Digital product ID startup Eon, fashion brand Ahluwalia and Microsoft have collaborated on Symphony Unlocked, which uses digital ID embedded with garment information to augment the customer experience while enabling easier resell and encouraging recycling.
Placing a QR code on the garments’ sewn-in care labels, the technology provides additional information about the clothes, from the design influences and processes that went into their making, to transparency about their materials, sustainability certificates and supply chain.
Priya Ahluwalia, founder and creative director of her eponymous brand, says that the collaboration links to her desire to be both environmentally and socially conscious in her work: “We want people to engage with the history of each garment, how it was made, where it has come from and, when they’re finished enjoying the piece, to be able to give it a new life”.
Every product “a future state of trash”
Eon’s Product Cloud Platform was developed with support from Microsoft; previously enrolled in the Microsoft for Startups initiative, Eon has used Microsoft technologies to develop its products, which are powered by Microsoft’s proprietary cloud platform Azure.
Eon founder and CEO Natasha Franck explains that when she started working with Microsoft she was focused on waste management. The focus of the company may have shifted, but, says Franck, “every piece of fashion today is really a future state of trash”.
Embedding digital ID into products at their inception, “can change that future state”, she says.
Eon is working with fashion companies of different sizes including Chloe, Coach, and H&M, in addition to Ahluwalia. The company is also looking to expand to product areas such as furniture and cosmetics – “or any product that is created by humans”, she says.
Digital ID: not if, but when and how
Projects such as this may be the forerunners, but a form of digital ID will soon be compulsory across the EU.
The European Commission is currently putting in place Digital Product Passport legislation, expected to be first implemented in 2027 as part of the EU Green New Deal, which includes the Ecodesign for Sustainable Products Regulation (ESPR) and Circular Economy Action Plan (CEAP).
Franck argues that “the circular economy is really the largest logistics challenge in the world”.
“If we have product ID at scale, we will be able to manage every product intelligently, because you can’t manage assets that you can’t identify. Imagine trying to run Amazon logistics without ID, right?”
She says that while products are currently managed on the level of a SKU (stock-keeping unit), which records quantities of a product, “with digital ID you move to [individual] items, so everything becomes a snowflake”. With a unique ID, each item can hold data about the factory it was produced in, to recording when it is sold, resold, recycled or sent to landfill.
The intention is to make prolonging the products’ use as easy as the initial purchase: “If you think about how easy we’ve made it to buy with one click, now with a digital ID some brands are activating one-click sell”, Franck says.
While at production, every product has a barcode, “when that product is sold it kind of disappears, and you don’t know where that product came from, you don’t know who made it”.
“You can’t move it through resale or recycle without all the data to be able to manage that product”, she says, which is where digital ID comes in.
It also allows designers to take more responsibility for the goods they produce, as well as opening opportunities to monetise circularity. This can help tackle an industry and business model that has favoured overproduction, Franck argues.
What sort of data do you need to collect?
Careful decisions must be made to avoid storing unnecessary data in a digital ID, says Franck. Digital IDs carry their own carbon impact, even if EU research has calculated the roll out of digital passports to have “nominal” impact in comparison to the product waste they will prevent, she says.
“One of the questions you ask when creating your digital twin is what data and why”, says Franck.
“It might be the storytelling behind the product and what’s going to matter to the customer, but also the datapoints that are critical for resale and recycling. For recycling it [might] need these thirty data points for material and chemical, and for resale it needs these”.
Nor, despite the hype around it, does everything need to be put in the blockchain, Franck says. “If there’s an important event, like transfer of ownership, and it needs an authentication layer then you can add it, but you don’t necessarily need all that robustness around every item’s digital ID”.
QR codes work well at smaller scales, but for larger-scale services like the sorting of materials for automatic recycling, NFC (near-field communication) tags and RFID (radio frequency identification technology can also be used to carry the necessary data.
What does it offer designers?
While Ahluwalia describes herself as someone who loves “analogue methods” in her design and is generally “much more about creating experiences […] that make people cry”, the designer believes the technology can offer a new level of engagement.
She has previously worked with Microsoft on Circulate, an AI-powered project that invites customers to send their own textiles and clothing to Ahluwalia, to be recycled into new garments in return for credit.
As with this previous project, with Symphony Unlocked she is able to invite the wider Ahluwalia community into her studio’s design process. For a product category like luxury fashion, this is a value proposition, she argues: “it gives people an opportunity to really find out more and have more of a personal relationship with the piece that they’ve invested in”, she says.
She stresses that she doesn’t want to tell people what to be interested in, but by offering this mix of creative insight and transparency-focused content, there is a possibility to speak to those who are interested in fashion but “sleep on technology” or sustainability, she says.
It can also help a designer tell the stories important to them.
The design for Symphony, Ahluwalia’s Autumn/Winter 2023 collection, was inspired by the music that is important to the designer, much of which has been influenced by her Nigerian-India heritage and upbringing in London.
Some design details reference vintage Nigerian and India musical instruments, or even the soundwaves of particular songs turned into prints, Ahluwalia explains. Using the ID, she can tell some of these histories, sharing content such as playlists, or interviews with those involved in shaping the visual and sonic world of the collection.
Communicating these references can have added importance, she says. “I’m black and brown, so the stories I’m telling are about representation, and that means a lot to people in an industry that has until recently not been very representative”.
Banner image: Ron Timehin for Microsoft, Ahluwalia and EON, Symphony Unlocked