With the rapid growth of intelligent assets and the internet of things, the introduction of smart products has the potential to facilitate a sustainable and circular economy. Information technology has the potential to move us beyond product lifecycle management, to product self-management, where objects can communicate and direct their own path through the circular economy.
Smart products can trigger specific information on what to do when it reaches its end-of-life, including how to recycle, up-cycle, disassemble, remanufacture, sell or exchange. To enable the sustainable performance of intelligent assets, Etology correlates a product’s unique identification number with information essential to optimizing a product lifecycle. By using item level tags to sort apparel and textiles at the end of their lives, Etology enables the cascade of each type of textile to more suitable and higher-value applications than is the case today.
We caught up with founder Natasha Franck to discuss smart products and the pros and cons that go along with them.
How important is the future of smart products in terms of fashion and traceability?
Natasha Franck: It is an economic and environmental imperative that fashion transition to a circular economy. However, there is a huge gap between the concept of of a circular economy and the practical reality. The internet of things and the growth of intelligent assets can connect the trillions of items we consume each year globally, with the essential information necessary to maximize product lifecycle and restore materials to their highest and best use. Without the internet of things, a truly circular economy cannot exist. For systems to be sustainable, a system must be interconnected and responsive, informed by data and knowledge. With embedded intelligence in nearly every object, we can create a circular system that adapts and responds — emulating the intelligence and interconnectedness of our natural ecosystem.
For the fashion industry to close the loop, we need to use information technology to create smart products. Smart products are essential to eliminating textile waste and driving material reuse. Smart apparel items can inform the up cycling of textiles at end of life, enable the automated sorting of textiles, and the cascade of each type of textile to more suitable and higher-value applications than is the case today. Reusing textiles introduces the opportunity for endlessly reusable fashion, empowering designers, brands and consumers to celebrate unlimited self-expression.
How is what you are doing set to be a gamechanger for the fashion industry and textile waste?
NF: Fashion has become the second most polluting industry in the world. We produce 80 billion articles of new clothing a year, and our apparel has one of the poorest recycling rates of any reusable material. Limited resources and growing population pose real continuity risks to this continued model of consumption. A “less is more” mind-set can lessen the impact, but does not significantly improve our situation in the long run. In order to transition to a regenerative approach to resource management, it is essential for us to harness the power of information technology. By introducing a solution that bridges the information gap between producers and waste processors, we are changing the game and pushing the fashion industry toward a closed loop model.
How does enabling products to be smarter perhaps dumb down people and their knowledge of what to do with things?
NF: It is impossible for consumer, producers or even waste processors to take responsibility for material lifecycle management. Smart products allow us to move beyond lifecycle management toward product self-management. Smart products are able to describe their material content, their disassembly instructions and inform automatic sorting. They will provide information and data essential for closing the loop, and it is inevitably this intelligence that will become the key enabler of a circular economy.
We consume at alarming rates and create waste at the same pace. Do you see more companies investing in recycling technologies because they have to?
NF: It is challenging today to push companies to invest in reducing waste. The “take, make waste” economic paradigm is still a viable model for most businesses — with inexpensive natural resources, cheap landfills, and little regulation driving meaningful change. There are very few policies in place that incentive companies to reduce their waste footprint. Extended producer responsibility policies would shift the responsibility of post-consumer waste from taxpayers and municipal governments to the companies that produce the packaging, creating incentives for producers to reduce the amount of waste they create, increasing recycling rates, improving revenue to recycling system, and reducing carbon and energy use. Today, however, there are very few products which fall under extended producer responsibility. This is an area where we can and should push for change!
Come meet Natasha in person for our next Tech Tuesday on Tuesday, July 26th, 6:30-8:30 pm.