Did you know that the fashion industry is responsible for 20 percent of wastewater and 10 percent of carbon emissions globally? Occurring in the first stage of production, the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe (UNECE) have found that the fashion industry accounts for 20% of wastewater and 10% of carbon emissions worldwide. The 2019 Pulse of the Fashion Industry report also shows the fashion industry is not implementing sustainable solutions fast enough to counterbalance the harmful environmental and social impacts of its rapid growth.
During the conversation of sustainability at last week’s Copenhagen Fashion Summit, Google and fashion brand Stella McCartney announced a new pilot scheme created to assist fashion brands in rethinking their production processes.
Creating An Industry-Wide Tool
Google’s approach strives to give brands a more comprehensive overview of their supply chains, by compiling data in a way that encourages fashion companies to do better. Google first identified the problem, which was the gap in data and the lack of clear explanation. To solve this problem, the tech giant came up with a learning tool devised to enable fashion brands to make more responsible sourcing decisions by giving them invaluable insight into the impact of their supply chains using Google Cloud’s technology.
On their approach Ian Pattison, Customer Engineering Manager for Google Cloud UK believes that Google’s 20-year leadership of data technologies, cloud computing and machine learning capabilities, coupled with their commitment to sustainability and their unrivalled global mapping, means that they are “uniquely placed to work with the brands to address the challenge of reducing the environmental footprint of fashion.”
Focusing mainly at the level of raw material production, referred to as ‘Tier 4’ of the supply chain and where much of the environmental impact takes place, Google’s new tool uses data analytics and machine learning to focus on sources that allow companies to measure the impact of their raw materials better. The collected information, relevant to critical environmental factors such as air pollution, greenhouse gas emissions, land use and water scarcity, helps brands see and understand the supply chains they are using more clearly.
The Value of Google Cloud’s Technology
Google is driven to help make a change through the use of technology. Maria McClay, Industry Head Fashion Luxury at Google, disclosed that Google empowers its teams to find moonshots – challenging, complex problems that their technology can help make a marginal improvement on. “We believe that this (the pilot scheme) could be our moonshot for the industry. We have heard increasingly from clients, our industry partners and consumers the growing urgency around the fashion sector to make a dent in their negative environmental impact given the magnitude of the problem. If nothing changes, what is at stake is our future and that of our children.”
Using machine learning technology, the tool can examine extensive datasets in a way that would enable brands to estimate the projected environmental impact of an item of clothing at the sourcing and design stages. The project will first start by looking at cotton and viscose, each chosen due to the scale of their production, data availability and impact considerations. More specifically, cotton accounts for 25% of all fibres used by the fashion industry, with an essential impact on water and pesticide use. Viscose production is smaller but growing in demand, and has links to the destruction of forests—some endangered—which are critical in mitigating carbon emissions.
The end goal is not only to be able to determine the impact of producing these raw materials but to also compare the effects in different regions where they are produced. This pilot will enable Google to test the effectiveness of the tool on different raw materials, building out the possibilities for expansion into a wider variety of crucial textiles in the market down the line.
Translating Data into Meaningful Insights
Looking to help fashion brands drastically reduce their impact on the environment by understanding their supply chains, the experiment also plans to bring together information in a way that will complement existing tools, consolidating and building on the data to shine a light into the furthest parts of the fashion supply chain.
Working closely with designer label Stella McCartney, the pilot translated the fashion brand’s data into meaningful figures and then shared it to show how the technology can help when it comes to assessing the impact of raw materials on key environmental metrics such as water and energy consumption.
On why they chose to work with Stella McCartney, Kate Brandt, Sustainability Officer at Google said: “Stella McCartney has been a forerunner in the fashion industry embracing and leading the charge for sustainable fashion. At Google, we also strive to build sustainability into everything that we do, whether that’s operating efficiency data centres to having our own Responsible Supply Chain Program. This pilot with Stella is a great step in the fashion industry’s bid to become more sustainable.”
With plans to continue to drive collaboration with other key players—large and small, Pattison explained: “Google’s mission is to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful. The challenge facing the fashion industry is one of information – taking fragmented and somewhat incomplete information and quickly translating it into meaningful insights to take action. In this case, understanding how fabrics are grown or made, what impact different sourcing decisions have on the environment, and ensuring that data is visible across the whole supply chain”.
Giving brands the kind of visibility that allows them to take action in choosing raw materials and processes which have more sustainable practices in mind is just the first stage of the process. Google hopes to widen the experiment to other brands and industry partners in the hopes of creating an industry-wide tool invented to encourage fashion brands to reach their sustainability goals.