The circular economy of reuse, repair, recycle: The circularity of apparel

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by Simen Kjellberg

Nowhere is the drive for a more circular economy as evident as in the apparel sector. While it’s not quite kintsugi (the Japanese art of repairing pottery by mending broken parts with gold or silver-laced lacquer), there is growing recognition for the beauty of the reuse and repair of goods. 

Consumers increasingly demand circularity – understanding where their products come from, getting a longer lifespan from the items they purchase, and recycling when that lifespan ends. At the same time, companies also seek to respond to consumer demand while adopting ways to boost efficiencies while proving their environmental credentials as part of their overall ESG strategies. 

Ultimately, a circular economy in which goods and materials are reused, repurposed, repaired, and recycled benefits both consumers and businesses. Circularity is also progressively visible as sustainability-related regulations begin to come into effect requiring that items across different sectors, starting with apparel and textiles, introduce circularity to their end-to-end supply chains. This includes being able to answer questions about where materials came from, where the waste from their production final products goes, and what happens to the final products at each stage of their lives. 

Following the full life cycle and actioning the data at each stage is now critical for both compliance and for consumer demand.

Managing the numbers: Billions of garments

It’s one thing to regulate fast fashion – it is another to enforce these regulations. What kinds of technology will be required to manage the billions of garments that enter the economy each year? Given the sheer complexity of supply chains, and the varied roles of participants in the apparel industry, the volume and scale of making apparel traceable can seem overwhelming. 

Product digitization and traceability technology underpin the management of these growing requirements. Designed to manage billions of data points across categories, traceability platforms go well beyond the limitations of traditional ERP and RDBMS systems and enable companies to, for example, build end-to-end traceability for each of their garments. 

Each product receives a unique digital identity. This ID ties together all relevant information about a specific item. A QR code on a clothing label leads to data on when, where, and how it was made. The aforementioned digital product passport contains the end-to-end journey of the item, including repair, reuse and recycle information consumers need, thus closing the circle on what has previously been a nebulous journey to landfills and other places fast fashion items should not show up.  

Closing the circle: Traceability technology 

The long-running fast fashion trend is at odds with the circular economy. In keeping with the European Union’s mandate challenging the apparel industry to achieve more climate-neutral operations, the fundamental thinking about fashion has to change. The European Commission outlines some of this thinking on requirements for durability, reusability, reparability, recyclability, and energy efficiency in its Regulation on eco-design requirements (ESPR) for sustainable products and Directive on empowering consumers for the green transition

Ending fast fashion means closing the circle on apparel. Clothing must be designed for the long haul, and companies will need to be able to prove that their garments comply with regulations. Unique digital IDs and digital product passport technology, providing the granular traceability required, will help apparel companies not get ahead of regulations and also show their sustainability bona fides. 

Find out more about dealing with massive data volume and taming the apparel supply chain by joining our next webinar.