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With Digital Product Passports Just Around the Corner, This Brand Is Getting Out in Front

Legislation to capture product information across the entire value chain is coming. Is fashion ready?

One brand that’s a step ahead of the so-called Digital Product Passport (DPP) scheme coming up from the European Commission: Holzweiler, a Norwegian apparel brand that has partnered with New York-based product cloud platform Eon to make its garments more traceable, transparent and, yes, compliant.

Holzweiler’s first digitized products, which will launch in its spring/summer 2023 collection, will feature a unique QR code that connects them to a “digital twin” in the ether. Such a bridge, says Natasha Franck, Eon’s founder and CEO, gives every item a “voice,” allowing companies to build ongoing relationships with their customers past the point of sale, identify—and confirm the authenticity—of products throughout their life cycle and successfully scale resale, repair and recycling ambitions. Just as social media platforms give people unique identities online, Eon’s Digital ID does the same for products, she added.

Line Staxrud Eriksen, CSR manager at Holzweiler, sees the DPP not as an additional burden but as a way for its garments to become a “new gateway” for engaging with its customers.

“Through this channel, we can more readily engage the user to participate in our circular models as they evolve and expand, and we can identify new opportunities to service the customer, anticipating their needs and supporting them in building a sustainable wardrobe,” Eriksen said.

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With regulatory scrutiny on the rise, digital-twin technology is “seeing an inflection point” in both brand understanding and adoption, Franck said. The DPP, itself a component of the European Union’s Strategy for Sustainable and Circular Textiles, is part of the bloc’s sweeping sustainability and circularity ambitions. By imbuing products with information on their origin, composition, repair, disassembly and recyclability, it’ll create a kind of “interoperability” between previously walled-off nodes so that all stakeholders can access the data they need.

Franck knows what she’s talking about. Eon is an “expert shareholder” in CIRPASS, a European Commission-backed consortium of more than 30 industry partners that aims to help brands pilot and deploy DPPs with shared rules, principles, taxonomy and standards from 2023 on. The strategy is expected to be formally approved by the European Parliament in 2024, following which details such as data requirements, data carrier types, the granularity of information and audience information will be unveiled. If everything goes according to plan, DPPs will be mandatory on all textile and textile products sold in the EU by 2030.

This won’t be easy, admitted Gisle Mariani Mardal, head of development at the Norwegian Fashion & Textile Agenda, better known as the NF&TA. Eon partnered with the national cluster not only to implement the DPP for Holzweiler but also to codify the implementation guidelines, which will be made public to the industry as a potential roadmap for embedding the project’s best practices.

“It’s quite complicated; that’s for sure,” Mardal said. “I know a lot of companies are really struggling to figure out exactly how to do it, [especially] in such a short time frame.”

Collecting the data is one challenge but so is verifying it. The textile industry doesn’t have a lot of good data; nor does it have the best data flow that can put that information into context. The current infrastructure, Mardal said, is still very “analog,” meaning an abundance of Excel sheets that leave plenty of risk for human error.

“I also think that for a lot of the companies, it requires a new sort of organizational structure in the design process, needing to be able to take into account the afterlife of the product or the whole lifespan of the product,” he said. “So I think there’s a lot of knowledge that needs to be implemented in the organizations.”

Eon x Holzweiler digital product passport
If everything proceeds according to plan, Digital Product Passports will be mandatory on all textile and textile products sold in the European Union by 2030. Courtesy

While larger brands might have more resources to deal with the issue, their supply chains also tend to be longer and more convoluted, Mardal noted. Connecting all those dots is no easy task, which is why collaboration, particularly between usually disparate stakeholders, is so vital.

The Holzweiler initiative, which was two years in the making, is Eon’s first foray into DPPs, as well as the first time it’s worked with a government entity. Franck uses DPP and Digital ID pretty interchangeably. Foundationally, they’re the same thing because “when you’re creating a Digital ID with Eon you’re laying the groundwork for the DPP,” she said. DPPs, however, have an additional emphasis on policy compliance because specific data field requirements—for now, TBD, though there are expected categories—are involved.

Eon’s biggest learnings? “There are a lot of different data sources that need to come into a product identity to create a comprehensive data profile,” Franck said. “Everything from the name of the model to its color/picture to the origin of raw materials. It may seem like a few simple points, but name, model and picture—those are going to be probably three different systems: your data asset management holds the photo, your ERP or your PLM is holding the model, the size, the color, and then your origin of raw materials is from your factory.”

This is Eon’s reason for being, however: aggregating and “ingesting” data from multiple sources to create what Franck calls a “single source of truth.” The information is already out there; there just needs to be a way to corral it. What the company cannot do, however, is authenticate this data beyond cross-referencing it with a certifications database or API to confirm its legitimacy.

“For the industry, trusted verifiers have specific data claims,” she said. “I think that will be the big next step and definitely be decided with DPP legislation.”

When it comes to brands’ sustainability goals, DPPs will be “transformational,” not only from a business model perspective but also from an accountability one, Franck said. The Internet of Things is the “biggest leverage point” into a sustainable economy for fashion. To put it another way, if the circular economy is the largest global logistics challenge in the world, then we’ve been taking on that challenge “without a barcode,” she said.

“When I started this, there was not necessarily an understanding of what Digital ID was or this concept of a Digital Product Passport,” she said. “Having a policy mandate is definitely making brands say, ‘O.K., we could have maybe put this off one or two months, or maybe one or two years.’ Now they’re saying, ‘We actually have to do this and get organized.’”

Franck is nonplussed by the fact that brands don’t control their products post-sale. Eon recently launched Instant Resale with luxury nameplate Chloé using Digital ID, which includes an ownership certificate, on Vestiaire Collective.

“With Instant Resale, brands are basically able to ID that product and steward exactly where they want that product to be sold,” she said. “That means that they’re going to be getting back the product. They’re going to be maintaining the customer relationship, and they’re also really getting the data from the secondary market.”

Digital IDs and DPPs can help with another problem currently plaguing executives everywhere—greenwashing. Mardal is well-acquainted with the issue. Norway, along with the Netherlands, has been cracking down on potentially misleading green claims by the likes of H&M and Zalando.

“In Norway, you’re not allowed to say that you are sustainable unless you can document it,” he said. “ That’s the baseline, so it’s not confusing to consumers. And I think in effect, the Digital Product Passport will prove that you are—or not. It would also help them communicate initiatives that are better for the environment.”