The clothing industry is one of the biggest polluters in the world. According to various reports, it is the source of 10% of global carbon emissions; 20% of the world’s wastewater comes from the dyeing of textiles. Cotton cultivation accounts for nearly 25% of insecticide use and more than 10% of pesticides. On the commercial side, the picture is hardly brighter with Consumption habits clearly unsustainable. Between 2000 and 2015, clothing sales doubled to 200 billion products per year, with the average number of times an item is worn declining, overall, by almost 40%.
It is inconceivable to think that the clothing industry could thus continue to mass-produce cheap clothes often made under questionable working conditions. Aware of the growing number of eco-responsible consumers, several brands are trying to adopt a “green attitude”, some opt for the easy way, “greenwashing”, while others are more serious in their environmental efforts, although relatively limited.
Artificial intelligence, a regulatory tool?
To commit to greater sustainability, the industry is moving in particular towards digital transformation, counting, among other things, on the progress ofartificial intelligence and its application in (ephemeral) fashion. Artificial intelligence and advanced data analytics, for example, make it possible tooptimize supply chain management and significantly improve forecasts of sales figures, fashion trends and customer behavior. The apparel industry has long struggled with inventory distortion, with frequent overstocks leading to overproduction, high energy consumption and immeasurable waste, in short: a high carbon footprint. Artificial intelligence can contribute to overcoming these practices.
Another possibility to reduce emissions involves the use of AI-driven assistants that can suggest items to customers based on their body measurements, shopping history and personal style. Such systems increase customer satisfaction with selected items and reduce the number of returns. The big winner in such a scenario would be the online sector, since up to 40% of online purchases are ultimately returned, resulting in a high carbon footprint. Most of the time, these items are not resold and end up being destroyed.
Artificial intelligence can also customize fashion on a large scale, that is, apply the concept of mass customization. Indeed, the purchase of personalized fashion items increases the emotional value of a product, which encourages customers to keep these items longer and wear them more often. Imagine, for example, that you have personalized and purchased the same sweater as your friends, adding a personal – and meaningful – touch. Such a sweater will undoubtedly have a high emotional value for the group of friends in question. They will wear it more often and keep it longer. However, such an approach hardly aligns with the fast fashion business model, which encourages overconsumption and short product life cycles. Only a radical change in the economic model could allow the success of such an approach.
Tomorrow, digital clothes
These are just a handful of examples of how AI can help fashion move towards a greener future. There is also another, more futuristic alternative: completely replacing physical clothing with digital clothing. Indeed, more and more consumers buy their new clothes (mainly) to wear them and especially the show on social media. For Instagram fashion influencers, for example, it is unimaginable to wear the same clothes in several photos. Similar to virtual fitting roomsother customers could have fun testing how to wear, match and combine their different (virtual) clothes.
To be fashionable on social networks, however, it is no longer necessary to buy real clothes: companies such as Dress X sell fully digital fashion items, which they will dress you according to your favorite photo. The process is foolproof: upload a photo of yourself, buy the desired garment and the service provider sends you back your image wearing (virtually) the new cap, the new sweater or the new bag selected. You do not need to physically purchase the item in question; everything is digital. It is certainly more durable, but not necessarily less expensive: prices range from around 30-50 euros for a stylish dress, sweater or pair of shoes to several thousand euros for a (virtual) haute couture suit.
To further immerse yourself in the virtual world, think of the “metaverse”, this three-dimensional virtual world that can be integrated in the form of avatars via virtual and augmented reality headsets. These famous avatars, which notably represent your “virtual you”, will also want to be fashionable; they will therefore have to build a (digital) wardrobe for them. If Mark Zuckerberg talks about his metaverse in the future, his predecessors, like Second Life, have been around for nearly 20 years. Research shows that its users experience these virtual social worlds as a extension of their real life and ten years ago they were designing, selling and buying digital clothes. If the predictions come true, the metaverse will soon integral part of our life ; we’ll work and socialize in it, all in the form of incredibly authentic avatars that mimic our facial expressions and body movements… and wear digital clothing. Of course, the user will have the choice between an avatar resembling him perfectly or conveying a completely different image of himself – depending on the desired situation and the context. This environment will be an (almost) entirely new fashion market to develop.
Further evidence of this possibility comes to us from the fashion show world itself. Right after the last Milan Fashion Week (the real one), several renowned clothing brands have teamed up to create a different kind of show: the Metaverse Fashion Week. Organized by and about the virtual world Decentraland, this one featured the biggest all-digital fashion week in the world. During the four days of virtual parades, we were able to admire the collections of Dolce & Gabbana, Etro, Tommy Hilfiger, among others. The virtual fashion show was surrounded by a high-end shopping area inspired by Avenue Montaigne in Paris, where consumers could purchase their desired (digital) products directly from the aforementioned brands.
However, virtual worlds are not flawless. Indeed, they are energy consumers and, as such, polluters – even if their carbon footprint is not, at least for the moment, comparable to that of fast fashion. What one can however question is what living in the metaverse means for society… Is a life where one remains cloistered at home and where one spends most of one’s time in a virtual environment really desirable? ?
In the fictional metaverse scenario he exploits in his 1992 bestseller The Virtual SamuraiNeal Stephenson describes a universe where virtual worlds are becoming so popular and appealing that some people decide to remain continuously connected to them and spend their real lives in storage units, surrounded only by the necessary technical equipment allowing them to access the virtual world.
As so often, the solution probably lies in a middle ground: a shift towards more sustainable (physical) slow fashion, moving away from short product lifecycles and the overconsumption of cheap, shoddy clothing, combined with all-digital clothing worn during social media appearances and (occasional) visits from the (future) metaverse.
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The “all-digital”, guarantor of greater sustainability in the fashion industry?
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