On May 15th 2019 Google announced the launch of an experiment in collaboration with innovation consultancy Current Global, to build-out a data analytics and machine learning tool powered by Google Cloud technology that will enable fashion brands to make more responsible sourcing decisions.
The initiative, revealed at the Copenhagen Fashion Summit, one of the fashion industry’s key sustainability events of the year, aims to focus on the raw materials stage (referred to as ‘Tier 4’ of the supply chain), providing brands with greater visibility as to the environmental impact of different textiles. The hope is to translate data into meaningful insights so the industry can take action.
Sustainability in fashion is a global environmental emergency. According to the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe (UNECE), 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.
Current Global, an innovation consultancy that empowers fashion brands to reach their sustainability goals through the use of relevant technologies, analyzed where the industry’s largest environmental challenges are, and worked with Google to determine how it could help be part of the solution through the use of cloud-based tools for data collection and analysis.
What was identified was the need to focus on Tier 4, where brands have little to no visibility. This is an industry wide problem, where supply chains are highly fragmented, unregulated and with little transparency, yet where the majority of negative impact occurs.
Many organizations and brands have been trailblazers in an effort to collect and surface data that can lead to better sourcing decisions, but gaps in the data continue to persist due to its complexity and global nature. The aim of this experiment, is 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.
“Lack of data in the fashion industry is one of the most pressing and complex issues we’re faced with. If you can’t see it, you can’t measure it, and if you can’t measure it, you can’t change it. In other words, without insights the industry is not empowered to make strategic and beneficial decisions for the sake of reducing their environmental impact,” Rachel Arthur, co-founder and chief innovation officer of Current Global, says. “We teamed up with Google to identify the strategic places within the supply chain that would benefit from its access to global data and its machine learning power to launch an experiment to create a decision making tool for the industry in order to enable a more sustainable fashion future. We know that if we could understand the nuance of the raw materials we source – information right now that is essentially impossible to accurately calculate – we could make an enormous dent into the overall composition of the clothes that are produced.”
To bring it to life, we’ll be collaborating closely with Stella McCartney on the first pilot project. This brand has been a pioneer in leading the fashion industry towards sustainability, helping to launch the UN Fashion Industry Charter for climate change and recently introducing Stella McCartney Cares Green, one of the arms of the Stella McCartney Foundation, to further promote sustainability and environmental protection.
As Kate Brandt, sustainability officer at Google, explains: “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 centers to having our own Responsible Supply Chain Program. In 2016 we celebrated 10 years of carbon neutrality and we are the largest corporate renewable energy purchaser in the world. Outside of Google, we aspire to build tools to help people understand the planet, improve environmental impact, and take sustainable action. This pilot with Stella is a great step in the fashion industry’s bid to become more sustainable.”
The tool will use data analytics and machine learning on Google Cloud, focused on sources that allow companies to better measure the impact of their raw materials, relevant to key environmental factors such as air pollution, greenhouse gas emissions, land use and water scarcity.
To start, it will look 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 fibers used by the fashion industry, with a notable 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 goal is not only to be able to determine the impact of producing these raw materials, but also compare the impacts of these in different regions where they are produced. This pilot will enable us to test the effectiveness of the tool on these different raw materials, building out the possibilities for expansion into a wider variety of key textiles in the market down the line.
Ian Pattison, customer engineering manager for Google Cloud UK, says: “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 has on the environment, and ensuring that data is visible across the whole supply chain. Google’s 20-year leadership of data technologies, cloud computing and machine learning capabilities, coupled with our commitment to sustainability and our unrivalled global mapping, means that we are uniquely placed to work with the brands to address the challenge of reducing the environmental footprint of fashion.”
This is the first phase of the experiment. Google and Current Global are now actively working with further fashion brands, experts, NGOs and industry bodies with the ambition of creating an open industry-wide tool, and plan to continue driving collaboration with other key players—large and small.
The hope is that the experiment will give fashion brands greater visibility of impact within their supply chain and actionable insights to make better raw material sourcing decisions with sustainability in mind.
Adds Maria McClay, industry head of fashion and luxury at Google: “We have been hearing 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’s. Google empowers its teams to find moonshots – really difficult, complex problems to solve where our technology can help make a 10x contribution, not just a marginal improvement. We believe that this could be our moonshot for the industry.”