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3D Printing and Its Role in Sustainable Fashion

  • Anshika Verma
  • Essays
  • February 17, 2018
  • (0)


This essay will reflect upon the significance of 3D printing technology as a movement; it's development on a global level, and it's prospects in the fashion industry. The paper will also cover the opportunities and challenges that come with the 3D printing technology particularly in relation to the growing need for sustainability. Sustainability can be defined as an activity that is performed indefinitely without inducing any harm (Fletcher 2008). Dov Seidman (2007: 58) describes sustainability as a concept that is beyond our relationship with the environment; it is about the connection with ourselves as beings, our communities, as well as our institutions.


Sustainability and moral conduct have emerged as an essential factor in fashion practices over the last decade (Emberley 1998; Moisander and Personen 2002). Many enterprises have come to realise that inexpensive and trend-sensitive fashion, though very profitable, raises various ethical issues (Aspers and Skov, 2006).

The birth of sustainable fashion came about as a result of the Western fashion industry's demand for mass-produced, fast fashion that started in the mid-twentieth century (Hethorn & Ulasewicz, 2008). As Nathaniel Beard (2008: 448) notes, “The difficulty is to see how all the suppliers of the individual components can be ethically secured and accounted for, together with the labour used to manufacture the garment, its transport from factory to retail outlet, and ultimately the garment’s aftercare and disposal” 

The problem of sustainability is aggravated by the ever increasing population that directly increases the demand in the textile industry (Dickson et al., 2009); the dynamic nature of trends ensures continued desire for a brand new, constantly renewed item. So the western countries provided the fast-fashion retailers with the capacity to mass produce fashion items faster, more efficiently and at more economical costs, to meet the needs of the population (Hethorn & Ulasewicz, 2008; Kunz & Garner, 2011). However, people today are starting to realise that the commercial and environmental cost involved in manufacturing and transportation of textiles is directly proportional to their demand for items, garners waste and is also incredibly unsustainable.

The conventional methods of production and consumption of textiles—as well as clothing items—fail to take the environment entirely into consideration and hence tend to cause damage on a larger scale. A prime example would be the utilisation of pesticides when producing cotton. The use of such fertilisers and pesticides are causing a loss of biodiversity through the destruction of habitat and ecosystems, which inherently leads to declining soil fertility and water contamination. This practice’s unethical implications stretch far beyond into ultimately causing severe health problems from exposure to toxic pesticides and is a hazard to numerous health risks (Fletcher, 2008).



The new-age technology that elevates the issue of sustainable fashion is 3D Printing, also known as additive manufacturing. According to Carlo Fonda (2013: 26), 3D printing is a "process of making a three-dimensional solid object of virtually any shape from a digital computer model.” The inception of this technology was in 1986 marked by the first 3D printer (a process called stereolithography) invented by Charles W. Hull (Hickey, 2014). The following year in 1987, Carl R. Deckard developed the Selective Laser Sintering 3D printer (Carlo Fonda, 2013).

Now decades later, 3D printing has been in practice by architects, engineers and industrial designers since the late-twentieth century. However, it was only a few years ago that more people became interested in experimenting with the technology (Logan, 2015). Fonda (2013: 31) relates the narrative of the Personal 3D printer to that of the Personal Computer which appears to be available at the start as expensive, “professional-only,” only decades later to become affordable, accessible and more user-friendly.

In additive manufacturing, once the digital files are ready to be printed, a product develops by fixing one layer over the other, following a precise digital model. If there is a need for a smooth finish in the printed product, then the surfaces of the products are glazed by sandpaper or chemical solutions (Fonda, 2013).

3D printing has tremendous potential for engaging designers' imaginations by allowing them to visualise—if not produce—their ideas immediately while being able to evaluate its functionality to make necessary changes along the way if required.



The introduction of the Internet eliminated barriers such as distance in the mobilisation of information and ideas. Similarly, 3D printing technology eradicates mobilisation in a similar sense, in context of the material world.

Despite the technology being at an early stage of its development, it could spur significant influence on the manufacturing world as computers, and the Internet had in the information world: lowering barriers to entry for designers all around the world. According to 2010 Gartner report, 3D printing is identified as a “transformational technology in the Technology Trigger phase” which implies that it is only five to ten years from mass adoption (Fenn, 2010). According to a survey conducted, seventy-three percent of the respondents are interested in having a garment customised especially for them with a 3D printer (Appendices 2.11). Furthermore, forty-nine percent even showed enthusiasm to reduce buying from brands if they could print at home (Appendices 2.10). However, people are hesitant to attempt printing at home as they are unable to identify the cost involved in personal 3D printing.

With this technology, production and distribution may be downscaled, considering production is performed as near to the consumer as possible. Manufacturing will be brought back from countries like China to countries such as the United States. Taken that the USA is where a majority of the products are consumed, 3D printing technology could assist in curtailing the global economic imbalances with export countries’ surpluses and import countries’ reliance on other countries. As a result, substantial reductions in the carbon footprint of the overall energy used in manufacturing, packaging, distribution as well as overseas transportation will push the process significantly closer to sustainability.

The adoption of 3D printing technology may result in reduced need for labour in manufacturing. On the one hand, it could be politically destabilising for some economies, while on the other, it might profit them from being able to produce more commodities with fewer people.

With the ability of 3D printing to design and efficiently produce personalised goods for the consumer with little or no additional production cost, it may encourage a shift from mass production to mass customisation. It is also said to be more economical because people who own 3D printers are able to print any product at home as per their convenience and will not concern themselves about the logistics and shipping costs (DeWitt, 2013).

Mary Huang is a young entrepreneur and designer for Continuum Fashion who created the first 3D printed bikini, which was made from nylon and stays together despite any sewing. Continuum Fashion also offers three distinct styles of the world's first 3D printed shoes that are hollow on the inside which makes them lighter and comfortable to wear (Continuum Fashion, no date). Although expensive, the cost of building both the machines as well as the finished pieces will eventually fall, and consumers will gain more access to the technology (Sethna and Blythe, 2016).

Before 3D printing ultimately takes over the manufacturing process, we are likely to see a trend of hybridisation where 3D printed garments are combined with traditional textiles. This mix-up is already a reality today, and such items are not only appealing but also easier to create considering that the challenges in wholly printed clothing pieces still exist (The Conversation, 2016). In April 2017, New York fashion designer Alexis Walsh collaborated with designer Justin Hattendorf to reveal the Apex Coat with 3D printed studs on a natural fibre coat that were created using generative design software which means that the computer generates all possible design solutions and the designer can choose the best outcome. In this case, Walsh curated all the 3D printed studs to be different from each other (Clarke, 2017).



Additive Manufacturing facilitates speedy global distribution of items. Instead of products, it will be the designs moving worldwide in the form of digital files. These files can be printed anywhere in the world, or by any printer that meets the criterion for the design. Individuals or companies print the product closer to the consumer where it is purchased after they receive the digitally transferred designs. On a sustainable note, the final product's carbon footprint will further decrease by removing complex supply chains of parts produced by numerous suppliers dispersed around the globe.

According to Lipson and Kurman (2013), architects, artists, and fashion designers create distinct and complex products through 3D printing technology with no hindrances. It acts as a one-stop shop, not requiring any additional tool or any such change to be implemented within its process to produce different geometric shapes. Hence, this allows the customer to obtain a variety of designs from a single printer. 3D printing technology makes it plausible to construct complex working parts without the necessity to assemble, saving both production time and cost. It prints products on-demand eliminating the need to build up any inventory of new products or even the spare parts. As a result, this decreases the significant monetary cost of maintaining excess or unsold inventory. The printing process can operate with no supervision allowing overnight production which dramatically diminishes the time to produce products.

Once in a while, there might be a human error in the garment created using conventional methods of manufacturing. The quality of the clothing will improve by adopting 3D printing technology as it will eliminate such inaccuracies (The Conversation, 2016). Dutch designer Iris van Herpen, pioneering the use of 3D printing, also stated that,“3D prints finally act with the movement of the body. Everybody could have their body scanned and order clothes that fit perfectly” (Howarth, 2013). Herpen's 3D printed dresses were the most advanced part of this year's Met Gala "Manus X Machina,” a theme that explored the intricate interaction between fashion and technology. She used materials such as biodegradable plastics in affiliation with the 3D printing company ‘Materialise,' invoking a sense of curiosity at how far technology could disrupt fashion (Tarmy, 2016).

 In 2009, Japanese fashion designer Yuima Nakazato began his career by launching his first collection in Paris. He won many laurels and awards, and also designed stage outfits for pop-icon, Lady Gaga. Subsequently, he thrives on continuing to push fashion forward by entering 3D printing. Nakazato worked with an "Objet®500 Connex 3D Printer" to create his 2014 collection (Stratasys, no date). The concept came to him from an eccentric vision of neo-futuristic sports he describes as, “Young street punks, riding on motorcycles, playing a basketball-like sports game in an underground dune stadium” (Stratasys, no date). Nakazato created contemporary costumes; he adopted the multi-material 3D printer to develop bibs that join numbers and pictures of bared human muscles, expressing the avid passion and drive of the players. Sun Junjie who collaborated with Nakazato 3D printed rubber-like and sheer materials to achieve muscle fibre for the bibs. With the 3D printer, sophisticated shapes of the basketball court design blended effortlessly with the soft textures required for the muscled bibs. Finally, colour is put on them for a unique appearance. Nakazato anticipated that this new 3D printing technology would help designers meet fixed deadlines. “Currently, it’s impossible for us to satisfy these types of requests because it would take days to make a dress and ship it to Hollywood from Tokyo. However, when we begin making dresses with 3D printing, all we will have to do is to send the customer the 3D CAD files by e-mail. She could 3D print it in Hollywood, and someone could wear it on the red carpet the next day” (Stratasys, no date). Junjie also attributed the 3D printer for enabling fashion production to be more creative through mixing different materials. He said, “Innovative technologies enable us to go beyond traditional limits. They will change not only the reality but also the world of imagination” (Stratasys, no date).

3D printing uses materials such as plastic and poly lactic acid (PLA) which can either be   sugar cane plastic or biodegradable corn starch. Senior scientist at the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation(CSIRO) said, “If it will print things from waste plastic, before you print you are already in good shape, environmentally” (Kovac K., 2013). Such materials, however, are not wearable yet and can be hard to breathe in. They are often not well defined in detail, printed as solids and provide no space for air to pass through them as compared to traditional fabrics. Therefore, there is an undoubtedly emerging demand for more suitable materials to be used in 3D printing as the next step in sustainable fashion.

Providing fashion designers with a better range of material flexibility and higher quality products within 3D printed components, the amalgamation shared between additive manufacturing, and nano-materials offers an exciting streamline for undertaking some of the significant limitations related to materials and designs, which currently hinder 3D print designers to progress smoothly. Nanotechnology provides a unique approach to 3D printing as it also has the potential to both offer additional features to existing techniques and produces new nano-composites on the whole (Campbell et al., 2015). The other challenge is to develop a particular 3D printer designed just for fashion garments allowing the air to pass through them. If this becomes possible in the next five to ten years, we will see a whole new spectrum of fashion clothing (The Conversation, 2016).

Admittedly, 3D printers consume a significantly tremendous amount of electricity; but one way to reduce the energy used is by lowering the printing time (Faludi, 2013). One can re-use polylactic acid (PLA) as it can be rendered and recycled as per the consumer's desire. But it adds to the concern of 3D printers using up an immense amount of energy to maintain the plastic at high temperatures. Power usage can drastically reduce by a shift in materials; A professor managed to get a 3D printer to use a sawdust mixture clung together with adhesive instead of plastic. Unlike plastic, there is no need to melt this material, and so the electricity usage will dramatically cut down making 3D printing a more ethical form of manufacturing than any other (Peters, 2014). Similarly, another concern that comes along with 3D printing technology is counterfeiting of products: items that offer unique designs and trade-marks can be imitated quickly and at a meagre price. Moreover, it may also become difficult to differentiate between the real and counterfeited product as 3D printers can produce identical duplicates. This concern may not apply at this stage of the technology, but as it continues to develop, the brand owners need to be more cautious in tackling problems with determining authenticity (Ferrity, 2015).



Clothes generated by 3D printers are produced with no waste and makes the entire process environmentally sound. Environmentally sustainable textiles and clothing products are items produced and consumed through operations and procedures that do not exhaust or destroy our resources. Paradoxically, 3D printers might increase the number of purchases of environmental clothing by promoting sustainable development and consumption.

Christopher Barnatt (2013: 17) mentioned that 3D printing uses fewer raw materials than any other method. As a result, there is virtually zero waste since only the material required for the portion is used in the production. Thus, 3D printing eliminates the middle steps in the traditional methods of production and makes it a one-step process opposing conventional subtractive manufacturing processes, since there is a need to trim out fabric by the meter, cut and stitch before the item is ready to wear leaving behind wasted material. (Wang & Chen, 2014; Campbell et al., 2015) As per CSIRO’s research, 90 percent of the waste accumulated is instead saved by embracing and switching to 3D printing technology (Kovac K., 2013). Minimization of waste materials will consequently improve global resource productivity which means one can efficiently work towards yielding more productivity with our given resources.

Some designers are transitioning to 3D printing with the sole purpose of exploring another realm of sustainability in fashion. Designer Charne Esterhuizen created a dress entirely out of 3D printed rubber butterflies. She minimises wastage in her designs by using the remnants from each print to produce bags and accessories, leaving no waste whatsoever (Reinfrank, 2017). Similarly, the customisable 3D printed platform heels by Hoon Chung is also considered eco-friendly as all of the shoes' components are compatible with each other, and detachable parts don't require any adhesive (Lipson and Kurman, 2013).

Any commodity can be printed with 3D printers provided there are adequate provisions for the same. Having digital stocks in the form of saved design files is more sustainable and economical than collecting actual physical inventory. Employing recycled and environmental-friendly materials in 3D printing technology offers an opportunity to overcome the problem of pollution (Faludi, 2013). Hence, 3D printing may be the next industrial revolutionary technology, but sustainable 3D printing entirely depends upon how we use the technology to its best potential to safeguard the environment.



As recently as October 2017, 3D printing was used by Italian designer, Simone Leonelli, in Perth, West Australia; he executed a 3D printed fashion exhibition for Telstra Perth Fashion Festival at the Perth Institute of Contemporary Arts (Sarah Saunders, 2017).

With the growing mainstream consumption of fashion, actions related to sustainability have turned imperative in the contemporary day and age. 3D Printing technology acts as a significant turning point in the way fashion is produced or understood. It is a slow process of adoption, but the industry is making efforts with gradual, calculative experiments to increase its presence.

3D Printers will have a substantial impact on the design and production of fashion items, and on the overall global economy. Though the technology is exceptionally innovative to a point where designers and computers can collaborate to create something that's impeccable in high-fashion but also sustainable, it may initially disrupt traditional sectors of transportation, logistics, packaging and other supply chains. Nonetheless, the creators of 3D printed products should be willing to explore new variants of materials that can be applied in the process and may achieve the texture of a natural fabric. They should also aim to make their audience aware of the technology's long-term environmental and economic cost benefits making them more comfortable to attempt it at their own homes. Indeed, its growth should, therefore, be carefully monitored to reap maximum, efficient progress whilst minimising its shortcomings to potentially create the most sustainable alternative fashion for the foreseeable future.

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