Can data and AI innovations move us towards higher quality sustainable cotton?
Utilizing tech and design innovations, as a truly viable route to slowing down raw material consumption.
by Dr Alexander Aina, Lead Data Scientist at Materra
In 2018, three innovation “trends” were touted to significantly change the textile industry¹:
- Digitization of products, manufacturing, design etc. through to the supply-chain itself,
- Sustainability and deconvoluted transparent supply chains required for true environmental, social & economic sustainability, resource efficiency and circularity (though we see the fashion industry’s favourite adjective has moved from “circular” to “regenerative”²),
- New business models of consumption based on sharing, awareness and accountability.
Design for sustainability and inclusion
We know these aren’t just trends, they are musts. While the digitization of many aspects of the industry and the supply chain may seem threatening this actually provides an opportunity to construct new infrastructure built on clarity that provides true transparency, conciseness and the ability to quantify impact — thereby allowing for a system that stakeholders can trust and not abuse.
Sustainable practices are a given at this point, not only environmentally and economically but also socially. The need for more sustainable growth ties in with the advancement of science and technology, and the progressive use of data and AI in fashion and agriculture.³⁻⁴ Today’s solution must be designed to be contextually relevant and mindful, addressing cultural and socio-economic differences and demands. For example, the nuisances, issues and demands of cotton farming in India are very different to those in China. There are similarities, however, there is no blanket solution to providing sustainable cotton in both regions (let alone the states within).
This doesn’t mean it is not possible to develop transferable technology that is deployable globally, but instead these must be open to being fine-tuned and constructed under a framework that’s equal and inclusive from their inception. Novel technologies can be used to develop more sustainable farming innovations, educational tools and data infrastructures that better facilitate sustainable agricultural practices in major cotton growers like India just as much as in the most remote regions.
At Materra, we see an opportunity to work with the industry to make tangible progress in the right direction through the use of AI in a human-centred approach to redesign cotton farming and the fashion supply chain starting in the world’s largest cotton grower. We are currently engaging with issues within the cotton supply chain, and focusing on designing closed-loop farming systems for sustainable cotton production. However, what we aim to highlight is the ability to use data and AI to connect some of the forgotten voices (namely small farmers) across all raw material supply chains. We aim to empower them, providing data assurance, which enables radical supply-chain transparency, quantifies impact, and facilitates industry awareness and sustainable agriculture practices globally.
We expect that it is the mindful use of innovations that will facilitate the movement to new more sustainable business models that are inclusive and appropriately remunerate all stakeholders within a given supply chain. Moreover, by providing the consumer and brands with a data infrastructure built on clarity, we can begin to move towards slowing down raw material production. Through transparency and extensive design research, methodologies can be implemented that promote the more mindful consumption of higher quality, sustainable raw materials in a resource and economically efficient yet viable manner.
With regards to slowing down consumption there is currently a lot of work to be done across the supply chain. We don’t expect all of it to be done overnight nor do we expect to be the ones to do it all, however, we are always open to collaboration and we will continue to work hard to empower the right voices and facilitate the move to a net-positive fashion industry.
¹ Koszewska, M. (2018). Circular economy — Challenges for the textile and clothing industry. Autex Research Journal, 18(4), 337–347.
² Bauck, W. (2021), The new buzzword in fashion, Financial Times, https://www.ft.com/content/71b58bba-e95a-4e0e-85c0-c75717bdfdbc
³ Merryman, L., & Lu, S. (2020, December). Are Fashion Majors Ready for the Era of Data Science?–A Study on the Fashion and Apparel Curriculum in US Educational Institutions. In International Textile and Apparel Association Annual Conference Proceedings (Vol. 77, №1). Iowa State University Digital Press.
⁴ Priya, R., & Ramesh, D. (2020). ML based sustainable precision agriculture: A future generation perspective. Sustainable Computing: Informatics and Systems, 28, 100439.