Would a robot suit the role of a personal stylist? Whilst the latest vogue changes each month, the fashion industry wreaks environmental havoc. It's a huge culprit of overproduction, making it the 2nd largest water polluter in the world and also responsible for 300 million tonnes of waste each year. As ever, technology has an answer to this dilemma. Developing AI promises a brighter future for the fashion industry: one of invariably popular clothing lines and a personalised customer experience. Already, the current political climate has seen shoppers becoming more eco-conscious, and naturally, clothing brands are responding to this marketing incentive with environmentally-friendly changes. A new system, empowered by technology, could change fashion’s sustainability game for good... and all without being at the expense of a nice outfit.
Every day, fast fashion contributes pollution and waste to our ever-threatened planet. In 2017, The Ellen MacArthur Foundation noted that the 1.2 billion tonnes of annual emissions from clothing production amounted to more than those of all international flights and maritime shipping combined. Clothing wastage is so prolific, high end brands often burn expensive unsold stock to avoid devaluation of the brand. And it’s perpetuated by harmful consumer behaviour too. For example, size sampling, meaning to buy items in multiple sizes, increases the average 40% return rate to over 50%, whereby ‘extra CO2 is released… as goods are transported back and forth,' according to Essential Retail. Clearly, the linear economic model is flawed.
AI has amazing potential to modify the shopping experience so that it directly benefits brands as well as the environment. Trend prediction, for instance, could reduce forecasting errors by 50%, according to leading fashion technology company Heuritech. As illustrated in their video, their platform studies thousands of fashion-centred images on social media and translates this data into predictive analytics via machine learning. A careful analysis of other factors, including weather forecasts and local demographics, will help brands in successful inventory demand planning. Of course, ethical considerations such as data protection also need to be considered when extracting this type of information.
And what about the design process? In 2017, Amazon developed an algorithm for its own AI fashion designer, using GANs technology. As explored in my earlier blog about AI and music, fashion is an art form, and whether a computer can replicate that creativity is questionable. That being said, this IBM article outlines how AI could still collaborate by being trained to identify plagiarism and cultural appropriation in designs, which is surely useful in today’s world! AI chatbots in online stores may also make a positive difference. Data scientists at Stitch Fix analyse customers’ body types and clothing preferences and send them customised collections, guaranteed to please. Changes like these tailor clothing production to consumers’ needs. In turn, this could reduce fashion’s environmental footprint, as brands anticipate what will work and fail.
New AI developments such as these are only as transformative as they sound if their individual carbon footprints are accounted for. The high cost of AI on the environment is being realised as we speak, and scientists at MIT are already attempting to reduce its impact whilst maintaining its performance value. As emphasised in my blog discussing AI and climate change, only AI that's powered by clean fuel will make a truly positive difference environmentally. At Verne Global, this ambition is realised. Powered by 100% green energy, their Icelandic data centre supports AI hardware with free cooling in optimal conditions: the most sustainable approach there is. Fashion companies may invest in the newest, most advanced technology, allowing them to optimise their brand potential and "greenify" their business.
Sustainably backed AI opens up infinite possibilities. With hope, the fashion of the future could embody an entirely new model: that of sustainability at its core. The emerging space of clothing rental and resale, proved popular by companies such as Depop and Sharealook, can be optimised by AI that tunes into its audience, providing plentiful options that bypass the fast fashion route. Moreover, AI not only has the ability to produce clothes... it can also track their life cycles! As Heuritech explains, ‘software startups like Sourcemap and Trustrace work with apparel brands to create visualisations of supply chains, backed by verified supplier data and mapped with company-specific sustainability metrics.’ This accountability for every step of the way - a garment’s production, use and disposal - ushers in a culture of transparency. Research has shown that a circular economy in Europe can create a net benefit of €1.8 trillion by 2030. A new fashion system that embraces circular economics will ultimately be greener and more successful.
So, what changes can we expect to see in your wardrobe? Provided AI is supported by clean energy, we can look forward to an exciting new dimension to the fashion industry, where sustainability showcases alongside design.