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Future of Fashion: Production - sustainable, high-tech and on-demand

By FashionUnited


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The process of producing clothing in the fashion industry is for the most part hidden away from the public eye. While it is easy to see the leaps and bounds that are taking place every day in the retail industry for example, which we can experience with a few taps of our phone or a quick trip to the store, production is usually done far away from the consumer, leaving much to the imagination.

Just like every part of the fashion industry, and more broadly the commerce industry, the processes that go towards producing our clothes, both on a microscale and an industrial scale, are changing rapidly.

In this second edition of FashionUnited’s Future of Fashion series, we will be looking at the ways clothing manufacturing has changed in recent times, and what types of innovations we can expect to see in the next 10 years.

Sustainable production

As awareness continues to grow around the importance of embracing more sustainable practices in the fashion industry, and as the world nears closer to a point of irreversible damage caused by climate change, more and more companies are investing in clean technologies and eco-measures such as reducing chemicals, waste and carbon emissions in manufacturing, or recycling old materials instead of creating new ones.


The fashion industry is a wasteful one. According to a report by the Environmental Audit Committee, 300,000 tonnes of clothing are burned or buried in the UK every year, while a 2017 report from Reverse Resources estimated that as much as one-quarter of the material fashion manufacturers purchase are wasted each year. In 2018, it was revealed that British Luxury brand Burberry destroyed unsold products worth 28.6 million pounds the previous year.

As consumers become increasingly aware of the excessive waste caused by the industry, more fashion companies are investing in extending the life-cycle of fashion garments through recycling and reusing clothing. Recycled fibers can be created either from pre-consumer waste or post-consumer waste. One of the biggest hurdles that arises from the latter is that the process can be complicated, energy intensive and expensive to separate blends - a mix of two or more types of textile material.

The H&M Foundation is one of the bodies trying to help this. They teamed up with research institute HKRITA (The Hong Kong Research Institute of Textiles and Apparel) to explore methods to separate and recycle fiber blends made from the three main types of textile material: synthetics, cellulose and animal fibres. In 2017, the partnership discovered a hydrothermal recycling system that could fully separate and recycle cotton and polyester blends into new fibres and cellulose powder.

Italian company Aquafil is also on the frontline of textile recycling. It uses a regeneration and purification process to turn nylon from waste such as fishing nets, fabric scraps, carpet flooring and industrial plastic from landfills and oceans into Econyl regenerated nylon.

German sportswear giant Adidas has also stepped into the recycling arena, with plans announced to create 11 million pairs of sneakers made from recycled ocean plastic in 2019, and a commitment to only using recycling plastic in their shoes by 2024.

Less water

Brands are also ramping up their efforts to cut down on the excessive use of water, energy and chemicals across the fashion supply chain. Big players in the denim game, where water usage is especially high, have introduced new technologies and made fresh commitments to cut down on water usage. According to author Stephen Leahy's "Your Water Footprint: The Shocking Facts About How Much Water We Use to Make Everyday Products," 7,600 liters of water are used to make a pair of jeans - this includes for growing cotton and manufacturing the garments.

In June, US denim manufacturer Wrangler launched the first denim collection using its new Indigood foam-dyeing technology which is said to eliminate almost 100 percent of the water typically used in the indigo-dyeing process. Similarly, another US denim producer, Levi’s, announced in August a new water action strategy that will shift from a singular “one-size-fits-all" approach to one focusing more on areas where water is needed the most. The company has set a goal to reduce its cumulative water use for manufacturing by 50 percent in water-stressed areas by 2025.

Fewer chemicals

The fashion industry also creates a lot of chemicals, many of which can seep into water, soil and air. In 2018, the US Consumer Product Safety Commission (BCP) published a list of the most common hazardous chemicals used in the manufacturing of low-cost clothing, mainly from China - they included lead, NFE (nonylphenol ethoxylates and nonylphenols), phthalates and formaldehyde.

But progress is being made. A Greenpeace Germany report released last year, called ‘Destination Zero: seven years of Detoxing the clothing industry’, found that of 80 international brands that committed to reduce the amount of hazardous chemicals in their clothing production, all achieved “significant progress". The companies represent 15 percent of global clothing production and included fashion, sportswear and luxury retailers, outdoor brands and suppliers. Puma, Adidas and Nike were among the first brands to react to Greenpeace’s call to action, signing up to a ‘detox commitment’.

While we are extremely happy to see the progress of Detox companies towards cleaning up their supply chains, 85 percent of the textile industry is still not doing enough to eliminate hazardous chemicals and improve factory working conditions. This is unacceptable. It is time for policy-makers to step in and make Detox a worldwide standard.

Kirsten Brodde, Greenpeace Germany project lead of the Detox-my-Fashion campaign

The dyeing stage in the fashion supply chain is particularly guilty of being incredibly water-intensive and chemical-heavy. According to The World Bank Group, between 17-20 percent of all water pollution comes from textile dyeing and treatment.

Portugese textile company Tintex is pioneering the movemenet towards reducing the amount of toxic chemicals used in the textile production process, through a variety of innovative technologies and commitments. It’s Picasso project, for example, replaces synthetic dyes with natural extracts from plants and mushrooms, among other things.

“I think in the future natural dyeing will be a big thing. We know as a company how difficult it is to develop these processes, but we also realise how in-demand it is and how many brands are interested in it," said Ana Silva, head of sustainability at Tintex. “I also think that in the future there will be a lot more of a connection between different industries, where one industry will offer their residue or waste to another industry where they can be given another life. The future is really about changing from a linear model into a circular one."

Less carbon

Cutting down on carbon emissions seems to be one of the biggest goals of the fashion industry at the moment, with a raft of fashion companies this year pledging to reduce their carbon footprints.

In September, French luxury conglomerate Kering announced its ambitious plan to make its entire group go carbon neutral within its own operations and across the entire supply chain. In the same month, Jeff Bezos, CEO of US retail giant Amazon, announced plans for the company to become net zero carbon across its businesses by 2040, ten years ahead of the Paris Accord’s goal of 2050. The strategy involves a 100 million dollar reforestation scheme and the purchase of 100,000 more electric delivery vans. The announcement came after the retailer faced backlash for its enormous carbon footprint. The day before Bezos’ announcement, over 1,500 Amazon workers staged a walk-out to take part in the Global Climate Strike.

Other fashion brands making similar commitments in the past few months:

But progress might not be coming fast enough. According to the FTSE 100 Sustainability leaderboard and report, more than 85 percent of the UK’s top 100 companies do not have sufficient carbon reduction strategies. The report, by carbon strategy consulting firm EcoAct, found that while 81 percent of the companies have some sort of emissions reduction target, 85 percent of them do not have a sufficient emissions reduction strategy in place to limit global warming to safe levels.

The sharing economy as a new sustainable business model

While finding ways to produce fashion with a less harmful impact on the environment is certainly a step in the right direction, reducing the amount of clothing made in general is still the best option for the environment. Fortunately for the fashion industry then, the resale market is on the rise, so much so, in fact, that according to a report by resale platform ThredUp, it has grown 21 times faster than first hand fashion retail over the past three years and is expected to grow from 24 billion US dollars to 51 billion US dollars in the next five years.

According to Max Bittner, CEO of French resale platform Vestiaire Collective, the resale market offers an exciting, engaging and sustainable alternative to the fast-fashion model. “I think consumer preferences on participating in a more sustainable consumption model is something that the younger generation is much more aware of. They know there is a real need to do something and to act," he said.

Exclusive Sample Sales has a similar mission. Launched by Lauren Rogers and Rachel Amis in 2016, the company offers a service for fashion retailers to sell their excess inventory via a sample sale. Amis and Rogers founded the company after feeling disillusionment at the wasteful destruction of unsold stock by luxury brands. The company aims to helping to increase product life cycle, offer new customers an off-price route to luxury brands and helps those brands protect their bottom line.

Rogers commented: “From my experience within the luxury fashion sector, I could see the challenge faced by retailers of how to clear their excess stock. I also became conscious of the fashion industry’s need to operate more sustainably and improve product lifecycle. This is really what inspired the Exclusive Sample Sale model. We saw an opportunity to help both businesses and the environment simultaneously and make a real difference".

Other new fashion models which increase the life-cycle of garments include rental services such as Rent The Runway, which was valued at a billion dollars in May 2019. The popularity of the business model has taken off as consumers’ interest in the ‘sharing-economy’ increases - this year alone, Banana Republic, Urban Outfitters, Scotch and Soda and Ann Taylor Loft have announced subscritption rental services.

Innovative and experimental materials and textiles

Toggle the sections below to discover more about innovative new textiles and materials being experimented with and used in the fashion industry:

Atelier La Gadoue: a vegetable alternative to leather

Atelier La Gadoue, a Brussel-based company founded by designers Audrey Werthle and Eloïse Maës created their Tchouc bag collections made from Tchouc textile - a vegetable based composite material and an alternative to leather. The material is the outcome of the pair’s research into natural rubber coating on linen canvas.

Swiss brand Qwstion created Bananatex using the fibres of the stem of the abaca tree - a tree of the banana family. They cultivate plants of the banana tree family known locally as "Banana Hemp" or "Abacá" in the Philippines within a natural ecosystem of sustainable forestry. They then process them into a material that is a viable alternative to synthetic fabric. The fabric is made from 100 percent natural banana fibres and is topped with a natural beeswax coating for a water-resistant finish.

Ethical fashion designer Diana Scherer collaborated with biologists and ecologists from the Radboud University in Nijmegen, the Netherlands, to create a fabric made from the root system of grass. Subterranean templates are used as moulds for the clothing, through which the root systems of plants are channelled, weaving and braiding themselves, and forming a textile-like material. While the garments are not yet ready for practical use, the end goal for the project is to be able to grow complete items of clothing underground.

Tech-wear label Senscommon collaborated with Japanese textile company Uchino to develop On-journey, a garment created from an innovative textile made from activated ubame oak charcoal powder that has been kneaded into cotton/rayon fibers before weaving. Led by Latvian designer Laura Šilinska, the garment’s fabric is self-purifying and can eliminate odour, moisture, bacteria and environmental chemicals.

A hemp fur coat by Devohome is a faux-fur alternative to the animal product that avoids which are often used as a replacement, but which are still harmful to the environment. Ukranian textile producer Devohome has come up with an alternative, creating a winter coat lined with hemp fur. The vegan, hypoallergenic and biodegradable fur is made from 50 percent hemp and 50 percent viscose - an alternative to faux-fur but with no synthetic composition in it.

Aquafil is a sustainable Italian textile company that transforms rescued fishing nets into Econyl regenerated nylon, an upcycle material that has been used to create catwalk collections for high fashion brands such as Gucci. It is part of an initiative called the Healthy Seas that has in the past five years has helped collect 375 tonnes of fishing nets to be recycled.

A natural and non-woven textile made from pineapple leaves, with remarkable similarity to leather. Click here to read an article in detail.

AlgiKnit makes a bio yarn from kelp, seaweed or algae via the readily abundant biopolymer ‘alginate’. The bio yarn is manufactured in a closed loop product lifecycle, utilising materials with a significantly lower environmental footprint than conventional textiles.

Automation and fashion on-demand

Leaps and bounds in the development of automation and machine learning have made fashion-on-demand a reality. Though still in its infancy, the business model is an alternative to the mass production of clothing that we know today, offering a faster, and more sustainable model with small-batch production cycles and reduced levels of overstock. It is a shift from making clothes then selling them, to selling clothes then making them. Production costs are generally higher, however, due to the smaller batch sizes used.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Amazon has been quick to try its hand at the new tech. In 2017, the US retailer had a patent application approved for an on-demand apparel manufacturing warehouse. In the future it's likely that fashion brands will offer on-demand production similar to this, where a user can have bespoke clothing measured exactly for them, created with a few clicks on a computer or smartphone.

“Once various textile products are printed, cut and assembled according to the orders, they can be processed through a quality check, photographed for placement in an electronic commerce system, shipped to customers and/or stored in a materials handling facility for order fulfillment," Amazon’s patent reads. “By aggregating orders from various geographic locations and coordinating apparel assembly processes on a large scale, the embodiments provide new ways to increase efficiency in apparel manufacturing."

Fashion on demand also offers shoppers more say in their fashion choices as consumers' interest in personalisation continues to grow. Rather than relying on brands to predict what they want to wear - which can often go wrong and result in overstock - shoppers will be able to choose what they want, and customise the designs accordingly.

Companies like French tech business Lectra are at the frontline of this movement. This year, it launched a solution that automates the entire personalisation process, from product development to final cutting.

This fashion-on demand trend sees brands beginning to streamline their supply chains by internalising production. In April 2018, for example, Gucci launched Gucci Art Lab, a 37,000-square-metre hub of industrial craftsmanship and experimental laboratory for leather goods and footwear products. The lab has space for prototyping and sampling of leather goods and footwear, R&D laboratories for new materials, metal hardware and packaging, a test lab, an accessories lab as well as a pre-industrialization area, all under one roof, giving the brand more control over its product development.

Similarly, Adidas launched the ‘Knit for You’ in Berlin in 2017. The pop-up used a 3D body scanner to measure shoppers’ measurements. They could then choose personalised designs before the machine would knit them a custom merino wool sweater. The whole process was Adidas’ way of experimenting with localised production and took around four hours.

Meanwhile, at Tommy Hilfiger’s denim lab in Amsterdam, traditional hand-scraping dry techniques for adding wear and tear to denim have been switched out for new automated laser technology methods. Using a computer-controlled laser to burn a mask onto jeans, reducing the time of the process from 40 minutes to under two minutes. The method additionally eliminates the use of chemicals, water and stones, and only burns the indigo dye, not the fibres, so it cuts down on harmful dust production.

Nike is also experimenting with 3D printing. The sportswear giant teamed up with Silicon Valley-based startup Grabit for an auto-layering robot that uses electroadhesion to manufacture shoe uppers in just 50 seconds, 20 times faster than it takes a human. The robot’s ROI is less than two year, according to Grabit.

As well as 3D printing and knitting offering more agile and efficient production models, they are also particularly exciting for the fashion industry as they add a new level of design opportunities, allowing for complex shapes and designs to be created that without the technology would be considerably more difficult, if not impossible.

American fashion designer Zac Posen showcased just that at the 2019 Met Gala, where he teamed up with US 3D printing company Protolabs to create dresses for the likes of Katie Holmes, Jourdan Dunn, Nina Dobrev, Gia Coppola and Deepika Padukone. Posen designed the dresses inspired by a vision of freezing objects in motion, resulting in a powerful and surreal designs.

His rose gown dress worn by British model Jourdan Dunn was made of 21 unique petals weighing a pound each. The petals, which took approximately 100 hours each to print, were made of Accura Xtreme White 200 durable plastic and printed on a stereolithography (SLA) machine.

Hover over the image to discover more about the Rose gown.

Picture: courtesy of Zac Posen x GE Additive x Protolabs Met Gala catwalk by Getty

Better working conditions

Often the elephant in the room when it comes to fashion - especially when it comes to fast-fashion - transparency surrounding worker conditions within the industry are becoming increasingly important, and more companies are bringing in new regulations to monitor standards.

In recent years, more and more global fashion brands have been pledging to work with suppliers, governments and NGOs to make sure workers earn a fair living wage and work in better conditions. But there is still a long way to go.

In July, a study of 20 leading fashion brands conducted by the Clean Clothing Campaign found that none of the companies are currently ring-fencing a living wage figure into their product costs. Although some companies, like H&M, say its buyers have been trained to take a labor cost out of its price negotiation, there is no independent data to confirm this -- and the so-called labor costs are not a living wage benchmark figure.

That said, C&A, Nike and H&M were all able to show reductions in their supplier numbers in the last 5 years, achieving 39 percent, 33 percent and 14 percent, respectively. Adidas and H&M also have a policy limiting the use of repeated short term contracts with suppliers, with Nike going so far as to establish a 15 percent cap on them.

Similarly, a study published earlier this year by Know The Chain found that major clothing and footwear brands are failing to tackle the exploitation of vulnerable workers in their supply chains. The benchmark test - which measured 43 global companies’ efforts to address forced labour - gave the apparel and footwear sector an overall average score of 37 out of 100.

Adidas (92/100) came top of the list with the best average score, followed closely by Lululemon (89/100) and Gap Inc. (75/100). At the other end of the scale, luxury brands Prada (5/100), Salvatore Ferragamo (13/100), and LVMH (14/100), and footwear brands Skechers (7/100) and Foot Locker (12/100) all fared poorly.

The results were disappointing but they did in their bleak findings prove a growing trend - more light is being shined on poor work conditions, and at an increasing rate, just perhaps not quickly enough.

In May, leading fashion companies including Nike, PVH, Levi Strauss, Esprit, Adidas and Under Armour signed an open letter to the Cambodian government urging it to improve its labour standards. Recently, both the European Union and the United States have had to re-examine the country as a trading partner “based on the declining respect for labour standards, including freedom of association, and other issues related to respect for human rights issues in Cambodia.

Media credit: Unspun, Pexel

Future of Fashion