Google is tracking sustainable raw materials. Will fashion buy in? – Vogue Business

Sourcing raw materials and tracking their sustainability is set to become easier with a new partnership between Google and WWF Sweden.

The partnership will analyse more than 20 commonly used raw materials, including synthetics and natural products, via a dashboard being built specifically to help fashion brands. The two organisations will score each material and sourcing location on details such as water scarcity and air pollution and will estimate impacts such as greenhouse gas emissions, building on an earlier project tracking of cotton and viscose.

Fashion is racing to solve its sustainability problem: the World Bank estimates that the fashion industry accounts for up to 20 per cent of wastewater and up to 8 per cent of greenhouse gas emissions, according to Quantis and the Ellen MacArthur Foundation. Much of fashion’s carbon footprint comes from its raw materials, although little is tracked.

The aim is to combine Google’s machine learning capabilities with WWF’s knowledge of the environmental impact of a product’s lifetime (from working with Ikea), to help brands make better decisions on which raw materials and suppliers. Google declined to name brand partners, although it worked with Stella McCartney on the test pilot and says that multiple luxury, denim and athletic brands have signed on to participate.

By giving brands access to details such as the amount of air pollution in a region or the amount of waste created in production, they can ultimately make more sustainable sourcing decisions, says Google head of luxury fashion Maria McClay.

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WWF Sweden will provide data on risk, life-cycle assessment (an estimate of the environmental impact in a product’s lifetime) and the strength of sustainability solutions for raw materials. It will also provide the framework for calculating and processing each type of data. Google is providing access to Google Earth Engine data, such as satellite imagery, and computing power that is able to derive insights from complex data sets.

The platform will also help with risk mitigation, McClay explains. For example, if a brand is used to working with certain localities, they can take specific actions with that community to mitigate some of the negative environmental impacts. The data will reflect regional and seasonal differences, rather than outdated global averages. It is also designed to automatically update data as much as possible so that the platform has longevity, she adds.

The Google Cloud pilot project started with cotton and viscose, and has now expanded to more than 20 raw materials, including synthetics.

© Charlotta Järnmark WWF Sweden

While brands have increasingly conducted life-cycle assessments to help estimate the direct impact of the product, they are not “end all be all”, says Claire Bergkamp, who is Stella McCartney’s worldwide sustainability and innovation director and who advised on the project. She says that the ability for the data to be updated regularly is important to reflect changes in conditions because growing cycles can change in as little as two years. Brands can also use the tool to compare the same materials based on source, rather than comparing separate materials such as conventional cotton versus organic cotton.

To broaden the scope of the project, WWF and Google plan to align with other existing efforts to calculate environmental impacts in fashion. Laila Petrie, the project’s technical lead working with WWF and CEO of environmental consultancy 2050, points to the Sustainable Apparel Coalition’s materials sustainability index, which is focused on life-cycle assessment, and the Textile Exchange’s raw materials assessment, which assesses fibres as possible collaborators. Additionally, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development is working on responsible supply chains in the garment and footwear sectors, Petrie says, though it does not provide data.

Liesl Truscott, director of European and materials strategy at the Textile Exchange, says that this tool will help “build out data gaps” in the effort to create more resilient, transparent supply chains. “We haven’t got there in terms of regionalities and geographies and the risks, and tech is starting to help join that all together,” Truscott says. “Tools like this will help equip companies for that journey. It has not been done yet, but it is certainly now on the radar.”

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More on this topic:

The reality behind fashion’s sustainability certifications and coalitions

Fashion’s biodiversity problem

Where fashion’s transparency falls short

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