Digital Fashion & Sustainability - Is Digital Fashion Really more Sustainable than Physical?

· Insights

Fashion is a fun, creative outlet for self-expression. It’s also a great economic driver, sustaining countless jobs. We love fashion! And yet, its environmental impact is, to say the least, troubling. For many years people have spoken about the need for it to be more environmentally sustainable. 

We’ve all read the headlines about how much water and pesticides a t-shirt made with conventionally grown cotton uses, and how much fabric is wasted when it’s produced. And then there’s the problem of the time taken to biodegrade when it’s discarded. McKinsey reports that more than 100 billion pieces of clothing a year are sold around the world, and 92 million tons of waste from the fashion industry goes to landfill. Even clothes that we keep, love, and frequently wear and wash cause problems, as 35% of microplastic pollution which leaks into our water is caused by washing synthetic textiles.

In the last few years, particularly, concrete change within the fashion industry has snowballed. Most big brands, including Uniqlo, Mango and Asos, have a green policy in place and for some of their collections at least use recycled synthetics, organic cotton and other eco-friendly fabrics and practices. 

UNIQLO Sustainability Activities

Image Source: Uniqlo Official Website


Covid-19 -The Virus with a Silver Lining 

But something nobody could have predicted was Covid-19. The virus itself has been devastating and the impact on many people’s lives has been great. But an unexpected silver lining has been the knock-on effects of the protective measures that have been taken. While photos showing dolphins frolicking in the crystal-clear waters of Venice, Italy, turned out to be fake, the images showing pollution clearing over the manufacturing district in China were not. 

Employees from all kinds of companies were asked not to travel to work for safety. They found digital systems invaluable for working from home. They not only did their jobs at home but spent their leisure time at home and shopped from home too. These all needed effective digital and online systems and with astonishing rapidity, companies adapted. Within fashion, the first digital fashion week was held online in September 2020. Where companies could not physically manufacture clothing due to emergency measures, digital stepped into the breach. 

The McKinsey State of Fashion report 2021 notes that “recent data show that we have vaulted five years forward in consumer and business adoption of digital in a matter of months. Around the globe, we expect more than 20 percent annual digital growth in 2021”.

This is excellent news. Digital manifestations have genuinely less environmental impact over physical in most cases. At TG3D, we partner with ProSoft VR. We encourage fashion design companies to try out their proposed design variations digitally first and only make the final choices up in fabric at the end of the process. ProSoft VR has discovered that the environmental cost of sampling a single simple dress using digital assistance is 8 metres of fabric, 0.8 tons of water, 1.6kg carbon; as compared to 40 metres of fabric, 4 tons of water, and 8kg carbon for an entirely fabric-based process. 

digital fashion & sustainability

Image Source: ProSoft VR


Digital Dresses are Perfect for Social Media

Digital clothing is not just aimed at designers who need to make many samples before deciding on a final creation. It's also a great replacement for those garments which are bought for a single social media photo and discarded - up to 9% of clothes purchased in the UK are for content creation. Influencers and other consumers can buy a digital garment instead, which is seamlessly edited to the photo they provide as if they had been wearing it at that time and place. 

The fashion company Dress X make digital clothes for social media. They announced that since their digital creations are never physically produced, they don’t use water at all. Production of a digital garment, on average, saves 3300 liters of water per item, which is enough for one person to drink 2 liters per day for 3.5 years. The process also emits 97% less CO2 than the production of a physical garment.

The fashion company Dress X make digital clothes for social media

Image Source: Dress X Instagram

As with real-life garments, digital clothes vary in complexity. A physical ballgown made from silk with lots of ruffles, embroidery, lining, buttons, zips and trims will take more resources than a simple linen t-shirt. Similarly, an animated digital dress with detailed rendering and complex textures will use more digital space than a more basic shape. Designers are free to create and save as many digital versions of a garment as they wish, tweaking colours, trims, fabrics and other details as they go. Once they have decided on the final iteration, the best practice is to delete the trial versions. The final choice can be archived in the cloud.


Solutions with less Impact

At TG3D we use cloud storage from Amazon, AWS. According to their environmental report, last year they reached 65% renewable energy across the whole enterprise and though their business grew, carbon intensity dropped 16% even as their home deliveries soared. However, even this can be lowered further and the company has launched The Climate Pledge Fund, a $2 billion investment program to support the development of sustainable and decarbonizing technologies and services. They intend to power their operations with 100% renewable energy by 2025 and reach net-zero carbon emissions across operations by 2040. 

AWS sustainability in the cloud

Image Source: AWS website

We know that digital is not an 100% perfect solution for the fashion industry. But we can also see that it is a great replacement for many of its processes, and has already made a tangible difference in emissions. 

If you, too, would like to join the digital revolution, getting started making digital clothing is easy. Please see our blog post Going Digital for more details.