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The Garment Label Needs a Makeover—Here’s How to Do It

Pity the humble clothing label. From high-fashion to basement bargain, hypebeast to Old World luxe, it’s the one universal design element that all items of apparel share, yet most people pay it scant attention. Sure, they’re useful to confirm a garment’s make and size, but other than that, who cares, right?

Well, plenty of people, most of all the U.S. Customs and Border Protection and the Federal Trade Commission, which require clothing labels to be compliance documents writ small. It’s why all tags, whether stitched to a seam or printed directly onto fabric, include, almost without exception, the name of the manufacturer, the garment’s fiber content, its country of origin and instructions for laundering.

Beyond an exercise in branding, the clothing label is, in essence, a “regulatory document,” said Michael Colarossi, vice president, innovation, product line management and sustainability at Avery Dennison, a global manufacturer and distributor of adhesive materials, labels and tags.

It’s for this reason that the clothing label hasn’t changed much since mid-century union workers used it to distinguish their wares. (“Look for the label,” the International Ladies’ Garment Workers exhorted consumers for decades.) That, and the fact that the fashion industry is recalcitrant to change in general.

Since the collapse of Rana Plaza in Bangladesh in 2013 killed 1,137 garment workers and injured thousands more, however, advocacy groups like Fashion Revolution have called for greater scrutiny of the vast and opaque supply chains that characterize most major brands and retailers. Witness the meteoric rise of the Fashion Revolution hashtag #whomademyclothes: More than before, consumers want to illuminate the provenance of their clothing.

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Study NY
Study NY’s labels offer a deeper look into its supply chain. Study NY

For brands that want to respond in the quickest, most direct manner—which is to say, the moment someone touches one of their garments—the clothing tag can offer valuable real estate.

Tara St. James, founder of the New York–based brand Study NY used to provide more granular information about her pieces on their paper hangtags, until she realized that a number of stockists were snipping them off and affixing their own branding, instead.

She maintained (and continues to maintain) all of that information, including the names and addresses of her fabric and trim suppliers, on each product page on her website, but she didn’t know how many people were actually accessing those details—particularly if they made their purchase at a physical store.

So St. James redesigned her clothing labels, which now feature not just the source and the makeup of the fibers she uses but also where they were woven (and often by whom) and ultimately assembled into a complete garment. In addition to care information like “hand wash in cold water” and “lay flat to dry,” St. James includes suggestions for managing the item when the owner tires of it: “Repair when possible, donate when no longer loved, recycle if you can.”

St. James says she knows that most consumers don’t ask for—or indeed desire—a logistical deep dive, but she wants them to have it anyway, without the friction of having to ask someone or fire up a web browser.

“I thought it was important to share that information and I wanted just to be a transparent business,” she said.

Not the whole story

St. James isn’t the only designer to view the clothing label as a valuable customer touch point. Asket, which hails from Sweden, recently turned the “made in” label on its head. Instead of listing just a single country of origin, as most brands are wont to do, Asket traces each garment’s globe-spanning journey.

The tag of one shirt, for instance, reveals that its cotton fibers were farmed in the San Joaquin Valley in California, spun in Turkoglu-Kahramanmaras in Turkey and dyed, woven and finished in Ronfe Portugal in Portugal. Its buttons were made in Bergamo, Italy, from mother of pearl collected in Makassar, Indonesia. Its thread? Spun in Romania from polyester produced in India. Finally, the garment was cut, sewn, trimmed washed and packed in Felgueiras in Portugal. Got all that?

While breathtaking in its scope, such planet-trotting is pretty typical for a garment in today’s globalized industry. Which is why a conventional “made by” label doesn’t tell the whole story, according to August Bard Bringéus, co-founder of Asket.  

The single country of origin is a “practicality” that helps usher products through customs and border control, Bringéus noted. Based on trade agreements between governments, tariffs might be applied. But highlighting just one country is an oversimplification of clothing’s often circuitous odyssey from raw material to full-fledged garment.

“I can say that almost no standard commercial garment out there is made entirely in the same country,” Bringéus said. “So essentially the ‘made in China,’ ‘made in Italy’ label doesn’t tell the full picture. It never does. And it doesn’t actually help us as consumers in understanding where our garments come from.”

Study NY and Asket are both lithe, nimble operations that hew to the philosophies of “slow fashion” and quality over quantity. They know their supply chains intimately because they work directly with their suppliers without middlemen getting in the way. They favor permanent collections and are judicious with new styles.

In short, they’re the complete opposite of an H&M or a Zara that might find charting the pathways of each of the millions of SKUs they churn out every year a Herculean, if not downright impossible, task.

While Orsola de Castro, co-founder of Fashion Revolution, would like to see fuller disclosures by brands on their clothing tags, she also insists that companies need to untangle their own labyrinthine networks first. After all, you can’t trace what you don’t know.

“You can’t start with the label, you have to start with the actual supply chain,” she said.

Certainly creating individual labels for each SKU isn’t the hard part. Brands can already apply date stamps or production-run numbers to labels for quality-assurance purposes, Bringéus said. And if they can manage that level of complexity, they can “absolutely put more information into that label,” he added.

Both Asket and Study NY get around label-printer minimums by digitally printing their tags. St. James batch-prints her labels by the sheet at Pratt Institute’s Brooklyn Fashion + Design Accelerator, where she serves as production coordinator. She and her assistants then cut the smaller rectangles by hand, which is time consuming but “worth it,” she said.

Similarly, Colarossi of Avery Dennison doesn’t see scalability of thousands of unique tags—or even tens of thousands of them, as in the case of a multinational brand or retailer—as a hurdle. Firms like Avery Dennison, he said, have platforms with “significant databases” of regulatory and proprietary knowledge that inform the printing process.

“[This] allows us to bring everything together and print that unique label for that unique garment anywhere in the world,” he said.

Avery Dennison
An example of Avery Dennison’s RFID technology. Avery Dennison

A digital key

With advancing technologies, the clothing label might even transcend its purpose as a bearer of analog data. Future “intelligent” labels, Colarossi said, might someday evolve into a form of  “trigger technology” that syncs the product up with an Internet of Things (IoT) cloud-based software, such as Avery Dennison’s own Janela Smart Products.

Imbued with Quick Response (QR) or radio-frequency identification (RFID) technology, such a label could function as a reorder button (à la Amazon’s Dash) for high-turnover items like socks and underwear, allow a user to upload a garment into a digital closet or uncover special events or discounts.

A brand might imbue its label with digital token powered by blockchain technology, so that a consumer can track and verify every step in the garment’s sojourn. (This isn’t a pie-in-the-sky concept; a London-based firm called Provenance is currently piloting a smartphone app that does exactly that.)

“By linking labels to digital solutions and data, there’s a massive potential to unlock opportunities not only for brands but for retailers and factories and, frankly, the consumers,” Colarossi said.

And at the end of the product’s life, the label might inform recycling facilities how to best manage a garment and “make sure it’s recycled for a circular economy,” he added.

The potential of clothing labels to convey more than the same, staid information should not be overlooked, echoed St. James. Even the biggest, splashiest billboard can only say so much. But the history of the exact item of clothing customers are wearing? Possibly next to their skin? That allows for a deeper, more intimate bond with the brand that made it, she said.

“I think as new technologies start to develop, we’re going to see more innovative ways of communicating stories and supply chains and cost effectiveness to customers,” St. James added.