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Why Smart Textiles Could Be the “Fastest Path to Sustainability”

Smart garments designed with rich features and future-proof technology built in could be a key way to achieve sustainability in fashion, IoClothes managing director Ben Cooper said at Texprocess Americas in Atlanta Tuesday. And millennials are helping to lead this shift.

“The millennial generation is coming through,” Cooper said, “And they value quality over quantity. So you have products that are more treasured. You’re not buying more, your experiences are going up, you’re not creating more waste. There’s a really great opportunity to accelerate sustainability in the textile industry by having products that offer more value, live longer and create unique experiences.”

Cooper, who launched his own ill-fated wearable startup near the beginning of the wearable tech “hype cycle” that began around 2013, pointed to one example of smart clothing that could pave the way for the future of intelligent apparel. Though insiders might be tired of hearing about the Levi’s-Google partnership that birthed the award-winning Project Jacquard high-tech commuter jacket, Cooper said what’s being overlooked is not the outerwear as a one-off garment but that the two companies are actually building a platform—the internet of clothing.

Like all true tech innovation, the Project Jacquard jacket, which was initially designed to improve tech functionality and communication for those who commute by bicycle, has gotten software upgrades enabling new gestures and other integrations, incorporating apps like Uber and Lyft and pairing with Bose wireless headphones.

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What other textile product out there receives post-purchase updates and integrates with your other household technology? That, according to Cooper, is the real game changer.

Some companies had to slog through the early days of the wearable tech hype cycle in order to arrive at truly useful innovation. Cooper pointed to the experience of Colin Touhey, CEO of renewable energy firm Pvilion and a recent guest of Cooper’s IoClothes podcast. Touhey partnered with Tommy Hilfiger in 2014 to develop a solar-powered jacket. Though that project never caught on with consumers, Tommy Hilfiger parent company PVH, incorporated some of those wearable learnings into a new solar-powered tote bag that charges mobile phones and retails at a price point similar to non-“smart” competitors. Only with the passage of time and the advancement of relevant wearable technologies could the solar tote come to market as a meaningful, value-adding product.

Of all of the different subsets in the overall wearables market, Cooper said he’s “bullish” on e-textiles and smart textiles.

“They’re so exciting and have so much potential because 96 percent of the human experience is in direct contact with a textile,” he explained. “The opportunity to enhance the user experience, to connect devices, drive efficiencies and a better experience—you can’t convince me that this isn’t going to happen.”