Syuzi Pakhchyan, media designer, author, and editor of Fashioning Technology.

I have very few illusions that the survival of our planet depends entirely on the clever technologies that we, out of dire necessity, will invent. Technology alone is not going to save our planet—but we certainly are. The onus is on us: It is our choices, our demands from the market, that will bring about the necessary actions and changes in the fashion industry. Smart fabrics and wearable technology offer us an opportunity for a more sustainable future, but the promise will be bittersweet if the entire product lifecycle isn’t taken into consideration.

Water-resistant fabric

A water-resistant textile that “never gets wet”.

NANO OR NO-NO?

Imagine, for example, that your favorite tee in the near future is not only made from a supple spider-silk fiber but is also stain-, wrinkle-, odor- and water-resistant. Because of these wonderful super-enhanced qualities, energy requirements for washing, drying, and ironing the garment are dramatically reduced.

There is still very little evidence about the environmental and health impacts of novel nanotechnologies.

Reducing the rate at which we wash our clothes is certainly more ecological and, as an added benefit, it also increases the lifespan of the garments itself. You can now hold onto your tee for twice as long. But here’s the catch: The novel nanotechnologies that give your high-tech T-shirt its self-cleaning, odor-eating, and water-resistant qualities may not be very environmentally friendly.

As of yet, there is very little evidence about the environmental and health impacts of these technologies. As consumers, we need to demand transparency in the production process to ensure that we don’t substitute one evil for an even greater one.

Piezing Dress by Amanda Parkes

Amanda Parkes’ PIezing dress generates power from its wearer’s movements.

SPIME OF OUR LIFE

How can we possibly trace each garment through its entire life cycle, from the farmed cotton or lab-produced spider-silk to its nano-tech treatments and finally its disposal? This is where the promise of wearable technology comes into play.

Bruce Sterling, a science-fiction writer/futurist, came up with the term “spime” to describe future objects embedded with a history that can be precisely located in space and time. What this means is that you can look up your T-shirt on Google and track it throughout its entire life cycle, from manufacture to disassembly and material recovery.

Your tee becomes infused with a story, one that eventually intertwines with yours.

Your tee becomes infused with a story, one that eventually intertwines with yours. With the help of technology, the production and manufacturing cycle of garments (thereby their environmental and social consequences) will become more transparent. And when you decide to donate your shirt to a charity shop, this journey will also be visible.

Captain Electric human-powered dress

“Sticky,” a human-powered dress by XS Labs that turns kinetic energy into electricity.

POWER TO THE PEOPLE

Nanotechnologies will also weave a new future of energy-harvesting textiles that can provide a renewable source of energy. Research in electro-active polymers (plastics that change shape when electricity passes through them) and piezoelectric fabrics (textiles that convert the wearer’s kinetic energy into electricity) will soon offer an alternative power source for all the electronics that we carry on our bodies and possess in our homes. Photovoltaics, or solar cells, will become decorative silkscreened patterns that will convert sunlight into energy.

Without the development of energy-harvesting textiles, wearable technology will never be sustainable.

Without the development of these energy-harvesting textiles, wearable technology will never be sustainable. Our garments will even be infused with the capability to sense environmental pollutants and, more importantly, to communicate this data in real-time.

With such crowd-sourced data, environmental conditions in a large city can be monitored on a granular block-by-block basis. This data, when visualized, will transform the invisible toxins in our surrounding into something that is tangible and real. This visualization has the potential to bring profound change in people’s relationship to their environment.

Climate Dress by DIffus

The Climate Dress by DIffus lights up in relation to how much carbon dioxide is in the atmosphere.

GET SMART

Smart fabrics and wearable technologies provide us with opportunities for change; change in how we understand and experience our environment and how the products we consume shape our future world.

For me, wearable technology is hope: hope that we can change our attitudes and relationship to our environment by making ouselves more sensitive to the consequences of our decisions.

Wearable technology offers the hope that we can change our attitudes and relationship to our environment.

I’d like finish with perhaps my favorite quote by educator and philosopher Marshall McLuhan:

“The book is an extension of the eye…
Clothing, an extension of the skin…
Electric circuitry, an extension of the central nervous system.
Media, by altering the environment, evoke in us unique ratios of sense perceptions. The extension of any one sense alters the way we think and act—the way we perceive the world.
When these ratios change, men change.”