Make Fashion More Sustainable With Emerging Tech
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Make Fashion More Sustainable With Emerging Tech

And add value to the brand, too.
words:
Jenna Fizel
Sergio Fregoni
visuals:
Alicia Duvall
Sergio Fregoni
read time:
5 minutes
published:
June
2024

The climate era is ushering in changes so big, everything will need to be redesigned—including fashion and luxury brands. Digital technologies will be a huge piece of that puzzle, helping us find solutions to everything from reusable packaging to textiles that stay out of landfills, the electrification of everything, and retailers that embrace circularity.

The opportunity is enormous: Leaders who adopt new technologies to meet sustainability goals will not only lighten their impact on climate—they will gain new value for their brands and their customers because of all the benefits that new tech brings. Those who evolve now will be positioned to lead the market. 

So, how do you adapt a fashion or luxury brand to be more sustainable, more inclusive, and more connected to the consumer, while increasing value to brands, manufacturers, and consumers alike? 

The challenge is complex, but it’s nowhere near impossible. Take H&M’s work to streamline its supply chain, cutting unnecessary inventory, and producing less waste. Together, IDEO and H&M mapped out the complex network of people that make up its supply chain across the globe, then created an algorithm for more precise ordering, and a tool that provides a shared view of information. Now, a new automated flow called “Cruise Control” creates a demand forecast that makes it possible for employees to place much more accurate bets on what consumers will want, when. It’s a project that not only led to less waste—but better sales, too. After all, it's a lot easier to buy the thing you want when it's in stock. Already, Cruise Control has led to an eight percent average reduction in inventory, saving the company €500 million (more than $630 million) per year.

Human-centered technological strategies like this one also create opportunities to change—and deepen—the relationship between brand and consumer. A climate-conscious future isn’t just responsible and increasingly required (see Corporate Social Responsibility Directive, Waste Framework Directive, and the Ecodesign Criteria for Consumer Textiles in the EU), it’s full of opportunity for growth.

Here are four ways fashion brands can leverage digital technologies to increase value in the climate era.

Prompt: A close-up of soft luxury fabric in a neutral color, illuminated by natural light. The fabric appears sumptuous and high-end, with a rich, expensive feel. The neutral color is elegant, and the natural light enhances the texture and fine weave, highlighting the premium quality and softness of the material.

Measure a garment's value across multiple life-cycles

Provocation: By shifting how you measure the profitability of garments from linear sales to circular value creation, you can redesign the business from the core. Today, shoppers buy garments from celebrity closets on the second hand luxury platform The RealReal, and collectors are happy to buy a pre-owned Eames chair, like one Redditor who said "I ain't got time to age a 670—I'll buy someone else's history.” Brands can expand on these trends to show off the value embedded in goods that are already out there in the market, while deepening their long-term relationships with customers and communities. Digital twins—virtual data tied to a physical object, like data tied to your passport—can streamline tracking and enable new business models that compliment physical experiences with digital.

Impact: New KPIs connected to digital twins in a circular product lifecycle allow the reconfiguration and measuring of new value chains.

Prompt: An extreme close-up of luxurious gold fabric, showcasing its intricate texture and fine weave. The fabric appears sumptuous and high-end, with a rich, expensive feel. The gold color has a subtle sheen or luster, highlighting the premium quality and fine craftsmanship of the material.

Use the shift to on-demand manufacturing to co-create with customers

Provocation: On-demand production and direct-to-fabric printing mean your customers can create their own bespoke prints, directly collaborating with your brand, while making sure you don’t produce too much inventory. Some brands are already taking advantage of this strategy. Reebok, for example, has a service where you can supply images to a chatbot to create custom sneakers, and then can buy digital versions of the sneakers for eight dollars. Projects like this one are becoming increasingly common, as brands come into proximity with user-generated worlds and designs. There's a great opportunity here to expand on the creative drive of potential customers through co-design tools.

Impact: Co-design drives brand engagement and loyalty, taking your customer relationships to new heights.

Create new experiences that add more bonding between the customer, your brand and their new purchase


Provocation: Manufacturing on demand can lead to a longer window between a customer’s order and the delivery of their goods—but that doesn’t have to add friction. Instead, brands can reframe delays with a bespoke, insider experience, where the customer connects with the designers, people, and processes that make their garment possible—and unique to them. It’s also a way to make visible the labor and resources it takes to produce their garments, which can drive real behavior change. This concept even has a name, Shinkansen Theater, after the shift in perspectives that riders on Japan’s bullet trains had on turnaround time after watching cleaning staff work.

Impact: Luxury purchases are often the pinnacle of many months or years of decision-making and brand engagement. Involving the consumer in the production process enhances and elongates the thrill of the purchase moment. Customers who are willing to spend a lot to get a coveted item will go to great lengths to acquire as much information about it as possible (see this discussion of a bespoke order tracker for Ford). 

Prompt: A close-up of futuristic fabric, showcasing its advanced and innovative texture. The fabric has a sleek, high-tech appearance with a metallic sheen and intricate, cutting-edge patterns. The colors are a mix of iridescent shades, reflecting light in a unique and captivating way. The material appears lightweight yet durable, epitomizing modern technology and luxury.

Design for the impact of the design idea, rather than the identity or size of the buyer

Provocation: Experimenting with different styles, fabrics, and customizations in a virtual environment can create a sense of ownership and excitement akin to bespoke tailoring. Picture a hybrid experience, where high-quality simulations allow shoppers to start the design process online, then see the final touches at delivery. It’s a strategy that makes brands more accessible to more sizes, body types, and genders. Already, brands like Unspun are using body scanning to create custom jeans, and Universal Standard has committed to carrying sizes 00 through 40, with the same attention to cut and quality, regardless of size. Returns in fashion are not purely about technical fit, but about a complex set of emotions, context, and expectations. How are you feeling about your body? What’s the lighting in your space? How does the garment make you feel? High-quality and accurate simulations of a garment’s shape, texture, and movement could also help close the gap between digital and physical shopping experiences, reducing the emotional mismatch between online vision and product reality.

Impact: Sizing and gender categories become irrelevant, allowing your brand ethos and styles to reach—and be reinterpreted by—the largest possible portion of the market.  

These provocations are just four ways fashion and luxury brand leaders can leverage emerging tech and trends to cut impact on climate, while increasing value to their customers—there are many, many more. And the leaders that implement them first will not only be doing better by the planet—they’ll also reap the rewards. 

Looking to implement emerging tech to add value to your brand? We’d love to connect.

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Jenna Fizel
Managing Director, Emerging Technology
Jenna Fizel leads IDEO's Emerging Technology practice, blending computational geometry, interactive design, and fashion technology to make technical skills accessible and to innovate in design processes with AI, XR, and digital fabrication.
Sergio Fregoni
Executive Director
Sergio helps organisations design and scale digital, climate & circular solutions to better serve modern human needs.
Alicia Duvall
Design Lead
Alicia is a jack of all trades and has actually managed to master quite a lot of them. She combines concept, design, illustration, lettering, motion and strategy to tell beautiful stories.
Sergio Fregoni
Executive Director
Sergio helps organisations design and scale digital, climate & circular solutions to better serve modern human needs.
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