Digitisation: A lever for apparel’s sustainable future

As the role of digitisation in the apparel sector moves beyond streamlining processes, Beth Wright finds out how it can be used to make apparel companies
​​​​​​​more eco-friendly.


he apparel industry has been awash with talk of digitisation for many years with benefits including boosting speed to market and streamlining product development. However, Jan Hilger, of Hilger Consulting and board member of DTB Dialog, a European Textile and Apparel Association, told delegates at the Texprocess trade fair it can also help apparel companies with their sustainability projects.

“Digitisation is one of the only ways to get a company fit for the future and make it safe for survival,” Hilger said during a presentation at the Texprocess Forum in Frankfurt, Germany.

He told delegates the industry is constantly in a phase of transition, pointing to previous moves from analogue to digital, and the latest “big move” due to logistics challenges.

“The world has changed a lot, especially as a result of the pandemic, and sustainability has become a key pillar in many companies’ strategies.”

Hilger noted he comes from a generation where people appreciated garments as being something special: “Many people were able to sew themselves and repair clothes when they needed it. Today’s generation is the ‘throw away’ generation. If a T-shirt is costing less than a Starbucks coffee, it’s no wonder people treat apparel as disposable items.

“Our planet has about eight billion people and we produce hundreds of billions of garments every year. We should question ourselves; who needs all of that? It sometimes gives me nightmares because I work in an industry that is killing our future and that is something that has to change.”

Three pillars

For Hilger, the pandemic has been a major driving force for companies to invest in digital.

“Over the last few years, we have learned by force what digitisation can do. We all had to work from screens at home, and we had to make things suddenly work that before was not possible.”

He added: “Most people think if they collect seals on their website, they are a sustainable company but it’s much more than that. For me, it’s always the three elements: people, products, and processes. I believe all three go together for a sustainable strategy to have a chance of being implemented.

“Most important are the people, if they don’t want to go in a sustainable direction, then it will not work.”

But while people are the most important factor, it’s in the processes that digitisation can have the most impact.

“It’s where many people don’t connect digitisation as a sustainable lever,” Hilger said, adding: “I’ve learned over the past few years from working at many different big brands and companies that buying too many items produced in organic cotton is not necessarily sustainable. From my perspective, using artificial intelligence, using digitisation, to have a better relationship between sales quantities and buying what you need, and reducing over-production is much more sustainable than buying too much of an organic fibre.

“The processes are much more important than the materials because even if you use eco-friendly cotton, recycled PET materials, but then dump them in the sea because we produce products that nobody wants, it’s still not sustainable. If those products end up in landfills, it doesn’t help anyone. It’s better to produce what we need.”

Digitising product development

One of the biggest drivers in the space is to digitise the development processes, Hilger said.

“First of all, you gain a lot of time, and secondly, there is no need for urgent shipments, no swatches to go back and forth. Today there are good quality colour management tools out there and using them will prevent sending samples back and forth for approval. This means digital tools are a big lever in becoming a more sustainable company.”

Hilger also pointed to tools that monitor and track an entire supply chain, highlighting a partnership with Moet Hennessy by Rapitag that was originally created for theft prevention.

“It’s a digital tag that suddenly made its way into apparel through Nike and it’s completely replacing the cash register,” Hilger explained.

But what does this product have to do with sustainability?

“On this device, you can store all kinds of product information; images, movies, things that let people get close to your product. [Consumers] can get all the information so hangtags aren’t needed. We all know when we go shopping and when we come back, we must remove all the hangtags. We have a whole bag full of materials that we must throw away, this is a lot of waste.”

The fear factor

Despite all the challenges, Hilger told delegates it’s plain old-fashioned fear that is the biggest hurdle.

“The biggest stopper is not the technology as that is already available – it is fear. There are a lot of human factors that are stopping companies from going digital.

“My message to you is to use digitisation as much as you can, it is not only reducing costs, waste, and improving processes and security, it will help your company become more eco-friendly.”

Main image credit: pio3 /