The impact of open data on the fashion industry

The profound importance of open data

Data has traditionally been considered proprietary, a source of power and a competitive edge. In a knowledge-driven economy, information is an asset, and therefore keeping data locked away might hinder potential economic growth. Public bodies in Europe are the biggest producers of data. It is with good reason that Cabinet Office Minister, Francis Maude, talks of Open Data as the next industrial revolution [1]. The European investment in the public information sector (which will now be referred to as PSI) reaches €9.5 billion each year, and the economic value of this investment is estimated at 1.4% of the EU GDP [2], making the PSI as important as any established industry, such as legal services, textiles and printing.

A number of studies have been made in the past two decades to explore the potential of exploiting this area – open public information with a public/private collaboration which might have a social, economic advantage that would maximise value. PIRA, a leading provider of independent knowledge-based information, highly recommended the unlocking of public data to the European Commission, in order to overcome barriers for businesses that use the PSI. In 2003 the directive 2003/98/EC on the re-use of the PSI was established by the European Commission to promote and harmonise the re-use of data amongst EU members, to set guidelines on availability, accessibility, transparency and, most importantly, to make considerable changes in the pricing models where the fees applicable are free or at marginal cost [3].

Since then, governments have started to release data. This initiative explains why Open Data has been mainly governmental data up until now, including city or federal budgets, weather, census and GPS data – this data has the most important economic and social impact [4]. The leaders in this sector are the UK, the USA and France [5]. Many apps have been created that present the data in a user-friendly way. (See previous Provenance post on five apps to help consumers make better choices).

In the private sector, companies choose to share data in order to enhance their bottom line, by releasing business reports, for example. Although many businesses have started to share more data in order to be more transparent, it is still not the norm.

Why focus on the fashion industry?

It has been proved that Open Data impacts not only community life, but also generates economic value. Different studies have assessed the value generated by Open Data in diverse sectors, such as agriculture, manufacturing, fishery, oil and gas, and retail. The assessment has been from a macroeconomic perspective. It is therefore interesting to explore a specific industry and discover how it benefits from the Open Data phenomenon. This research has taken the fashion industry as its case study.

The rise in awareness of the benefits of Open Data will lead to public demand for more openness. In the last few years, the increase of consumer awareness in respect to the environmental and social impact of the clothing industry has put pressure on brands to be more transparent. It is interesting to evaluate the contrast of Open Data, which is about transparency and honesty, with an industry known for its proprietary of information. We are perhaps witnessing the start of a paradigm shift that the industry should be aware of which could dictate the need for openness in its strategic planning.

It is important to make a difference between some notions of data to avoid confusion, below data categories as defined by Joel Gurin [6]:

Source: Joel Gurin, Open Data Now, 2014

Source: Joel Gurin, Open Data Now, 2014

The future of Open Data in the fashion industry

The Use of Open Data by Multinationals

Multinationals in the fashion industry are likely to be users of data available for marketing purposes, usually through third parties that produce software solutions, custom reports on the competition analysis and analytics tools for conversions. Hence, software solutions such as Qubit have arisen which are using geo-targeted marketing and time/weather recommendations. According to a Senior strategist at Qubit:

“Geo-targeting is really effective for click and collect or delivery messaging. For international businesses, site redirects make sure that your visitors are on their local site, which increases their propensity to converge” [7]

The Use of Open Data by SMEs

While SMEs in the fashion industry use Open Data in their designs, usually in the form of data visualizations (e.g. photos, or images printed on the clothes). This has a multifaceted benefits. First of all, new products and creative designs arise with a high level of personalisation and uniqueness, a good example for this are Dressmap which is showcasing a map of a chosen area and Slow Factory which prints a high-resolution images released by NASA on clothing.

Secondly, the data, which is the core of their business, is a free asset for SMEs and individual designers who usually require funds at the launch of their start-ups. This has an equalization effect between small and large businesses, which increases competition.

Finally, as Open Data is accessible to everyone and it can be copied as Céline Semaan Vernon, founder of Slow Factory, recognises, these designers base their competitive edge on the creative process and sustainability practices and are tapping into a niche market that values quality and ethical products. “We decided to print it following an extremely conscious and environmentally friendly and fair trade practice that not everyone can afford and not everyone wants to afford.”

On the other hand SMEs are also suppliers of data. Having sustainable practices and maintaining a hold over their supply chain, they tend to be transparent and open up data regarding the whole supply chain. This is something Provenance spearheaded through their framework for supply chain transparency.

The potential to address corporate social responsibility (CSR) issues

According to interviewees who have participated to the study, Open Data could address CSR issues in the fashion industry,

“So if you extract the fashion industry down to the base components of making fabrics and textiles and those things, I definitely can see how Open Data would be very important for the people that are working at that level, because agriculture is increasingly a data-driven industry… across most of the agricultural sectors, there is a lot of data that is used for pricing as well as to enhance production,” according to an American ODI node.

This has been corroborated by Vernon:

“When we work with these types of Open Data, our goal is to really raise awareness around certain issues that somehow very cycloid into scientific or too scientific or too political”.

There is therefore a real potential that Open Data could resolve few challenges that the fashion industry is facing, through a combination of different steps. First of all by making the information on the clothing tag available online. Hence, when purchasing online, most of the information regarding the clothing is visible, such as the colour, size, and fabric composition, with the exception of the “Made in” aspect. As online shopping is increasing dramatically, and some fashion retailers exist only on the web such as ASOS and Farfetch, it is a logical that all the information that currently exists on the clothing tag should be available online. Besides this information will affect the consumer choice of a particular product [8].

Secondly, the factories audits should be made available online, as big fashion houses, in their fight for the carbon footprint, have established a code of conduct with their suppliers, and pay third parties to audit the manufacturers. The audit is not considered to be a competitive edge for the brands, so should be monitored by independent organisations, and made available online. And finally the aggregation of the above information with other information such as the suppliers that are released by some brands, information delivered by the assessment tools such as the Higg Index or Slavery Footprint may help with tracking, and give better information and assessment of the product while purchasing online for the interested customers.

This could be made possible with government or international organisational support, such as the European Commission, in establishing the appropriate laws.


Although some scepticism exists regarding the extent to which the release of data is beneficial to the economy, it has been proven that it has a societal value, improves research and development, enhances transparency and offers better information to the consumer.

Many issues have been pointed out, such as interoperability, quality and cultural challenges concerning the release of data and privacy. In promoting the release of data, governments seem to be more focused on the supply of data rather than demand. Suppliers of data should be proactive with regards to IT infrastructure and interoperability. Even if this involves additional costs and resources, a standardised data format updated at regular intervals should be a requirement to prevent future problems when a tremendous amount of data becomes available.

Still, Open Data is in its early stages even in leading countries, this case study particularly demonstrates that the fashion sector can be affected by the phenomenon. To make the most of the Open Data era in this area, the raising of awareness and collaboration between different actors is the most effective way.

This is a summarised version of an MBA dissertation written by Sarra Othmani at the University of Southampton


[1] Baldwin, C 2014, ‘Using Public Sector Open Data To Benefit Local Communities’, Computer Weekly, pp. 17-20, Business Source Corporate

[2] Pira International. (2000). Commercial Exploitation Of Europe’s Public Sector Information Final Report For the European Commission Directorate General for the Information Society

[3] European parliament and council Directive 2003/98/EC of 17 November 2003 on the re- use of public sector information

[4] Gurin. J (2014). Appendix B defining categories. In: Joel Gurin Open data now, the secret to Hot start-ups, smart Investing,Savvy marketing, and fast innovation. United States: McGraw-Hill education. 253-256.

[5] Capgemini Consulting. (2013). The Open Data Economy Unlocking Economic Value by Opening Government and Public Data

[6] Gurin. J (2014). Appendix B defining categories. In: Joel Gurin Open data now, the secret to Hot start-ups, smart Investing,Savvy marketing, and fast innovation. United States: McGraw-Hill education. 253-256.

[7] Quick Start Solutions | Qubit Web Personalization | March 2014.

[8] Matrix insight. (2013). Study of the need and options for the harmonisation of the labelling of textile and clothing products