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Google, WWF Tap Into Big Data to Drive Sustainable Fashion Sourcing

Google and World Wildlife Fund (WWF) in Sweden have teamed up to create an “environmental data platform” that leverages machine learning to promote more responsible sourcing decisions in the fashion industry.

The collaboration, announced Wednesday, will “bring together projects from each organization [while] drawing on the unique strengths of both” to ameliorate the clothing and footwear sectors’ massive environmental footprint, which currently accounts for 8.1 percent of global greenhouse-gas emissions, according to environmental consultancy Quantis.

“It’s our ambition to create a data-enriched decision-making platform that enables analysis of the supply chain in a way that has not been possible before at this scale,” Ian Pattison, head of customer engineering, retail, at Google U.K. and Ireland, said in a statement. “Partnering with WWF brings together Google Cloud’s technical capacity, including big-data analysis and machine learning, and WWF’s deep knowledge of assessing raw materials.”

Together, he said, the groups can “make supply chain data visible and accessible to decision makers, and drive more responsible and sustainable decisions.”

The platform, which is meant to be used on a standalone basis or to complement existing efforts, will score each material and sourcing location on “multiple environmental issues,” including water scarcity and air pollution. It will also estimate specific impacts, such as greenhouse-gas emissions, while accounting for the “mitigation benefits” of more sustainable sourcing options.

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WWF Sweden harness its proprietary public data on risk, life-cycle assessments and the “strength of sustainability solutions” for textile raw materials to support Google in selecting relevant additional datasets, as well as providing the framework for calculating and processing each type of data to generate overall scores and mitigation actions for each fiber and location.

Google will bring to the table access to Google Earth Engine data, which provides satellite imagery and geospatial data that can “detect changes, map trends, and quantify differences” on the Earth’s surface, it said. In addition, Google Cloud’s artificial intelligence capabilities will allow it to provide insights and fill in any data gaps that have presented obstacles to action in the past.

This isn’t Google’s first foray into the world of fashion data, either: At the Copenhagen Fashion Summit in Denmark last June, Google Cloud announced a pilot with luxury brand Stella McCartney to use Google Cloud technology to provide a “more comprehensive view” into the impacts of different raw materials in the clothing supply chain. The work continues with Stella McCartney, Google says, and the brand will continue to be the first to test it. WWF Sweden had previously worked with IKEA on a similar tool in 2018 to assess various textile raw materials.

“WWF’s partnership work with companies has always been motivated by the need to drive real transformation at the largest possible scale,” said Håkan Wirtén, CEO of WWF Sweden. “This project is an excellent example of how we can take valuable work with a long term partner like IKEA, collaborate with another strong WWF partner like Google to make that work even more powerful, and make it open source so that hopefully it can help with the transformation of a whole industry.”

Besides Stella McCartney and IKEA, WWF and Google are in talks with what they describe as a “large number” of other fashion, luxury, denim and athletic brands and retailers.

“Sustainability is a challenge that crosses industry boundaries, and we firmly believe that solutions require strong partnerships and collaboration,” said Kate Brandt, sustainability officer at Google. “Our ambition is to fill fundamental data gaps by bringing greater accuracy to environmental reporting—ultimately moving toward more sustainable processes. By combining our technology, and with data inputs from many key industry brands and retailers, we believe we can significantly magnify this work together.”