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How can Digital Fashion Design help us be more sustainable?

By Guest Contributor


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Credits: Digital garments and model by TDFG Academy student Taskin Göec

What comes to your mind when you think of digital fashion? AR filters? Direct to avatar clothing? Skins for gaming? Digital Fashion is all of this and more and could also help us towards a fairer and more sustainable fashion system. And we are not only talking about the production phase, reducing waste in samples and so on. Sustainable practices can be adopted by digital fashion designers to ensure a better production process, from creation to the consumer.

One key approach for a brand to consider its sustainable impact is the utilisation of the Sustainable Development Goals. Developed by the United Nations, the Sustainable Development Goals or SDGs are a plan of action for people, planet and prosperity. The intention is to deliver greater transparency and accountability. There are 17 goals with an overall aim to end poverty, take care of and protect the environment, and ensure prosperity for all people.

To discuss in what ways the SDGs can make the fashion system more sustainable, we invited five experts in digital fashion and sustainable business to share their thoughts, plans and projects. All five have different backgrounds, but one common goal: a sustainable planet.

This article is a collaboration between The Digital Fashion Group Academy and FashionUnited, written by Dr Lívia Pinent, Digital Professor for Research at The Digital Fashion Group Academy.

What are the SDGs, the Sustainable Development Goals, for the fashion industry?

"Every time I give a lecture on the SDGs it seems that the statistics get worse," says Merunisha Moonilal, academic, consultant and Digital Professor for circularity at TDFG Academy. From the 17 global goals, the UN specifically appointed for the fashion industry to adopt four main goals, which are:

  • SDG 4: Quality Education. Ensure inclusive and equitable Education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all.

  • SDG 9: Industry, innovation and infrastructure. Build resilient infrastructure promote inclusive and sustainable industrialization and foster innovation.

  • SDG 12: Responsible Consumption and production. Ensure sustainable consumption and production patterns.

  • SDG 13: Climate action. Take urgent action to combat climate change and its impacts.
  • Moonilal explains, for instance, that SDG 4 is about providing inclusive education at all levels. For fashion, this means eradicating the early gender divide, where statistically more boys than girls attend school but the fashion supply or value chains comprises 80% women. While SDG 9 is about ensuring that, while technology is rapidly progressing, we make sure that human labour will not get replaced by automation. Also that it does not disenfranchise workers, but rather trains those workers for more skilled positions thereby allowing future generations to work with these technologies.

    "Human rights violations are unfortunately endemic in garment manufacturing. Issues of gender, class and racial diversity in senior job roles are still ever present, not to mention the toxic destruction of our natural environment and resources. However, the clothing and textile industry is nonetheless a fundamental economic backbone of our global economy, and it is essential that fashion as a whole adopts the SDGs on their own. Integrating the SDGs is of high relevance in order to modify the linear supply chain into a circular supply chain", states Moonilal.

    What is the circular fashion system?

    "The circular fashion system is essentially where waste is avoided. And how we're moving towards it is by trying to use resources that already exist, so we don't have to use virgin resources or not have to produce at all," tell us Alexia Planas Lee, the Founding Partner and Head of Impact Design and Innovation at Circular Fashion Summit by Lablaco.

    The circularity specialist also explains that "there are three stages of the garment where improvement can be made: materials, process and consumption. In the case of digital fashion, we can see how it's helping at materials level with the selection of materials. There are companies doing excellent renderings of materials, so you don't need to ship those samples anymore. Samples that end up in waste for every single brand or designer that wants to work with them.”

    "Technologies such as IoT (Internet of Things) allows us tracing of garments journeys, end to end. This allows consumers to be able to learn the whole journey of this garment and for the brand to be able to follow it. For example, we launched an IoT rental system with H&M a few months ago, in their store in Berlin. This enabled them to track their products at a consumption level. It is digitising and also promoting rental to keep close in the loop," says Planas Lee.

    The potential of Digital Fashion for a sustainable system

    For Evelyn Mora, CEO & Co-Founder of Digital Village, we are still thinking too small as an industry regarding the potential of Digital Fashion in achieving a sustainable system: "We have to think about this on a large global scale, how digital fashion can actually impact physical fashion. I don't believe that you can replace the physical fashion industry, which is a 800 billion US dollars industry, with digital fashion. But I do think that, when it comes to consumption and our relationship to clothes, the ways we express ourselves, this can be influenced by digital fashion".

    And she adds: "the fashion industry is about selling dreams and identities. It's so much more than just clothing. And I don't think that any fashion brand has elevated it and uses digital in a globally impactful way, which changes our physical consumption habits." For doing this, Mora believes that there is much work to be done by the fashion brands and companies, the supply chain must be involved, transparency should be enforced through the traceability of NFTs, and also we need to ensure that everyone working for the industry is fairly paid.

    "It's a fact that digital fashion hasn't created significant impact and results to make fashion more sustainable. Will it happen? Sure. It's a bigger picture, a long term task that we are in the process of going through," concludes Mora.

    For Olga Chernysheva, Chief Officer Sustainability at DRESSX, Digital Fashion is already impacting how products are being made and consumed. She uses an example from a project in partnership between DRESSX and Farfetch, on reducing the carbon footprint through on-demand production: "Before we spoke about how digital fashion can be substituted by physical fashion, for everyday consumption, we worked with the brand. We created an only digital capsule collection and we did all the marketing digitally. Influencers were dressed digitally, nothing was produced. And just after the campaign, Farfetch collected the orders and the physical garments were produced on-demand. For the 40 garments created for this capsule collection, we saved 2,5 tons in carbon footprint."

    To have a sense of scale, the carbon footprint of a digital garment is only 3% of a cotton t-shirt traditionally made. This carbon footprint calculation is based on a study published in 2020 by DRESSX, and the methodology is published on their website. There is also a study published by Evelyn Mora for Digital Village in August 2020 about the carbon emissions of Digital Fashion and its impact on sustainability with some counterpoints that contribute to the relevance and complexity of the theme.

    Sustainability as an empathetic process for the designer

    For Roei Derhi, founder and creative director at Placebo Digital Fashion House, "fashion is about identity. And when we talk about SDGs, when we talk about sustainability, a lot of people talk about how it's actually impacting the environment. Sustainability for us, at Placebo, is how we define humans in the 21 century. Which kind of humans we want to be. Sustainability is empathy, is how the world becomes so small and we create empathy without any physical borders between countries and all the result of the SDGs: gender equality, to be empathetic to other people".

    "Digital fashion actually exploded not because it's new thinking about fashion or about sustainability. I think that people are looking for escapism. People are looking for a definition of themselves, and fashion is all about identity," says Derhi. And as designers, we should be responsible with ourselves, our consumers and our society about how you are going to offer this escapism. The creative design process should start from an empathetic perspective, and includes social and environmental sustainability concerns.

    We all know that the fashion industry is still far from reaching the sustainable development goals. But different initiatives can reach a more sustainable system. Environmental policies, circular economy, digital design, digitalization of the production process, recycling, repairing and reusing, consumer consciousness, and more. There is no easy way and no one big genius solution. It is a team job and everybody needs to play their part.

    This article is based on the webinar "Digital Design & Sustainable Futures: The Goals" hosted by The Digital Fashion Group Academy. You can watch a sneak peak of the discussion below and the full webinar at TDFGA's website.

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