Will a digital product passport help the EU reduce waste and create a circular economy? SiliconRepublic.com spoke to people involved in a passport pilot project to find out.
In light of the worsening climate crisis, the European Union is developing policies aimed at moving towards a circular economy; that is, an economy that maximises efficient and long-term use and reuse of resources to limit the effects of production on the limited natural world.
According to the European Commission, transitioning to a circular economy is “a prerequisite to achieve the EU’s 2050 climate neutrality target and to halt biodiversity loss”.
As part of the European Green Deal, the EU aims to be “the first climate-neutral continent by 2050” and to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by at least 55pc by 2030.
In March 2022, the Commission published a proposal for a new Ecodesign for Sustainable Products Regulation (ESPR). This regulation builds on and will eventually replace the current Ecodesign Directive, first enacted in 2009, which covers only energy-related products.
The Commission has described the new regulation as “the cornerstone of [its] approach to more environmentally sustainable and circular products”.
According to a Metabolic report, “To achieve a circular economy, it is crucial to enable effective resource management and maximise the value of products and materials throughout their lifecycle”.
Part of the Commission’s ESPR plans for effective resource management and data-sharing is the introduction of a Digital Product Passport (DPP).
What is a digital product passport?
A DPP is “a set of digital data specific to a certain product and aimed at making all relevant information visible during the product’s lifecycle to contribute to more sustainable production and consumption”, as defined by the ProPare pilot project which Staffan Olsson was involved in.
Olsson is head of public affairs at GS1 Sweden, a branch of the GS1 global standards organisation that is working on a pilot project with clothing retailers to implement a DPP.
“The underlying assumption from legislators and others is that pairing requirements on making products more sustainable with transparency requirements will increase the willingness of industry to make the necessary transition,” Olsson explains.
“The aim is to collect information along the whole value chain about sustainability, raw material and safety, but also how products are used, maintained, recycled and repurposed,” says Laura Linnala, a project manager who specialises in the circular economy and biodiversity at the Swedish Institute of Standards, who is also involved in the project.
Swedish pilot project
The goal of the Trace4value pilot project in Sweden is to test how a DPP can function in practice, given the numerous different sectors, systems and standards operating across a product’s supply chain.
TrusTrace is a global SaaS company that got involved in the project because of their expertise in helping brands map and trace their supply chains.
Jenny Wärn, head of implementation at TrusTrace, says that the pilot will include about 1,000 garments which will be available in shops in the first quarter of 2024.
“By scanning a QR code printed on the care label and stitched to the garment, the consumer can instantly access verified, real-time data at the point of purchase,” Wärn says. The idea is that customers will have access to a user-friendly website to find out about the supply chain, recyclability and other data for their particular product.
The EU generates 12.6m tonnes of textiles waste each year, with clothing and footwear accounting for 5.2m tonnes. This is equivalent to 12kg of waste per person every year.
Kappahl is one of the clothing companies involved in the pilot project. The company’s VP of sustainability, Sandra Roos, sees Trace4Value as an opportunity “to visualise to all the involved staff at Kappahl what a digital product passport is” with the aim of meeting all upcoming EU sustainability requirements for the textile industry.
The goal, Roos says, is “to be proactive in the transition to a sustainable and circular economy”.
“By better knowledge of the DPP, we can discover when and where it is an enabler for even more functionality, not [only] connected to the ESPR.”
This small pilot is focused on developing the technical aspects of a workable DPP. As Olsson explains, the DPP system will be decentralised so standards must be agreed on for all the various parts in the supply chain to be able to work together.
“Success is identifying information requirements, standards and infrastructure that enables interoperability, preparing actors in the value chain for DPP, as well as providing insights and sharing learnings that we will gather along the journey,” says Wärn.
It will be a while before the Commission’s ESPR is ready to enter into force. A public consultation period closed in May of this year, with adoption by the Commission planned for early 2024 and implementation for 2026 or 2027.
Building trust and accountability
Though the pilot is not specifically focused on public engagement, Olsson believes that “the ability for consumers to access product data easily may be a strong driver for change”.
Aside from the technical aspects of the DPP, there is the issue of trust and accountability. How will brands be held accountable for the integrity of the data they supply?
‘Digital product passports are the future’
– RICHARD PRICE
Olsson says this “is not completely described in the ESPR” but that there are companies which claim to offer increased accountability and trust in data for their clients. He also said there are research projects exploring this area with the aim of making recommendations to the Commission.
“However,” Olsson says, “technology alone cannot create accountability and trust.
“It is also a combination of cultural change and a potentially expanded role for third-party certifications that may enable the accountability and trust needed.”
Just last week, fashion brand Nobody’s Child launched their own DPP for their Fearne Cotton collection. In a statement, the company said that the DPP will “allow customers to trace the production process and environmental impact of each design they purchase within the collection from a simple QR scan on their smartphone”.
“Digital product passports are the future and we welcome the opportunity for customers to engage with the unique Nobody’s Child QR codes in our selected stores,” said Richard Price, MD of Clothing and Home at Marks and Spencer, which stocks the brand.
For those hoping to embrace a circular future, unfortunately there’s still a long way to go before every high-street clothing chain has to prove their eco credentials. However, initiatives like the DPP may yet prove useful for citizens to identify the brands that have the data to back up their sustainability claims and help weed out greenwashers in a time of climate crisis.
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Updated, 12pm, 19 September 2023: This article was updated to clarify that GS1 Sweden is a branch of the global GS1 organisation and that the DPP definition used was developed by the ProPare pilot project.