"When creativity melds together with global issues, I believe you can bring the world together"

Virgil Abloh

Design teaches us to constantly be developing and interrogating, learning and adjusting, and how to move beyond harmful and non-sustainable ideas and strategies. Intelligent design, no matter if it is fashion, architecture, or software is a means of change, and the intersection of sustainable design and technology is the radical means of resistance that is going to get us there. 

This intersection of fashion and technology is a new and exciting way to explore innovative approaches to sustainability. These industries, alongside the educated, and all-mighty Conscious Consumer, have the power to influence governments to make tangible moves to meet global climate targets to lower emissions and keep the planet cool.

We spoke to Christian Maradiaga, influencer and progressive voice in the digital fashion world for his view on the topic:

“As the world becomes more and more digital, especially after living through a pandemic for two years, we’re only going to see more designers and fashion houses go the VR route and finally investing in developing better and larger digital teams, enhancing their online presence, and taking their first steps into the Metaverse and web 3.0. 

For example, we saw Balenciaga reveal their SS22 collection through an episode of The Simpsons. Though some saw it as goofy and ridiculous, others viewed it as groundbreaking. Not to mention they’ve also collaborated with Fortnite, so now you can fight to be the last one standing as your character wears their latest hoodie. I’ve now got a higher likelihood of owning high fashion pieces virtually than I do in real life, and in this capitalist world where everyone wants the latest and trendiest pieces, this is only going to become more of a thing.”

Image of R&B Artist Blood Orange from Balenciaga's runway show with the Simpsons. Promoting digital and virtual fashion.
Image of cartoon character, Homer Simpson from Balenciaga's runway show. Promoting digital and virtual fashion.
Images via Balenciaga

In our last post, “Can We Actually Reduce Greenhouse Gas Emissions?”  We mentioned a recent global poll by Ipsos/Futerra, which found that out of the 20,000 people polled, 68% of those agree that new technology makes them feel optimistic about fighting climate change.

Let's take a look at how innovators, designers, and developers are pioneering new and sustainable ways to use technology to creatively address climate change.

Frack-Fashion

To be leaders of this movement, we first need to look at the ways technology has done damage. The fashion industry is a great place to start. 

Technology has made manufacturing and production more efficient, but has allowed for the vast overproduction of fast fashion to take hold. It has only been in the past two years that the majority of fashion brands have taken responsibility for their role in climate change more seriously.

According to a study published by Stand.earth, “synthetic materials made from fossil fuels such as polyester now make up over two-thirds of the materials used in apparel, driving higher emissions and increasing demand for fossil fuels.” With 97% of the polyester on the global market coming from new materials, there is a still (still!) growing demand in the market for cheap clothing.  

UK-based retailer Pretty Little Things is a prime example of the pretty big (sorry not sorry) impact of digital marketing on consumption. For Black Friday this year, they released new drops every hour with varying discount codes (with one code named “bonkers” items were adding up to 100% percent off). 

NFT: None Fungible Token or New Fashion Tech?

The innovations in technology have also brought us into a new era of digital design that is allowing us to radicalize the fashion industry's antiquated and wasteful system of garment production.

Take the Institute of Digital Fashion (IoDF) for example. They are a digital platform and "democratic tool for change" here to build a more sustainable industry and restructure how technology is used. They aim to create a more inclusive sphere of fashion that is no longer based on an outdated model of over production requiring vast amounts of raw resources each season. As well as a digital fashion universe where exclusive and couture designs become inclusive. This permits accessibility to fashion to a customer base with varying bodies and abilities, who are routinely left out of the conversation.

So what does that look like? 

“Our mission is to use technology to enable change, we aim to push tech-use toward a more democratic and sustainable future, offering a platform and manifesto to restructure how technology and digital are used from creation to consumer, building a new future for an unregulated and biased industry, We deliver bespoke, world-class digitalization for brands, makers and institutions but our ethos is more than that, we are wanting to sell creativity not more clothes. We are here to disrupt the way the system concepts, broadcasts, produces, educates and creates.”

-Institute of Digital Fashion founders, Leanne Elliott Young and Catty Tay, in an interview with Next Nature

Prior to its official launch on December 10th, IoDF’s wearable tech was featured at 2021 The British Fashion Awards where at the company’s first in-person event since the start of the pandemic. Their AR winged body piece worn by celebrities like Gabrielle Union, Kehlani, and Evan Mock is the first NFT fashion piece worn by celebrities at a red carpet event that is for sale.

From Vogue:

“The AR activation speaks to an integral shift happening in the industry; the idea of finding more inclusive and sustainable ways to bring the joys of high fashion, as well as exclusive events like red carpets, into the homes of a new audience. Anyone can attend and it has zero impact on the environment. It’s beyond the restrictions of our physical world, and the possibilities are endless.”

Evan Mock in IoDF wearing technology. New wave of digital fashion, sustainability.
Kehlani in IoDF wearing technology. New wave of digital fashion, sustainability.
Images via Vogue

The fashion industry has a dependence on digital technologies as both a tool for capital growth, and brand development (a means to build a virtual community of influencers and followers). Digital and influencer marketing (with popular hashtags such as #OOTD – outfit of the day – encouraging people to share their daily sartorial choices) has resulted in approximately 100 billion pieces of clothing being produced each year, with most garments being worn just 7 times. Adding further insult to injury, 60% of these new items produced every year are made with fabrics derived from fossil fuels.

A 2021 “Synthetics Anonymous” Report by Changing Markets that looked at 12 online shops of major fast fashion brands, including H&M Group and Inditex. They analyzed over 4,000 garments and found on average 91% of green claims made by the top brands were misleading or unsubstantiated. This is coming to a head as Remake released their 2021 Fashion Accountability Report showing that 20 top fashion brands control 97% of the industries profits, while these heavy hitters are normalizing greenwashing throughout their communications.

“Big brands are co-opting buzzwords such as sustainable fiber, worker empowerment, transparency, circularity and take-back initiatives, covering up limited progress on living wages, social protections, overproduction and fashion’s staggering waste problem. Moreover, the industry’s goals and metrics lack a sense of urgency and specificity, with limited comparable data available in the public domain.”

From the Remake 2021 Fashion Accountability Report

If fashion wants to promote sustainability as a true cultural currency, it needs to address the massive amount of waste accumulated at every step of production of the final garment, including the pre-production phase.  Every season in the fashion calendar –which thanks to fast fashion has shifted from 4 to 52 “seasons” of new production annually—involves  fabric resources and human labour to produce samples for each garment. When the cut, fabric, design, buttons, or whatever, isn’t right, the items are discarded before they even make it to the final product phase.

CLO 3D’s virtual design engine is an example of sustainable SaaS that lets brands create 2D patterns and designs that are immediately simulated in intricate detail. This step allows designers to fine tune the silhouettes and fits in the development phase allowing them to produce a precise digital sample before the garment goes into production with tangible materials.

Not to mention the Circular Fashion Summit that just wrapped up earlier this month, aims to draw attention to the digital circular fashion industry (read our post on Circularity here).

“The focus of this edition is Redesigning Society, highlighting the post-pandemic social evolution that reflects in the fashion industry, which includes accelerating digitization and circularity at large, collectively. It encompasses a range of solutions from up-cycling, adaptive fashion, digital twins, and beyond, evolving the role of fashion as a force for good.”

From the Circular Fashion Summit

But you may be asking, how do these abstract concepts of fashion apply to the real world? The short answer: we are at a turning point were we need to act fast in radical new ways to change our current trajectory. The long answer? Keep scrolling.

Mass Sustainability > Mass Production

Sustainability is about to play the reverse Uno card here on the fashion industry and brands don’t want to get left behind.

In 2020, the European Union announced their plans and frameworks for sustainability regulations. Companies have three years to prepare for mandatory emissions disclosures before they are left with a bleak future full of regulatory taxes if they don’t adapt in time. In addition, it is projected that in the next 5 years, the green technology and sustainability market is set to be worth over 40 billion USD. And once this legislation comes into effect, if companies haven’t made the necessary sustainable shifts, they will be losing out on billions in potential profits to play catch up. 

Climate-centric investment funds are on the rise as well, as more and more investors learn climate change poses a fundamental risk to investment performance and long-term financial success. With the European Commission's implementation of the Action Plan on Financing Sustainable Growth in 2018, and the EU Taxonomy to steer parties towards identifying “environmentally friendly activities and access green financing, in order to grow low-carbon sectors and decarbonize high-carbon sectors,” we’re likely to see a steady rise in capital investment in green business and technology.

Digital fashion designed using Clo3d software by @novus.amor. A way to change how designers create clothing in a more sustainable way with less waste.
Digital designs using CLO 3D software by @novus.amor

If the Pretty Little Thing scenario taught us anything, it is that devalued goods tend to be less expensive to make. Whereas sustainable products are generally more expensive. The EU Carbon Border Adjustment Mechanism (CBAM) is a prime example that will lead to an emissions trading system.

Here’s a breakdown: 

“EU importers  will buy carbon certificates corresponding to the carbon price that would have been paid, had the goods been produced under the EU's carbon pricing rules. Conversely, once a non-EU producer can show that they have already paid a price for the carbon used in the production of the imported goods in a third country, the corresponding cost can be fully deducted for the EU importer. The CBAM will help reduce the risk of carbon leakage by encouraging producers in non-EU countries to green their production processes.”

Basically, this means that with the implementation of EU regulations like this, we are heading towards a flip in the prices of sustainable vs. unsustainable goods, with tax incentives making sustainably produced goods perceivably cheaper

Canada is currently “exploring the potential” of a similar mechanism of Border Carbon Adjustments (BCAs), to mitigate carbon leakage. So far, the government has announced a two phase “consultation phase” before implementation. That’s cool, take your time, Canada. Because with all these flash floods, fires, tornadoes, and the IPCC’s code red warnings, it’s clear we have tons of time. 

As new legislation comes up, now is the time to put pressure on companies and due diligence opportunities, as these legislations can only be successful if they become culturally relevant and accepted by the public. France just passed new green legislation with the introduction of mandatory environmental labelling of goods from high-polluting sectors like the textile industry. Consumer's will be able to see the footprint of their purchases through the "Carbon Score" included in the label. The hope is that this will force companies that sell in France to put their words into (climate) action with the evidence to back up their claims. Vive la revolution!  

Gathering Data Like Tik Tok Fashion Haul 

When it comes to the application of technology towards sustainability, it presents a golden opportunity to reframe our collective approach to challenge the status quo. We can shift technology towards becoming a means of harnessing new science and data to drive the momentum of sustainable design across a multitude of industries. 

And that is exactly what we are doing at Arbor

We have the only platform that focuses on both businesses and consumers. Our technology is capable of delivering transparency to the forefront and turn it into a fundamental driving force for global commerce, allowing the basics of sustainability to be understood. “One of our mottos since day 1 has always been, ‘How the data is showcased is just as important as the data itself’, '' says Jordan Dobrescu, a developer at Arbor, “It is important to develop a product for the end user and our current products now speak to that. When creating our products, we showcase our data in a way that is simple, effective, and relatable to non-rocket scientists.”

Image of blank smart phone over a gradiant background.

We have said it before and we will say it again: The fundamentals of sustainability include representation. Ethical hiring practices and diverse corporate culture should be weighted with the same value as green initiatives. “When I first joined Arbor, it was a team of four male engineering co-founders in a basement and the product spoke directly to that”, continues Jordan, “The product was designed for a male engineering audience so I felt as a female developer, whose guilty pleasure is shopping, that I could provide some valuable input.”

Just like Mariah, all we want for Christmas is the collective embrace of technology to open our minds up to ask bold questions and promote different kinds of solutions. And this starts by using intelligent and creative design to develop sustainable interventions. Focus on the actions within the system to change the system. 

“This is important because as a shopper, I always found it hard to understand the impact an individual purchase makes. For me, 10kg or 100kg of CO2e is difficult to visualize, and I don’t think many people know how much that would contribute to global warming, or how many trees would be needed to absorb this,” says Jordan, “For that reason, we developed our current Shopify Plug-in to show a consumer their individual impact. By combining design, technology, and sustainability we are able to create powerful products that have a real impact.”

Innovation waits for no one.