Sustainability and technology – the future of fashion retail

Saverio Romeo explains how technology can optimise processes with the aim of making the shopping experience sustainable for all

By Guest on 07 March 2014
Sustainability and technology – the future of fashion retail

Technology is becoming ubiquitous and the pace of change is accelerating, with an unprecedented flow of new products and services entering in the marketplace for consumers and businesses. Technology now affects every part of our lives and all domains of our society, and the fashion retail sector is at the centre of the latest phase of this quiet revolution.

But technological change is not the only variable to take into account when we talk about the future of fashion retail. There is an important socio-economic consideration to take into account. We are moving towards a highly technology-led society; but we want to move in a sustainable way, reducing our negative impact on the environment and introducing environmental friendly modes of living. Technology can help pursue this goal but sustainability also needs changes in attitudes and habits. While consumption modes are already changing, this transformation is just at the beginning and it will take time.

The fashion retail sector has to change and adapt. In this process of transformation, sustainability and technology are not mutually exclusive choices. One extreme is a purely technology-led transformation in order to increase consumption; while the other is going back to the community-centric roots of shopping, providing a human and social moment to our lives. The answer of course is somewhere in the middle that builds around the sustainable experience of shopping and the power of technology.  

Sustainable and creative shopping mode through technology

We can imagine a future of retail in which technology reinvents shopping in a sustainable way. Let’s take this route and first rethink mass consumption. We could go back to the concept of clothing for a life time, maybe an item made of smart materials, connected with sensors and devices embedded in it. Through smart clothing, we could also think to offer services, such as location-based applications. We also want to make our clothes, shoes and accessories a real representation of our persona, values, and culture. In order to do that, we want to be involved in the design and manufacturing process. We want to engage with designers. We could go to stores, which are not just retail stores anymore, but open spaces for customers where they can use 3D holograms to design their own clothes or develop their own style through a combination of existing clothes and ideas coming from the store designers in real-time.

We finally select the items we want to create and have them manufactured and delivered to our homes or we could come back to the store. This entire process could also happen at home, through the use of 3D-based technologies like 3D wearable glasses and displays. Maybe we could also print our clothes and accessories using 3D printers located in the stores, controlled locally or remotely through our connected devices.

From the physical store to the connected borderless store

In this vision of the future, the store becomes a living connected space. Designing, selection, manufacturing and retailing are all in this space where consumers mesh with the shop assistants – who are fashion professionals – and together interact with a variety of technologies immersed in the surrounding spaces.

However, there is also an invisible link between the store and other spaces in which consumers move, from public places to the home environment. The process described can happen in any location. In this new borderless store model, the store becomes a connected borderless space. But this transformation requires a solid back-end infrastructure that enables different technologies to engage with consumers without consumers realising it. This relies on technologies such as augmented and 3D virtual realities, biometrics, wearable devices, connected objects, cloud computing, sensor networks, data-intensive connectivity solutions, and device-agnostic connected payment solutions. The intelligence behind all of this will revolve around an intelligent use of multi-sourced data through advanced real-time data analytics. Data will be the life blood that will flow around all of these technologies, making the spaces continuously more intelligent and able to adapt to new needs and new ideas.   

Conclusions – industry collaboration can write the manifesto of fashion retail futurism

This highly-intensive technology-led scenario will optimise processes around the main goal of making connected borderless retailing systems environmentally aware. It will not just be about carbon reduction, but also about the intelligent use of resources. On the consumer side, technology will make consumers part of the end-to-end process and therefore sustainably aware. The system will continuously optimise itself in an adaptive way, with the main aim to make the shopping experience sustainable for all. The effect of all this will also drive a rationalisation of the store footprint. The borderless connected store vision will enable large retailers to optimise their physical footprint in terms of stores and logistics operations. Smart boutiques, specialised in specific items will enrich our high-streets becoming embedded in smart city environments not just from a connectivity perspective, but also as a locus for creativity and imagination.

This scenario has a long way to go before it becomes a reality. However, some of the technologies described are already here, but the confidence to embrace them will have to come from a collaborative debate between different industries and organisations. This vision is not just about technology. It is not just about sustainable policies. It is about bringing different expertise together: the fashion and technology industries but also urban planners, architects and the creative industry. This diverse and extended collaboration can truly write the manifesto of fashion retail futurism around sustainability and technology.  

Saverio Romeo is principal analyst, Wearable Technologies and Smart Solutions at Beecham Research

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