Shaping a sustainable future for the fashion industry with tech-powered innovation. Hosts Becca DeGregorio and Todd Whitney speak to Ashwini Suhas Deshpande, Matthew Drinkwater, Natasha Franck, and Kitty Yeung.
Meet the new generation of visionaries who are exploring solutions to the fashion industry’s sustainability problem. In this episode, we’ll hear from fashion designer Ashwini Suhas Deshpande, fashion technologist Natasha Franck, creative technologist Kitty Yeung, and Matthew Drinkwater, head of LCF's Fashion Innovation Agency about how they’re tapping into technology to reduce waste and resource depletion in fashion creation, production, and consumption. We’ll explore smart clothing empowering a circular lifecycle for garments, a pattern-making process that drastically reduces waste, custom made-to-order manufacturing, and insights from an innovation institute exploring the future of the fashion industry.
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Becca DeGregorio: Picture yourself in the busiest part of the town or city where you live.
Todd Whitney: We're picturing ourselves in Midtown Manhattan because we live in New York City. It's hard to imagine a busier place than this.
Becca DeGregorio: Think about what you're seeing. For me, it's lots of traffic, obviously. Tall buildings, streets lined with stores and offices and advertisements.
Todd Whitney: Halal carts, some trees, bikes chained up to lampposts… and lots and lots of people.
Becca DeGregorio: And they're all wearing clothes. Work clothes, athleisure, street performance costumes. You can see anything in New York. Clothes. We all wear them. We all have them. Some of us use them to express who we are, and some of us just opt for the cheapest option. But when we've outgrown them in size or in style, where do they go?
Todd Whitney: Actually, nine out of 10 garments reach the end of their lives in a landfill. We're constantly bombarded with the problems of environmental sustainability and more and more people are realizing the toll their fashion consumption habits take on the environment. It can be intimidating and sometimes frustrating and leave us feeling like we don't know what to do.
Becca DeGregorio: This time on the podcast, we'll hear from a new generation of innovators in fashion who are working on very specific sides of the problem. We'll see how they're turning to technology to find ways of making the industry's future a whole lot more sustainable.
Todd Whitney: From Microsoft, this is In Culture. I'm Todd Whitney.
Becca DeGregorio: And I'm Becca DeGregorio.
Todd Whitney: One big issue to tackle with fashion and sustainability: How to keep clothes out of landfills. I spoke with someone who was trying to do exactly that. Her name is Natasha Franck and she started a company called EON. EON is using internet of things technology to digitally identify garments with the hope of changing the life cycle of our clothes.
Todd Whitney: What are the big problems around sustainability in the fashion industry?
Natasha Franck: So in fashion, apparel and retail, there are about 160 billion products made every year. The volume of consumption, use and then disposal of those products all happening very quickly at large volume is horrible for the environment. And in fashion and retail right now, very few of those materials end up getting recycled, reused or put back into the system, which means that we constantly have to use natural resources again to make new products. None of them stay in use. And so basically when we look at the system's problems and challenges, that's the main problem, just the sheer scale and the waste.
Todd Whitney: So what to do about it? Natasha told me that she generally looks at problems through the lens of systems. When she shifted from designing smart cities to working in fashion, that's what she saw.
Natasha Franck: I started to look at waste in systems associated with how to design circularity. It was clear that you had to start at the moment the product's produced. You can't look to just design for circularity or manage the waste. It has to happen as a systems change, right from inception.
Todd Whitney: Designing a circular economy is what Natasha's company EON is all about. In a truly circular economy, there's no waste. At each point, instead of something just getting thrown away, there's a diversion that keeps it in use. With circularity in fashion, it's kind of like this. If you get tired of a pair of jeans, instead of throwing them away, you can just resell them. And if they get damaged, they can be repaired. And if at some point nobody wants them, the materials can be recycled. Nothing ends up in a landfill or an incinerator. But we need lots of information about our garments in order to do this last step – information we don't currently have. Here in the U.S., the Federal Trade Commission only requires three bits of info on clothing tags these days. Fiber content, country of origin and manufacturer. That's not enough.
Natasha Franck: In order to recycle these jeans for example, you need to know everything down to the dye process, the zipper type, the thread type. So it's really about knowing what the value in the content is of those materials so that you can ensure they can be constantly repurposed.
Todd Whitney: Who were some of the technical partners to help you actually go about actualizing this?
Natasha Franck: Basically we built a digital identity platform that houses and stores data on top of Microsoft's Azure Cloud. So we basically make a product ID, store that data, associate it with that product ID and enable that data to stay with the product for the entire life cycle. When we started looking at digital identity, we realized that we needed to design a product's identity to be able to communicate to all the different stakeholders that engage with that product across its life cycle. So a product has to be able to communicate to a reseller. It has to be able to communicate to a recycler. It has to be able to communicate back to that brand that produced it, right? And it's by creating a product ID that communicates to all those stakeholders in the life cycle that makes it possible to access the information essential for managing that product. And so we brought together a group of brands, retailers, technology partners, circular economy stakeholders to define that digital identity protocol.
Todd Whitney: Wow. What was it like bringing all of these different stakeholders together?
Natasha Franck: Really interesting.
Todd Whitney: How so?
Natasha Franck: Yeah. Really interesting. When you get into having your recyclers in the room with your technology partners, you're looking at creating really the first global system for digital textile recycling, right? Now a recycler can scan a product, access material content and know exactly what that product is made of.
Todd Whitney: Yeah.
Natasha Franck: Now for the first time, you can start to have measurement and accountability about product recycling rates, right? There's no way today to say, "Oh, this company made that product and it's not recyclable and they're accountable."
Todd Whitney: Right.
Natasha Franck: So basically this digital underlayer that actually connects brands to recyclers to technology systems and standards starts to create not only the operational information that's essential for circular economy, but also the accountability that we need.
Todd Whitney: You've talked to me about the goals that EON has, like some of the things that you're doing. But the overarching goal that you think you'd like to have. The presence that you'd like to have in the fashion industry at large?
Natasha Franck: Yeah. We talk about ourselves creating the digital foundation for circular economy. So today a company can only make more money when they make more products, right? Two jackets brings in more revenue than one jacket. The idea of circular economy is to say, how can a company make money without having to make and use more natural resources? And so with repair or re-commerce, for example, the brand has the opportunity to sell a product again and again. With repair or with recycling, they have the opportunity to take those products and materials back, so they don't need new natural resources and can now make another product.
Becca DeGregorio: Stepping out for a second, let's frame up this issue a little more. Part of fashion sustainability problem is innovation or a serious lack of it. This is Kitty Yeung. She's a creative technologist who manages the Microsoft Garage out in Silicon Valley.
Kitty Yeung: Right now it seems this is a very old industry, is being producing clothing this way since the first industrial revolution, which enabled mass production.
Todd Whitney: Kitty started designing clothes some years back while looking into ways to produce a designs on a small scale, she discovered what goes into producing on a large scale, and what she saw was a lot of overproduction.
Kitty Yeung: A lot of these overproduced goods gets destroyed and that the whole process is already polluting the planet and then destroying these wasted items. Fashion industry overall, generating 10% of carbon footprint globally.
Todd Whitney: So waste doesn't just happen at the end when we discard our clothes after wearing them. Over production is a problem and so is the waste that comes out of the early stages in that process.
Becca DeGregorio: The fashion industry discards a lot of material on the front end. Back in 2013 the EPA reported 15 million tons of textile waste and that's just in the U.S. alone. Okay, back to ways around this data.
Todd Whitney: So what can we do about all of that textile waste?
Ashwini: My name is Ashwini Deshpande. I'm an undergraduate student at London College of Fashion. I study fashion design and development. I have a keen interest in sustainability, technology, innovation, everything related to that and I've been working on this project Art Z for about six months now.
Todd Whitney: She developed the project while participating in the Future of Fashion, an open brief to LCF students looking to disrupt the industry, powered by Microsoft technology. I'll let Ashwini tell you about Art-Z.
Ashwini: It's a software that uses artificial intelligence to reduce the amount of fabric wastage during the pattern-cutting processed and hence during manufacture at the whole.
Todd Whitney: Through the process of designing garments for school, Ashwini saw firsthand the amount of waste that came out of the fabric cutting process. She learned that in the industry as a whole, the amount wasted during that process is 15%, which is huge. So how exactly could AI help?
Ashwini: Basically Art-Z, the idea behind it is to make small amendments to garment patterns in order to reduce the wastage, but at the same time without changing the aesthetic of the garment. For instance, one of the simplest methods to do that and one of the most effective as well actually is to just add seams in a garment, which is a pretty simple method. As a human, when you add a seam in a garment, an extra seam, then you can automatically lay the pattern pieces out better. And that's just common knowledge to anybody who understands anything about pattern cutting. But the reason that can't be done by a human being often is because you can't really tell which the optimum seam is. To add a seam in a garment, and if the wastage goes down by say 1%, it doesn't really make a huge difference and just seems a bit pointless. But as a software, the computer can actually try out a million different options and it can come up with that optimum seam that reduces the wastage significantly.
Todd Whitney: When did issues of sustainability and fashion first come on your radar?
Ashwini: When I first started applying to universities to study fashion, I never really thought of it in terms of sustainability or in terms of anything else really. It was more just the aesthetic of the garment. But once I started studying fashion, I came across this issue of sustainability and I realized that fashion is one of the most polluting industries in fact. And that was a huge shock to me, because I don't think that's something that's meant to be so beautiful, that's meant to make people happy, that's meant to make the wearer happy, but also the person making it happy, should be so unsustainable and should actually be making people unhappy.
Todd Whitney: Ashwini was as forceful as anyone we spoke to about how sprawling the issue of sustainability is within fashion. Everything from the pesticides used to farm cotton to the incredibly polluting process of dying fabrics. Ashwini walked me through all of it, but part of what's so powerful about Art Z is that she's dialed in on one very big issue within the industry. One we may kind of given up on solving.
Todd Whitney: So tell me about your zero waste goal. Right now, producing a garment, the waste is hovering around 15%. But you have this zero waste goal. Can you go into some detail about that?
Ashwini: Looking at the big picture, most brands have basically decided that that 15% wastage is inevitable. That it can't be removed in any way whatsoever. And that's what I want to try and change with Art-Z. I want to try and reduce that wastage without changing the aesthetic of the garment. I basically want to make it easy for a designer to just go ahead and design a beautiful garment and then automatically feed it into the software and get a more sustainable solution.
Todd Whitney: Art-Z is still very much in its early stages of development, but Ashwini broke down for me how it works.
Ashwini: There's two different sides of the machine learning concept for Art-Z. So on one side when the software creates seams in a garment and it shows the designer of what the seam would look like on the garment, the designer can accept or reject the design based on how the garment looks aesthetically. And when they do that, the software stores that information, it stores the data about that user and it's able to use this information to make better designs and customize the seams better the next time the designers using it. On the other side, to actually be able to understand the overall placement of seams and where in general it's better for a seam to be placed and for the user to be able to give it straightforward instructions regarding where they would like to see a seam or where they would not like to see a seam. The software needs to be able to recognize different pattern pieces. So it should be able to recognize a sleeve or a bodice and should be able to tell these pieces apart. So that's the other side of machine learning, where a database is used. Just a general database of different garment patterns and it's talked to the software so that the software using machine learning is able to identify those different pieces. This I actually tried out using Azure Custom Vision, which is a cognitive machine learning service by Microsoft. And I used only about 30 patterns, which is a really small database compared to what you'd need if you wanted it to do a good job identifying pattern pieces. But despite that it was able to identify pattern pieces in a pretty decent manner. The more complicated pieces, obviously it did get confused. But I think it has a lot of potential.
Todd Whitney: Ashwini has a lot of support through Microsoft and LCF, but to really push Art-Z forward, she's going to need buy-in from some of the biggest players in the industry.
Ashwini: If we got the database from a huge brand and we were able to use that to train machine learning system, then that would instantly almost, I'd say, fix the problem.
Todd Whitney: But if fast fashion incorporated Art-Z, it would send ripples through the industry.
Ashwini: They are change drivers in the industry and so if they take it up, then it automatically becomes more accessible and easier.
Todd Whitney: And then the scale of the change could really affect fashion's environmental footprint.
Becca DeGregorio: We wanted to hear from someone whose whole job is to think about and create a space for innovating in the industry.
Matthew Drinkwater: I am Matthew Drinkwater, head of the fashion innovation agency at London College of Fashion. We get a really broad remit from the college to explore emerging technologies and their impact on the fashion industries. When we first started our work, it was not with sustainability at the heart of what we were doing. I mean a lot of our early work was looking at embedding sensors and circuits into garments and with the lifecycle of electronics. I can hardly imagine anything as far away from sustainability as that. But it's become apparent as we were working on a lot of those projects as we were beginning to understand a little bit more about garments and where they go. How often do you, you wear them, where you go when you wear them, when you stop wearing them. That we were beginning to understand a little bit more about how technology could impact a consumer journey or our use of products, the way we buy products and the way that we create it as well.
Becca DeGregorio: Can you go back to a specific moment or a specific project at the agency that really started your thinking about both sustainability and innovation?
Matthew Drinkwater: We work a lot with big retailers, luxury brands, fast fashion, high street brands as well and I think there was a moment when we were visiting a supplier to one of the big fast fashion brands and seeing their processes. The factory we visited was from points of design to delivery in store, I think three weeks. But the amount of wastage that was being created in the process, it was amazing. We were seeing buyers coming in and visiting and asking designers to come up with the design. They sketch that design, pass that on to pattern cutters. They would begin to cut, make that, dye it, add whatever needed to be added. And the buyers would look at it and go, "Yeah, that's great, but maybe you could make the arms a little bit shorter?" And then they would go through the whole process again and they'd get that slightly shorter arm and then they'd look at it and go, "Wow, that's amazing. Now could I see it in red?" They would go through the whole process again and dye that. I remember very vividly having the conversation saying, "Have you ever thought about digitizing this process?" And I think both from a supplier side and a reseller side, there was a look of astonishment in that, “You can do that?”
Becca DeGregorio: What are the relationships between technology and fashion for you? How does one art form influence the progress of the other?
Matthew Drinkwater: So I think on a personal level that the fashion industry has been a slow adopter of technology. I think it likes to portray itself very differently. And in some ways fashion is a reflection of society and perhaps the increased interest in technology becoming closer to fashion is the realization and recognition that technology kind of underpins everything that we're doing every single day. I think it's easy to say that we work in a niche industry, but the technology that we engage with probably every minute of every single day is changing the way that we interact with the world and the way that we're purchasing products, the way that we experience products. This has changed quite dramatically in a fairly short space of time. So I think that relationship is becoming ever more intertwined and I think it's beginning to have an impact on the kind of designer that we need to see out in the world.
Becca DeGregorio: And Matthew told us he's already seeing this change. As an educator, he observes cohorts of students coming up through LCF. And says that sustainability isn't so much talked about as it is just implicitly valued. It's second nature to students today.
Todd Whitney: And that's incredibly important because we're going to need a lot of people on this issue.
Matthew Drinkwater: I mean I think it is impossible to imagine the future of fashion without considering sustainability and how you're going to address what is clearly a massive, massive issue. There is a really uncomfortable issue facing the fashion industry and that is that for the majority of the Western world, we don't need any more clothing. We cannot sit around at London Fashion Week while the Amazon is burning. There is something bigger happening here.
Todd Whitney: There's no silver bullet for fashion’s sustainability problem. It's too big for even just the solution that we've been talking about here.
Becca DeGregorio: But we're seeing the potential. As technology continues infusing the industry, transforming the life cycle of clothes and innovating around some of its most unsustainable practices, we're seeing reasons for hope. This is just the start.
Becca DeGregorio: To learn more about all the people in stories featured in this episode, visit microsoft.com/inculture. There you'll find deeper dives into Natasha Franck's company, EON. And the global connect fashion initiative. As well as the full download on the innovative work happening at the London College of Fashion. And if sustainability is a big deal for you, you can find out more about technology's role in the fight for a more sustainable future and how you can pitch in. We also invite you to follow us on Instagram at Microsoft In Culture. In Culture is hosted by me, Becca DeGregorio and Todd Whitney and produced by Jordan Rothlein. It's edited and mixed by Nat Weiner. Original music by Angular Wave Research. In Culture is a production of Microsoft in collaboration with Listen, a sensory experience company in New York City.