Your smartphone has already made you familiar with what’s called an “Operating System.” An operating system lets the apps to talk to the device. You know it as either Apple

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iOS or Android. Conceptually, an operating system is a simple idea: a series of rules that software uses to interact with other software and hardware.

Now the concept of operating systems is moving beyond software and being applied to physical things; that’s called the Internet of Things (IoT). IoT allows previously separate objects, like your lights or air conditioning, to communicate with other devices. You have seen IoT when an Alexa device adjusts room lights or garage doors or temperature settings. Over time, there will be a lot more such interaction between devices and things; operating systems facilitate those interactions.

How Internet Of Things Will Work With The Fashion Industry

Inevitably, connections of software to physical things will extend to the fashion industry. Imagine scenes like these:

  • You want to recycle an old or worn out garment so it doesn’t wind up in a landfill. But you don’t know what the buttons are made of or what kind of thread is used on the seams. That lack of information means the only place for the garment is the trash; it can’t be recycled because no one knows what’s in it and where it should go. But if the garment had a unique tag that connected back to the manufacturer, a recycler could know immediately how to handle the product. Raymond Randall, Managing Principal of Corporate Development and Innovation at Waste Management, the leader in waste handling in the world, thinks that’s a business opportunity and told me Waste Management is exploring garment recycling “aggressively [and] working on a number of pilots with brands and retailers.”
  • You bought a vintage product but you don’t know if it’s real or not (that happened to me when I bought a $3600 Christian Dior bag on The RealReal

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    as you can read in this article). You could instantly connect to the manufacturer through the product’s unique identifier to know it’s real and learn about how the product was made, where and by whom.
  • You’re standing at your closet and you scan the identifiers on your favorite garments and share the information with your favorite brand or retailer. They instantaneously select new items for you to shop that have a similar fashion sensibility and are in your size and price range.

What’s Happening Right Now

You may be saying all of this sounds good but it’s far off in the future. Maybe it is, but we are seeing critical steps being taken right now for all of it and for services yet to be imagined. A company called Eon Group has created an operating system that allows manufacturers, recyclers, resellers, consumers or anyone to access complete and correct information about a garment or consumer product as smoothly as your email app gets your messages and displays them on your smartphone. Randall of Waste Management says Eon’s system “allows us to get more materials to the top of the pyramid,” where they can be recycled and re-used.

Eon’s operating system is getting real traction:

  • Yoox, the owner of Net-A-Porter and other fashion retailers with a market value exceeding $4.5 billion, is rolling out an Eon-connected system on all its private label garments.
  • Walmart’s

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    foundation committed $1.2 million to test recycling circularity using Eon’s system.
  • President Biden recently issued an executive order that attacks “unfair anticompetitive restrictions on third-party repair or self-repair of items” which need an operating system like Eon’s to provide the information needed for repairs.
  • The European Union is advocating a “Digital Product Passport” that allows consumers to access detailed information about every consumer product for exactly the same reason.

Natasha Franck, Founder and CEO of Eon, says, “the relationship between the brand and the customer ends the moment that product is sold. But it’s really just the beginning of the product life cycle and the brand experience.” Being able to use communication to extend that cycle and experience improves opportunities for the brand and experiences for consumers.

Annie Gullingsrud, Chief Strategy Officer at Eon, said, “Eon introduces a language for those connected products to speak.” Franck of Eon says, “Fundamentally what we’re doing is very simple. We’re [allowing brands or retailers] to manage it across its life cycle.” That includes knowing what a product is, where it came from, who made it and what happened to it over time.

Recycling, resale and outfitting are obvious uses of a fashion operating system. But like your smartphone, once the system is in place, inventors and entrepreneurs are likely to develop more innovative ways to use the information. Industry analysts assume this technology will improve supply chain efficiency, reduce out-of-stocks and enhance marketing performance. Given the scale of the fashion and accessory industries, it is likely that the impact of this kind of information will create opportunities that are impossible to foresee right now.

Data in a report recently published by Sharpend, an IoT advisor to PepsiCo

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, Campari, Levi’s and other consumer companies, says 53% of consumers would pay more for a connected product. 78% of U.S. consumers have already used an on-package QR code to engage with the product and a majority say they expect to do that more often in the next year. More than three-quarters of U.S. consumers have used connected packaging to learn about recycling or disposing of the package or product.

Differing Visions

Cameron Worth, the founder and CEO of Sharpend, believes the fashion industry is not developing this new technology in the most effective way. About Eon, Worth said, “we’re big fans of Eon’s proposition to the market, we think … they have the strongest brand out there for fashion designers who want to engage in the connected space.” But he believes the technology is distracting to brands. He said brands have to “place experience before technology and right now … most people are placing technology before experience.” Worth thinks more focus is required on identifying “a consumer pain point or exploring a transformation of new business opportunities with connected products.” But the consensus among leaders is well articulated by renowned Harvard Business School professor Michael Porter, a leading business strategy thinker. He says that these “smart, connected products” are likely to be the biggest IT-driven transformation yet, creating more “innovation, productivity gains and economic growth” than previous developments in information technology.

We Have Seen This Before

When personal computers were first created, it was not known that the companies that make the operating systems for them would become more important, and more valuable than the makers of the actual hardware. Operating systems have proven to be the underpinning of communications and operating systems are poised to move beyond computers now. Today the garment, fashion and accessories industries are still making products that can’t connect with its customers or makers. With an operating system for the industry, recycling can take off, resale will be much easier and reliable, supply chains will be more efficient and the table will be set for new and innovative services to be developed. Like Uber

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/Airbnb/Doordash/Instacart, an operating system makes physical objects more accessible and usable. It’s hard to foresee all the ways those services will work before they begin but the impact on how consumers access and use fashion products will be massive.