Bloomberg — H&M’s chief technology officer is trying to make smart clothing mainstream, at a time when clothing manufacturers are struggling with complex supply chains and environmental pressure.
Alan Boehme is examining how H&M’s clothes could monitor your heart rate or hydration levels, and how artificial intelligence could shrink H&M’s supply chain, potentially decreasing the company’s carbon footprint. In September, H&M couldn’t keep up with demand because of delays and disruptions of product flows.
The Swedish company’s tech-focus comes at a crucial time for the clothing industry, as people increasingly move from shopping at brick and mortar stores to shopping online; and fast fashion brands come under fire for their often negative environmental impact.
Clothing companies have been experimenting on how to integrate technology into garments, which so far have struggled to gain meaningful sales. Levi’s produced a run of jackets with Google, which used bluetooth in the cuffs to communicate with your smartphone, while Nadi X makes yoga gear that uses vibrations to improve your technique.
H&M partnered with fashion-tech company Boltware during the pandemic to create a denim jacket that can mimic a hug. Consumers were allowed to vote if the design would be be developed, but demand was not strong enough to make the jacket available for sale.
In comparison wearables from giants such as Apple Inc. have boomed. Apple’s smartwatches have been one of its fastest growing products.
Boehme is aware his vision of the future faces hurdles. Making clothes that can sync to 5G would be difficult in countries with low network penetration.
“All of the components are there,” Boehme said in an interview. “It’s the ability to uniquely put things together in patterns that we as individuals or as society have not yet done.”
Boehme, who worked as a technology innovation officer at Procter & Gamble and Coca-Cola before he was hired by H&M in 2020, insists this technology is not far off.
To make clothing more sustainable, H&M has worked with the Hong Kong Research Institute of Textiles and Apparel to build a machine that can take apart unwanted clothes and turn them into new products.
The fashion industry faces an uphill battle on its climate claims. It was responsible for about 4% of all greenhouses gases produced by humans in 2018, according to the nonprofit Global Fashion Agenda. If the industry were a country, it would be the world’s fourth-largest emitter after China, the U.S., and India.