In the clothing industry, the measures taken to optimize the customer experience are not always in the best interests of the planet. But thanks to pioneering companies applying circular economy technology and design principles, things are starting to change.
The circular economy prioritizes practices such as regenerative design, product restoration and a shift towards lower carbon materials. The aim is to eliminate waste using innovative technology and design. The products are designed to be disassembled and reused rather than traditionally disposed of. Consumables in a circular economy are optimized for safe and non-toxic return to the biosphere and can be traced through transparent supply chains.
If the fast fashion movement breaks with these principles, some brands stand out by favoring a more circular approach. For example, Swedish clothing company Houdini Sportswear has built a reputation for its biodegradable clothing. Its designers think long term: even after a garment can no longer be used, the materials should be fully compostable, rather than dumped in a landfill.
“We aim for zero impact and even beyond, which means we are actually contributing to the world by creating a continuous feedback loop,” said Jesper Danielsson, design and product manager for Houdini Sportswear, at the event. virtual GreenBiz Circularity 21.
The company is committed to making its entire product and service offering circular by design by 2022. This requires regenerative and biodegradable materials, recyclable products and a traceable supply.
Houdini’s clothing includes 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 turns to connected technology.
In 2020, Houdini implemented Gerber Technology’s YuniquePLM, a cloud-based software that tracks the lifecycle of a product. This provides visibility to customers and gives them a behind-the-scenes view of the supply chain. According to Danielsson, the company’s long-term goal is to influence consumer behavior and empower customers to contribute to a regenerative and collaborative circular economy.
Our main vision is to have children more connected to the things they wear, so that as they grow older they are more aware consumers and understand the climate process.
Matthew Benjamin, founder and CEO of school clothing startup Kapes, is there with Danielsson. Her company creates what she calls the most durable school uniforms in the world. But applying circular economy thinking to school uniforms poses challenges: Children grow up quickly, and uniforms are often thrown away every year.
To provide a more engaged interactive experience for parents and students, the company has put QR codes on its labels. Similar to Houdini’s use of YuniquePLM, Kapes customers can digitize garments to track their garments’ journey through a sustainable supply chain.
“Our main vision is to have children more connected to the things they wear, so that as they grow older they become more aware consumers and understand the climate process,” Benjamin said.
Most interactions with consumers are transactional: a buyer makes a purchase and that is the extent of the relationship with the business. The connection begins and ends almost immediately. The use of technology – such as QR codes or radio frequency identification (RFID) – as an intermediary between businesses and their consumers fosters a sense of involvement.
According to Natasha Franck, Founder and CEO of Eon, when customers can see where their clothes come from, what they are made of and where the clothes can 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 key player in the value chain,” said Franck. “And in any type of reusable product, there is the possibility of connecting with the customer and his support of these materials.”
Eon drives the CircularID protocol, which uses high-tech identification and communication tools to enable brands to track materials and products.
Materials, yarn type and dyeing process, among other data fields, can be traced using Eon technology. This brings transparency to the customer, which imposes responsibility on companies. In addition, it allows for more efficient management of materials at the end of their useful life.
“Having data is crucial for policy and accountability, and in order to operationalize it at scale, we need to know where the products are and what materials they are made of,” said Franck.
Developing a fully transparent supply chain (visible to consumers via QR codes, for example) may be controversial for some companies, but the financial return is promising. In addition to enabling a more sustainable production process, community involvement can increase due to improved reputation and brand awareness.
Customer engagement is at the heart of developing a sense of community for a brand. Benjamin believes this 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 one way to let them know what they are buying and can convey the ethics of the company. The circular economy lends itself not only to sustainable and recyclable products, but also to the possibility of creating community through storytelling.
“While you don’t necessarily send thousands of students to a sheep farm in Argentina, you can tell the story of that with technology,” Benjamin said.