11 June, 2019 | Written by: Joseph Kearins and Mary Wallace
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From personalised recommendations to augmented reality fitting rooms, AI-powered technologies have caused a stir in the fashion world. But with a sustainability crisis casting a shadow over the industry, there’s an argument that brands are missing the real issue facing fashion.
Sustainability and business performance
Sustainability has been widely identified as a battleground for business performance. Modern consumers expect brands to respect the environment and be ethical. Unfortunately, the fashion industry has a spotty record on responsible behaviour.
While a few specific brands have been called out on their business practices, the sector as a whole is responsible for creating an enormous environmental footprint. Carbon emissions from the fashion industry exceed those produced by global aviation; and dyes, finishes and microplastics regularly find their way into food chains. According to the 2018 Pulse of the Fashion Industry Report, an estimated three-quarters of all used material processed along the fashion chain end up in landfill every year.
On top of this, the industry has a chequered history around safe and ethical working conditions. A defining moment in recent history was the Rana Plaza building collapse of 2013, in which over 1000 garment workers were killed. And lately, a number of brands have found themselves in hot water over allegations of cultural appropriation and even racism.
So how can AI help?
Environmentally friendly fashion
There are high hopes that AI will help to reduce brands’ environmental impact. Take the issue of unsold goods going into landfill, for example. While an item may go viral online, that doesn’t always translate into sales. A raft of products may be released by multiple fast fashion brands in response to an apparent trend on Instagram, only for them to drastically overestimate consumer demand. Using AI to analyse both online trends and behaviours could help give a more nuanced view of demand at an actionable speed, cutting past the hype and curbing overproduction and waste.
The combination of AI and blockchain can be used to create visibility across the fashion supply chain. By demystifying the entire lifecycle of a specific garment, businesses can be empowered to create more efficient and sustainable supply chains. This can span all stages of design, production, distribution and ownership such as the sourcing policy for raw materials, the manufacturing techniques used, the logistics to distribute the product, and even who has worn the garment. Enabling this level of traceability, businesses can be totally transparent with customers, building brand preference and trust.
There is a part for AI to play in the circular economy too. The success of Depop, a peer-to-peer shopping app with 11 million users, has shown that there is an appetite for clothing resale. Further examples can be seen in Rent the Runway for clothing rentals and Stockx, a streetwear marketplace expected to reach a $1bn valuation on its next funding round. AI can help to interpret the data and maximize the sustainability potential of this emerging space.
AI together with blockchain can also be used to support initiatives designed to improve work practices. For example, authenticating and storing safety certificates on a blockchain can help brands ensure labour standards compliance through their supply chain.
AI even has the potential to steer brands away from the embarrassing faux pas that have been making the news lately by showing greater transparency in the creative process.
While creativity and originality are highly prized in fashion, it’s often fair to say that most of the designs we see on catwalks and shop shelves today are riffs on old ideas, reimagined for a new generation. This presents several ethical considerations for brands. Where does homage end and plagiarism begin? How does a brand avoid being the next label accused of cultural appropriation and insensitivity?
Used in tandem with computer vision tools, AI can review work alongside huge archives of imagery, flagging similarities with other designs. If required, designers then have advance opportunity to make revisions to avoid inadvertent plagiarism or insensitivity.
By helping the fashion industry tackle sustainability, AI will reshape the sector and the business models it employs. This has been recognised even by high street stalwarts – take Marks & Spencer’s announcement last year to turn staff into data scientists. Likewise, the tech sector itself is in a constant state of change. Significantly, technology companies are doing more to embed ethics into what they do, creating toolkits to flag bias in AI and initiatives like the Diversity in Faces dataset to improve facial recognition AI for people of all ethnic backgrounds. For fashion brands to embed sustainability and ethics into their business, they must be confident that the technologies they choose are themselves ethically sound.