Growing the fashion industry's digital backbone
This article has been adapted from GreenBiz's Circular Weekly newsletter. Subscribe here.
Circular fashion is a hot topic this season. From the growing recommerce market to innovative new approaches to prototyping, textile dying, materials selection and recycling, the circular opportunity for apparel is beginning to take shape.
However, despite improvements across the apparel value chain, a truly circular system will require alignment and connection between these disparate projects. Take recommerce: Although companies are beginning to tap into the massive opportunity of selling the same item more than once, the current resale process is clunky, to say the least.
Tracking the original information of a product that's entering the secondary market is one of the friction points. "The product tells me it’s a women’s blue medium dress. The product doesn’t tell me the name, the original price, what it’s made of or any features and benefits," Nicole Bassett, co-founder of The Renewal Workshop, recently explained to GreenBiz in an interview. Bassett’s company offers brands such as The North Face, PrAna and icebreaker a fully outsourced recommerce service, managing the reverse logistics, repair, cleaning and resale of discarded clothing.
"We can look up product data that our partners have given us, but it might live in five different software systems inside their company," she said. "We’re developing these workarounds, but that data was never designed to be used again when a product was sold."
It’s the same challenge faced by recyclers managing textiles at their end of life. Without knowing the specific materials a fabric is made of, it’s impossible to recycle garments at a high quality. Instead, most used clothing is downcycled or sent to landfill.
A new project hopes to fill this information gap. Announced this week, the Connect Fashion Global Initiative aims to solve circularity’s transparency challenge by creating digital infrastructure to enable data sharing across the apparel industry’s value chain. Essentially: reinvent the clothing tag for a connected, circular world.
The vision is for brands to attach a physical identifier (RFID, QR Code, NFC or similar) — what Connect Fashion is calling a CircularID — to each garment, which will link to its digital identity or "twin" on the web, when scanned. This will include detailed information on an item’s bill of materials, authenticity, product details, dye process, manufacturing location, recycling instructions and anything else a brand might want to communicate down the value chain. A garment will be scanned during its life, creating a "digital passport" or record of its movement along its lifecycle.
"It’s not incredibly complicated," Natasha Franck, founder and CEO of EON, the company behind this project, told me. "It’s about setting up the telephone so these stakeholders can communicate." Franck believes that if every piece of apparel were digitally connected, it would facilitate reuse, resale, repair, rental and recycling in a way that is currently impossible in the current system.
The project’s founding partners include Target, H&M, Microsoft, Waste Management and PVH Corp, a handful of which already have piloted the CircularID tool, according to Franck. "The simple premise of embedding that identifier in the product says that we care about what happens to that product after sale and we’re going to create accountability and systems to ensure that product makes it back into the system," Franck explained.
"Access to an item’s digital twin would reduce the time it takes to renew a product and get it available for sale, which is ultimately going to reduce our costs, which brands and customers will see," Bassett told GreenBiz. In other words, resale will be cheaper and easier than it is now with the help of an end to end connected system.
The CircularID project will launch in November, and we’ll be tracking its progress along the way.