When apparel brands first set out on their journey toward more sustainable operations, some aim too high too soon without realizing they can start with something as small as their hangtag or label and still make a difference.
“Almost everybody we’re speaking with now is thinking about how to be better and the whole idea is that even if you’re just starting the conversation, it’s a great place to be,” said Rana Sidahmed, global creative director of Avery Dennison’s Retail Branding and Information Solutions (RBIS) arm, speaking to Sourcing Journal recently at the organization’s Customer Design and Innovation Center (CDIC) in New York City. “Sometimes they’re dipping their toe in this idea of sustainability and it’s such a big task for them to start thinking about, so when they come here what we really want is to try to simplify sustainability for them from the branding perspective.”
Sidahmed described the New York CDIC, which opened last year, as a creative playground that offers apparel brands access to innovative and sustainable branding and packaging solutions, consumer insights and the latest patterns emerging globally. Not only do brands get to touch and feel the samples on show, or dive into the archives, but Avery Dennison’s Greenprint tool can also help them understand the environmental impact of their choices a little more clearly.
“It’s not only what material a brand uses for its hangtags or labels—it’s what size, what ink we’re using, how many picks there are on a woven label… All that plays into having the most sustainable branding option,” Sidahmed explained.
“That’s what helps by bringing brands in here, too,” added Helen Sahi, Avery Dennison’s senior director of sustainability. “Because a lot of times a designer thinks a woven label has to be so many picks or something has to be foil, because that’s all they can picture. They don’t see the other options.”
Earlier this year, Avery Dennison partnered with Outerknown, the sustainable menswear brand started by pro surfer Kelly Slater, on dissolvable labels, among other things.
“There’s certain information that you have to have on a label by law but it only has to stay on the garment until it’s sold,” Sahi said. “So instead of making another hangtag that can go into the recycling stream but may or may not, this is a dissolvable tag so you can just throw your garment in the washing machine and it goes away.”
The labels are made from a harmless cornstarch base that doesn’t come out of the food stream, clog up septic systems or affect any other clothing in the washer.
“This is actually a great example of Outerknown working with us really closely from the beginning,” Sidahmed pointed out. “They happened to see the dissolvable paper in a pocket flasher and thought it was beautiful, so we talked about it together and then came up with this solution.”
Outerknown is just one apparel brand RBIS has worked with. Others have included fashion favorites Christopher Raeburn, Mary Katrantzou and Holly Fulton, as well as performance giants Patagonia and Nike, on everything from hangtags to woven patches to polybags to heat transfers.
And when apparel brands want to make more environmentally-friendly choices, Avery Dennison’s Greenprint tool can help them get there by illustrating the amount of natural resources used to make the product and the volume of greenhouse gas emissions and waste generated during the production process.
“It’s not the answer to everything but it is a big part of the story because then you actually present data and people can start making some changes,” Sahi explained. “For example, if you move from plastic to paper you’re getting rid of petroleum but you’re going to use more water… If it’s important to you to get the petroleum out of there it’s not going to matter that there’s going to be more water, but then you may want to go to the next level and figure out where to save water, too.”
To that end, some labels and tags end up using 100 percent recycled polyester yarns, while others are a combination of recycled and non-recycled, but RBIS is always looking to improve its processes.
“We know that we’re not a 100 percent sustainable company. We get that. But it’s a journey,” Sahi said. “Sometimes we do things on purpose, like make a heat transfer that looks like a woven, and sometimes we actually figure out later that there was a more sustainable way of doing it.”
For instance, not only is RBIS working on applying heat transfers at a lower temperature, in order to make the process itself more sustainable and help factories become more efficient, but also whether or not the waste is recycled.
“The waste isn’t ours anymore, it now belongs to the factory, so what we haven’t done but we are working on and thinking about is how do we actually keep that waste out of a landfill, because it could be recycled,” Sahi said. “How do we make the process itself more sustainable? We’re constantly trying to think of every piece.”