If there's one thing that defines the internet era, it's undermining the 'gatekeepers'. Airbnb did it to hotels, iTunes to record labels, Uber to cabs and Netflix to film rental shops. Each success story found a way to democratise and streamline access to physical things and find cheaper, more efficient, and sometimes even wholly intangible versions.
While these industries have been radically transformed by the DIY ethos imbued in tech, the clothing retail model remains, in Silicon Valley parlance, 'undisrupted'. However, some designers and developers working in 3D printing are envisioning the day when consumers will download their favourite designer's fall collection and print a tailored-fit piece in their home, rather than purchasing a standard size on the high street.
Once reserved for the realm of sci-fi fantasies, the 3D printing industry has come a long way in a relatively short amount of time. Consumer models of printers such as the ModT and MakerBot are available from between 9 and ,499 (£145 and £1,458). The analyst firm Juniper Research predicts that ownership of consumer 3D printers will exceed 1m units by 2018, up from the 44,000 estimated to be sold in 2014.
However when it comes to clothing, the industry still has a way to go. The existing 3D printers available to consumers can only be used to print small plastic objects and hard materials, not textiles. While pioneering fashion designers such as Dutch-born Iris Van Herpen– who this week won the Andam prize– have exhibited 3D printed garments at Paris Fashion Week and elsewhere, her high concept, highly structured looks represent a niche that's not going to upend the high street anytime soon.
Aaron Rowley is one person trying to change that. The creator of a startup project called Electroloom, Rowley won a grant from the Georgia-based company, Alternative Apparel, after realising there was a gap in the 3D printing landscape for wearable clothes. He and his team are now prototyping a consumer product that would allow people to print basics like t-shirts and beanie hats on demand, at home, with minimal waste.
"When you look at something like clothing, we wear it everyday but people don't really have much of a say in terms of how it looks, where it's made, what it feels like," Rowley said. "I'm a huge fan of democratising access and participation in these activities that previously weren't very accessible. My idealistic vision is that people across the globe can have access to designs via the internet and download and print them at home."
The idea of a 3D printer that could be used to make ready-to-wear clothes for consumers has sustainable appeal. According to figures from 2009, the UK clothing and textile production produces 3.1m tonnes of carbon dioxide, 2m tonnes of waste and 70m tonnes of waste water per year. If technology became efficient enough, the waste associated with the current large-scale manufacturing model would go the way of DVD rental shops. Clothing would only be printed when a consumer wanted it, not the other way around.
While designer Van Herpen works primarily in the couture space, she sees the potential of what 3D printing could do for ready-to-wear clothes and the impact that would have on the industry.
When I make something for a woman in the couture space, I know the dress is wanted, it's ordered, it will have a purpose," Van Herpen said. "But there is huge potential to print ready-to-wear clothes on demand, because then you wouldn't have the whole pre-production that the fashion system is built on now. It's an incredible system of waste and 3D printing would be a solution for that."
The challenges ahead
The sustainability gains associated with 3D printing is certainly a motivating factor for Rowley and the Electroloom team. They are looking into ideas such as using recycled materials as the basis for fabrics, as well as the ability to reuse something a consumer has already printed to make something new. However, his optimism is curbed by the realities of working with early stage technology.
"We have the luxury of rethinking the process from the ground up so along the way if we see ways we can save on energy or increase efficiency then we can do that," Rowley said. "But we're also realistic that with early technology, we might not be as efficient as a large scale retail production. When we have hundreds of people doing this in their own home, the science has to be there in terms of making these machines efficient in order for it to be a truly sustainable operation."
Rowley cites the biggest hurdle of 3D printing textiles at present as the quality of the materials. While the Electroloom prototype fabrics are soft, their 'wispy' quality means they're currently not durable enough for frequent wear. Van Herpen also notes this challenge as the reason she hasn't printed any ready-to-wear garments yet.
"If you look at the flexible materials that are being printed in fashion now, they feel like a brick compared to cotton or wool – I wouldn't want to wear a 3D printed t-shirt right now." Van Herpen said. "But for me its really a matter of time. The materials have to be improved to become softer and thinner and then it's heaven."
Electroloom hopes to have a workable device and desirable fabric composition by the end of this year, but the team concedes that fundamentally changing the way that clothes are manufactured, especially when it comes to labour, is a long way off. Meanwhile, Van Herpen sees a future where designers and brands are using 3D printers to make garments more sustainably, rather than consumers themselves.
"I think it's comparable to the first computers and the laptops we have now, but it takes a lot of time before an evolution like that is made," Van Herpen said.
Rosie J Spinks is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in GOOD Magazine, Marie Claire, The Ecologist, Sierra Magazine, and EcoSalon. You can follow her writing on Tumblr.
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