In the apparel business, steps taken to optimize the customer experience don’t always align with the planet’s best interest. But thanks to pioneering companies applying circular economy technology and design principles, things are beginning to shift.
The circular economy prioritizes practices such as regenerative design, restoration of products and a shift toward materials with lower carbon emissions. The aim is to eliminate waste through innovative technology and design. Products are designed to be disassembled and reused rather than traditionally disposed of. Consumables within a circular economy are optimized for a safe, non-toxic return to the biosphere and can be traced through transparent supply chains.
While the fast fashion movement is at odds with these principles, some brands are distinguishing themselves by prioritizing a more circular approach. As one example, Swedish apparel company Houdini Sportswear has built a reputation for its biodegradable clothing. Its designers think long term: even after a garment no longer can be used, the materials should be fully compostable, rather than disposed of in a landfill.
"We are pushing for zero impact and even beyond, meaning that we’re actually contributing to the world by creating a continuous feedback loop," said Jesper Danielsson, head of design and product for Houdini Sportswear, at the GreenBiz Circularity 21 virtual event.
The company has pledged to make its entire offering of products and services circular by design by 2022. This demands regenerative and biodegradable materials, recyclable products and traceable sourcing.
Houdini’s clothes include a combination of biodegradable wool and recycled synthetics. It aims to create a supply chain that mimics nature: borrow organic materials that eventually become reusable resources again.
But moving to a circular economy for fashion also requires a closer connection with the customer. For this, Houdini is turning to connected technology.
In 2020, Houdini implemented Gerber Technology’s YuniquePLM, a cloud-based software that tracks a product’s lifecycle. This provides visibility for customers and grants them a behind-the-scenes view of the supply chain. According to Danielsson, the company’s long-term goal includes influencing consumer behavior and allowing customers to contribute to a regenerative and collaborative circular economy.
Our main vision is to have kids more connected to the things they wear, so as they grow older they are more conscious consumers and understand the climate process.
Matthew Benjamin, founder and CEO of school apparel startup Kapes, is right there with Danielsson. His company creates what it calls the world’s most sustainable school uniforms. But applying circular economy thinking to school uniforms poses challenges: Kids grow quickly and uniforms are often tossed out each year.
To deliver a more involved, interactive experience for parents and students, the company put QR codes on its labels. Similar to Houdini’s use of YuniquePLM, Kapes customers can scan the garments to track their clothes’ journey through a sustainable supply chain.
"Our main vision is to have kids more connected to the things they wear, so as they grow older they are more conscious consumers and understand the climate process," Benjamin said.
Most consumer interactions are transactional: a buyer makes a purchase and that’s the extent of the relationship to the company. The correspondence starts and stops almost immediately. Leveraging technology — such as QR codes or radio frequency identification (RFID) — as a go-between for companies and their consumers fosters a feeling of involvement.
According to Natasha Franck, founder and chief executive officer of Eon, when customers can see where their clothes come from, what they are made of and where the clothes may end up next, the involvement acts as a bridge between the brand and a customer — and it lasts beyond the initial sale.
"In a circular economy, the customer is a crucial stakeholder in the value chain," Franck said. "And within any sort of reusable products, there’s the opportunity for the connection with the customer and their support of those materials."
Eon is piloting the CircularID Protocol, which uses high-tech identification and communication tools to allow brands to track materials and products.
Materials, thread type and dye process, among other data fields, can be traced using Eon’s technology. This brings transparency to the customer, which places accountability on companies. Plus, this grants more efficient management of materials at the end of their useful life.
"Having data is crucial for policy and responsibility, and to be able to operationalize at scale, we need to know where products are and what materials they are made of," Franck said.
Developing a fully transparent supply chain (viewable by consumers through QR codes, for example) may stir controversy for some companies, but there is a promising financial return. In addition to allowing for a more sustainable production process, community involvement can surge due to enhanced reputability and brand awareness.
Customer engagement is at the crux of developing a sense of community for a brand. Benjamin believes it leads to a higher likelihood of long-term customer retention.
"We can tell you where something is made, how it’s made, and who actually made it, and that process can change the level of appreciation you have," he said.
Sharing these stories with customers is a way of letting them in on what they are purchasing, and can convey the company ethos. The circular economy lends itself not only to sustainable, recyclable products but to the chance to build community through storytelling.
"While you’re not necessarily going to send thousands of students to a sheep farm in Argentina, you can tell the story of that with technology," Benjamin said.