With Faith Legendre, Afire Consulting
In the fashion industry, what is old is new again. But this time, it can also be sustainable.
Fashion has always been cyclical, reusing older trends and updating them ever so slightly.
But technology is pushing cyclical fashion to become circular, meaning that the useful life of garments extends indefinitely. Those old t-shirts or jeans you wore 15 years ago, or the ones your parents had way before that, can now become part of your current wardrobe again.
This is just one example of how technology is modernizing the rather arcane approach to fashion today, where most people struggle to find what they want in the way that they want it.
Faith Legendre, the owner of the circular economy advisory company, Afire Consulting, explains to Cory during this episode of the Social Entrepreneurship and Innovation Podcast, “…they make 2 million black size two shirts [and] it’s bad for the environment. It’s bad for the psyche.”
Let’s look at how technology and fashion are colliding for a more sustainable future of the fashion industry by decreasing wasteful production and increasing personalization.
What is the role of technology in the future of fashion?
In our Impact of Fashion series, we have discussed sustainability in fashion, fast fashion, circularity, and ways fashion entrepreneurs can become leaders in a new fashion economy. Technology is a thread (pun intended) that weaves these concepts together—the method for moving the linear, wasteful fast-fashion economy into a circular, sustainable future of fashion. Today, fashion is not only linear and wasteful, but also highly impersonal in the sense that we don’t choose what is available for us to purchase, and it rarely fits correctly. Contrast this with what fashion is often touted as being: a mark of our personalities, an outward indicator of who we are on the inside.
In the podcast, Faith describes why fashion is so important:
“It’s [people’s] form of expression. And I think we need that because art is a part of life. But we need to do it in a really conscious way, in a really circular way.”
Current fashion is limited for many people to what fashion designers and big companies decide the masses should wear. High fashion is reserved for those with the financial capital to participate. Technology can help redefine what fashion looks like by making high-fashion concepts, like exact fit and customized clothing, more accessible to all. Essentially, technology can help to “democratize” fashion; to give a voice to anyone who wants it.
Before we explore the ways in which technology is changing fashion, let’s briefly revisit why a linear fashion economy and fast fashion are harmful to the planet.
What are the Environmental Impacts of Fashion?
During the podcast, Faith reiterated a sad fact of the fashion industry, “The fashion industry has been burning brand new textiles in incinerators for a long time.” High-end designers burn new but overstocked clothing in an effort to retain value and prevent counterfeiting, a practice that has gained more attention in the last few years. Couple this with the statistic that 85% of clothes end up in the trash, and it is not hard to see how fashion is a major contributor to environmental issues.
Clothing production impacts multiple aspects of the environment. An article from Style Democracy stated that “the fashion industry is also the second-biggest consumer of water and a massive culprit when it comes to generating greenhouse gas emissions.” Most fashion starts in agricultural production, which grows the materials that are harvested to turn into textiles. Faith explains during her interview:
“I want to ensure that…fashion is fully circular so that all generations to come…don’t have soil that has been depleted from growing mass amounts of cotton for textiles; they don’t have dyes that are full of chemicals that are in the water.”
In addition to the agricultural impacts, the overproduction of clothes tied to fast fashion creates massive amounts of solid waste that do not decompose in landfills. The Environmental Protection Agency indicated that, in 2018, 17 million tons of textile waste ended up in landfills. For reference, if an Olympic-sized pool holds approximately 882 tons, textiles would fill more than 19,000 Olympic-sized pools every year!
For those employed by fashion companies, many of these practices create social justice issues that go beyond environmental impacts. Often, workers are exploited and paid low wages so that clothing can be purchased at a lower cost. Additionally, those living or working near these factories, as employees or community members, are disproportionately impacted by the environmental health hazards caused by the factories.
Ultimately, these practices are not sustainable for people or the planet. As Faith pointed out during her interview, “It goes right into our water and then we use that water on our planet. So we’re eating everything…Everything is connected in nature. And everything is connected back to us.”
Our planet’s ecosystems are circular, so fashion must also become circular to mitigate environmental impacts. To understand fashion circularity in more depth, check out our podcast with Asheen Phansey and Monica Park of Eleven Radius.
How Can Technology Improve Sustainability in the Fashion Industry?
Understanding just how damaging the fashion industry is to the environment and for the people employed by it is the first part of making changes. We live in an era of constantly evolving technological advances and some of them are helping move the fashion industry forward, too. Let’s look at some opportunities created by technology for fashion to become more sustainable.
This technology works by providing your body measurements so an item can be customized to fit correctly, or a sizing suggestion can be made. Oftentimes, garments are returned or go unworn by the purchaser due to fit issues, which is just one way garments end up in landfills or incinerators.
This technology cuts down on sizing errors and offers opportunities for garments to be customized. Not only does this improve the customer experience, but it also reduces the likelihood that garments are returned or tossed away due to sizing issues. During the interview, Faith explains, “…if you work with a designer that makes the item based on your body shape, size, indentations, that’s what real design is. That’s what real fashion is.”
Reusing Existing Textiles
While not exactly its own technology, reusing textiles in the design of clothing is a must for a circular fashion economy to exist. “There’s enough textiles in the entire world right now to clothe everybody in the world and even the new billions of people that are coming. For decades to come,” Faith mentions to Cory during the podcast. Designers like Shamini Dhana with D/Sphere incorporate old fabrics into new designs, and companies like Helpsy recycle clothing for use in other things. Re:Source(d) offers opportunities for designers to source recycled materials. As Faith described during the podcast, technology helps to keep track of exact sizes and portions of material available and pieces these together to minimize waste.
Wearable Tech & Smart Clothes
Most of us are familiar with wearable technology such as smart watches or heart rate monitors. The newest version of this type of technology is being designed directly into clothing to help with a wide variety of things such as reminding you when to apply sunscreen or keeping tabs on your little one. However, this type of technology doesn’t address the issues of linearity within the fashion industry. Since technology is constantly evolving, these items likely won’t have longevity, and end-of-life considerations are not well-defined.
Artificial Intelligence (AI)
This category of fashion technology is broad and includes a variety of features currently being used, including chatbots on websites that improve customer experience. AI is also used for demand planning and can predict, plan, and promote certain types of clothes. Further, it can track inventory in real-time, allowing fashion brands to make operational and supply chain management decisions. This technology helps reduce the creation of unwanted products and waste by having a better read on what customers want. AI alone does not ensure circularity is achieved, but it can be utilized to assist in achieving it. If AI is used to accurately determine demand, many of the clothes slated for incineration may never be produced to begin with.
Novel Fabrics & “Waste” Products
Another aspect of technology in fashion is in the creation of novel, non-agriculturally derived fabrics or in the conversion of other “waste” products into clothing materials. Take for instance Pinatex, a natural textile made from pineapple waste fibers. Pineapple leaves, considered a waste product of pineapple farming, are collected, and through a multi-step process utilizing various technologies, a sustainable fiber is generated that can be used in fashion, accessories, and upholstery.
Modern Meadow is another example of how technology is being used in novel fabric creation. This company combines science and technology to create synthetic leathers from non-animal proteins. This is not “pleather” (plastic leather), but a lab-grown version of real leather. Mind = blown.
Reimagining where and how we source materials for fashion can help alleviate environmental impacts.
Virtual Reality & Augmented Reality
The trend of online clothing purchases has accelerated in large part due to the COVID-19 pandemic that forced people out of stores. Virtual reality and augmented reality technologies have helped bridge the gap between in-store purchases and online purchases by allowing customers to try on clothing virtually. With a better understanding of whether a clothing item will fit correctly, customers can make more informed buying decisions and hopefully avoid purchasing clothes that end up being donated or destroyed.
Used in this context, blockchain technology allows products to be traced through the fashion supply chains. This creates more transparency that can help cut down on counterfeits as well as more accountability for brands as they move toward more sustainable practices.
This technology allows manufacturers to reduce waste and is less labor-intensive than other types of manufacturing. In one study, researchers utilized 3D printing and zero-waste principles to increase the efficiency of accessory manufacturing. Combining this technology with others, such as novel fabrics, could help significantly reduce the waste impacts of the fashion industry. However, 3D printing can still have environmental impacts if the materials used in the printing process are unsustainable.
How Does Technology Change the Fashion Industry Workforce?
If technology can help reduce the need to produce clothing, what happens to all the farmlands and jobs currently used to create clothing? Faith discusses this consideration with Cory during her interview and says, “I think we need to turn to regenerative farming, not farming for textile…I don’t think nature meant for us to grow textiles and stuff for textiles. I think nature meant for us to grow food for all the beings on earth.”
Because much of the fast fashion industry employs people from marginalized communities and less developed countries, it is important to consider what happens if technology reduces the need for textile production. Many of the emerging technologies, such as the novel fabrics made from agricultural waste, still require labor to be produced. The fashion industry’s transition to practices that reduce environmental impacts should also support fair wages for workers, ensuring that both the environmental and social justice implications are addressed in the move to sustainability.
One interesting by-product of the COVID-19 crisis may be a quicker change to more sustainable practices in the fashion industry. The United Nations Industrial Development Organization reported that contracted demand and supply chain issues have created major disruptions to the profitability of many companies. The article described the impacts of the shutdowns occurring in three waves, the third being “related to the crisis of the entire fashion value chain as a result of the existing economic and environmental shortcomings of the business model, which have been amplified by the impact of the COVID-19 crisis. If no action is taken, the impact of the third wave will have long-term consequences for the whole industry…The COVID-19 emergency can act as an accelerator for decisions for change that are long overdue in the fashion industry and can no longer be deferred.”
On one hand, technology has led to an increase in globalization and long global supply chains that have created much of the unsustainable practices in fashion. However, technology can also help reverse these problems and offer new solutions to create a more sustainable future of fashion.
Faith Legendre, Principal Owner, Afire Consulting, LLC
Faith is the principal owner of her circular economy consulting company, Afire Consulting. She has been advising on circular economies, zero waste, ecosystem connection, and design thinking for over 15 years.
Working with start-ups to large corporations, Faith has aided them in adopting results-driven approaches to circular economy initiatives that benefit people and the planet. Currently, she is an advisor to Worn Again Technologies, sparks & honey, and is a First Movers fellow at The Aspen Institute. Before founding Afire, Faith led initiatives that connected products & packaging with technical solutions as the Senior Circular Economy Solutions Strategist and Intrapreneur at Cisco.
“So, when you’re no longer in need of that shirt, or it doesn’t fit the style, let’s use a local designer to redesign it, to remap it. And you can be part of that process, too.“ — Faith Legendre
How to Support a Sustainable Future of Fashion
Want to reduce your own fashion impacts? Check out these ideas to get started:
- Ask yourself – why am I purchasing this? Fast fashion has made it easy to purchase new items, and social media has created unrealistic standards for many of us to live up to. These influences may be behind your interest in something instead of a genuine desire or need. Simply asking yourself why you are purchasing can help decipher between the two. Read more about how to be a Conscious Consumer.
- Buy used/recycled clothes: Online companies like ThredUp provide opportunities to buy gently used clothing and extend a garment’s life. Any unsold items get recycled to live a life as something else. Insider tip: set up alerts for items that you are interested in to reduce unnecessary purchases!
- Repair or repurpose: Add a patch over that hole in your jeans or consider using the material to update another clothing item. Listen to the interview with Faith for some inspiration; she mentioned some great ways her grandmother repurposed jean pockets!
- Host a clothing swap: Consider swapping clothing with friends and family if you’re looking for a wardrobe refresh. It’s a great way to save money, connect with loved ones, and help the environment all at the same time! (Insider tip: if you’re feeling extra-inspired, share with your invitees how this helps create a more circular fashion economy.)
- Help your community recycle clothing: Check out Helpsy’s “Host a Bin” program (if you’re in the Northeastern United States) to get a clothing recycling bin for your community, business, school, or place of worship.
Closing the Loop
“If you’re an entrepreneur, start with the next life in mind, not the end in mind…see that circle.” – Faith Legendre
The anecdote to the linear fashion economy as it operates today is a reimagining and a redefining of what fashion means to each of us. Technological advances are allowing personalized expressions of fashion to become accessible while also reducing the impact clothing production has on the environment. The future of fashion lies in the intersection of practicality and thoughtfulness: how can we maintain the things we value in the expression of ourselves through fashion while also considering the impacts of our actions on our planet and fellow humans? Technology may just have the answers to both needs.
Additional Resources & Links Mentioned from the Episode:
- Faith Legendre LinkedIn
- D/Sphere – Shamini Dhana
- Movie “True Cost”
- Stephanie Benedetto, Queen of Raw
- Eleven Radius – Circular Fashion Group
- Cindy Rhoades, Worn Again
- Pinatex – Pineapple “leather” used to make shoes or other items
- Unilever – Waste Free World
- Danone Manifesto Ventures
- Change Finance
- Larry Fink’s letter from BlackRock
Grow Ensemble Contributor
Nicolette is the president of EnvARK Innovators, a startup nonprofit dedicated to increasing the effectiveness of wildlife conservation initiatives through the use of social and behavioral science.
Nicolette received her undergraduate degree in Psychology with a certificate in Applied Behavior Analysis from California State University Sacramento and completed her Master of Science in Environmental Sciences at Oregon State University. Nicolette loves gardening, hiking, and all things sustainability!