Fashion design and a sustainable future

Credit: Joshua Ellis 1767

In the fashion industry, innovation can improve both sustainability and profitability.

The UK’s fashion design sector contributes around £30 billion to the economy annually. By building on traditional industries, creative flair and entrepreneurialism the UK has become a global leader in high value fashion.

At the same time, the industry is a heavy consumer of resource, and existing ways of working to create wastage and significant environmental impact.

Innovation and partnership

Since 2019 the Future Fashion Factory programme has been working with industry on new approaches and technologies that can transform environmental performance and drive future economic value.

Funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council, the programme links Yorkshire’s textile centres, the design and retail centre of London, and the expertise of many partners. With over £5 million of public funding to 2023, it has already funded over 30 research projects.

Virtual reality, real benefits

Innovative work with Numerion Software is cutting the need to create and distribute physical samples, by bringing digital technologies from the world of cinema into traditional textile mills. The company is trialling tools which use virtual reality to simulate the behaviours of textiles in 3D.

In another project, Roaches International is rolling out a newly developed commercial device, Sentire, which can sample the touch and feel of a fabric and communicate it digitally.

What’s popular, right now?

Judging what will sell is a problem for designers. They can try to work out from history or intuition what colours will fly off the shelves, but get it wrong, and the result is overstocks and sale rails, wasting resources and encouraging over-consumption.

Future Fashion Factory researchers have developed ways to ‘now-cast’, using real-time data, machine learning and artificial intelligence to identify current trends and remove the guesswork. In April 2021 a new company, Colour Intelligence Ltd, was spun out to market this capability.

Premium recycling

In another project, the team worked with 250-year old manufacturer Joshua Ellis to explore incorporating recycled cashmere into new cashmere accessories, while maintaining top quality and premium pricing.

Other projects include:

  • a digital assistant to help finishing machine operators find the right settings without error and wastage
  • new processes to transform leather left over from car seat manufacture into high-value fashion items.

Led by the School of Design at the University of Leeds, in partnership with the University of Huddersfield and Royal College of Art, Future Fashion Factory is part of the £80 million Creative Industries Clusters Programme.

Professor Stephen Russell, Future Fashion Factory director, says:

In this industry, reducing waste and environmental impact cuts costs and increases revenues. The companies we work with are highly motivated to be both sustainable and profitable, and these innovations have the potential to transform the industry’s performance in years to come.

Last updated: 21 July 2021

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