Beyond sustainability is circularity — when you can recycle, repurpose, or reuse clothing instead of sending it to the landfill. Yet this has posed a challenge for many brands: how do they know what to do with the apparel if they’re unsure of the materials and its lifecycle? How do they communicate basic information about the garment to the whole supply chain that follows?
“Until now brands have lacked the ability to communicate product and material data critical to a circular system after the first point of sale,” says Annie Gullingsrud, Chief Strategy Officer of EON, a New-York based group that’s helping build the technology and language to make circularity easier.
This fall, EON worked with The CircularID Initiative to launch the Circular Product Data Protocol specifically for fashion and apparel. But it’s not an industry secret: rather it’s publicly available to anyone as part of the Creative Commons License (CC-ND 4). The development of the Protocol was funded by EON, Laudes Foundation and industry partners.
The CircularID Initiative, behind this new Protocol, convened in 2019 to get fashion industry leaders to start developing a digital solution for the circular economy. The stakeholders include Closed Loop Partners, Target, PVH Corp., Microsoft, GS1 US, Waste Management, The Renewal Workshop, ForDays, I:CO, IDEO, Sustainable Apparel Coalition, Open Apparel Registry, RISE Research Institute of Sweden, Revolve Waste, Circ and others.
Annie Gullingsrud, Chief Strategy Officer of EON, provides some insight on how this Protocol actually works in practice and why it’s helpful in the conversation around circularity.
Esha Chhabra: If you were to explain the Circular Product Data Protocol and how it works to someone who knows nothing about circularity, how would you describe it?
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Anne Gullingsrud: You may have noticed that on the packaging of most of the food items we eat, there’s a list of ingredients and nutritional facts. This information helps customers make the right decisions about their health.
The Protocol works in a similar way. It defines which information brands need to capture about their products, and codifies how it is communicated. It gives resellers and recyclers the information they need to maximize each item’s value and recovery. For example, today a reseller has to manually determine the resale price of each item, and they may have very little information available to make that decision.
Brands that use the Circular Product Data Protocol can share key information with resellers and recyclers digitally, such as the brand that manufactured a garment, its original selling price, material contents, ownership history and more. It helps move products through the system, and resellers and recyclers to scale their operations.
Chhabra: Can you give us an example of a company and how have they been able to implement this?
Gullingsrud: The brands we work with are using Digital ID in a variety of ways, from engaging with their customers to future-proofing their products for a circular lifecycle.
In 2020, Yoox Net-A-Porter Group launched its first Digital Identities across their four online stores, Net-a-Porter, Mr Porter, The Outnet and Yoox. Beginning with its private collections, each item is connected to a “digital passport” that hosts essential information such as brand details, material contents and retail price.
A washable, digital label such as a QR code or NFC tag is attached to each product, enabling customers to access information about its authenticity, provenance, history and considerations for styling and care and repair so that they can last for longer and encourage a circular mindset.
As the Group expands its services to include re-commerce and recycling, sorting partners will also be able to scan to access key information about their products, and maximize their value in the circular economy.
Chhabra: How is this different from FiberTrace and other blockchain platforms?
Gullingsrud: EON is the enterprise data infrastructure needed to enable the creation of each item’s unique Digital ID, and the network essential for generating and exchanging this data across the apparel value chain — from production, through customer use, resale, reuse and recycle.
EON manages each item’s unique Digital ID and all of the data associated with that item to build a global repository of essential product data. In the EON Product Cloud, the Digital ID includes any and all data related to the product — size, color, material content, image assets, authentication, resale instructions, authentication etc.
That means that blockchain platforms for material traceability such as FiberTrace can bring their material traceability information into the product’s Digital ID on the EON Product Cloud – such that this data stays with the product for the lifetime of the asset. Without a Digital ID, traceability information about products and materials is lost as it’s not associated with the product through customer use, resale, recycle, etc.
EON works in complement with many blockchain, and enables brands to manage the data associated with each product’s identity. For example, EON ensures that a recycler can access all the data needed. Like an Operating System, EON enables products to connect to other online applications and businesses. We also connect to a range of other third parties from digital wardrobe and styling apps to resale and recycling companies.
Chhabra: What is the cost of participating?
Gullingsrud: While critical product and material data remains unavailable to sorting facilities, circularity will not be a possibility. For that reason, the Circular Product Data Protocol is free and publicly available to brands, retailers and circular businesses. We have to work together in a common language if we want to create a positive future for the industry, and our planet.