The Future of 3D Printing and Sustainable Fashion
How soon can we print zero waste clothing?
Throughout history, technology has not always had the instantaneous impact of say, the wheel. In fact, there was a gap of about 400 years between the first known movable type printing press and Johannes Gutenberg’s in 1450. Yet, here we are, on the verge of yet another printing revolution and a new era of sustainable fashion.
3D printers are capable of fabricating anything from toys to body parts to entire houses. More common 3D printing techniques use PLA, a biodegradable plastic, to build each item layer by layer with a technique called additive manufacturing and one field where this has incredible potential is the fashion industry.
Traditionally, sustainable fashion meant organic or recyclable materials, conscientious shipping, fair wages for those making the clothes, etc., and these are all important, noble pursuits, but a powerful 3D printer and an innovative mind could change all that. Designers have begun experimenting with 3D printed pieces of clothing and in doing so are exploring a new philosophy of sustainable fashion.
As it stands, the fashion industry is the third largest consumer of water, coming in just behind the charming likes of big oil and corporate paper. This is due to unsustainable cotton farming practices and constant irrigation requirements which are a serious, ongoing environmental threat and incredibly damaging.
The problem is compounded by the fact that production of clothing operates as a sort of perpetual consumer machine; trends rise, shift, then tumble, amassing waste and ensuring endless demand for new product. The monetary and environmental cost of sourcing, manufacturing, and shipping textiles is staggering and, as people are beginning to realize, entirely unsustainable.
So what’s being done?
Well, right out of the box 3D printing inherently eliminates waste. Items are created one layer at a time with extreme specificity. Fabric for clothing doesn’t need to be rolled out by the meter, then cut and stitched, instead it’s printed and ready to wear. As designers embrace their liberation from needles, scissors, and thread, creative and inventive ideas, perhaps increasingly surreal, could be realized in an amazingly short period of time.
Jennifer Howard, PR rep for Brooklyn based 3D printing house MakerBot, says “The ability to [3D] print clothing equals a huge reduction in shipping and transportation needs. Fashion manufacturing, at any level, means you have to factor in materials, transport, and packaging all of which require fuel, natural resources and time.” Presumably 3D printing helps alleviate all that. Perhaps not too far down the road, design houses will sell their 3D plans for download, allowing you to print a dress at home. That model cuts out the entire shipping industry. Imagine how that would reduce the global gas bill.
Howard also explains that the PLA used by many 3D printers is from sustainably sourced plastic saying, “The PLA material we use at MakerBot is a bioplastic made from corn. It’s a really nice, easy to use safe material. It’s got corn syrup like properties. We actually make our own, and source others.”
In addition to that, PLA is also reusable; it can be melted down and recycled as the user sees fits. It’s hard not to imagine the implications. Clothing made and re-made to match current trends with zero waste. A material that is endlessly renewable with the potential to eventually negate the endless demand for ecologically damaging textile production.
Right now, however, the technology just isn’t there.
“You can’t really print a fabric yet,” Howard, tells me. 3D printed jewelry, fake nails and other accessories are already commonplace, but it’ll be a minute before only philistines rock cotton. In the meantime, people and companies seem content to create more, well, junk and we’re left with a sea of crap. With easier access, people won’t hesitate to print bobble heads and desk toys. Luckily there are devices that gobble up that useless kitsch and spit out fresh filament.
Another major concern with 3D printing is the vast amount of energy it takes to keep plastic heated and malleable at high temperatures. It is noted however, that by using other materials like wood composite, power usage can be drastically decreased potentially making this type of printing “greener than any other type of manufacturing.”
It all comes back to the material.
Without a way to mimic the feel and durability of natural fibers, things look bleak. No one is going to wear plastic clothes, especially if they cost $10,000 to create. Maybe you can get away with it if you’re a supermodel, but hopefully new breakthroughs in filament material will help us shift what is now extreme haute couture into something more accessible.
One of the most promising design houses, XYZ Workshop, was able to make a 100% desktop printed dress using flexible PLA for around $100 in materials (assuming you already own a 3D printer). That’s a price tag most people can handle. The kicker? The dress looks amazing and totally wearable. Oh, they also released detailed step by step instructions so people can make their own saying, “In order for us as a community to advance 3D printable fashion, we believe we can help stimulate and encourage experimentation by publicly providing the design files.” Classy move guys.
As far as today’s fashion goes, your best bet is shoes, especially if you’re feeling vindictive. Continuum Fashion, self described as “part design label, part lab,” currently offers three different styles of 3D printed shoes, a world first. The 3D process allows the inside of the shoes to be mostly hollow, an unexpected benefit that makes them lighter and easier to wear.
So, great. 3D printing will save the planet! Potentially, and it’s a truly worthy cause, but for those of us who haven’t yet sipped this particular Kool-Aid, some of it comes off a little silly. I’m gonna, what? Print my next suit? Stop shopping? Put my shoes in a protocell bath every night?
Does anyone actually want to wear fold-up Marty McFly sneakers?
You do have to approach this with an open mind. At this stage, 3D printed fashion would best be described as an “evolving” medium. True, some pieces are fairy tale works of minute, intricate beauty, but others look like terrifying insectoid invaders out of a Heinlein novel.
Howard is optimistic though. “Things are moving quickly,” she says. “3D printing is definitely sustainable and the beauty is that limitations are based only on materials. As a comparatively new technology of course there are things we can’t do yet, but we’re working on it.” When asked if she uses 3D printing for any fashionable things Howard pauses to think. “I 3D print my phone case! I haven’t gone to the store for that in years.”
Not the Gutenberg, but a decent start.