three to six weeks.

“So many samples are made even ahead of bulk ordering [from retailers] – this process has massive financial, time and sustainability costs for the brand and for the planet,” Smit says.

What he proposes is that brands, instead of doing this physically, do it through software.

“We’ve created a product called Quadrant that follows a traditional process, but virtually,” he says. “It means designers can create a pattern, sew it together virtually and place it on an avatar, whose measurements are based on an actual fit model. Then, you can make adjustments to the piece just as you would traditionally.”

Read more: What you need to know about fast fashion

Smit says just like in real life, the 3D process requires different players: one to digitise the fabrics so that they flow and move just like in real life; another to enable pattern making and customise avatars.

Not only does virtual pattern making require the same skills as traditional pattern making, it incorporates broader digital skills that can be used across other industries.

But for many fashion brands, the idea of using 3D to make clothing prototypes is still anathema. While big fashion companies such as PVH (which owns Calvin Klein and Tommy Hilfiger) can afford to spend time and money training up existing employees or hiring new ones, Smit says smaller players are intimidated by the perceived cost of incorporating new technology into their design processes. 

This is why Style Atlas – along with other digital tech fashion startups such as BandicootCouture CadPonz StudiosNeuno and ORDRE – decided to work with nine Australian fashion brands to show them the possibilities of 3D as part of the Australian Fashion Council’s FashTech labs in April. 

“We wanted to show businesses interested in using 3D how it works, [and] how it can save them time, money [and] the planet,” Smit says. “The technology on its own is not going to make brands adopt it; most brands need a way to ‘dip their toe in the water’ and a solid business case to take back to their directors.”

Fabric fibres from wine and food leftovers

Other companies are choosing to tackle the problem from a different angle – by finding a way to create one of the most used fibres – cellulose – in an ecologically friendly way.

From a sustainability perspective, cellulose – a form of carbohydrate that has a structural role in animals and plants, keeping them stiff and upright – is one of the best fibres to use. It’s a biodegradable, renewable, biocompatible, and affordable polymer (polymers are large molecules made of small, repeating building blocks called monomers – a long string of sugar molecules in the case of cellulose), and while it’s mainly obtained from plants and trees, it can also be produced by some bacteria, fungi, and algae. 

“Designers can create a pattern, sew it together virtually and place it on an avatar, whose measurements are based on an actual fit model.”

Pete Smit

Instead of using wood pulp from trees – an agriculturally and chemically intense method that puts a lot of pressure on natural resources – the chemist-heavy team at Perth-based startup Nanollose takes a bit of product or waste from the agriculture industry, ferments it and turns it into rayon fibres, which have minimal environmental impact.

Nanollose chairman Wayne Best, a chemist and adjunct associate professor at the University of Western Australia, was running a contract lab in 2014 when Nanollose founder Gary Cass (who’s no longer with the company) “walked into my office with a dress made out of rotten wine.”

“He’d stuffed up the wine by getting rid of oxygen out of the vat, which turned to vinegar after becoming infected with a naturally occurring bacteria, producing this scum on the surface,” Best recalls. The scum turned out to be cellulose, which, when dried, had a cotton-like appeal. This random discovery led to the creation of Nanollose, which to this day develops sustainable textiles derived from this strain of bacteria. 

Unlike obtaining cellulose from trees – which requires wood pulping, a very polluting and energy-heavy process that separates cellulose from the rest of the tree (cellulose makes up only 40% of a plant) – Wayne says the bacteria is just grown and it’s all “pure, nice and clean” cellulose.

At first, the company launched a basic jumper made out of its Nullarbor lyocell (a type of rayon) fibre, which it spun into a yarn before making it into the jumper using 3D knitting technology. While successful, Wayne soon realised that for the fashion world to adopt their fabric, they’d need to showcase its potential in a more fashionable way. 

“So we hired a fashion consultant who has a long history of working in the industry to help us understand how to appeal to that sector – I’m no fashion guru myself,” Wayne says with a laugh.

And it worked: Nanollese has since teamed up with luxury Australian fashion designer Lee Matthews (as well as man-made cellulosic fibre manufacturer Birla Cellulose) to unveil its world-first garment at the Global Fashion Summit in Copenhagen in June.

Read more: From fashion conscience: the psychology of what we purchase

The company is now working on developing a sustainable alternative to leather, which Wayne says is looking good in the lab but has a while to go before it becomes viable. “Leather is a big market; there’s a lot of people out there who want the vegan lifestyle, but while vegan leather may be animal-free, it’s full of plastic,” he says.

Another big issue is scale. While Wayne wants to say Nullarbor fibre will replace the less-sustainable tree-based cellulose, the company would need to find a way to produce “100 million tons of fibre” – what the fashion industry uses now – to compete. 

“We’re nowhere near that scale,” he says. “When you’re a small company and you want to come out with a new technology, your products will be more expensive. Wood pulp has been around for more than a hundred years – it’s difficult for any new tech to compete with that costing.

“The elephant in the room here is that the fashion industry says it wants to become more sustainable while also continuing to increase sales without reducing consumption.”

The model is broken

This is what lies at the crux of the issue: the “business as usual” mindset of many clothing producers and retailers is perhaps the most significant barrier to transforming the second-most polluting industry on the globe, and until that’s addressed, no technology will fix it. 

“Everyone across the clothing life-cycle and supply chain needs to adopt a strong and authentic ‘product stewardship’ approach,” says John Gertsakis, director of the Product Stewardship Centre of Excellence, based at the University of Technology Sydney.

“Anyone involved in designing, manufacturing, importing and selling products has a responsibility to ensure clothing is managed in a way that reduces their environmental and human health impacts.”

“The elephant in the room here is that the fashion industry says it wants to become more sustainable while also continuing to increase sales without reducing consumption.”

Wayne Best

Gertsakis, a long-time advocate of circular economy and sustainable product design, believes the current fashion business model works against durability, reuse, repair and extending garment life. “Fast fashion and sales-driven marketing is in itself one of the most challenging barriers to improving environmental and social outcomes of producing clothing.”

Smit, who’s also been in the fashion game for a while, agrees. 

“Ultimately, the fashion industry’s biggest issue is that its predominant business model, built around high inventory and low unit cost, is broken,” he says. “The result is a perfect storm of massive environmental damage, combined with a lack of commercial viability for many brands.” 

Writer Caroline Zielinski’s follow-up story – about how science and tech are solving difficulties in recycling fashion and textiles – will appear in a future Cosmos Weekly.

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