To establishment a sustainable and circular textile industry, future textile professionals need to understand and capitalise on all possibilities of digitalisation to save costs and resources, say Lorenz Wied and Anton Schumann

In the midst of the fourth industrial revolution, textiles are still made from warp and weft. And not a lot is going to change any time soon. What is changing, however, is the demand for increased efficiency and transparency by policymakers, distributors and customers along the global and regional supply chain. The trends towards sustainability and digitalisation are reinforcing the industry's transformation into a vertically organised, sustainable value chain.

We are currently witnessing how digitalisation is changing the textile industry. The trend towards sustainability will continue until consumers become uber confident that the product they are purchasing has been manufactured in a fair, eco-friendly and cost-efficient manner.

Digitalisation brings new business models

Almost 200 years ago, the first industrial revolution began with the steam engine and the mechanical loom. At that time, wool and cotton were the economic drivers, while the fourth industrial revolution is being driven by digitalisation and accelerated communication on the Web.

Several global studies by companies like Boston Consulting, IBM and Cap Gemini have shown that it is innovation in business models that deliver a higher potential for success than product and process innovations. At present, this connection is even becoming increasingly important in the textile industry as a result of ongoing digitalisation and the trend towards sustainability.

A business model, to put it simply, is the way someone engages in business. The streams of data and transparency of supply chains have created new business models in the textile industry. These can provide customers with the information they need to take a 'sustainable' purchase decision. Such business models also manage to bypass intermediaries in the global textile trade through direct communication, allowing control of margins and costs.

Platform systems and hybrid networks in the textile industry are creating new supply chains that were previously unthinkable. Parts of established supply chains are being skipped to put customers and producers into direct contact quickly and easily. Both business-to-business (B2B) and business-to-consumer (B2C) options are now available. Examples include companies such as Spreadshirt in Leipzig, Spoonflower in Berlin and Roostery in Charlotte, California. All three examples are united in the fact that they come into direct contact with end users via the Web and thus used the transparency in the supply chain to ensure their economic success as well as sustainability. In addition, customers can act as their own designers, product developers and suppliers, all through a single platform.

Hand-in-hand: digitalisation in automation

The trends of digitalisation and automation will together change the industry. Even now, a shirt can be produced up to 85 per cent automatically. This means rationalisation and increased efficiency: the goal of every entrepreneur. And today there will probably be no 'seamstress revolution', analogous to the weaver uprising. Our seamstresses are now based in Bangladesh and Indonesia, where their jobs in the controversial factories have made their lives at least somewhat better than before the textile industry moved in.

But the question remains what would happen if automation progressed to the point that the seamstresses in Dhaka would lose their jobs. The textile industry in 19th century Germany tripled its production when the mechanical loom was introduced. As they say, history repeats itself.