Information and communication technologies (ICTs) have changed the fashion industry as we know it—and will undoubtedly continue to do so in the future. How can we harness technology in support of sustainable fashion? This was the question at the heart of my recent talk at the World Summit on Information Society Forum 2018.
The past decade has seen an explosion of e-commerce, with online retail sales reaching $400 billion in 2016 in the United States alone. Once a niche offering, online fashion has now become a real threat to the so-called brick-and-mortar fashion stores. How does this profound shift impact the industry’s sustainability?
On the one hand, with fashion at our fingertips 24/7 online, it undoubtedly fuels consumption. Who hasn’t made an impulse purchase at 11pm via a mobile phone from the comfort of one’s bedroom? Guilty as charged.
One the other hand, information and communication technologies have also democratized fashion by making it more accessible. Once reserved to the privileged new, catwalk shows from Paris, London and New York Fashion Weeks are now routinely streamed online, and it is easy to forget that it was just eight years ago—in 2010—that Burberry made history with world’s first catwalk streamed live in 3D.
Moreover, ICTs have levelled the playing field for many small sustainable fashion brands. Take Etsy—the world’s online marketplace for artisans—which after a few wobbles is now considered to be on a ‘solid growth path’ with over $1 billion in total value of traded goods. Other brands—such as Everlane—have successfully grown and taken their online business offline. Everlane also used crowdsourcing to develop its products, something we’re likely to be seeing more of in the years to come.
Lastly, wearable technology is poised to become a major fashion trend—with the arrival of ‘smart clothes’ that adapt to changing environmental and other conditions. In 2016, a Swiss start-up received the Wearable Technology Award for developing a smart jacket, which incorporates ultra-bright turn signals and braking sensors to improve cyclists and pedestrians’ safety. And thanks to advances in biomimicry, self-cleaning and self-repairing clothes may be only a few years away.
Technology is the next frontier for sustainability. It has the potential to minimize negative impacts, unleash creativity and provide added benefits to the consumer. By making the best use of technological innovation, the fashion industry can make a giant leap towards sustainability. Welcome to the future.