Tailoring for the mass: How H&M uses AI to make a sustainable impact
Maartje van Barneveld
I hope it’s no surprise to you that fashion is a highly polluting industry. Not the second most polluting industry on the planet by the way, as is often wrongly stated. It is rather complex to analyze this industry’s exact environmental impact as it involves many industries, including energy, agriculture and petroleum. What we do know, as stated in the Pulse of the Fashion Industry Report, is that the fashion industry was responsible for the emission of 1,715 million tons of CO2 in 2015. To put that into context: that is 5.4% of the global carbon emission in 2015. It is clear that fashion retailers need to find a way to reduce this impact. One method is to address little steps in the existing supply chain and find more sustainable alternatives. Think of swapping plastic shopping bags for paper ones or switching to electric transportation trucks. Altogether these changes could have a significant impact on your organization’s footprint.
Another method is to take a step back and rethink your entire business model. Most business models in the fashion industry are linear: the garment is produced with new resources, it gets transported to the consumer, the consumer uses it for x amount of time and no one really knows what happens with the garment after that. This means that all the resources put into that garment are lost after its lifecycle. Not only does this pollute our planet, it is also a very inefficient way of doing business resulting in higher supply chain costs. This two-fold problem has inspired a leading fashion retailer to rethink its business model. H&M wants to be 100% circular & renewable by 2030.
Of course, this ambition is a major challenge. H&M was once at the forefront of explosive growth in fast fashion. The retailer is known for its mass production, pushing sales with a linear business model. This empire wasn’t built overnight, but they only have a little more than 10 years to turn it into a circular operation. So how is H&M going to achieve this goal? By combining human intelligence with Artificial Intelligence into something that they call Amplified Intelligence. In order to shift towards a circular fashion system, AI is used to make clever decisions and to optimize efficiency in the supply chain. A central aspect is to only produce what consumers will buy. A personalized product created for the individual consumer on demand. This strategy significantly reduces the risk of overproduction and extends the product’s lifecycle. The challenge here is to make labor intensive tailoring accessible to the mass. That is where AI comes into play.
H&M has partnered with startup ZyseMe to test an offering for tailor-made garments online, called Just.Perfect. The AI algorithm has been trialed exclusively in Germany since January, and it allows customers to receive a men’s fitted white shirt without the need for measurements. The customer simply enters information such as height, body weight and shoe size into the H&M app. ZyseMe uses learning algorithms and historical data to translate the entered data into measurements that are effectively more accurate than manual measurements. The information is sent to the H&M suppliers in Turkey, where the tailored shirt is produced. It is then delivered to the customer within two weeks and costs 39.99 euros.
This initiative might seem like another technological innovation. However, with the rising trend of personalization and tailoring, Just.Perfect flags a turning point in the fashion industry. This is the first time that one of the world’s leading mass producers of fast fashion turns towards tailoring. While other retailers are continuously trying to fill our wardrobes and struggling with extended sale periods, H&M is showing the fashion industry how AI can help optimize the supply chain. H&M has shown interest in using ZyseMe for pants, suits and dresses in the future. Hopefully smart tailoring technology will change this industry, resulting in more efficient use of resources, longer product lifecycles and happier customers.
First published in Ebeltoft Group on 20 June 2019