13 February, 2020 | Written by: Joseph Kearins and Mary Wallace
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From personal recommendation engines to augmented reality fitting rooms, there is no doubt that emerging technologies are transforming the world of fashion. But there is a sustainability crisis casting a shadow over the industry and at this month’s London Fashion Week sustainability is going to be a hot topic – the British Fashion Council’s theme of ‘Positive Fashion’ sending a clear message to the industry about the importance of innovation for sustainability.
A recent survey conducted by IBM found that of 2,000 consumers surveyed by OnePoll, almost 20% are simply throwing away clothes they no longer wear or need. Whilst this may sound like a relatively low percentage, it is creating a huge challenge for the fashion industry which is trying to keep up with the rise of fast fashion and the negative impact of the estimated 300m tonnes of fashion waste which end up in landfill every year. The survey asked respondents which technologies will have the greatest impact on sustainability in the future and interestingly, one third answered artificial intelligence (AI).
When the use of AI in fashion is discussed, focus invariably turns to the potential to better predict trends and guide the design process. It’s true, AI can be very effective at providing these kinds of insights, helping designers select colours, patterns and materials that will resonate with consumers. The thing is, people are also pretty good at this so there’s an argument brands are missing an opportunity to leverage AI to address the big issues facing fashion.Instead of fast fashion predictions, the sector could be better served using AI to address threats to the ongoing viability of business models.
Sustainability and business performance
In recent years, improving sustainability has become increasingly important to commercial success. Modern consumers expect brands to employ ethical business practices and manage their environmental impact. In our survey, over 60% of Brits said they are more environmentally conscious than they were five years ago. And they are making purchasing decisions accordingly, avoiding outlets that fall short of the standards they expect.
Unfortunately, the fashion industry doesn’t have the best record of maintaining sustainability standards. Many companies have a checkered history around working conditions, including the use of child labour and sweatshops. Similarly, designs from numerous brands have resulted in high profile accusations of cultural appropriation and even racism.
While specific brands may have had issues in these areas, the sector as a whole is responsible for creating an enormous environmental footprint. Each year, carbon emissions exceed global aviation, dyes, finishes and microplastics that regularly find their way into food chains, not forgetting that 300m tonnes of fashion waste that ends up in landfill.
Environmentally friendly fashion
Similar to other industries, there are high hopes AI applications will help to reduce the environmental impact of fashion. The combination of AI and blockchain can be used to address the environmental impact of fashion. By revealing the entire lifecycle of a specific garment, businesses are empowered to create more efficient and sustainable supply chains. This doesn’t just refer to stages of production, like where raw materials are sourced from, the manufacturing techniques used, or the associated logistics. It can actually play a part in creating a circular economy for every item. The success of Depop, a peer-to-peer shopping app with 11 million users, has shown that there is an appetite for clothing rental and resale. AI can help to interpret the data and maximize the sustainability potential of this emerging space.
AI informed ethics
AI also has the potential to steer brands away from the reputation damaging faux pas that have been making the news lately. While creativity and originality are highly prized in fashion, it’s important to remember that nothing is truly new. For the most part, it’s 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 stop and plagiarism begin? Likewise, how do they 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.
In the course of helping fashion brands to address major industry challenges, AI will reshape the sector and the business models it employs. While there is lots of noise about AI replacing jobs, the reality is it will create and augment more roles than it eliminates. Today, the industry has quite static, segmented roles – AI will change this. Where we have individual buyers and merchandisers, for instance, in future these roles will become much more fluid. The one key thing they will require is the ability to understand and apply data insights. We’ve already seen this at some of the more progressive fashion houses and even on the high street, with Marks & Spencer’s initiative to turn staff into data scientists.
As brands adopt AI, it will be important for them to remember that the IT sector itself is also evolving. AI is an emerging technology, the full capabilities of which have yet to be discovered. When deploying it for the purpose of driving greater sustainability in fashion, brands need to be careful when selecting a technology partner. Using AI, there are a range of broader ethical considerations that need to be considered. Most important to achieving sustainability goals will be to ensure partners can guarantee certain standards, particularly when it comes to transparency and data protection.
As consumer behavior and expectations change, it is clear that the world of fashion is becoming increasingly intertwined with that of technology. AI has the potential to drive a seismic shift for the benefit of not only the fashion industry but for our environment as well.
Learn More: https://ibm.co/2SEFBSs