In visions of the future, it’s often the machines that rise up against us. But apparently it’s going to be our clothes that revolt first, as researchers at Birmingham City University in the UK have developed radio-frequency identification (RFID) technology that enables clothes to Tweet at their owners to be worn or to contact a charity to donate themselves if we fail to heed their requests.
It’s no wonder our clothes are turning against us. We only wear a fifth of what’s in our closets, according to most consumer research; another fifth is never worn. Many of us pay such low prices for clothes, we don’t even bother to repair it, remove stains or sometimes even wash it before giving it to a charity. A disturbing amount of what we buy just ends up tossed into landfills–almost 21 billion lbs in the U.S. per year.
Would we change our habits if our clothes could communicate with us, reminding us to wear them and care for them? A sample Tweet might read: “Temperatures are dropping ten degrees tonight. Need another layer? #denimjacket.”
What’s prompting this research, writes Project Lead Mark Brill, Senior Lecturer in Future Media for Birmingham City U., on the project’s website, is not our forgetful closet habits per se but the mounting environmental and social toll of producing and provisioning so much new clothes: “Clothing production is highly damaging to the environment, from the petrochemicals used in synthetics to cotton growing that uses more pesticides than any other crop,” he writes.“Bleaching, dyeing and finishing adds further pollutants to the environment and use considerable energy resources. Clothing manufacturing is amongst the most exploitative industries in the world.”
The solution to all of this, one that most consumers are loathe to accept, is that we must buy fewer new clothes and make far better use of the ones already in existence. Thankfully, technology and a coming Internet of Clothes could, like so many things, make the process far more automated and painless while completely rewiring our relationship to what we wear.
For those who aren’t familiar, the Internet of Things, or IoT, is the expansion of connected networks (the Internet) to physical devices, not just personal computers. Fitness trackers that track vitals and movement are an obvious example, but already most of our newer cars, televisions and many appliances are online as part of the IoT, as are an expanding number of municipal power grids, home utilities and manufacturers.
In first generation IoT devices, the impacts are somewhat limited. Fitness trackers for example count steps, but do little in terms of understanding what motivates an individual to exercise or intuiting why you might be less active a certain day (maybe you’re sick or traveling). But as the IoT evolves, the data it’s able to collect will become larger and more sophisticated. The way it will be able to assist us in our lives will become far more intelligent and personalized.
The potential for an Internet of Clothes is huge and only just now being uncovered. RFID technology and other types of wearable electronics and sensors are in development that are soft and washable, able to be embedded into fabric without changing the constitution of our clothes. Unlike today’s clunky wearables, future generations will be “invisible.”
Perhaps, as this technology becomes standardized, and most new clothing comes connected and pre-owned clothing can be retrofitted with RFID chips, we will be able to build a database of all clothes, as well as a body of knowledge about consumer behaviors and how those change based on age, home size, gender and individual preferences.
Just like no one strategy motivates someone to exercise, no one strategy motivates consumers to buy less or to use what they already have. Perhaps future interventions will be targeted at impulse shoppers or will send you a text in the checkout line that says: “Don’t you already have four blue and white striped shirts?” Of course, retailers who thrive on moving cheap, fast fashion won’t enjoy any of this.
As Mr. Brill has noted, the Internet of Clothes could mean we ultimately move away from the idea of ‘ownership’ of apparel and footwear. To me, this is the greatest and most world-changing promise of the IoC. While in generations past, it was reasonable to expect consumers to hang on to their clothes for a decade, today’s fast-moving, novelty-seeking, fashion forward Internet cultures thrive on change and newness. Good luck to anyone who hopes to put that genie back in the bottle.
The IoC could tickle our thirst for novelty and changing fashions by helping consumers quickly find what they’re looking for from within the billions of pre-owned, already existing fashion items currently in circulation all around the world. It could by default level demand for new products.
Already, mobile-driven apps from Tradesy to ThredUp to DePop have made it infinitely easier to post used clothes and sell them to like-minded shoppers. In a survey conducted by ThredUp, 87% of individuals who bought secondhand clothing online shifted their spending away from off-price retailers.
But The Internet of Clothes could further automate the options for selling what we’ve got, meaning unloved items could post themselves and communicate with buyers on their own behalf. Or maybe if we’re looking for a simple black leather mini-skirt, size 8, with no weird trims or zippers (as is my current request), the Internet of Clothes would serve that information up to me by crawling through the world’s supply of pre-owned clothing and my new-to-me purchase would be on its way to my door.
To learn more about how brands are taking on sustainable strategies, check out our Sustainable Fashion Roadmap tool.