What you wear says a lot about you. Clothes might add a lot to our personality, but what if they themselves had their own identity?

Sounds odd? Well if a group of technology-focused environmentalists have their way, all your clothes could soon possess their own digital identity, with the ultimate aim of cutting waste from the fashion industry.

“One of the biggest barriers to textile recycling is lack of material transparency,” says Natasha Franck, founder and CEO of Eon and the Connect Fashion Initiative, which is behind the CircularID system. “We cannot recycle a garment if we don’t know what it’s made of.”

A circular economy model could help fashion cut its environmental impact.
Image: Connect Fashion Global Initiative

The global initiative, which has the backing of big-name partners including H&M, Target and Microsoft, works on a circular economy model to help the fashion industry become more sustainable.

Every item would have a “birth certificate”, including its brand, price, recycling instructions and details of its dye process, as well as a “passport” enabling it to be tracked throughout its lifecycle.

By increasing transparency about how the item was made and where it currently is, the potential for it to be authenticated and transferred to other owners – through rental, sharing or resale – repaired or recycled also increases.

Fast fashion

The perils of fast fashion are well known. Around 150 billion items of clothing are made every year and most of these end up in landfill. That’s not only bad for the environment, it also often has a negative social impact.

Making a pair of jeans produces as much greenhouse gas as driving a car more than 80 miles and garment workers, primarily women, often make far less than is needed to live decently.

While many in the industry recognize a radical transformation is required, making it happen can be more difficult. Traditional fashion business models aren’t founded on maximizing the useful life of garments or recycling or reusing them.

Circular economy

What is a circular economy?

The global population is expected to reach close to 9 billion people by 2030 – inclusive of 3 billion new middle-class consumers.This places unprecedented pressure on natural resources to meet future consumer demand.

A circular economy is an industrial system that is restorative or regenerative by intention and design. It replaces the end-of-life concept with restoration, shifts towards the use of renewable energy, eliminates the use of toxic chemicals and aims for the elimination of waste through the superior design of materials, products, systems and business models.

Nothing that is made in a circular economy becomes waste, moving away from our current linear ‘take-make-dispose’ economy. The circular economy’s potential for innovation, job creation and economic development is huge: estimates indicate a trillion-dollar opportunity.

The World Economic Forum has collaborated with the Ellen MacArthur Foundation for a number of years to accelerate the Circular Economy transition through Project MainStream - a CEO-led initiative that helps to scale business driven circular economy innovations.

Join our project, part of the World Economic Forum’s Shaping the Future of Environment and Natural Resource Security System Initiative, by contacting us to become a member or partner.

Fostering a circular economy is a key part of the World Economic Forum’s work and it has collaborated with the Ellen MacArthur Foundation for a number of years to help accelerate the transition and cut down on waste in all industrial sectors.

Could giving clothes a digital passport help with recycling?
Image: Connect Fashion Global Initiative

These developments also underscore how the Fourth Industrial Revolution and technologies such as blockchain could help map the path to a circular economy.

Blockchain has the potential to transform the business of fashion, according to Vogue, by allowing more transparency in supply chains, making it easier to prove authenticity and helping safeguard the welfare of workers.

For an industry that’s trashing a garbage truck full of clothes every second, change may be needed sooner rather than later.