Moving Towards Sustainability – What Will Future Office Wear Be Like?


Rising energy costs will influence clothing styles. As energy costs have risen, I have lowered my thermostat at home in winter, and raised it in summer, and I suspect my bosses have doing something similar, at least in winter, as I have found myself wearing a medium weight jacket in the office daily to stay warm.   Large buildings  such as the one in which I work have problems controlling humidity, and are often extremely dry, especially in winter.  The low humidity increases the rate of evaporation from the skin, increasing heat loss and resulting in a condition in which the temperature may be fine, but one still feels perpetually chilled.  Some office spaces are also located on concrete slabs that suck heat from the workspace.  The temperature is set too low in summer, or the air conditioning system is poorly balanced, and I find myself struggling to stay warm at any time of year.  These conditions will probably get worse as energy becomes more expensive and there is more incentive to conserve, as owners may not have the funds to improve HVAC systems and may be increasingly interested in saving energy costs.  The way we dress for work and other places will inevitably change to compensate.  How might the fashion industry respond and help keep us more comfortable?

High technology fabrics  and clothing designed in removable layers may become fashionable. Hunters and people who go ice fishing have to sit in one place for long periods of time, much like I often do at my desk, and require clothing that will keep them comfortable.  I already wear several layers to my work, which is both built on a slab and in an office space built within a huge warehouse, but I still have trouble keeping warm.  The sports and recreation clothing industry has invented fabrics that are extremely thin, transport moisture so sweat can’t build up inside them, and provide a lot of insulation for their bulk. Since many synthetic fibers are manufactured fr0m the same fossil fuels we can expect to become more expensive, we will probably see a movement away from them in favor of plant-based or naturally occurring fibers, possibly produced through genetic modification of plants or self-assembly of  nanotechnology materials.  There will be a rising demand for materials that use natural fibers and fabrics in new ways to make thinner, lighter, yet more comfortable clothing.

Styles always change. I am looking forward to the fashion industry changing to help me be more comfortable, but I don’t know how high energy prices will have to be before that will happen.  Eventually, though, I can foresee my office wear including a t-shirt, dress shirt, pants, socks, and long underwear made from a warm but thin, high technology material, and possibly a jacket as well.  Come on, fashion designers and manufacturers, and help me out here!  I’d like to be stylish AND comfortable.

The fashion industry hasn’t gotten the message yet, but it will. If not by forward thinking and long-range planning, the change will happen by necessity.  Rising energy prices will influence thermostats, which will cause changes in people’s behaviors, which will show up in the marketplace as a shift in demand.  The manufacturers may see the change before the designers, who are more focused on appearance than function, but they contract designers to create their clothing lines, so the designers will get the message eventually, and clothing styles and choices will change, probably significantly.  As always, the companies that “get a clue” first and find ways to capitalize on it will grow, and the companies that are late to embrace the new trends will suffer and some will disappear.  New, more energy efficient factories will be built and old ones will be abandoned, torn down, or find other uses, and the industry will change.

What might we be wearing in fifty years or more? Science never stops advancing, fueled by human curiosity as well as commercial realities.   Imagine a wearable suit of active nanotechnology devices that have amazing capabilities, such as changing from slippery to tacky where and when needed to protect you from falls or dropping things, changing from insulating to ventilating for comfort, or even creating a thin armor-like shell to protect part or all of the body from harsh environments, possibly including those of outer space.  The fashion industry would have a field day with clothing that could change color, reflectivity, and apparent shape at the push of a remote control button.  Distributed computing tasks might be done by clothing including nanoprocessors interconnected by new wireless networking technologies.  Eventually such a clothing technology could do away with most other  types of computing, and provide protection and comfort that would lessen the requirements we place on our homes and vehicles, and the energy they use.  If I could be completely comfortable and could save money by setting my thermostat at 40F degrees in winter, for example, I would do so.

High fashion may be the last to change. Consider large scale formal events like conventions and award ceremonies.  Attendees want to look their best, but current skimpy women’s fashions don’t keep you warm very well.  It is likely that formal wear will be created from better insulating and warmer fabrics, additional layers will be included in formal outfits, and the use of materials chosen for their insulating and wicking characteristics will predominate.  Just as in the 16th century, when years of world-wide cold temperatures  drove people to invent both buttons and the kind of underwear we wear today, we will likely see new innovations in clothing  in the next few decades that will help us stay comfortable as thermostats must be lowered in winter, and raised in summer to save energy.   I can’t wait for my high tech office wear, though.  I need it now.

The economics always win. In a few decades most people may be unable to afford fossil fuel or much of the energy produced from it, and building environments with wider temperature ranges may be the norm, creating a demand for radically-improved clothing to keep us comfortable and healthy.  New materials and styles will, as always, need to be cost effective, but will also need to provide a profit or there will be no business incentive to producing them.  Much work and innovation are needed, and we will need future generations to be well-educated to enable the progress we will need to survive well as a species and ecosystem.  We need our government to drive and fund improvements in the big, common-to-all systems supporting education and research, a need we already have today.  Please tell your government and corporate representatives to put a high priority on education and basic research, as we are already struggling to support both and will have great need for them to mitigate the huge problems of overpopulation and energy depletion we are only beginning to experience.

As always, I welcome your comments.  — Tim    Now I’m off to the sporting goods store to find some high tech underwear for work!

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