Digital technologies for timeless sustainable fashion

October 1, 2021

The fashion industry drives a significant part of the global economy. Technology is helping to make it more sustainable.

Alyssa Strohmann/Unsplash

The climate crisis is forcing the fashion industry to swerve to an environmentally conscious mindset that, in hindsight, is the essence of luxury and high-quality products. 

When talking about fashion and luxury, the word “sustainable” may not immediately come to mind. In fact, sustainability by its very nature implies the quality of being able to exist over a continued period of time. That same quality is what any creative piece of art or fashion aims to embody: eternity. 

Our Earth and humanity are facing a planetary emergency that involves a multitude of interrelated issues: climate change, pollution, biodiversity loss, land degradation, human rights violations, inequality and Covid-19. The Covid pandemic consequences, however, are testament that changing habits is difficult but possible. Against this backdrop, a transition to slow fashion and a circular economy starts becoming conceivable.

The fashion industry drives a significant part of the global economy. It is a US$2.4 trillion industry and is responsible for an estimated 2 to 8 percent of greenhouse gas emissions, up to 20 percent of industrial wastewater and 24 percent of insecticides. The industry has a significant impact on biodiversity, climate and nature. 

Still far from achieving environmental sustainability, or carbon neutrality, the industry – a critical contributor to help achieve the 2030 Agenda with linkages to all Sustainable Development Goals - needs a complete rethink that brings people and nature to the forefront, striving for ecosystem regeneration, waste minimization, circularity, responsible production and consumption, and innovation.

Digital technologies can be part of the solution.

Using big data and analytics is crucial to monitor markets and identify opportunities and threats and to inform sound and conscious business decisions. Developing tools to analyse the life cycles of materials and products, and to measure companies’ environmental footprints, are essential means to move towards a circular economy. 

Artificial intelligence for inventory tracking, trend forecasting, and supply chain management helps reduce over-production and waste. Using virtual reality allows customers to virtually try on outfits, and in turn reduces the carbon footprint due to returns.

Blockchain technology enhances transparency, allows tracking of raw materials, and traceability that guarantees greater efficiency and responsible practices in the supply chain. 

Ecodesigns, repurposing, reusing, upcycling or 3D printing allow us to create clothing in harmony with nature, reduce waste and the stress on forest, land and water resources.

Global social media campaigns can influence consumer behaviour and encourage young people and society at large to act as changemakers. 

By now, scientists, international organizations, governments and civil society all agree that to avert the worst irreversible consequences of climate change, the whole fashion sector needs to act ambitiously, today.

While talking about the fashion industry at the Vogue Business and Shopify Sustainability Forum, Alok Sharma, President of the United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP26), said We need a fundamental shift. Sustainability cannot be the preserve of certain brands or discreet collections. Nods to climate action are absolutely not enough. We need the whole sector to embrace the goals of the Paris Agreement. And to build clean ways of working into the heart of the fashion and beauty industries.”

Starting on 30 September, the Italian city of Milan has been hosting the Pre-COP - the final official ministerial meeting ahead of COP26 to be held in Glasgow in November 2021. It will look at ways to advance action for the COP26 goals by enhancing international collaboration, increasing commitments to emissions reduction to keep 1.5 degrees within reach and strengthening adaptation to climate change impacts.  

In this context, and to raise the climate and environment ambition of the fashion industry in the lead up to COP26, UNDP - that is supporting 119 countries to increase the ambition of their national climate pledges through the Climate Promise initiative - has started the campaign “Making Sustainability a Fashion Statement”.

On 7 October, UNDP will host an Instagram live discussion between Robert Opp, our Chief Digital Officer, and Federico Marchetti, founder of Yoox-Net-a-Porter and professor of entrepreneurship, innovation and sustainability at Bocconi University. Mr. Marchetti is an innovative thought leader in the fashion industry who has initiated new ways of doing business by incorporating digital technology and sustainability at the core. Referred by the New York Times as “the man who put fashion on the net”, he has masterfully paired artificial intelligence with luxury and fashion, transforming the luxury and fashion shopping experience for millions of people, while relentlessly advocating for a sustainable and socially responsible business model, where inclusion and diversity can be made centrepieces.

The two are united by the fundamental thought that smart use of new technologies can help achieve sustainable development and save our planet. Sharing the belief that development cannot take place without continued innovation and that digital technologies can help put individual consumers, and humanity and nature at the core of the industry, these two visionaries will converse about digital technologies in the context of sustainable fashion.

Digital technologies are means of change that can help the fashion industry pivot towards an environmentally conscious way of operating, allowing consumers and youth to satisfy to satisfy their deepening search for fairness to people and planet in what they buy and wear, while allowing brands to remain loyal to their everlasting vocation and identity, halting the anachronistic antithesis between fashion, luxury, and sustainability.

Tune in to the UNDP Instagram account on 7 October at 9 a.m. Eastern Time to join a fascinating discussion about an industry that virtually all of us are customers of: fashion.

Sustainability by its very nature implies the quality of being able to exist over a continued period of time. That same quality is what any creative piece of art or fashion aims to embody: eternity.