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Gen AI: Game Changer in Sustainable Fashion?

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Despite their pledges, industry players are behind their sustainability commitments

As COP28 recently concluded in Dubai, with promising commitments from fashion players, it is undeniable that there has been an acceleration in the pace towards positive change across the industry since the pandemic, with a growing number of market players improving their efforts in terms of diversity and inclusion, while taking measures to address their negative environmental footprint.

However, if the changes witnessed since 2020 have been a step in the right direction, fashion players are still generally behind their sustainability commitments and not on target to implement the goals of the Paris Agreement or those of the 2030 UN Agenda for Sustainable Development.

Policymakers can force a change via more stringent standards for fashion products

The challenges ahead are multiple and multifaceted from production costs and affordability for end consumers, to the lack of unified reporting standards or the difficulty to trace the origin of materials and tackle scope 3 emissions. To achieve sustainability, not only brands and companies, but all stakeholders, will need to join forces including consumers, advocacy groups, policymakers as well as governments, to ensure more vulnerable economies are not left behind in the race for climate change adaptation.

In fact, because of the higher costs typically involved in sustainable fashion, there is a significant intention gap between what consumers and companies say about sustainability and what actions they actually take to reduce their negative impact on the planet. Hence, a real shift needs to take place in business strategy and consumption patterns, and this is what policymakers can aim to force via more stringent standards for fashion items to be approved for sale in their markets.Chart showing belief action gap

Gen AI could make diverse and impactful contributions to sustainable fashion

Besides policy makers in Europe and the US trying to force change via legislation, another driving force that could be a game changer in the pursuit of sustainability in fashion is the implementation of Gen AI. The technology could indeed transform various aspects of the supply chain, from design to retail and recycling/waste management.Chart showing Gen AI could make diverse and impactful contributions to sustainable fashion

  • In the design stage, Generative AI is being used to assist designers with inspiration and pattern/textile design and can help make products more modular, durable and repairable, as seen with the Nike ISPA universal shoe.
  • For sourcing, AI can facilitate the development of eco-friendly fabrics with improved durability and recyclability characteristics, reducing the industry's reliance on resource-intensive processes and harmful chemicals. Gen AI could optimise the chances of starting to use waste as raw material on a large scale, as seen with the US start-up Sneaker Impact.
  • For planning and production, Gen AI can be adopted in the product development phase through prototyping and recommendations for textile applications. AI-driven predictive sales and fulfilment analytics and quality control aids could ultimately enable made-to-order or on-demand production models, moving away from mass production and excess inventory, reducing waste and overproduction.
  • When it comes to selling, large e-commerce players are starting to integrate VR try-on tools and AI-powered personalisation to profoundly enhance the customer shopping experience, as seen with Indian fashion e-commerce giant, Myntra, launching MyFashionGPT, for example. AI allows to collect and analyse vast amounts of data, including customer profiles, purchasing history, browsing behaviour and social media engagement to come up with personalised recommendations that can help reduce returns.
  • Last but not least, through blockchain technology and smart contracts, AI can track the entire lifecycle of a garment, from raw material sourcing to manufacturing and distribution. This transparency is becoming a requirement in the EU with the implementation of the Digital Product Passports by 2026 and aims to give consumers access to the social and environmental footprints of the product they buy. In this context, interesting innovations and partnerships are emerging, such as Renewcell rolling out TextileGenesis AI tokens to enable pulp-to-retail traceability of its Circulose, a patented recycled raw material made of cotton and textile waste.

As Gen AI evolves, collaboration and ethical considerations will be essential

Today, Gen AI has become a top investment priority for many market players in the fashion industry and beyond, as it is a powerful tool that streamlines processes and can foster innovation and creativity.Chart showing most impactful technologies on businesses

However, it will be critical to address ethical considerations, such as bias in algorithms and the environmental impact of increased digitalisation, as the industry embraces these technologies.

As technology continues to evolve, collaboration between market players, policymakers and AI developers will be essential to harness the full potential of the technology and its application in the pursuit of sustainability.

For more information about AI-driven supply chain transformations and the impact of new sustainable regulations on the fashion industry, please read Sustainability in Luxury and Fashion: Time for Action published in August 2023 and Competitor Strategies in Apparel and Footwear published in December 2023.

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