How Far Away Are We From Downloading Our Clothes?

Being able to download, print out, and recycle your clothes — all by using your personal 3D printer — is a key step toward a more sustainable fashion future.

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Imagine that at the beginning of every week, you have a new wardrobe of clothes custom-made for what you’re doing and where you’re going, fit you perfectly, and match your tastes, too. No — you’re not a celebrity. You’re just in possession of a 3D printer, a not-so-distant reality that experts say has the potential to transform the entire fashion industry to not only be more nimble, personalized, and adaptive — but more sustainable, too.
The idea is simple: Using a lump of raw materials, you print out your new looks on-demand. When you’re sick of them, you melt them down to create a new batch of clothes. This futuristic process helps you stay fresh, style-wise, and also keeps waste to a minimum. As NYC's Fashion Institute of Technology Muhammed Shahadat sees it, 3D presents an innovative solution to fashion's overproduction problem. 
“Throw-away culture is deeply rooted in the fashion industry. If a new spring collection comes out, then what happens to the old collection?” said Shahadat. One printer, according to Shahadat, can be the single source of all our shopping and recycling. “The normal fashion industry doesn't do that.”
On top of reducing material waste, 3D printing can drastically decrease the number of animals killed for materials like leather. (Shahadat cites that 59 million animals were slaughtered in 2018 in the U.S. alone according to the food and agricultural department of the U.N.) According to the FIT professor, it can also alleviate the textile industry's harmful impact on local farmland and wildlife and the people in the surrounding community. Then there's the vast amount of water it can preserve: According to WorldBank, “[it takes] 3,781 liters of water to make a pair of jeans, from the production of the cotton to the delivery of the final product to the store.”
The benefits are clear. But, how do we switch to a 3D-printed fashion society?
We’re not quite there yet. Today, 3D printers are available for at-home hobbyists, but cost thousands of dollars and require advanced computer know-how. Not to mention, they use plastic to print which can be extremely harmful, particularly to sea life and ocean environments. 
But the technology is advancing at a rapid pace, which encourages experts who believe that there’s immense potential for 3D printing that doesn’t exist for traditional manufacturing. Central to the optimism is the idea that, unlike cutting and sewing, 3D printing doesn’t generate waste. Using filaments — melted material ranging from plastic to recycled wood — to slowly build a product from nothing to something, 3D printing could one day utilize recycled materials that you theoretically shred and melt at home (imagine a compost bin but for your closet instead of your garden).
“It would be nice to think we could hit a few buttons and produce mass amounts of clothing for the world, especially for those in need. To set up a pop-up maker factory or run a 3D fabric printer out of a truck using recycled filaments to make clothes would be no different than the idea of printing homes on Mars using locally sourced sand,” Shahadat said, explaining how, in an ideal universe, material sourcing would be abundant and immediate. “However, to reach a mass scale, 3D printers need to become a fixture in people’s homes.” When that time comes, instead of buying clothes from stores, we may be downloading digital files from retailers’ apps to then print out garments at home.
If 3D printers one day become democratized, as ink and paper printers did in the early 2000s, then sustainable clothing will become the norm. Arming consumers with the potential to close the loop themselves is powerful; what used to be summer shorts one day can transform into fall pants the next, all with flawless customization. Key to this is accessibility, and experts say this transformation must begin at the household level. 
One of the more encouraging aspects of 3D’s potential to influence the widespread implementation of sustainability within fashion is that its most attractive qualities, to many consumers, have nothing to do with sustainability at all. “How many times have you been to the mall and those Jordans or H&M dresses are sold out in your size?” said Shahadat, pointing out that 3D printing has the potential to render exclusivity a moot point. “The issues consumers face when shopping in a store often lead to them settling for something they didn’t want. [With 3D printing,] that would no longer be a problem.”

Instead of buying clothes from stores, we may be downloading digital files from retailers’ apps to then print out garments at home.

The need is there, as is the vision. When will the technology come? Shahadat said that when 3D printed clothes first hit fashion runways in the 2010s, the materials were nylon-based and, thus, weak. In some cases, clothes would break if a model even sat down. Today, formulas have already improved to be more durable and comfortable, too. 
One brand well on its way is Spain-based ZER Collection that makes 3D-printed pullovers, casual bottoms, and formal dresses. Minimal and crisp, it’s spec-ops-gone-chic. What started as a university dissertation project for Núria Costa and Ane Castro has now morphed into an award-winning, new-age grassroots fashion house. 
“I believe every designer at some point in their careers asks themselves what they want to contribute to society. We were not sure if the fashion world was for us,” said Costa and Castro in an email to Refinery29. “We needed something else, something different, and that pushed us towards this path instead of the more traditional one.”
Since launching, the brand has won the Global Change Award by the H&M Foundation and were finalists in Who's on Next by Vogue Spain. Now, they’re breaking into commercial streetwear, a line they’re calling ZER Era
“The project is aimed at tackling one of the biggest environmental issues in the fashion industry: the unnecessary production of tons and tons of textiles,” said Castro and Costa. “Using new manufacturing methods, we avoid the loss of resources that are being wasted away in the current industry.” One of these methods makes it possible for ZER shoppers to send in old pieces for ZER to melt into filaments in order to produce new designs. Additionally, Costa and Castro said they use almost exclusively biodegradable components. 
“At first we believed that this was a pipe dream, but [after] speaking with different providers, we slowly started believing that something could be done,” the founders said. “That is the same thing that will happen with the 3D printers. It is a technique being introduced in different areas, and getting very competitive projects. It is time that fashion has a place, too.”

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