Is Open-Source The New Buzzword In The Fashion & Sustainability Discourse?

09 | 2019

At the recent Copenhagen Fashion summit, Kering Chairman & CEO, Francois Henri Pinault urged his industry colleagues to band together and fight the ‘sustainability crusade’. He said, “I want our innovative solutions to be open-sourced so that all luxury players and entire fashion industry can adopt them.”

Usage of the phrase ‘open source’ has been on the rise in the sustainable fashion discourse, especially in the last year. At Copenhagen itself, two such initiatives were announced. London College Of Fashion’s research hub, Centre for Sustainable Fashion launched Fashion Futures 2030, an open-source toolkit to think and plan for future-fit products and innovations. American sportswear giant, Nike released a design workbook that offers circularity guidelines worth considering for product design and a compilation of case studies.

In fact, Nike’s was one of the earliest open-source projects when in 2013 it developed an app called Making. Backed by a material sustainability index, the app ranked materials based on their environmental impact to help a designer choose eco-friendly inputs for the product. While the app is available to the public, its knowledge framework was passed onto to the industry-body Sustainable Apparel Coalition (SAC). The data was integrated into what is now known as the Higg Index, industry’s self-assessment standard, not freely accessible.

Kering EP&L account quantifies the environmental impact of the group’s operations. Image Credit:Kering

However, when it comes to promoting the open-source development model in fashion, Kering has taken the pole position. In 2015, it released a concept called the environmental profit and loss (EP&L) account; a way to measure the environmental impact of business operations in monetary terms. The Group announced open-sourcing of the methodology i.e. made public the seven-step accounting process to encourage other companies to try it. Over the following years, Kering shared a suite of its standards for raw materials, manufacturing processes, animal welfare guidelines and more recently Gucci’s EP&L data sets.

Disruptive sustainable fashion startups and independent organisations are also pitching into this nascent ecosystem. Launched in April 2019, New Standard Institute aims to be an open-source information platform with data-driven reports, resources and sustainability mapping tools. Footwear brand, Allbirds partnered with a Brazilian petrochemical company to develop a non-oil version of the foam used in shoe soles. The three-year-old startup could have held the technology as it’s R&D secret. Instead, they put that innovation in the public domain.

Such examples are still far and few between and mostly represent knowledge sharing. However, they mark a departure from the practice of secrecy, endemic in this sector. The moot question is, can fashion truly embrace the open-source culture to tackle its negative footprint? Or will this be another buzzword that gets thrown around as loosely as circularity and sustainability?

The dictionary definition for open-source is ‘software for which the original source code is made freely available and may be redistributed and modified.’ The subsequent developments to the software by other companies allows them to improve on what already exists and hence save time and money while increasing the scope for innovation. Popular website creation tool, WordPress is open-source software, powered by a huge community of contributors.

An open-source mindset is a shift from ‘I implemented’ to ‘we innovate and collaborate’; a scenario where the Kering EP&L account is adopted by another brand or enhanced and shared back into the industry for wider usage.

G-Star sustainable denim fabric’s process is accessible through the Cradle to Cradle Products Innovations Institute materials library. Image Credit: G-Star

Furthermore, the translation of source code in the context of apparel and footwear might be the end-to-end know-how of a product or process. Arguably, projects by European players, G-Star Raw and C&A come closest to that definition when they revealed their secret sauce. In 2018, G-Star open-sourced the technology and the materials used for making their Cradle to Cradle (C2C) certified™ sustainable denim fabric while C&A shared learnings and material-process descriptions behind their first C2C jeans. We need more apparel and footwear brands, retailers and manufacturers to boldly share their sustainable innovations for the collective benefit of the industry.

The cynics would disagree but hopefully, this conversation will begin to mature in the fashion industry. Opportunities can be created by borrowing from the principles of open-source in the technology industry. Case in point, ‘open coopetition’, a relatively recent concept in the open-source arena that describes cooperation among competitors. Paradoxical as it may sound, rivals like Apple and Samsung have collaborated in the development of open-source projects.

Is it naive to envision a scenario where fashion’s arch-rivals work together on solutions for recycling, creating new material ecosystems or bringing efficiency into the supply chains? Perhaps, more pragmatic than altruistic, the pooling of resources and collective action will lead to a drop in prices of new materials and solutions, developed at a quicker pace.

Non-profit entities can play a key role in coordinating and governing fashion’s open-source projects. The Open Apparel Registry (OAR) is a noteworthy mention. Backed by the C&A foundation, OAR is striving to be the most comprehensive open database and map of apparel facilities. With the help of data contributions from different industry stakeholders, it has mapped over 16,825 facilities to date and counting.

When companies and individuals come together and belong to an open-source community, they stand to gain. In the technology universe, companies like Google, Facebook and Netflix showcase their innovation capabilities by open-sourcing their software and in the process, attract top talent. Meanwhile, individual programmers and developers earn respect and recognition through their contributions. Those benefits would ring true for fashion companies too, especially when the young talent pool wants to work for companies building a positive legacy.

But while one holds an optimistic outlook for the future, it is worth acknowledging a potential counterforce that could be at work; fashion brands staying closed-source. As the investments into sustainability-centric solutions and innovations increase, companies might start competing on sustainability. Anna Gedda, Head of Sustainability, H&M, echoed that concern at the Copenhagen summit, “More investments into solutions and innovations in this space can create more competition than collaboration. We need to work on a level playing field and not compete on what really is the solution to our future existence.

Given this scenario, the government has an urgent role to play in bringing fashion players to the same table and accelerate the pace of collaboration.

Molshree Vaid for Medium

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