FashTech Summit 2016: What Role Can Tech Play In The Future Of Sustainable Fashion?

Technology focused on reducing fashion’s negative impact on the world and improving the human condition emerged as a theme in the inaugural FashTech Summit in London.

Debera Johnson, Executive Director of the Pratt Institute's Brooklyn Fashion + Design Accelerator, flagged that our knowledge of the origins of our clothing compares unfavourably to our knowledge of where our food comes from. But, as several contributors including Sasha Ternent founder of SuCo - The Sustainable Clothing Company, pointed out, there are signs the tide is changing. And, as Matthew Drinkwater, head of Fashion Innovation Agency at London College of Fashion noted: the change will be consumer-led.

Ternent reminded the audience that the clothing industry is the second biggest polluter of the planet, with water pollution a particular villain in the piece. In the global T-shirt industry alone, more than 20 billion units are produced a year, with around 700 gallons of water used for each one and textile dying accounting for 20% of the world’s water pollution. Much of the most exciting developments in fashion technology involving reducing water usage lies in either the supply chain or the consumer use, the panel on ‘Fashion + Technology + Sustainability = Future Reality’ said. For instance, nanotechnolgy is starting to be embedded into textiles to create hydrophobic material that repels dirt or reduces odour-causing bacteria to increase the number of possible wears before washing.

Even before material meets skin there is exciting innovation at the organic stage with Johnson citing designers such as the UK’s Suzanne Lee, whose experimentation with growing leather in a lab environment potentially cuts out the middle cow and its dependence on fertilisers, water, animal feed and - well - animals. Where science merges with fashion is a particularly exciting area, said designer Amy Congdon, who added that self-repairing garments have the possibility to change consumption patterns.

Ternent warned that not all innovation is necessarily good. While Johnson pointed out in her session on day one, it is anticipated that 10% of all clothing will be connected to the cloud in the next ten years. Ternent and other panellists throughout the FashTech Summit counselled that attention needs to turn to how this can be used wisely. Wearable tech may soon burst off the athletic track and into ordinary life with apps able to not only monitor heart rate and distances walked but locate people, provide health diagnostics or change colour, shape and style at the touch of a button.

Towards the end of the ‘Future Reality’ session, the panel discussed whether the fashion industry, or indeed consumers are ready for a cultural shift around sustainability. Does anyone care, asked Ternent, while Drinkwater wondered whether consumers cared enough. The opportunity, according to Congdon, is for this generation of designers to build sustainability into the creative process to become part of the model, not just a bolt on.

Change is also being mooted at the highest levels, said moderator Sissi Johnson, with the introduction by the UN’s Ethical Fashion Initiative of “RISE” (Respect, Invest, Sustain, Empower) which enables consumers to see via a QR code the garment, detail on how the product was made, who made it and where it was manufactured.

While Ternent claimed luxury brands have a role to play in thought-leadership they lack the scale to affect real change, she said. However, while price parity is a consideration and affordability will help convert the masses the main factor will always be creating a product that is desirable - something the fashion industry knows well.