Can Digital Technology Be a Driver for Sustainable Innovation in Fashion?
As the fashion industry is generally considered the second largest polluter in the world just after the oil industry, it’s no secret that a lot needs to change to make this industry more sustainable. In order to be profitable, brands are constantly anticipating which outfits will be sold, and try to order the appropriate stocks of the garment in question. Inevitably, however, huge quantities of excess clothing end up being destroyed. In an interview with Supertrends, fashion expert Heidi Svane Pedersen says one way for the industry to solve the problem is to go digital.
Heidi Svane Pedersen is a specialist in innovation, technologies, and new ways of thinking circular business models, working on building bridges between academia and the lifestyle industry. Some of her initiatives have seen her working on the future of retail in San Francisco, the metaverse in Seoul, digital fashion/furniture in Amsterdam, or tech experiments with blockchain, IoT, and virtual tools to understand where they catalyze the circular economy.
She holds a master’s degree in strategy and innovation and is the head of digital at Lifestyle & Design Cluster, a Danish national business cluster promoting innovation and sustainable growth, primarily in small and medium-sized housing and clothing companies as well as in the related creative industries.
(In the picture to the right, Heidi Svane Pedersen is wearing a digital hoodie.)
Supertrends: Heidi, thank you for taking the time to talk to us. To begin, could you briefly describe your work at Lifestyle & Design Cluster?
Heidi Svane Pedersen: Amongst other things, we help startups in the fashion, furniture, and design industry get a good start in their business. But on an everyday note, our lab’s purpose is to keep this sector in Denmark as one of the most innovative in the world. We apply for funding, we raise the means and the resources to support them in this transition, moving towards a more circular industry, making sure that they use the leverage of technology, but also that they stay competitive in the future.
S: Can you say a few words about the trend of on-demand fashion?
HSP: On-demand fashion can mean so many things. First of all, the most important thing is that when we do research projects, we have to make sure that the industry gets new insights on how to become more responsible. We need to change the way we’re working and strive for an industry whose products can be circulated a lot more, so on-demand fashion questions this linear way of working today.
Do we actually know, as a brand, what our consumer wants? And do we enough to produce what they want in a linear model and keep it in stock until people are ready to buy it? You don’t need to be a researcher to see all the sales and discounts being offered by retail stores or E-commerce platforms. The current business model of the fashion industry has flaws, and doesn’t quite suit the customers’ needs, hence the extra stock.
We need to change this model, and on-demand fashion offers this way of thinking that if we knew more about exactly what a customer would like or what a user wants to wear, we would produce exactly what they need. It instantly helps us reduce stock, reduce waste, reduce resources, manpower, and hours. And it offers new business models in the way that we can offer fashion to a particular user to suit their needs in a more precise way.
S: You mentioned improving productivity and better adaptation of what companies are offering to what the customer needs for a more sustainable approach. In your opinion, can fashion companies provide on-demand fashion and still remain profitable?
HSP: That’s a really hard question right now because being more responsible is still more expensive. The business model calls for new ways of thinking, either new ways of offering products or new ways of producing because it’s going to be difficult in that situation. Because it is more expensive to produce responsibly, companies need to invest large amounts of money in order to exchange their business model for a more sustainable one.
Using digitalization is one way of approaching that. Some of the models that we’re seeing today are very much inspired by the gaming industry. For example, we see more brands being curious about how to use 3D rendering. You can design 3D clothing as a skin for your avatar, or use it as an image, as a video, or as an augmented reality filter today on your web shop, or on Instagram. Already today, you could publish the product you want to offer online in digital form, and let consumers give you feedback. Do they want to buy it or not? With the technology evolving exponentially, that software will just become better and better and give a more neat and emotional reaction later on.
There is also the question of big data. If you want to do on-demand fashion, you have to look at mass customization models, where you’re not customizing exactly for the individual need. But you might have a bulk of data that could tell you that your client database has these items in these sizes, so you can offer products that are more customized for them. But then the last trend may be tapping a little into slow fashion.
S: What can you tell us about slow fashion from the perspectives of the consumer and the supplier?
HSP: Over the past 30 to 40 years, we have become so used to being just able to buy and throw away, then buy again and throw away, that we’ve kind of lost respect for fashion. When we buy a couch, it’s a craft, it takes time and we respect that we might have to wait for six, eight, or twelve weeks before we receive the couch. As consumers, maybe we need to refine that respect for fashion as well. We need to understand the craftsmanship that goes into creating a piece of fashion.
On the supplier side, in reaction to fast fashion, at least here in Denmark, we see the emergence of micro-factories that can help a design brand execute their idea. They can post their digital designs, models, or drawings or renderings to their community to get instant feedback and find out if people are willing to buy this.
And then they have the technology to produce fashion locally via these micro-factories that can create the garments locally. A lot of things are happening in this industry right now, but fashion on demand offers a lot of questions right now – maybe a few more questions than answers.
(In the picture to the left, Heidi Svane Pedersen is wearing a digital outfit.)
S: You mentioned that companies need to invest heavily in order to produce sustainably. Do you think that the future will favor those who are doing that?
HSP: For me, that’s a simple answer. Sustainability primarily means transparency. Traceability is a license to operate in the future, and for textile and fashion, this is being legislated as well. In 2022, the EU proposed a new textile strategy, which will in the future demand a digital product passport, it will demand eco-design principles, and it will demand traceability of your CO2 footprint. This is all part of proposed legislation that will most likely happen in some format.
It’s not just a matter of accommodating your consumer. You will also be legally required to protect the climate. We know for a fact now that if we want to change something in the fashion industry, we need to bring down new production by 75 to 95 percent. That means a lot of businesses have to reinvent the way that they’re making clothes.
I think a lot of brands are using digitalization to understand how can they use data to tailor their production more accurately to what is demanded and what is needed: How can we, within new business models, circulate the garment that has already been produced? Some of the startup businesses that we see being successful offer the consumer the possibility to go into their platforms and type in their measurements. But very likely, soon they will be able to do this by scanning and maybe even use an avatar that can automatically project their needs.
To top it all, in 2017, Amazon filed a patent application for fashion on demand, where they would use data from their Prime customers and from all their sources of data to determine what type of fashion customers they want. This would allow them to launch their own fashion brands and accommodate this fashion on demand. This wouldn’t be possible without the power of digitalization, of mastering big data.
S: Will the companies dream even further and offer digital applications that you could use to design your own outfit application before placing the order with a supplier?
HSP: It is always interesting to think about designing your own clothes. What we have to take into account is that being a designer is a craft and an education. There are so many compromises you have to make in order to make a piece of fashion that is both beautiful and put together with the right material.
When we’re talking about involving the consumer in the development phase, we have to think about the user journey. This is where we see artificial intelligence and especially virtual technologies come into play. Because you can simulate fashion easily with an algorithm or with an augmented reality filter, which makes it way easier for customers to understand how their choices impact the design.
Let’s say they were to write, “I want long sleeves, I want a dress with draped skirt, I want it with this specific material.” They’re not designers, so it’s difficult for them to understand how the dress becomes beautiful. But these newer technologies, which are maturing extremely quickly, make it possible for them to use something almost like a Snapchat filter, try the model on, and see if their creation is what they want and reflects their choices. That being said, I don’t think this possibility is that far in the future. But implementing it demands that brands think about how they can make these collabs with their users.
S: You mentioned all sorts of digital technologies like artificial intelligence, digital clothes, augmented reality, and virtual fitting rooms, but you focused mainly on the benefits. Can you think of some pitfalls of using those?
HSP: Yes. First of all, we are talking about technologies in the fashion and textile industry, which is a really hands-on business and has not been very good at accommodating new competencies for academia or technology competencies. It is historically an industry primarily oriented toward fashion competencies. There’s a gap between utilizing these new technologies, digital or otherwise, and having the competencies to actually make a good business out of them.
Very often, if you ask the industry, IT projects are too expensive. They haven’t really shown great results. They demand much more than the organization is capable of lifting. That’s the biggest challenge in including these technologies into the pool of core competencies right now. It almost feels like it’s two different industries. We’re trying to match technology and fashion.
Second of all, technology is still expensive. We’re talking about artificial intelligence or blockchain technology that is only 10-15 years old. Our research shows that the technology of blockchain is kind of at the level that the internet was in the 1990s, so it’s still very much evolving. We’re talking about 3D technology and 3D rendering. These do not provide photorealistic results yet. A lot of people say: “Well, I can’t really use it, I need it to be faithful to reality.” My point is we’re still in the maturity stage of a lot of these technologies, but they’re maturing way faster than maybe the industry is.
And then there’s a cultural thing, right? Fashion is something personal, it’s something that people use as an identity, so there are so many customer demands out there that are really, really different. We are working in a world where the tech giants are keeping their data close. I think some of the brands in the world today are a little bit challenged on when to do open innovation, and when to keep it close to your business.
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