Written By: Gargi Sarma
The fashion industry's rapid expansion has resulted in an alarming increase in environmental waste, spanning from the initial phases of production to the eventual disposal of clothing. As a result, technical advancements have become effective weapons against waste, enabling the sector to adopt sustainable practices and lessen its environmental impact. Numerous technology-driven projects have played a significant role in limiting waste and promoting a more environmentally conscious approach to fashion manufacturing and consumption by incorporating sophisticated solutions at every stage of the fashion supply chain.
The fashion industry is a significant source of waste and pollution in the environment. Just 1% of the industry's annual production of 53 million tons of fibre gets recycled, according to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation. This garbage is disposed of in landfills and incinerators, producing toxic greenhouse gases.
Here is a more thorough example of waste in the European and Latin American fashion industries:
Overproduction: In an effort to reach sales goals, clothing brands frequently overproduce, but this can result in a large amount of unsold inventory. As an illustration, Burberry, a UK brand, burned £28.6 million worth of unsold clothing and accessories in 2018.
Bad design: It's more common for clothing made of inferior materials or with poor design to be thrown away after only a few wears. For instance, the average article of clothing is only worn seven times before being thrown away, according to research by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation.
Fabric waste: Cutting errors, overruns, and defects result in a significant amount of fabric waste during the manufacturing process. According to a study conducted by the World Resources Institute, the fashion industry produces 17.5 million tons of waste fabric annually.
Water pollution: A lot of water and chemicals are used in the dyeing and finishing of textiles, which can contaminate streams. For instance, 20% of Europe's industrial water pollution is attributable to the textile sector, according to a European Commission study.
Returns: A significant portion of clothing is brought back to retailers, where a large portion is subsequently discarded. For instance, a National Retail Federation study discovered that 30% of US consumers return clothing.
Unsold inventory: Retailers frequently have to mark down or discount unsold inventory, which can result in financial losses. For instance, a McKinsey & Company study revealed that unsold inventory costs the fashion industry $500 billion annually.
Landfills: Clothes end up in landfills in large quantities, where it can take hundreds of years for them to break down. For instance, a UK Environmental Protection Agency study discovered that 10 million tonnes of clothing are disposed of in UK landfills annually.
Incineration: When clothing is burned, hazardous pollutants are released into the atmosphere. For instance, according to a study conducted by the European Environment Agency, 4% of greenhouse gas emissions in the EU are caused by the textile sector.
Wastage at Various Fashion Supply Chain Stages:
Extraction and Processing of Raw Materials: In the early phases, the fashion sector frequently adds to environmental deterioration using raw material extraction and processing. Technology has responded to this by introducing creative and sustainable processes. For example, the requirement for conventional resource-intensive materials like leather and cotton has greatly decreased with the advent of bio-fabricated materials like lab-grown leather and plant-based textiles. Furthermore, improvements in digital printing and waterless dyeing techniques have reduced chemical waste and water contamination, providing a more environmentally friendly method of material processing.
Manufacturing and Production: Fabric scraps, wasted materials, and defective products are just a few of the wasteful things that are produced during the manufacturing stage. In response, technological advancements such as computer-aided design (CAD) and 3D printing have transformed the production process by precisely allocating materials and reducing surplus production. Moreover, the utilization of artificial intelligence (AI) and data analytics in production planning has decreased error probability and increased efficiency, resulting in a notable decrease in total waste.
Distribution and Supply Chain: Reducing waste in the fashion industry requires effective supply chain management. Advancements in technology, like supply chain transparency software and blockchain technology, have made supply chains more traceable and visible, allowing businesses to monitor their networks and pinpoint areas for improvement. Additionally, using sustainable and biodegradable packaging materials has minimized the environmental impact during the distribution process, and the adoption of electric and hybrid vehicles for transportation has reduced carbon emissions.
Figure 2 shows that the fashion supply chain has 15% waste at the design and production stage, 60% waste at the distribution and retail stage, 20% global water usage and 10% microplastics. However, several solutions can be implemented to reduce fashion wastage, including:
Using data to optimize the design and production process
Investing in sustainable textiles and materials
Developing new technologies to sort and recycle textiles
Consumer Usage and Disposal: Addressing fashion waste must center on the consumer stage. In this case, technology has brought about several solutions meant to encourage sustainable consumption and lessen the disposal of used clothing. Customers can now see clothes before they buy them thanks to virtual try-on technology and augmented reality (AR) apps, which lowers the possibility that they will return or discard the item. In addition, the emergence of online marketplaces for secondhand goods and clothing rentals has increased clothing longevity, promoting a circular economy and lessening the environmental impact of fast fashion.
Latest Technologies Reducing Wastage in the Fashion Industry:
The fashion industry is a significant source of waste and pollution in the environment. Still, several novel technologies are being developed that can contribute to waste reduction along the entire supply chain.
3D design and sampling: 3D design software facilitates the creation and visualization of clothing designs, eliminating the need for actual sample production. By doing this, the quantity of fabric and other resources that are squandered during the design phase may be decreased.
Artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning: These two fields of study can be used to forecast demand for various products by analyzing past sales data and customer trends. To minimize waste and overproduction, this information can then be used to optimize production and inventory levels.
Laser Cutting: By reducing the quantity of fabric required to make a garment, laser cutting—a precise fabric-cutting technology—can contribute to waste reduction.
Waterless dyeing: This is a new technique that dyes fabric without the use of water by using carbon dioxide. In addition to using less water—up to 90% less than in conventional dyeing—this method also generates less wastewater.
Closed-loop production: A closed-loop manufacturing system recycles and repurposes every scrap that is produced during the manufacturing process. This can lessen the impact of manufacturing on the environment and help eliminate waste.
Smart fitting rooms: These spaces employ cameras and sensors to give clients size and outfit recommendations. This may lessen the amount of returns and unnecessary purchases.
Chatbots driven by artificial intelligence (AI): These chatbots can assist customers in finding the ideal products for their needs and can respond to inquiries from them regarding products and sizing. This may lessen returns and enhance the clientele's experience.
Retail pricing: Retail pricing can encourage customers to buy better and less, which can help reduce waste in the fashion industry. Customers are more likely to make impulsive purchases of clothing that they may not need or wear frequently when it is priced too low. This may cause clothing to be thrown out too soon, adding to waste. Conversely, when clothing is priced more sensibly, buyers are more inclined to think things through and choose pieces that they will cherish and wear for many years. This may lessen the quantity of clothing that is thrown away annually.
Pricing to discourage returns: Some retailers are using pricing to discourage returns. For example, some retailers charge a restocking fee for returned items. This can help to reduce the number of clothes that are returned and discarded.
Pricing based on sustainability: Some fashion brands are now pricing their clothes based on their sustainability credentials. For example, the brand Reformation prices its clothes based on the cost of materials, labor, and shipping, as well as the environmental impact of production. This pricing system incentivizes consumers to buy clothes that are made with sustainable materials and produced in an ethical and sustainable way.
Pricing to encourage repairs: Some brands are offering free or discounted repairs for their clothes. This can help to extend the life of garments and reduce waste.
Textile recycling: A greater variety of materials can be recycled thanks to increasingly advanced and effective textile recycling technologies. By doing this, the quantity of textile waste that is dumped in landfills and incinerators may be decreased.
Upcycling: Upcycling is the process of creating new products out of used or unwanted clothing. Upcycling can lessen the need to create new clothing by extending the life of existing items.
Figure 3 (Source: Scaling textile recycling in Europe—turning waste into value, McKinsey & Company)
Figure 3 illustrates how these bottlenecks, which keep the circular textile economy from scaling, must be removed for fiber-to-fiber recycling technologies to realize their full potential. These include lowering costs, improving output quality, and expanding their capacity to handle fibre blends. According to our analysis, in 2030, 18–26% of gross textile waste could be recycled from fiber to fiber if these obstacles are removed.
Here are the most recent case studies on technology that decreases waste in the fashion industry:
Waterless Dyeing Technology Used by Nike:
Nike has created a waterless dyeing method called ColorDry that colors fabric using carbon dioxide rather than water. This method generates less wastewater and can save up to 90% of the water used in traditional dyeing.
Since its implementation in 2015, Nike claims that the ColorDry procedure has saved the company more than 1 billion gallons of water. Nike has been able to cut its greenhouse gas emissions by more than 20% thanks to this process.
AI-driven inventory optimization at H&M:
AI is being used by H&M to maximize its stock levels. This lessens waste and overproduction.
The AI system at H&M forecasts demand for various products by examining past sales data and consumer trends. After that, production goals and inventory distribution to retail locations are determined using this data.
H&M has been able to meet customer demand while reducing inventory levels by 20% thanks to the use of AI. Additionally, the business has been able to cut the percentage of product returns by 15%.
The sustainable pricing model of Reformation:
Reformation is a fashion brand that bases its prices on the cost of labor, materials, shipping, and the production's effect on the environment. Customers are encouraged by this pricing structure to purchase clothing that is ethically and environmentally produced and composed of sustainable materials.
Reformation, for instance, charges more for its recycled polyester dresses than for its traditional polyester dresses. This is because recycled polyester requires higher production costs than regular polyester but has a longer lifespan.
Reformation has lessened its environmental effect thanks to its sustainable pricing strategy. For instance, the company claims that by utilizing recycled polyester in its products, it saves more than 700 million gallons of water annually.
Green Story Uses Data Analytics to Cut Down on Fashion Waste:
Green Story, a fashion brand that uses data to cut waste, recently revealed that, during the previous year, it cut waste in the fashion industry by 20%. The business found and fixed wasteful areas in its supply chain and product design by using data analytics.
The data analytics team at Green Story discovered that there was a 15% overproduction of clothing. By using this data, the team was able to cut waste and modify production levels. The group also discovered that by streamlining its supply chain, the business could cut emissions related to transportation by 10%.
Green Story is also using data to track product usage and reduce premature disposal. The business has created a new app that lets users keep track of how frequently they wear their clothes. The app also offers advice on how to prolong the life of clothing through proper maintenance. Green Story's data-driven approach to sustainability is fostering a more circular fashion industry and lowering waste.
Myntra uses data-driven size recommendations:
The biggest online clothes retailer in India, Myntra, offers a large selection of apparel, accessories, and shoes from both domestic and foreign brands. Fashion returns are one issue Myntra has to deal with. The fashion sector faces considerable challenges due to fashion returns, which can result in substantial waste and lost revenue.
Myntra is leveraging analytics to provide clients with more precise sizing recommendations, which will decrease the number of fashion returns. Myntra gathers information on past purchases, return policies, and client body measurements. A machine learning model that can forecast the ideal size for every consumer is created using this data.
Myntra's data-driven sizing recommendations have allowed it to cut down on fashion returns by 20%. In addition to saving the business millions of money, this has enhanced customer satisfaction.
Zivame Uses Data to Cut Lingerie Industry Waste:
India's top online retailer of innerwear, Zivame, offers a large selection of underwear from both foreign and Indian brands. Waste in the lingerie business is one of the issues Zivame is dealing with. It might be challenging to recycle the delicate materials used to make lingerie. Furthermore, lingerie is frequently thrown away after just a few wears.
Zivame is leveraging data to enhance its manufacturing and product design procedures to cut waste. Zivame gathers information on product quality, customer preferences, and return statistics. More robust and environmentally friendly goods are being developed with the use of this data. To cut waste, Zivame is also utilizing data to enhance its manufacturing procedures.
Zivame has been successful in decreasing waste in the lingerie business by 10% as a result of its data-driven approach to waste reduction. The business has been able to cut costs and lessen its environmental effects as a result.
Technology is becoming more and more crucial in assisting the fashion industry in lessening its environmental effects. Recycling, resource conservation, and greenhouse gas emissions can all be decreased in the industry by implementing sustainable technologies at every point of the supply chain.
Apart from the aforementioned technologies, there exist several other cutting-edge technologies that hold promise for mitigating waste within the fashion industry. Blockchain technology, for instance, can be used to monitor the flow of materials through the supply chain and guarantee that clothing is made ethically and sustainably. Additionally, custom clothing can be made on demand using 3D printing technology, which can help cut down on waste and overproduction.
The fashion industry can become more ecologically conscious and sustainable by keeping up its investments in and adoption of new technologies.
Data and sources:
The Ellen MacArthur Foundation, A New Textiles Economy: Redesigning Fashion's Future (2017)
Burberry, Annual Report 2018
World Resources Institute, Closing the Loop on Textile Waste (2015)
European Commission, Joint Research Centre, Best Available Techniques (BAT) Reference Document for the Textiles Industry (2013)
National Retail Federation, Return Policy Survey (2020)
McKinsey & Company, The State of Fashion 2022
UK Environmental Protection Agency, Waste Statistics (2021)
European Environment Agency, The European Environment: State and Outlook 2020
Nike, ColorDry (2023)
H&M, AI-powered inventory optimization (2023)
Reformation, How We Price (2023)
RapidPricer helps automate pricing, promotions, and assortment for retailers. The company has capabilities in retail pricing, artificial intelligence, and deep learning to compute merchandising actions for real-time execution in a retail environment.