3 ways Digital IDs on garments support fashion sustainability

digital IDs on fashion garments for sustainability

In this article, Sarah Swenson, Global Senior Manager Sustainability at Avery Dennison explains three ways that digital IDs on garments can support fashion sustainability.

France’s parliament recently approved a climate bill that will introduce mandatory ‘carbon labels’ for goods and services, including clothing and textiles, to inform consumers about the environmental impact of their purchasing decisions. Meanwhile, this November, COP26 put the race to combat climate change firmly front of mind for global politicians, industry leaders and consumers, with nations committing to a raft of carbon-cutting measures. It’s highly likely that in the wake of the landmark summit, many countries will be compelled to pass laws similar to France’s regarding product labelling to boost sustainability.

This action is urgently needed in the notoriously wasteful and polluting retail fashion industry. The US Environmental Protection Agency estimates that in 2017, 10.2m tonnes of textiles ended up in landfills while another 2.9m tonnes were incinerated. In the UK an estimated 350,000 tonnes of clothes go to landfill every year. It’s often quoted that fashion accounts for around 10% of greenhouse gas emissions from human activity and nearly 20% of waste water. 

Retailers and brands know they must track and report their emissions if their sustainability strategies are to be credible and legally watertight in the future. There’s acknowledgement that technology and data will be needed, to power end-to-end solutions to fashion’s problems, helping shoppers, retailers and recyclers unlock the potential of a circular fashion economy. The great hope is that if we re-use and recycle textiles on an industrial scale, we can cut carbon. 

What if apparel retailers and brands could keep track of their carbon-reducing progress with reliable garment data that is accessible throughout the item’s lifecycle? Today, there is only one communication device on a garment, and that is the label. When it becomes digital and connected, circularity is ignited, opening up a world of possibilities. At Avery Dennison, we believe digital triggers – for instance RFID supply chain solutions, and QR codes on care labels – hold the key. 

Here are three ways digital IDs on garments can help promote sustainability in fashion and retail. 

1. Recyclers and resellers gain access to vital information 

If you’re a textile recycling operation and you want to determine how best to recycle a garment, the only way to determine how to go about it, is by looking at the label. Today, sorters must manually separate materials into 400 categories or use infrared technologies to make assumptions on garments compositions. 

Putting a digital trigger, such as a QR code, on a garment to hold standardised data no matter the brand, allows reverse logistic partners to automate the sorting process. This will increase efficiency of understanding as to whether a garment is resale-worthy or what type of recycler needs to handle its composition. Equally, resellers will be able to confirm authenticity of products using the same technology. 

To reduce the mass wastage of garments, the industry needs to have composition and manufacturing process data on every item, to link information all the way along the supply chain. Once this is widely available, and recycling facilities have been properly funded and scaled up, the journey to fashion circularity can truly forge ahead.

2. Consumers are empowered to give garments a second life 

Sustainability has been pushed to the forefront of consumers’ minds when purchasing in recent years, as climate change becomes more serious, and issues around ethical labour have come to light. Fashion buyers, especially, are demanding increased transparency detailing how their products are manufactured, packaged and shipped. 

The technology behind item-level ID solutions enables brands to meet these expectations. Without them, only a tiny proportion of the lifecycle of a fashion product would be accounted for and be visible to stakeholders and customers in the fashion supply chain.

So, if you are a consumer and you want to learn how to care for your garment in a more sustainable way, or recycle or resell it, you look at the digital label. This acts as a gateway, allowing consumers to check garment history and composition and learn how and where to recycle items. 

Avery Dennison’s own research [link to report] has confirmed how younger consumers – and other demographic groups – are embracing QR codes and smartphone apps because of the nature of omnichannel retail, presenting marketing and education opportunities. We found that 90% of fashion shoppers (surveyed across Europe, the US and China) would welcome tech solutions designed to improve their shopping experience. Another pertinent finding was that 60% of shoppers want more transparency about the production journey their clothes have been on, so they can make ethical purchasing decisions.

3. Retailers can access data to track, report and analyse

For the retailer, the Digital ID will allow accurate tracking of a garment post-purchase, meaning it’s possible to receive it back once a customer has finished, and generate more value out of it, in a variety of ways. With QR codes on intelligent care labels, brands can track the volumes of inventory going back into the circular economy, and monitor how effectively they are paring down their carbon impact.

By telling the garment’s story, the retailer also extends its connection with consumers, post-purchase. The QR codes on a digital care label, for example, take shoppers into a digital experience, activated through a smartphone. By providing guidance on garment care, retailers are helping customers to engage closely with the brand, which presents exciting marketing opportunities for the future.

The concept of having a permanent digital trigger or QR code on the garment really unlocks the ability to move the whole industry forward, with data that will drive the necessary awareness and the behaviors. Data powers the digital transformations that fashion retailers are now so focused on, to achieve sustainability, circularity and digital consumer engagement. 

I’m confident a more sustainable future for fashion is within our grasp. As apparel labels become more digital, every item owned will have a unique signature and a means of unlocking vital information that will prolong its life. With legislation inevitable, the savviest retailers will adopt digital IDs and communications platforms early, and design circularity and traceability into their clothing ranges. If this doesn’t become common practice very soon, fashion’s longed-for circularity may never materialise.