How can AI make the fashion industry more sustainable?

Neil Cornish
2 January, 23

Globally, the fashion industry is one of the biggest polluters and largest producers of waste. According to the World Economic Forum, the fashion industry is currently responsible for 10 percent of humanity’s carbon emissions as of 2020, a figure that is higher than international aviation and maritime shipping combined. It is predicted that this could rise to 26 percent by 2050 according to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation.

An obstacle which prevents organisations from implementing more sustainable and environmentally-friendly practices is a lack of transparency and visibility across the different stages of the supply-chain. This has urged businesses to consider how technology can help make the fashion industry more sustainable by authenticating, tracking, tracing, promoting, selling, and ensuring responsibility for full lifecycle of the products which are worn.

What sustainability challenges do retailers face?

In a world where consumers are buying so much of what is worn online, being able to understand the product’s journey in a positive, eco-friendly way is becoming just as important as how the clothes look. Sending old clothes to landfill is not appropriate anymore from an environmental and sustainable standpoint. With greater awareness around eco-friendly product journeys, in addition to quality of material and how the product looks, both consumers and governments are increasingly concerned with the full lifecycle of products.

A major challenge in the cotton supply chain is that a brand cannot track the cotton back to the farmer, or indeed, often the region from where the cotton came from. This is because, as the supply chain consolidates, different bales of cotton are amalgamated to enable economies of scale.

How can fashion retailers invest in more sustainable practices in the industry?

Fashion retailers will need continuous data to help authenticate, track, trace, promote, sell, and responsibly dispose of or recycle their products, as a key indicator of differentiation. With the industry having a growing interest in the circular economy, reselling is a lot easier if retailers have the knowledge of where cotton and other materials are originated, what it is made of and how it was manufactured.

As a case study of how this worked in practice, the ‘UK Fashion and Textile Association’ (UKFT) and IBM UK, TD SYNNEX aligned with the Future Fashion Factory Programme, led by the University of Leeds, to bid for a Government Innovation Project. The UK Government project, funded via its Innovate programme, built a platform to support the supply chain for companies in the UK fashion industry. A global supply chain that has many component parts and with no individual company capable of supplying all of them.

Using technologies such as IoT, artificial intelligence, data analytics, coupled with a strong relationship with the retail ecosystem, supply chain management becomes more streamlined. The consortium has allowed for the development and the delivery of a sustainable, transparent, and efficient solution for deployment in the UK fashion and textiles industry.

Through working with channel partners, using AI, in combination with Optical Character Recognition, into the solution, they have been able to digitise the signed Organic Cotton Certificate PDF and select the relevant data and place it onto a blockchain. This allowed for brands to track the journey of each farm’s cotton through the supply chain more accurately, helping them source their materials ethically and responsibly.

The other use of AI is in the capturing of farm data at the point of harvest, where no certificate is available or requires pen and paper in the field. Here, a chatbot was used to complete the farm details, removing the need for the farmer to complete a form or type into their mobile phone. This data was also added to a blockchain, once again allowing for accurate tracking by the brand.

By gathering this data at the start of the process, retailers gained an understanding of where and how each fabric was produced and finished, by whom and in what conditions – something brands could not access without this advancement. The biggest change this makes for the supply chain is that data is available in real time, enabling the monitoring of production processes and flows rather than just reporting on them, resulting in a real chance to make decisions that reduce waste and unnecessary emissions, whilst optimising inventory.

What does the future hold for sustainability in fashion retail?

Legislation is getting closer, accelerating the need to address these sustainability and environmental issues. Governments will be demanding that brands are able to demonstrate both the provenance and the sustainability of the raw materials they are using, and the manufacturing processes employed. However, it is not just governments, investors are also now wanting to know more about the ethical sourcing of the products by the companies they have invested in.

AI technology is available for the fashion industry to implement solutions to solve critical, sustainable, manufacturing problems and begin to address how their products are re-used or recycled rather than end up in landfills or incinerators. The challenge is in how these technologies are deployed, supported and maintained in a consumer focussed sector that continues to demand more.

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