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Technological Advancements & Fashion’s Fulcrum for Change

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In today’s guest post, Embodee examines the apparel and footwear’s industry deepening commitment to sustainability and reducing carbon emissions as climate change intensifies. The company’s writer and editor, Michael Bales, also explores the integral role of technological advancements, especially 3D product design and visualization.

A daily drumbeat of headlines in the trade media add up to tell a significant story: after years of much talk but little action, the apparel and footwear industry now views sustainability and reducing carbon emissions as mission-critical priorities. In fact, in recent days the headlines touting new sustainability initiatives, innovative breakthroughs, and milestones met outnumbered those about the growing fallout from the coronavirus.

Accelerating this still-long-way-to-go transformation is a nexus of unique factors. The existential threat of climate change, plus the planet’s degradation from industrial pollution and costly waste — much of it from the apparel and footwear industry — are motivating more consumers to buy products based on brands’ commitment to the environment and sustainability, even if that means paying a premium for them.

A survey of 1,000 U.S. consumers last year found that two thirds of those aged 18 to 65+ consider sustainability of products when making buying decisions. More than one third said they are willing to pay up to 25% more for sustainable options.

Businesses across the supply chain spectrum are responding to varying degrees, motivated by a sense of corporate responsibility, changing consumer sentiments, and the potential of benefiting financially from reducing waste and taking other environmentally friendly actions.

Underlying everything is the industry’s fulcrum for change — technology. Digital disruption has been slowly reshaping the industry and, as expected, not without persistent pockets of resistance. Nevertheless, technological advances have intensified, coincidental or not, with the urgency of climate change and mounting public pressure to correct the industry’s infamous record of pollution, overproduction, and waste.

“Increasingly, sustainability is top of mind for fashion retailers. Top to bottom, from consumer to luxury brand CEO, everyone is thinking about climate change and fashion’s role in alleviating it,” concludes Shopify’s Fashion Industry Report, released last month. “With a little more than a decade left to stop irreversible damage to the Earth, it’s imperative for the fashion industry at large to consider what steps they can take to promote sustainability and manage the quality of their product.”

Development and use of 3D design and product visualizations are among the technological advancements producing an array of as-yet fully realized benefits. They include:

  • Environmental (less waste and decreased carbon emissions from shipping physical prototypes back and forth around the world).
  • Efficiency (streamlined, more collaborative product planning, and faster prototyping and time to market).
  • Value (made-to-order and customized products that consumers value more and keep longer).

“3D processes allow fashion brands in particular to make better decisions, faster, and with more confidence along the entire development cycle,” Eryn Gregory, a specialist in 3D design applications and owner of Ergodesign, wrote in FashionUnited. “Taken to the next level, fashion brands can ‘test-market’ styles on their websites without ever having to make a physical prototype or invest in raw materials.”

By some estimates, the analog method of developing physical garment samples costs the industry nearly USD $7.8 billion annually. “These can be design samples, fit samples, marketing samples, or even development samples that are never actually adopted or put into production,” Elizabeth Brandwood, a product consultant for fashion design software developer EFI Optitex, told just-style. “We class them as pure waste. They’ve never been sold or even worn by a consumer and go straight into landfill.”

3D design and visualization tools, while already used extensively, have been out of reach for many smaller brands but will soon be more affordable, wrote Nataliya Makulova, founder of Balanced Fashion and a sustainability consultant.

In Makulova’s view, “Computer-aided design paired with 3D visualization is going to shrink the process of samples creation and eliminate fit problems. Using 3D modeling tools, technical designers will be able to precisely visualize fit on various body types and create garments of a wider variety of fits, from tall, to plus size, to petite — all in one product line.”

Some 3D design and visualization platforms also enable brands to gauge consumer interest via social media platforms, helping to refine designs or drop others based on shoppers’ critiques before the products are manufactured. Call this pre-production virtual focus groups.

In the fall 2020 season, premium clothing brand Tommy Hilfiger plans to launch a capsule clothing line “designed, developed, and sold digitally,” Retail TouchPoints reported. More ambitiously, Tommy Hilfiger is scheduled in two years to unveil its 2022 apparel collections, the brand’s first fully designed using 3D.

Other applications for high-fidelity 3D product visualization have emerged. It is an essential element of the growing use of real-time, online customization and personalization of apparel and footwear. Athletic apparel companies Nike and Adidas were pioneers in making shoppers part of the final design process for an array of garments, shoes, and accessories.

A number of prominent fashion brands and retailers have offered luxury items for customization and personalization touches. Among them, Mytheresa (Gucci sneakers, Chloé handbags), Gucci and Goyard (handbags), and Burberry (scarves and wallets). Products aren’t made until after shoppers push the buy button. This prevents making products that never sell and could end up in landfills, and the buyers are willing to pay more and wait longer to receive their purchases.

Consumers make an emotional connection with products they customize — and want to retain their purchases longer, according to academic studies. They also develop stronger brand loyalty.

The New York Times recently examined the customization trend. A sociologist and associate professor at the INSEAD business school in France, Frédéric Godart, told the Times that customization “actually has a more visceral connection, as ‘the latest manifestation of a deeper social transformation that puts the individual and their idiosyncratic tastes center stage.’ ”

It is also clear that another transformation is taking place: consumers are gravitating to brands committed to the environment, and 3D product design and visualization and other innovations are helping brands deliver what consumers want.

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Lydia Mageean Lydia Mageean has been part of the WhichPLM team for over six years now. She has a creative and media background, and is responsible for maintaining and updating our website content, liaising with advertisers, working on special projects like the Annual Review, and more.Joining mid-2013 as our Online Editor, she has since become WhichPLM’s Editor. In addition to taking on writing and interviewing responsibilities, Lydia has also become the primary point of contact for news, events, features and other aspects of our ever-growing online content library and tools.