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A designer's perspective: Connectivity turns circular design intentions into circular products

by Annie Gullingsrud, Chief Strategy Officer, Eon


Excerpt from Eon’s report: The Connected Products Economy — Powering Fashion and Retail’s Circular Future. Download the full report to view contributions from Ellen MacArthur Foundation, Closed Loop Partners, Accenture, Microsoft, and more.



Billions of apparel products are produced every year. To ensure circular design intention is carried through the value chain, we must create a digital system and infrastructure that can support the management and efficient processing of each of these unique garments.


The solution is leveraging the power of IoT for good purpose — connecting digitally identified garments to a shared digital system, allowing them to “speak” to the circular value chain and to customers.


As a designer, I am invigorated by the opportunity to change the system with design and experimentation in order to ensure that a garment and its materials can effectively re-enter the system, and not be sent to landfill. From 2014 I started to support fashion designers and brands in the development of Cradle to Cradle Certified products and materials –one of the most rigorous and holistic environmental product certifications. We created beautiful materials and products that I am proud of, all certified at the highest level of Cradle to Cradle Certified.


There’s a rich story behind every material; from the sheep that provided the wool, to the mills that produced the fabric, and the team that stewarded their evolution. We put in years of effort, investment, support and passion to ensure that these materials would do no harm and would help the planet flourish.


Through my practice, I began to wonder what would happen to these garments and materials after they were sold and then hopefully resold to customers — how would their story continue to be told after it was in the customer’s hands? I began to worry that the embedded quality and embodied energy, not to mention all the time, effort, cost and good intentions that went into creating the garment, would disappear after it was in the customer’s hands. If I couldn’t tell that story — who would?


Moving beyond intention and into practice


I had my first tour through Goodwill in 2010 and many eye-opening visits to various collection/sorting/resell companies since. I watched as the employees sorted with quick, swift hands for quality and the brand labels that would demand the highest price point.


It was only after I joined the Board of Goodwill San Francisco and began working with Goodwill International, that I was enlightened to the fact that circular design intention was just that — intention. Brands and designers were designing for disassembly, recyclability and biodegradability, but never once did I see anyone disassembling, sorting, separating out for biodegradation, or receiving the rich story of the inception of the products and materials of these garments.


Despite all the effort designers and brands put into redesigning these products for recapture, they were simply lost in the system, unable to be identified or set aside to ensure these products went where they were intended to go. We are in the same position we had always been in — left with products and materials we couldn’t identify, sometimes without a tag, unable to tell the story of their inception. Design intention turned unintentional waste of resources.

I began to see similar challenges with recyclers and innovative start-up chemical recyclers after launching the industry’s first working group in 2015 dedicated to researching and piloting chemical recycling technologies for post-consumer textile waste. Forming close relationships with global chemical recycler start-ups who were developing technologies to allow for a more flexible system of recycling back to virgin quality, we learned they faced similar obstacles as collectors, sorters and resellers. For them, too, it is difficult to sufficiently and efficiently identify the incoming materials. This would be essential to scale their technologies. The garment’s tag, if present at all, often did not provide the information needed to distinguish if the garment itself was a good match for their technology.


In 2014, over 100 billion garments were produced with the expectation that this number will continue to increase each year.27 Billions of fashion apparel items are being produced every year, from a wide range of fashion brands and retailers, and flow into a stream together at end of use—a combination of multiple brands, years of production, seasons, colors, styles, fibers, etc. How can we create a system and infrastructure that can manage the diversion and efficient processing of billions of apparel garments at a time?


The solution is leveraging the power of IoT for good purpose — connecting digitally identified garments to a shared digital system, allowing them to “speak” to the circular value chain and to customers, letting us know what they are made of, where they’ve come from, who designed them, who has worn them and how to care for them.


With a flourishing Connected Products Economy, we can bring circular business models to scale and sufficiently fulfill the circular design intention of billions of products at a time.


Download the Connected Products Economy Report to learn more about the intersection between connected products and circular economy from leading contributors, including the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, Accenture Technology, Microsoft + Open Source and many more….


Download the Connected Products Economy Report