The Future Design Series: Fashion, Innovation and Technology

The Future Design Series: Fashion, Innovation and Technology

As the world consumes its way to an environmental apocalypse, it has become obvious that humankind will have to reassess the way it uses its resources. One way we have come to cope with this challenge is through innovations and sustainable design.

The intention of sustainable design is to “eliminate negative environmental impact completely through skillful, sensitive design”.

Manifestations of sustainable design require renewable resources, impact the environment minimally, and connect people with the natural environment.

Over the coming months we will be examining some of these design developments aimed at building a sustainable future. Some of these are already in the market; others are still no more than ideas and prototypes. Whatever stage they are in, what they offer is hope. 

Future Design: Fashion Edition

According to the United Nations, the fashion industry is responsible for 10% of global greenhouse emissions. That is twice more than the aviation industry. Every second, the equivalent of one garbage truck of textiles is landfilled or burned. Even without the aid of these statistics, it’s easy for us to see just how unsustainable fashion currently is.  


Fashion’s unsustainability runs from end-to-end. For instance, It takes roughly 20,000 litres of water to produce just one kilogram of cotton, equivalent to one t-shirt and a pair of jeans. So that by the time the end-consumer buys it, enormous amounts of water and power have already been used and wasted, and in the case of synthetic fabrics, microplastics are released into the ocean. 

A viable solution here is design. Fueled by a vision of a sustainable future and advancements in technology, fashion houses and startups have taken up the challenge of designing a more sustainable future for the fashion industry. In my estimation, this involves the fundamental overhauling of fashion and its supply chain. It also means redefining our traditional values as they relate to clothes because what we believe our clothes should be made of and who we imagine ought to make them all depends on our perception.

In this first edition of #FUTUREDESIGN, we look at the design breakthroughs that hold the key to fashion’s sustainable future.

1. Biodegradable synthetic fibres

Most natural fibres are biodegradable; however, it does require many resources to produce (land, labour, capital, energy, chemicals perhaps) and thus are often not easy to manufacture.

Synthetic fibres which are much easier to produce are not very environmentally friendly; they can sit in landfills for years and some release microplastics into the ocean. 

A perfect solution could be synthetic fibres that decompose as easily as natural fibres and this is precisely what the PrimaLoft Bio is. Designed by PrimaLoft, a company founded in 1983 when the US Army was seeking synthetic fabrics, the PrimaLoft Bio is a wonderful innovation to behold. While current synthetic fibers take hundreds of years to degrade, 80% of the PrimaLoft Bio is designed to degrade into natural components within a year of being exposed to microbes typically found in landfills.

A similar design triumph is the QMONOS™. Produced by a collaboration between Goldwin (owners of Nanamic) and biomaterials QMONOS™ startup Spiber, the QMONOS is a case of man mirroring nature. The fabric is made from protein materials which are based on spider silk . 

2. When machines make clothes

The fashion supply chain is largely dominated by human and manual labour. When you think of Luis Vuitton or other luxury brands making your clothes, you think of sophistication and advanced tech. In reality though, the actual maker of the product is most probably an over-exploited seamstress in an over-crowded factory floor somewhere in Bangladesh. This has created one of the biggest issues in fashion today; the exploitation of workers in the supply chain. A human dominated supply chain also means less accuracy and more waste. According to Global Fashion Agenda, the total level of fashion waste is expected to be 148 million tons by 2030—equivalent to annual waste of 17.5 kg per capita across the planet.

Now the fashion industry is trying to solve this problem through the increased integration of computers in the supply chain; from design to merchandising. The most commonly applied technologies here so far are Artificial Intelligence and 3D technology.

In apparel design, tech giant Google in partnership with Zalando have already tested their AI Fashion Design system, Project Muze. The Chinese technology firm Shenglan Technology had even more success seeing as their project DeepVogue was so successful, that it went on to win the People’s Choice Award at China’s International Fashion Design Innovation competition. The system uses “deep learning” to produce original designs drawn from images, themes, and keywords imported by human designers.

While AI may design, 3D printing takes the day in making the actual clothes. American Startup Unspun has designed a system that uses 3D technology to take a customer’s measurement, and then proceed to make on-demand jeans that fit. 

3. Clothes that do more than ‘cover up’

Currently, most clothes and fashion items only serve one purpose; covering our nakedness. But what if clothes could be made to do more? What if your clothes could provide entertainment when you’re blue? What if they could change colors or encourage inclusivity and wellbeing? At some point, when we buy clothes, we would buy more than just apparel but a multi-purpose wear; kind of like how when you buy a phone, you no longer need to buy a calculator. For the future, this line if thinking is already shaping up to be the norm for clothing designs.

Researchers at MIT have created a fabric that can play music such that using embedded semiconductors, the clothes are capable of processing signals and information sent through it. American company ChroMorphous uses a textile technology that allows the consumer to change the color of the fabric using an app. If you are a fashion lover, you may have noticed how fickle fashion is when it comes to color. And with each passing season comes the pressure to buy new dresses to keep up with fashion. 

This idea that clothes have the ability to deliver more value than just as style items has been applied to even more critical use. Fashion startup, Fuseproject has designed what it calls power clothes. These clothes are designed to enable elderly people to stand up and function for much longer. Vigour cardigan by Dutch designer Pauline Van Dongen is a cardigan that enables physiotherapists to know in real time, the challenges faced by their patients in their recovery process. 

4. Clothing that grows as you do

While we advocate for slow fashion, it is generally known that there is not much to do if your clothes just don’t fit. This is especially critical with children who experience growth spurts which almost always mean shopping several times each season. When we were kids, our African parents would solve this challenge by buying us clothes that was three or four times our sizes so we could “grow into them”. 

One of the critical design triumphs of the future would be to design clothes that grow with the children. This design problem is on it way to being solved by Ryan Jasin, a brilliant designer. He has presented his collection labeled the adaptive clothing which is made from pleated lightweight fabric and is machine-washable, play-proof and most importantly recyclable. The clothes can contract or expand, and is designed to grow with the wearer up to seven sizes. While this has not been produced commercially, it is exciting to think of all the resources that could be saved if we didn’t have to buy clothes for children every time they go to sleep and wake up. 

5. Ocean plastic: From waste to wardrobe

Plastic plagues us. It plagues the oceans and poisons fishes. So far, most efforts to clean up ocean plastic have not been very successful. With this implication, a viable solution for any business would be to utilize this in their operations. 

This is exactly what Spanish sustainable fashion label Ecoalf is doing. Their sneaker “Shao” is made of plastic and contains the equivalent of four plastic water bottles. The plastic cans are picked by local fishermen through Ecoalf’s plastic upcycling initiative. The sole meanwhile is made of algae. 

Ecoalf ‘Shao’ sneaker made of up cycled and algae.

But by far the most popular use of this has been the collaboration between global sportswear brand Adidas and environmental charity Parley. The partnership was announced back in 2015 and has been designed to utilize ocean plastic to produce sneakers. In typical Adidas fashion; the project has been a resounding success and over one million shoes have been produced so far. To push things even further, last year Adidas and Parley announced their Adidas x Parley for the Ocean collection. Starting with outdoor gear, the collaboration has expanded into more things including yoga wear and running shirts. 

Adidas x Parley collection featuring ‘ocean plastic’.

Given that we release about 300 million tons of plastic into the ocean each year, it appears that the future of fashion definitely lies in its utilization. Adidas and Parsley have given us a head start.

Now this is by no means an exhaustive list of the future designs in the fashion industry. This collection was put together above all others to bring you hope and spur you on in whatever good measures you’re taking to a secure a healthy environment today.

We all are doing our best to protect our world and the more you learn of initiatives such as these, the more you realize that you are not alone in this fight; the more encouraged you would be to soldier on.

So that’s it for this week’s edition of the future design series as it relates to fashion. Make sure to share this piece with your networks with the hashtag #Futuredesign and let’s help make fashion sustainable!

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Feature image via Ecoalf.

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