As fashion wakes up to its sustainability problem, promising new tools are emerging to offer hope and even greater transparency. The latest effort, unveiled Wednesday, brings together one of luxury’s big players with some of tech’s brightest emerging minds.
IBM’s Extreme Blue internship program, in consultation with experts from Burberry Digital, have developed a new system that could make products more traceable and offer consumers greater visibility into how a given apparel item was produced and its life cycle.
The prototype was born of this year’s theme for the program, “Sustainability in Fashion,” which challenged students to design, develop and test a new product for an IBM client. Experts from Burberry Digital worked with the interns for three months, sharing their knowledge and expertise to develop the prototype system, dubbed Voyage.
Using IBM’s Public Cloud and Blockchain platform, Voyage collects key data that allows it to identify garments by scanning a NFC (near field communication) tag — the same technology that lets smartphone users “tap to pay” at checkout terminals. Alternatively, people can manually input a product ID to see details, from the materials used to the processes that went into creating the clothes.
“The passion and creativity that IBM’s Extreme Blue interns showed in developing a prototype solution for a longstanding industry challenge was exceptional,” said Mark McClennon, Burberry’s chief information officer.
Designed to be tested in Burberry’s mobile app, Voyage allows customers to set their own sustainability preferences and receive custom product recommendations. End users may also contribute to the information about the products they’ve purchased, adding in details such as recycling and upcycling, creating a more complete picture on the product’s end-to-end life cycle.
“We thought about what consumers might want to know about their clothes and how we could address their concerns,” said Tara Mulcahy-Murray, a University of Oxford engineering student and Extreme Blue intern. “Our aim was to give consumers more information about each product before it reaches the store, so they can make more informed purchasing decisions.”
Voyage has also made an impression on the young minds that worked on it. Nikhil Modem, a University of Durham computer science student, said, “This project has opened my eyes to the complexity of sustainability in the supply chain,” and it even inspired changes to the student’s real-world shopping habits.
For Burberry, the work speaks to the London-based fashion house’s ongoing effort to support sustainability, a commitment that lead the company to set rather ambitious goals by 2022 covering product, operations and communities. But beyond go-it-alone measures, Burberry’s McClennon also sees cross-functional collaboration across industries being crucial to sustainability efforts, as well as “inspiring the next generation of sustainably minded innovators,” he said.
IBM intern Eleanor Barron, a University of Exeter physics student, agrees. “By developing the Voyage prototype alongside experts at Burberry and IBM, we learned so much about a complex industry,” she explained. “This experience opened our eyes to the scale of the fashion supply chain and we found firsthand that sharing learnings and best practice does inspire action to improve sustainability.”