In recent years the fashion industry has been at the center of attention in the debate about sustainable development both from an environmental and social point of view (and not for good reasons). Because of its very short product life cycles and global and fragmented supply chains, the garment industry is one of the most challenging sectors with regard to sustainability. Environmental issues related to the repercussion of production and transportation of fashion items, as well as social issues regarding working conditions of the workers employed in the supply chain have really attracted the attention of society and have raised a lot of criticism towards the world of fashion.

What makes all this even worse is the fact that the global fashion industry has been criticized for a lack of transparency and traceability regarding all of these issues. Society had a tough wake up call about this after one particular event: the collapse of the Rana Plaza factory building in Bangladesh in 2013, where more than a thousand garment workers lost their life and many more were left injured. This terrible event has devastated the life of workers and their families, but it has also revealed the ugly truth that was behind the production strategies of fast fashion brands. Items from brands like Benetton, Mango and Primark were found in the ruins of the Rana Plaza, but many of them, as they were called to account for their actions, said they had no clue that they were producing there. It was then that both consumers and brands started to ask themselves more questions about where the clothes were coming from and how the production processes took place. Brands were not only shocked because of the images of the disaster reported by the media, revealing a side of fashion they didn’t know about before, but also because brands had to compensate the survivors and families of the victims for the financial and medical damages they have suffered as a direct result of the accident. So both for obvious reasons of humanity but also economical reasons brands acknowledged that they needed to have more grip of their sourcing partners and processes.

When we buy something we often don’t know with certainty where a garment was created, which processes it went through, or the impact of the product.  This happens because not even brands themselves are aware of such information. Only around 10% of brands have 100% knowledge of the whole supply chain, and even when they are, they don’t always make it public. Some fashion labels reveal their processing facilities farther down the supply chain, while only few reveal some of their raw material sources. Nevertheless this is not something to blame solely on bad behavior of brands, because it can be a real struggle for big brands to have control over their sourcing processes, because they are too massive and complex. They order from multiple sources at once in order to have enough hands to fulfill their demands. Often the manufacturers that they work with give a green light on the collaboration, even when they don’t have the capability to meet all the demands brands ask for, so they outsource, and brands lose control over who makes their clothes. This kind of process can become a real struggle for brands and has become common practice in the industry.

A possible solution for more transparency: the digital passport

Fortunately technology is coming to help us find a solution to this problem. It will allow us to give clothes their own digital identity, allowing the consumer to be informed about the garment’s life cycle, both on an environmental and a social level. What we’re talking about here is the idea of assigning each fashion item a digital passport, in the form of a QR code, that contains detailed informative material about the product, showing the consumer the journey it has been through before arriving into his/her hands. 

By simply opening up their phone camera consumers are able to unlock the garment’s history, allowing them to see information about the origin of the product, its purchase, manufacturing process and ethics, environmental impact, transportation and aftercare. This kind of product information will also allow for the continual identification and monetization of garment products through circular business models such as renting, repairing, reselling, and recycling. More specifically, the details about clothing’s material components, such as fibers and dyes, will help in managing materials more efficiently for the disassembly and recycling phases.

The CircularID™ Protocol

One of the most remarkable initiatives at the core of this transition is the new CircularID™ Protocol: an industry-wide protocol for the digital identification of products in the circular economy, developed by major fashion firms, retailers, and other value chain stakeholders under the collaboration with New York start-up EON. The CircularID Protocol will create a unified vocabulary for brands to communicate about fashion products throughout their lifecycle. It provides a standard for how to describe the important product and material data in order for all brands to understand how they should do it. Through this system fashion brands are now able to assign a digital birth certificate to each new item. Such certificate (containing information about where and when the product was made and what it is made from) is linked to a ‘digital twin’, which is a virtual duplicate of the actual product, as well as a digital passport that traces the object’s life. 

Major fashion brands like Zalando, Target and H&M are already uploading data about their products to Eon’s Connected Products platform, a platform that tracks fashion items throughout their lifecycle. Thanks to the platform a user (a consumer as well as a seller or reseller) is able to quickly identify a product and also see some suggestions about pricing and how to market the product. In addition to allowing objects to be resold in an ethical way, this system allows them to be repaired with the proper materials or recycled when they reach the end of their useful lives. To support data interchange across the circular value chain, Eon will also make the CircularID Protocol open and publicly available to the industry.

This new initiative is raising more and more interest, to the point where governments and industries are accelerating the setting up of new policies and projects in support of digital product passports. For example, the European Commission, in order to promote and encourage the digitalization of value chain and product information data (such as digital product passports) is developing a unified European Dataspace for Smart Circular Applications. Similarly, in the United States, the American Apparel and Footwear Association is pushing for a revision of apparel and footwear labeling regulations to allow for the use of digital labels.

The first big collab to help this transition: EON + PANGAIA

A great turning point for this transition has also been set up by the latest partnership between EON and PANGAIA, a materials science and apparel company focused on helping circularity and environmental sustainability. The PANGAIA Horizon capsule line, launched in may 2021, features the use of digital passports printed onto care labels so that customers can learn about the entire lifecycle of the item as well as its environmental impact savings, by scanning the QR code on the label. Also, as impact reporting on a garment’s carbon and water footprint evolves, these digital passports can be updated in real-time, helping the owner (both the sellers, resellers and the consumers) understand a garment’s impact better. This seems like a very good step for encouraging customers to make responsible choices about the items they are buying. Maria Srivastava, Chief Impact and Communications Officer at PANGAIA, said to Forbes “Our goal is to empower our customers to make the best possible choices in a fun and engaging way”.

Why this is good investment for your business

This new innovative tool can be a really good instrument for businesses that want to improve their sustainable processes. Not only to be able to have a better grip on their production processes and know what the environmental and social impact of each item is, but also create a more trustworthy relationship with the consumers of the products. This tool gives brands the possibility to add value to the product turning it into a media channel that connects the consumer with the history of the item. In this way a deeper and ongoing trustworthy relationship between the customer and the product can be created, as well as with the brand that can use this as an instrument to communicate its values, and promote sustainability and circularity. Moreover, this new system can help a business gain competitive advantage by having access to product performance data on a daily basis. You can have access to real-time customer insights, product feedback and visibility into operations beyond point-of-sale. 

Are we ready for it?

This really looks like a revolutionary system that will give more power to the people to decide responsibly and ethically what they’re buying. A real opportunity for brands and consumers to engage in the path for a sustainable future. Will the fashion industry seize this opportunity and implement the digital passport for products on a large scale? Will the industry be able to incorporate these new technologies in an accessible way for all businesses? The future is looking transparent to us.