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The ambitious plan to publicly track every new garment we buy

The fashion industry is far from sustainable, but a radical new platform called CircularID aims to make it easier for brands to recycle, repair, and resell fashion products.

The ambitious plan to publicly track every new garment we buy
[Photo: Piotr Polaczyk/iStock]

Natasha Franck, founder and CEO of fashion technology company EON, believes we will one day be able to throw our old shirts in the recycling bin along with our plastic bottles and glass jars. At the recycling center, those textiles will be sent to a machine where they will be pulped and turned into brand-new fibers. Eventually, when this system is perfected, we won’t need to use any more carbon-intensive petroleum to make polyester dresses or water-intensive cotton to make jeans. We could turn all the old, tossed-out garments that already exist on the planet into brand-new clothes in an entirely circular system. “We would be able to decouple resource consumption from economic growth,” says Franck.

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Natasha Franck [Photo: courtesy EON]
Many fashion executives believe this kind of circularity is a long way off. Right now, less than 1% of materials within the $1.9 trillion global fashion industry are recycled, largely because fabrics are much more complex than the other items we recycled, like plastic or paper. Most clothes today contain blends of organic and synthetic materials. It can be hard to figure out what fibers are in a garment (since there are no requirements that brands accurately report this), and it is even harder to separate these fibers and turn them into new fabrics.

In spite of all of these hurdles, Franck believes her vision could be achieved in the very near future. The first step is to create a system that will allow us to trace the origins of each one of the more than 100 billion garments churned out by the fashion industry each year. It’s a rather detailed and laborious task, but Franck—and other big players in the fashion and technology sectors—think it’s the key to accelerating fashion’s transformation into a circular industry.

This week, EON is launching an ambitious new project called the Connect Fashion Global Initiative, which will allow fashion brands to share very detailed information about the products they make with anyone else throughout the fashion supply chain. Their standard, called the CircularID, aims to do everything from help recycling companies understand what a fabric is made of, to allow brands to refurbish old garments and secondhand marketplaces authenticate luxury goods. A slew of large companies have already signed on to the initiative, including H&M Group, Target, Microsoft, The Renewal Workshop, For Days, and the NYC Economic Development Corporation, among others, which are helping to fund the launch of the platform.

How would CircularID help attain these goals in practice? Brands would incorporate a microscopic chip into every product that they create, weaving it into the fabric itself. Each company would have the freedom to chose what kind of chip technology they’d use—some luxury brands have already started inconspicuously incorporating microchips into their products to help customers identify real goods from fake ones, and larger versions of these tags have been used for a long time in the retail industry to manage inventory—and how it would embedded into garments. In fact, Franck designed the standard to integrate with existing codes, tags, and labeling systems used by brands (like RFID, QR Codes, and NFC). “We cut these tags off after the customer buys them,” Franck says. “Now, the only difference is we’re asking the fashion brand to embed that information into the physical product itself.”

Thanks to the fact that this technology is already becoming common across the industry, brands, manufacturers, and retailers already have the scanners necessary to read the CircularID tags. Theoretically, even consumers could scan their own garments to access this information if they had access to a scanner. In the future, it might be possible to scan a shirt using your smartphone to learn about where it was made.

[Image: courtesy EON]

It will likely take several years for brands to start rolling out CircularID-embedded products, but connecting every garment will ultimately generate valuable information about the origins and and composition of our clothing. All of that data will be stored in a massive database, which will go live in November of 2019. This protocol will be open and a public standard for the industry that all brands and retailers can adopt. (However, specific product data that is put into the system may not always be public: Brands can choose to keep some data private, if necessary.)

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Right now, Connect Fashion is working on the standard that will determine exactly what information brands will be required to share about their products through the database. But Franck says that brands have an incentive to be honest about these details, because much of it could help them in the end by allowing them to recapture materials from recycling, repair or authenticate products more easily, and track what happens to products once they have be sold. Still, how Connect Fashion will enforce these standards is an open question. Some day, it’s possible that governments may try to regulate how fashion brands report about the materials they use, much like how they regulate manufacturers of plastic goods and require them to report whether they’re recyclable.

As far as asking companies to incorporate a microchip into their products, Franck believes the cost will be marginal. All fashion brands currently use some sort of tagging system to track their products across the supply chain, and they are constantly updating their technology as newer systems come into place, from bar codes to RFID tags. Franck believes brands will see CircularID as just another update, albeit one that tracks the garment even after it has left the store.

“We’re fairly agnostic about the actual hardware the brand implants into their products,” says Franck. “We assume technologies will evolve and change. The more important thing is collecting and storing the data itself.”

Startups across the fashion industry are already working to create their own circular systems—and CircularID could make their work much easier. For instance, companies like TheRealReal, StockX, and Rebag are marketplaces that sell secondhand luxury goods, helping to extend the life cycle of products. Right now, these companies hire legions of experts to make sure that bags sold on the site are authentic. In the future, these companies could simply scan a Gucci belt or Chanel bag embedded with CircularID to see if it really is an original.

Likewise, brands like Patagonia and Arc’teryx have already launched programs that allow customers to send in used products to be refurbished and resold. CircularID would allow these companies to easily figure out what materials were used in the product. For instance, if a zipper was missing from a jacket, Patagonia could simply scan it to figure out which one to replace it with.

At a broader industry level, Franck makes the case that brands stand to benefit by investing in the circular economy. She’s trying to make the argument that in the long run, a circular system isn’t just better for the planet—it could also be more profitable for businesses. The Ellen MacArthur Foundation, which promotes circularity, says brands could stand to recapture more than $100 million worth of materials each year through recycling. Brands could more easily integrate recycled materials into their supply chains. They could generate new streams of revenue by refurbishing old goods and reselling them. And they could create better customer experiences by creating durable products that could easily be brought in to be repaired.

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About the author

Elizabeth Segran, Ph.D., is a staff writer at Fast Company. She lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts

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