Is AI the Key to Sustainability in Fashion?

Artificial intelligence has become more than just a buzzword for most fashion and apparel brands. Implementing the technology could be necessary to help retailers and manufacturers keep up with changing markets, trends and demands.

A number of startups in the industry have been using artificial intelligence to solve unique problems in sourcing, product development, manufacturing and traceability.

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Lawrence Lenihan, executive chairman and co-founder of Resonance and Jordan Zhang, chief technology officer and co-founder of Hyran Technologies joined Jessica Binns, managing editor of Sourcing Journal for a discussion focused around artificial intelligence’s potential impacts on production as part of Sourcing Journal’s Nov. 2 Fall Summit.

Resonance helps its customers design, produce and track the progress of made-to-order garments using AI. This means brands can produce less waste caused by rampant overproduction. Lenihan said the technology addresses the concern of brands having to rapidly adapt to trends and fluctuating demand.

“It’s the problem of everything’s dynamic. And the complexity of dealing with [being] dynamic is… how AI really will make its impact in the industry,” he said.

Hyran Technologies uses artificial intelligence to assist brands with holistic production planning, enabling them to reduce excess inventory and optimize products and strategies with greater overall flexibility.

Zhang said Hyran brings together a number of data points, like forecast history and accuracy, product descriptions and manufacturing information, and uses its AI model to make a decision based on that intel.

“We bring that all together into a model, the goal of which is to say, at this given point in time, what is the best possible action for all stages of my supply chain… that minimizes the incremental risk that I’m taking on?” Zhang said.

AI has reached a peak in its hype cycle due to the influx of conversation and action surrounding generative AI since OpenAI’s launch of ChatGPT in 2022. Lenihan said, unlike other technologies, he believes AI’s impact will continue to permeate the fashion and apparel industry, even if it experiences a short lull in implementation, which many technologies, like Web3 and the metaverse, don’t bounce back quickly from.

One reason for that could be AI’s potential to help the industry make inroads on sustainability.

Sustainability isn’t a feature—it’s a constraint on your business. You will be paying for this one way or another.”

Lawrence Lenihan, Resonance

Both Hyran Technologies and Resonance lean on AI to ensure brands can decrease the amount of unused or unwanted inventory they have, which could be a key to better forward movement where ecologically responsible production is concerned.

According to data from Fashinza, about 30 percent of the world’s apparel is expected to never be sold. That waste often goes to landfills or ends up polluting the global South. Lenihan said brands have to be better.

“Sustainability isn’t a feature—it’s a constraint on your business. You will be paying for this one way or another. I don’t care if you’re indifferent to what happens to the rainforest—you will be paying for it. And so you will have to make it transparent; you will have to be accountable for it. And if you’re not, it’ll cost you,” he said.

And Zhang said that in order to achieve better forecasting and production models, companies need to change their structural architecture.

“A lot of people we speak to, seeing our AI DNA in our company say, ‘Well, can you use AI to make forecasting better?’ … And our answer to them is not if you do everything the same way you’re doing right now,” he said. “Things have to change on the production side, to increase the amount of agility and flexibility that is possible and reduce the amount of time it takes to get the products and to make decisions. Otherwise, there is a fundamental ceiling [on] the ability to forecast accurately.”

And though that kind of overhaul and rebuilding may take time to happen, Lenihan said the fashion and apparel industry desperately needs to evolve—and AI could be a productive way to move forward.

“This industry is broken. It’s the second most polluting industry on the planet; nobody is making any money,” he said. “Optimizing little different parts isn’t going to change this industry, it’s not going to change the impact. You have to change completely.”

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