London Tech Week 2024: The Future of Fashion in a Circular Economy

Responsible for 20% of the world’s wastewater, 10% of all carbon emissions (more than all international flights and maritime shipping combined, or the total produced by the European Union) and the largest industry proponent of inhumane working conditions, can we not agree it’s time to say so long to fast fashion?

Racing to capitalise on trends and make the most money from consumers in the shortest time, ‘Fast Fashion’ refers to cheaply produced and priced garments with the time from designs on the drawing board to clothing being sold in shops, as little as possible. In 2012, Zara was able to design, produce, and deliver a new garment in two weeks, Forever21 in six, and H&M in eight. Were it not enough that these practices dry up water sources, pollute rivers and streams, and their profits often supersede human welfare, they produce an obscene amount of waste with 85% of textiles going to landfill each year – this works out as a truck’s worth of clothes being burnt or dumped every second. And for those you don’t throw away? Washing clothes releases 500,000 tons of plastic microfibres into the ocean each year, equivalent to 50 billion plastic bottles…

Considering these statistics, I’m sure we can agree it’s a hard time to be in fashion, but thankfully, there are those committed to changing the game. The industry is undergoing a seismic shift, driven by a growing focus on sustainability and a more circular economic model. At London Tech Week 2024, a thought-provoking panel discussion explored this exciting new landscape. A power-house panel of women including Depop’s CEO, Kruti Patel Goyal, and By Rotation’s Founder, Eshita Kabra-Davies, two key players in the online resale market, who shed light on the trends shaping the future of fashion and how technology is playing a pivotal role. It was also chaired by Veronica Chou, previous heiress to a Fast Fashion fortune, who is giving back by investing in sustainable fashion practices and innovations. As CEO of Novel Fashion Investments, that work has also been extended to the world of designer fashion, such as with the Karl Lagerfeld brand.

The discussion highlighted the significant impact of a climate-conscious Gen Z demographic. Their desire for sustainable practices is pushing fashion brands and platforms to embrace circularity – quite the contradiction to the brands at the forefront of fast-fashion practices who aim their products at this same younger demographic. A large part of circularity includes extending the lifecycle of existing garments through resale and rental models, and the global appetite for this is clear, with Depop’s 35 million users already having given second life to 80 million pieces of clothing – which is the capacity of Wembley Stadium, 900 times over! Their CEO points out that circularity is not a new concept; we’ve been passing on clothes to our friends, relatives, and communities, as long as clothes have been worn, but tech enables sharing on a global scale.

By Rotation, a younger brand in just their fifth year, call themselves ‘The World’s largest shared wardrobe’ with a focus on renting designer clothes. With the current cost of living crisis in the UK, Founder Eshita pointed out the strategic investment lenders can make in buying new, with an intention to then lend, with some of their top lenders making massive returns, earning around £4000 a month.

ByRotation also describe themselves as an online community, and the panel explored how social media has played a crucial role in the normalizing of purchasing second-hand and vintage clothing. Platforms like Depop and By Rotation leverage social media’s influence to make pre-loved fashion trendy and accessible, as well as to connect like-minded and like-styled users. It wouldn’t be a London Tech Week discussion without bringing up AI, which is aiding the platforms in their reach and their personalised approach. The panellists discussed how artificial intelligence is being utilized at various touchpoints within their platforms. This could include personalized recommendations for buyers, optimizing the search experience, or even streamlining authentication processes for sellers.

Tech holds the solution to many of our climate crises, from reducing the impacts of fast fashion, to engineering materials from waste products, and harnessing clean energy. With tech-enabled platforms such as By Rotation and Depop, and a climate conscious generation of buyers leading the way, we have the opportunity to turn the tide in the fast fashion epidemic and make sustainable choices for a circular future.

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