Can Wearable Technology Catalyze the Future of Sustainable Fashion?

The Unseen

Wearable technology designers are looking to the future as it applies to the future of sustainable fashion. Swedish retailer H&M, oft criticized for its hand in creating today’s throwaway clothing culture, announced last week that it would be investing heavily in analytics and automation to speed up its supply chain. The company’s focus on cheap pricing means 80 percent of its suppliers are located in low-cost countries in Asia with multi- month lead times and it’s struggling to keep pace with consumers’ rapidly-changing shopping behavior and expectations.

What if, instead of pumping money into processes that will help it churn out more and more (potentially unsellable) styles, fast fashion chains like H&M invested in technology that could continuously change how a product looks post-purchase, adding a whole new level of functionality?

Admittedly it’s not a new discussion: a Wall Street Journal story from 2001 chews over the prospect of waistlines that expand at the push of a button and sweaters that adjust from blue to green to match a favorite skirt. Yet when it comes to weaving technology into apparel, most designers are stuck on gimmicky one-offs—tech for tech’s sake that garners a lot of buzz but never makes it to market or that come with hefty pricetags.

That’s not to say that fashion and technology can’t come together in a way that resonates with consumers, even helping to tackle the apparel industry’s environmental issues. Indeed, smart fabrics (technology-laden textiles) may even be the catalyst for a sustainable future.

Ebb consists of conductive threads individually coated with thermochromic pigments that heat up and slowly change colours when supplied with electricity.

“Imagine if we could change what something looks like in terms of its color or pattern, thereby reducing the need to constantly buy something new and instead just download and update the designs?” offered Rachel Arthur, founder and editor of Fashion & Mash, a daily news site covering the intersection of fashion and technology.

That’s something researchers at UC Berkley have been working on. In partnership with Google’s Project Jacquard, the group has developed dynamic textiles using thermochromic threads that change color when electric charges are applied. The technology, known as Ebb, consists of conductive threads individually coated with thermochromic pigments that heat up and slowly change colours when supplied with electricity.

Ebb is still in its infancy but it could be used to create clothing that instantly updates its appearance at the wearer’s request, thus increasing the value of a single garment. So instead of buying one shirt in every color, consumers could have every color in one shirt.

“I am not sure that wearable technology will revolutionize the industry just by itself, but it could help to find ideas, make it more reliable in time and respect every piece we wear,” said Alice Giordani, a Paris-based designer focused on fusing textiles and electronics.

“Designers should keep this idea in mind in order to create new accessories that will last as long as possible,” Giordani adds.

The Unseen

That’s the idea behind London-based material exploration house The Unseen, which combines chemistry and craftsmanship to create a new type of wearable technology. In 2015, the collective teamed up with Selfridges department store to launch an assortment of accessories treated with inks that changed color in response to environmental triggers, including a shoulder bag that altered its appearance seasonally and a backpack that switched shades in response to wind, heat and light.

“We thought it could be a beautiful collection you could pass down. We wanted them to be heirlooms,” founder Lauren Bowker told Fast Company. “We don’t know what our children will see in terms of colors because I’m sure that their environment will be a lot different than the one that we’re living in now and hopefully a cleaner one.”

At the London College of Fashion’s Digital Anthropology Lab, meanwhile, a recent student project used sensors to track how much pollution people came into contact with during their daily commutes to assess when their clothes needed to be laundered, something that could help reduce their environmental impact.

As Arthur explained, “The idea was that we all throw things in the machine too often and by knowing true information about the exterior impacts on the item, we’d be able to make more conscious decisions about the water we use to keep them clean.”

Beyond these innovations, fabrics are being developed that reduce fashion’s reliance on natural resources or animal-derived products and even eliminate the need to wash clothing.

Several startups are spinning synthetic spider silk, including Bolt Threads, Spiber and AMSilk, while Modern Meadow is making real leather in a lab without killing a single animal.

Dropel Fabrics

Then there’s Dropel Fabrics, which makes clothing “lifeproof” by applying its patented nanotechnology to any natural fabric to make it water, stain and oil repellent without compromising its softness and breathability.

Taking that idea one step further are researchers from the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology in Australia who have created cotton fused with copper and silver-based nanostructures capable of breaking down dirt or stains when put under a light bulb or worn out in the sun. The end goal: fully self-cleaning textiles. But even custom-built biometric clothing can help advance sustainability.

“Some of the wearable technology being developed, especially those garments that monitor human condition, require the garment to be customized to the wearer,” noted Jesse Jur, assistant professor of textile engineering, chemistry and science at NC State University, explaining that when something is made specially for a specific consumer it’s less likely to be discarded.

“Customization also reduces the potential for excess product,” says Jur.

But a lot of these big ideas are still at the prototype or pilot stage, which raises the question: are these solutions scalable and at what cost?

“It’s pretty early days for this sort of thing to be viable at scale, but with ideas like the Internet of Things growing, plus greater connectivity in clothing through deals like Avery Dennison and Evrythng’s ‘Born Digital’ initiative, it’s not impossible long term at all,” Arthur said, citing a deal announced last year to create digital identities for some 10 billion pieces of apparel and footwear. The first Born Digital product, a Rochambeau jacket that unlocked VIP experiences, launched at retail in December priced at $630.

Levi’s and Google’s Project Jacquard

Arthur also pointed to Levi’s partnership with Google’s Project Jacquard as a scalable example. Together the two created a gesture-controlled smart jacket that that allows wearers to connect to a variety of smartphone services, such as music or maps.

“The solution is for cyclists and not about sustainability but the fact they are able to weave conductive yarn into the garment at scale says a lot about the long-term potential of wearable technology’s ubiquity,” she said.

As Jur put it, there’s never been a more exciting time in textiles.

“We finally have the opportunity to make garment-based wearable technology really happen,” he said. “Advancements are still needed in how energy in the garment is stored and distributed, as well as the development of a few more durable components, but once these advancements align then revolutionary things can happen.”

To learn more about how brands are taking on sustainable strategies, check out our Sustainable Fashion Roadmap tool.