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Electronics plug into the textiles sector

We’ve become used to e-cars, e-bikes and even drones. Exciting new gadgets are added to the list of electronics every year – and we can’t seem to get enough. But one I wasn’t that familiar with is e-textiles. The word suggests that it’s not just our phones that are getting smarter.

I’m attending the E-Waste Expo in Frankfurt next week. One of the topics that caught my attention was a talk on e-textiles by Jessica Saunders. I considered the word for a moment. Sure, we’ve had heated blankets in my house for as long as I can remember. (I’ll admit that I only think of them come winter time.) This uncomplicated product is a cross-over between textiles and e-scrap. 

Just like the ‘moving picture’ T-shirts I spotted at the market this summer on my trip to Aruba. My boyfriend was enthralled by the colourful designs changing in front of his eyes; a silhouette doing breakdance moves, a dog wagging its tail, animated stereo sound bars going up and down in synch with the background music. 

He didn’t buy one due to the US$ 50 price tag for what I have to admit is an upgraded version of (ugly) Christmas lights sweaters we wear during the holidays. If market analysts are to be believed, the smart textiles market will grow from US$ 2.3 billion (EUR 2 billion) this year to US$ 6.6 billion (EUR 5.8 billion) by 2026.

It illustrates how much this relatively unknown niche has evolved in the last decade. It’s fair to say modern-day textiles have technology woven into them. They’re made to be adaptive to suit two categories; aesthetic textiles and performance enhancing textiles. The first I’ve already described, and the second mainly serves medical and military applications. 

For example, fabrics with embedded sensors and microchips can help monitor core body temperature and heart rate during exercise or hospitalisation. Another option is integrating power and data lines into textiles to create lightweight personal protection equipment for soldiers.

Meanwhile, I’ve seen several vloggers promote digital clothes as the next big thing. It is exactly what it sounds like: designers are selling digital outfits (ranging from fancy evening gowns to otherwordly costumes more art than apparel) so people can add unique pieces to their digital wardrobe. These items can be professionally photoshopped onto the person — in both videos and photos. 

Technically, this means you no longer have to own physical counterparts: clothes with a wow factor without requiring raw materials. But I wonder if this principle will influence our fashion consumption habit. (I’m reminding myself to clean out my overflowing closets before New Year’s Eve.)

All in all, it seems as though times are changing for both electronics and textiles. And I’m sure the trend will become more visisble at the recycling yard over the next ten years. 

I’m very curious to hear what Jessica Saunders will say on the matter. Stay tuned for the E-waste Expo review, which will be published in our first issue of 2022!

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