How 3D digital design and augmented reality can slash textile waste in fashion
Updated: Feb 26
Originally published on Eco-Age.
Image: Ethmode 3D digital Bodysuit, BRIA
Much is said about the millions of tonnes of garments thrown away each year, urging us to be more sustainable by wearing our clothes more often, washing them less and keeping them out of landfill, but what about the waste generated in the fashion design process itself? What about the carbon emissions generated in the pre-consumer phase of the fashion industry? How much textile waste is generated before a garment even hits the retail shelves?
The textile waste generated in the fashion supply chain is difficult to calculate as most companies don’t record the quantities of waste they generate for fear of being reprimanded for it. However, EFI/Optitex recently reported that £5-7 billion is spent on physical sampling in the apparel industry each year. This sampling is a means to an end in that it generates ‘mock-up’ products, which are fitted and photographed and are generally of no value beyond that. These samples often end up being burned or thrown in landfill.
As the founder of an innovation agency proposing solutions to material waste problems, I have been met with many difficult facts during my work as a consultant for manufacturers and brands, both large and small. A garment manufacturer in Bangladesh recently told me that he receives requests from brands and retailers for hundreds of new samples each day, based on fast-moving, transient Instagram trends. These requests come from buyers who are anxious to have physical samples at their disposal to develop into products to sell if they choose to. The key here is ‘if they choose to’. These samples are not based on an intention to develop and sell a product – the buyers simply want to see what the garment looks like while monitoring the progress of a trend. These samples are the consequence of brands and retailers hedging their bets on trends and having the manufacturers working on demand for them because of the buying power they hold over those manufacturers. The manufacturers don’t feel they can say no, regardless of how much waste is generated, or the strain it places on their business.
Image: Ethmode 3D digital Bodysuit, BRIA
When you hear discussions about supply chain transparency and living wages, this is at the very crux of those issues. Brands and retailers have all the power over the manufacturers when it comes to placing production orders and pricing. With fashion cycles getting faster and the competition for lower prices increasing, brands and manufacturers require ways to work faster, cleaner and more economically. 3D digital fashion design offers a fast, clean solution, and has already gained traction with large global brands and retailers, including Adidas and Target.
The benefits of digital instead of physical sampling have already been quantified by one solution provider, EFI/Optitex, who have saved companies millions of pounds in sampling costs by creating digital samples in place of physical ones. “But don’t designers and buyers want to feel the fabric” is a common question asked about this digital solution. Yes, they do, and they can. The 3D digital design offers photo-realistic renders of the garment that help to decide silhouette, proportion, design details and colours at the very least. When it comes to the movement, drape and stretch of the garment, this requires more sophisticated animation, which my innovation agency BRIA has achieved as demonstrated in the video below:
Currently, most brands using digital design are doing a portion of prototyping and sampling digitally then moving to physical samples – partly because designers want to feel the fabric and see it move in ‘real-life’, and partly because of the incomplete solution offered when it comes to the 2D pattern output and fitting of digital versus physical garments. This is a fracture in the 3D design process that BRIA is working to fix. Snapshot – Digital Fashion prototyping and sampling in numbers:
Target has reduced physical sampling by approximately 65% by implementing 3D digital design
A luxury brand working reduced the average time to market per style from 3 months to 2 weeks
By going digital, Adidas was able to eliminate close to 1.5 million physical samples between 2010 and 2013
The figures above appear to suggest that 3D digital design is a no-brainer, but holding back its widespread adoption are the fractures in the 3D to 2D workflow (as mentioned above), as well as skills gaps between creative design and technical pattern cutting, which both need to be present and connected to achieve success in the final product. The fashion industry is traditionally slow to adopt new technologies, but with a growing number of use cases and the increased visibility of digital design in fashion retail and consumption, this is expected to change.
Several brands are exploring how digital design can deliver customised clothing and are even digital clothes that consumers can ‘wear’. Perhaps the general shift towards digital solutions in every facet of our lives will propel the use of digital fashion from the design and production phase, right through to purchasing and wearing in digital realms, including on social media and in games, like The Sims (which recently collaborated with Moschino) and Fortnite, which recently collaborated with Nike on digital Air Jordans to purchase in-game.
Trend Forecasting agency Stylus recently released a report demonstrating that the consumer appetite for artifice and illusion is rising rapidly, spanning CGI social media superstars (check out Lil Miquela and Shudu) and immersive mixed-reality brand experiences, to AI-fuelled avatars allowing us to put ourselves in the brand picture. Of course, digital design paves the way for digital experience, with virtual and augmented reality a natural progression from static digital clothing on fixed screens into the space around us – ASOS, John Lewis and Dior are all in on the AR and VR act. Keep an eye out for digital fashion entering the mainstream and slashing the waste generated by physical fashion both behind-the-scenes in the fashion industry, and in our future digital wardrobes.