Is Digital Design the Answer to Fashion’s Waste Problem?

Is Digital Design the Answer to Fashion’s Waste Problem?

Photograph by Mikael Schulz / Trunk Archive, digitally altered by Atmos


words by laura pitcher

Over the course of the COVID-19 pandemic, the fashion industry has had to reimagine itself online, raising questions about what a digital-first model could mean for the environment.

Photograph by Mikael Schulz / Trunk Archive, digitally altered by Atmos
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If it wasn’t already apparent that the fashion industry is becoming digitalized, the past year has made it abundantly clear. Fashion weeks across the globe—previously stitched together by flying press, designers, and models long-distance—adjusted to COVID-19 restrictions by taking place entirely online. Luxury fashion brands like Burberry are designing gaming skins, a digital Gucci bag recently sold for more than the physical bag, and digital influencers like Miquela are amassing millions of followers.


Digital fashion encompasses everything from live-streamed runway shows and digital collections to digitalized production processes. Considering the digitalization of other arts industries (think subscription-services like Spotify in the music industry), it’s clear the digital fashion train has already left the station and we’re only just seeing the start of its potential for designers and customers alike. The question is: Will it help to address or aggravate some of the industry’s most pressing social and environmental justice issues?


When answering this question, the first thing that comes to mind for Toronto-based designer Spencer Badu is waste. “Within the design process experimenting a lot of things end up making waste; including paper, fabric, and thread,” he told Atmos. “Software such as Clo3D [a 3D fashion design software program] gives designers the chance to see garments in different colors and shapes without necessarily making them before deciding.”


Badu doesn’t consider himself a digital-first designer yet but is “working towards it.” Last year, he was selected as part of ten honorees for Circular Fashion Summit’s Impact Design Hub, supporting emerging designers with technology for the overall mission to empower design for positive change (applications for this year are currently open). The initiative calls attention to the need to empower a diverse range of designers for a sustainable digital fashion revolution, something Badu says should be achieved by focusing on digital ways of presenting their pieces with 3D displays or shows.


With the goal of supporting and educating a new era of digital-first designers, University for the Creative Arts announced the launch of its first course focused on digital-only fashion earlier this year. Jules Dagonet, Head of School of Fashion and Textiles at the University, told Atmos that the focus is to move towards on-demand production models where garments are produced only once an order has been placed. To achieve this, customers would place their orders based on the visualization of 3D assets and have the ability to customize orders.


“To give a better idea of the scale of the problem (and of the opportunity), as of August 2020, H&M alone was sitting on a pile of £3.2billion of unsold inventory,” said Dagonet. “When you think about the natural resources (cotton, linen) that were used to produce this unwanted stock, the water, and electricity that were consumed to manufacture the garments, ship them and store them in warehouses, that’s a huge impact on the environment that could have been avoided.”


This opportunity to shift to on-demand production through digitalization would call for a dramatic overhaul of the supply chain, business models, and capitalist consumption that underlies the fashion industry—something that’s necessary regardless in order to address fashion’s waste issue, as we’re consuming and discarding more outfits than ever before. The lower-hanging fruit for sustainable fashion, says Dagonet, are digital samples and body scanning solutions like 3DLook (which reduces returns by up to 30%).


“Manufacturing plants in China are already using 3D digital design as it enables a smoother and faster communication with fashion brands based abroad without the need to ship physical samples back and forth,” she said. “Digital samples are already helping the fashion industry become more sustainable.”

“The best way to empower digital-first designers is to enable them to think and act in an interdisciplinary way, to question, challenge and transcend ideas of how we make, use and engage with fashion.”

Jennifer Whitty
Assistant Professor of Fashion Systems and Materiality at Parsons School of Design

Dagonet believes Universities have a critical role to play in the next generation of 3D digitally literate fashion designers who will shape the future of the industry. This, she says, is achieved through education and access to resources: “Change is not driven by technology but always by people. It is our role to create awareness for the need for 3D digital skills and the positive impact this can have on the environment and also in terms of broadening creative possibilities.”


Along with sustainability, the creative opportunities created through digital fashion are what excite Michaela Larosse, Head of Content and Strategy at digital fashion house The Fabricant. “Digital fashion is a means to express yourself and your identity in the non-physical space,” she told Atmos. Physical clothing is massively over-produced, manufactured using toxic practices, and contributes to an enormous waste problem. Digital fashion presents a creative, innovative and sustainable solution.”


Larosse says there’s currently a skills gap in the rapidly expanding sector of digital fashion, as traditional fashion is also now fully aware of the need to rapidly digitalize its operations. At The Fabricant, all their digital fashion designers are classically trained so they understand draping and fit, but have transitioned their skills so that they work entirely in the 3D environment.


Self-taught 3D artist and motion designer Stephy Fung believes the best way to address the skills gap is through access to resources like the ones The Fabricant provides. She believes more needs to be done in the industry to empower BIPOC voices. “This is an issue within the tech industry and it’s important especially since the digital realm is more accessible to everyone that the industry stays inclusive,” she said. “As long as there is no high barrier to entry which usually stems from systemic problems then there shouldn’t be a diversity issue as the digital world is accessible to everyone.”


Still, the sustainable opportunities created through digitalizing the fashion industry should not make us shy away from the same level of critique as the current fast-fashion model, to ensure the future pathway puts people and the environment first. Jennifer Whitty, Assistant Professor of Fashion Systems and Materiality at Parsons School of Design, says this includes the global information & communication technology (ICT) ecosystem’s digital footprint (where NFT’s have come under fire recently).


“We need to keep our techno-savior complex in check, and our narrow focus on profit at all costs with benchmarks that have our ability to live on this planet at the forefront,” Whitty told Atmos. “Ensuring that we always do a complete life-cycle review of the production and use before adopting things, because focusing on financial capital, and manufactured capital speed, omits human, social, and natural capital.”


Parsons brought in courses in CLO 3D for all sophomore, and junior students in order to visualize, sample and design digitally. Educating young designers on this, says Whitty, is important because they “may liberate us from our binds to an incredibly impactful and wasteful industry.” She went on to say that we should be encouraging designers to view technology as another tool in their toolbox: “The best way to empower digital-first designers is to enable them to think and act in an interdisciplinary way, to question, challenge and transcend ideas of how we make, use and engage with fashion.”


Both designers and educators at the front of the digital fashion revolution agree on the enormous potential for the digitalization of the fashion industry to be a key part of addressing the industry’s role in our climate and ecological crisis. That being said, it’s clear this is only possible if done in conjunction with addressing our mass consumption habits and linear industrial supply chain. This calls for not only empowering emerging designers with digital education but ensuring creatives from the climate frontlines, such as BIPOC designers, have the resources and access to lead the way. After all, a new environmentally beneficial digital fashion system will not be dreamed and created by the same people responsible for the capitalist and extraction-focused nature of our current one.

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