The future of clothing
The way we produce and consume clothing is going to change over the next 10 years. Here’s how.
Imagine it’s January 2031, you have job interview, and you don’t have anything to wear. If it’s a video interview, you can just wear a digital suit. If it’s in person though, what do you do?
You prop your iPhone up in the corner of the room and use an app to scan your body, grab your exact specs, and create a personalized digital avatar. You go online and choose the outfit you want — maybe a knit dress — and try it on virtually. You make a few tweaks (take in the waistline a bit, make the sleeves longer) and submit your order. A 3D knitting machine in the city where you live then kicks into gear, producing the garment you’ve ordered. You receive it the next day and it fits you perfectly.
We’re getting closer to this reality. Personalized body scans, 3D knitting and weaving machines, and made-to-order clothing made possible by technology are already here.
The fashion industry, perhaps more than most industries on the planet, is due for total disruption. The industry produces 1.2 billion tons of Co2 equivalent every year, more than international flights and maritime shipping combined. The amount of clothing currently being produced is unsustainable in every way. You may think, from hearing so many brands announce sustainability new initiatives, that the industry is becoming more sustainable; instead, global apparel consumption is projected to rise 63% by 2030. This will require another 115 hectares of land just to support fiber production for all these new clothes.
I’d like to offer some prescriptions for an alternate future, where we find a way to break up with fashion as we know it and embrace totally new ways of producing and consuming the clothing we wear:
Clothing sizes will become obsolete
Standard sizing is in fact a relatively new phenomenon. Before the industrialization of the fashion industry, clothing was made to measure. Standard sizing is required for mass production of clothing as we know it today, but it’s not a system that works very well — especially for women. Sizes vary notoriously from brand to brand. 40–50% of clothing purchases end up as returns, in many cases due to sizing issues.
Startups are already working on making clothes to measure. London-based The Drop uses an algorithm to make mens suiting to measure based on DIY measurements and photos. In Paris, Maison Cleo is making womenswear to order by hand. The approach is often presented as an antidote to fast fashion, and consumers usually have to wait longer than they would for off-the-rack clothes. But the result is clothing that fits and doesn’t need to be returned.
3D knitting and weaving will make on-demand production possible at scale
Most of your clothing is probably produced on massive factory floors before it’s shipped halfway around the world to you, the end consumer. But what if that path could be made much shorter? Underutilized urban space is already being put to use for local food production; why not local garment production too?
Imagine a factory floor in downtown LA churning out made-to-order garments. Here, too, startups are already at work: Boston-based Ministry of Supply produces women’s knitwear with 3D knitting machines. Unmade, in London, lets other brands to tap into 3D knitting technology through its operating platform. And Unspun, in Hong Kong, makes jeans to measure using 3D weaving machines.
Automated 3D garment production is still very much in its infancy, but its potential is enormous. Embracing it completely will mean rethinking the entire fashion supply chain, but the result will be a complete eradication of overproduction.
We’ll all start wearing digital clothing
The Covid pandemic has accelerated the movement of our work and social interactions into the virtual realm. If you’re only interacting with people on screens, there’s no reason not to switch to virtual clothes. We’ll someday move past the pandemic, but our digital lives are here to stay. Brands like Carlings and the Fabricant are producing clothes that exist only in digital format, never to be produced physically. Influencers get flack for wearing something once on Instagram before getting rid of it. Maybe they can lead the way in embracing digital fashion that can be worn once without creating any waste.
As with automated 3D garment production, digital fashion technology isn’t yet ready for mass adoption. But the technology will improve, and when it does, embracing it will enable us to avoid so much of the environmental damage and labor abuse that goes into mass production of our clothes.
Bringing about the future of clothing
The complete reimagining of the $1.7 trillion global fashion industry won’t happen overnight. It may not happen at all, until it’s too late, which would be a tragedy. For now, changes to the existing business models in the industry are necessary. We must overcome existing difficulties with textile recycling. Circularity initiatives need to be more than just window dressing. And the industry needs to produce less.
The good news for the industry is that with the amount of waste that it produces, it’s possible in the short term to drastically reduce production volumes without cutting into sales. My company, Wovn, is working on reducing fashion waste by giving brands the insights they need to understand what will and won’t sell.
For now, it’s encouraging to know that new business models are emerging to reimagine the way we produce and consume clothing. I hope that 10 years from now we’re a lot closer to drastically reducing our global clothing production and consumption by embracing these new models.