Backward-thinking technology

By Orsola de Castro

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Textiles have always been at the forefront of innovation. As a craft that spun from home wear and clothing to fabrics used for war and hard industry, we may tend to associate it with women’s work and pretty patterns, but the association of textiles with innovation is as old as innovation itself.

The ingenious development of the loom; the ability to identify complicated, naturally occurring chemical compounds needed to fix dyes; and of course, the role the textile industry played in in the industrial revolution, are statements of an industry that was never anything else but forward-thinking.

In fact, textiles are so inextricably linked with tech, that a Jaquard (a simple system used with a power loom to simplify and mechanise the production of complicated multi-layered textiles) can be considered a precursor to computing - a fact that was not lost on Google, who has recently announced that its first digital platform for smart clothing will share the name.
Today, the textile and fashion industry has reached unimaginable proportions and there is a clear disconnect between our modern-day buying habits and the rich, multi-textured culture that inspired them. As Kassia Sinclair says in her brilliant book, The Golden Thread: How Fabric Changed History, “Our cavalier attitude to cloth today would be an anathema to our ancestors”.
If fashion is to continue to lead us into the future, it first needs to lead us out of the mess it made while growing.
Many are daunted by recent technological advancements, myself included. But if we use a backwards-thinking approach to technology as a way to redesign what we already know, we can imagine how tech can reconnect us to our culture, not to alienate us from it. Tech becomes a portal to our past before our future.

Ancient skills and basic wisdom


At Fashion Revolution we constantly think back before we move forward.  From the very start of our campaign, we mixed common sense with technology; speaking in hashtags, we encourage our audience talk about things like supply chain accountability, respect for the people who make our clothes, clothing longevity and end of life. And the over 3 million people who used those hashtags last year prove that this simple language resonates. 


Overall, the internet and social media have been a catalyst for crafters and makers worldwide, creating opportunities to learn, showcase, sell and connect. There are millions of online conversations happening this minute about yarns, sewing, crochet, knitting, tatting, and pattern cutting. We have more access to information and techniques than ever before, when skills were passed on orally from person to person.  Innovation and tech are helping us become more efficient with the things we already own too. ‘Mending’ is having a moment, as is renting, swapping and sharing via platforms and services designed to keep your clothes in circulation. 


Today’s menders and makers are modern-day heroes. In an industry which produces close to 150 billion garments per year, those advocating and practicing a slowdown are the ones pioneering change using needles and YouTube as the weapons. Ancient skills and basic wisdom are being catapulted into the future via apps and networks.

Transparent tech


Until a few generations ago it was not uncommon to know the provenance of the cloth when buying a garment, and there was often little doubt as to who made it.  Not only because the industry was closer to home, but because the source and make determined the quality and prestige of the garment.
Back then, supply chains certainly weren’t any better, and there was no industrial nirvana where artisans were happy and all workers were fairly paid.  But because we went from exploitative working conditions to hidden exploitative working conditions (and recently adding an environmental threat to the social injustice), we now need to gain full visibility in order to start a process of systemic change.


Although transparency and public disclosure is not a guarantee of best practice, it is a way for citizens to regain their right to scrutinise what and who is behind their products. While the majority isn’t looking for this information and few are verifying it, some do and even more will.  Because this simple act of caring, and the urge to be better informed and do something, multiplied by thousands, is enough to tell the industry: we’re watching you.
Hopefully, as we explore the future, we will be reminded that the further away we move from human behaviour the more we need to remain profoundly human.  We need to use technology and innovation to shift from a culture of exploitation to one of appreciation, upgrading our values, as well as our systems.


Fashion Revolution 2019 is from the 22nd to the 28th April, globally.
 

We believe that fashion has the power to improve the lives of the women and men behind our clothes and to enhance the lives of everyone the industry touches. A fair and sustainable future for the industry depends on the action we take. As a part of a new series “Fashion as a Force for Good: disrupting the status quo” you will hear from some of our partners and how their organisations are working to transform the fashion industry into a force for good.