The world is overflowing with waste, and it’s the fashion industry’s job to take out the trash.
That’s according to an Avery Dennison report detailing the sector’s greatest hopes for a zero-waste future. Alongside The Future Laboratory, which co-produced the study, the labels and tags manufacturer said shifting attitudes about conscious consumption, a deepening aversion to single-use plastics and waves of more stringent legislation have all contributed to consumers’ and brands’ drive to right fashion’s wrongs.
Consumers have voiced their desires for sustainably produced or packaged products many times over in recent seasons, and Tyler Chaffo, manager of global sustainability for Avery Dennison’s RFID technology, said the company has seen real commitment to the cause. “For the past few years, I’ve seen consumers increasingly choosing more sustainable products,” he added, with Avery Dennison’s data indicating 20 percent growth in the sale of sustainable products dating back to 2014.
Still, he said, “there has certainly been a disconnect between consumer aspiration for sustainable products and a willingness to pay more.” That’s because consumers—who have been conditioned by an industry long dominated by fast fashion—haven’t yet internalized the true cost of doing business sustainably, he said. “As recently as this past year, only 33 percent of consumers have rewarded more responsible companies despite a majority indicating that they would do so,” Chaffo added.
Avery Dennison believes the tides are gradually shifting, citing data from Project ROI that indicated corporate responsibility programs have the potential to increase revenue by as much as 20 percent, while increasing shopper commitment by 60 percent. “Even during the pandemic there was a consideration that sustainability would take a backseat as it relates to packaging,” Chaffo said, but Avery Dennison’s data revealed that the vast majority (82 percent) of consumers “agreed that it is important for brands to balance safety and concern for the environment when designing their product packaging.”
It’s not just brands and shoppers driving the industry toward eco-consciousness. According to the report, a “legislative tsunami” is underway, with the E.U. aiming to become climate neutral by 2050 through its European Green Deal initiatives that address single-use plastics, circularity and chemicals, while France enacted the first ever anti-waste law in February 2020. In the U.K., a plastic packaging tax will go into effect in 2022, while even in the U.S. and China—two of the world’s leading waste-makers—are rolling out new laws. The California Mandatory Recycled Content bill, signed in September, requires plastic bottles to be made with a portion of post-consumer recycled content. Meanwhile, China will see a ban on single-use plastic bags and a 30 percent reduction in the use of single-use plastic utensils in restaurants by 2022.
America has been stymied by “a lack of standardization as it relates to regulations and infrastructure across the various regions of the United States as it relates to recycling and more specifically for waste,” Chaffo said, with the E.U. still in the lead, “despite being a consortium of member nations that sometimes act as competitors as it relates to their local economies.”
Still, 12 U.S. states are currently considering Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) laws, which would make businesses financially responsible for managing and recovering their plastic waste. “Large producers are increasingly being asked to not only pay for these improvements,” Chaffo said, “but also to use their scale to influence real change.”
“The benefits of circularity weren’t always as clear as they are now,” Chaffo said, adding that brands have realized that “in addition to the obvious environmental and social benefits, there are also very real financial benefits.” Finding ways to keep products in use longer or to reuse materials that would have once been characterized as waste has obvious upsides. Shoppers are also increasingly buying into the concept, he said. “It is telling that the apparel resale market is growing at 21 times traditional apparel retail.”
But when it comes to creating products that are truly circular—meaning that they can be recycled into new items and the end of their lifecycle—challenges abound.
“The main drivers for these challenges vary across industries but I would say one of the most common is a lack of logistics or infrastructure” for collecting and recycling products, Chaffo said, adding that consumer education is also an issue that must be addressed. “Brands can create excellent products that are inherently circular in nature,” he said, “but if consumers do not know what to do with a product when it has reached the end of its useful life, or if there is not a network that supports this circularity, then the product will ultimately end up being disposed of.”
Dating back to 1950, only 9 percent of the world’s plastic waste has been recycled, instead littering the natural world or being burned in incinerators or shipped to developing nations. “We need solutions that focus on improved collection and sortation,” Chaffo said.
When it comes to the fashion arena, even fewer items are collected and repurposed. The Better Shoe Foundation estimated that less than 5 percent of post-consumer footwear is recycled.
Brands like shoe startup Thousand Fell are attempting to address the issue by using only biodegradable, upcyclable and recyclable materials. When consumers have outworn their pair, they can mail it back to the company for a $20 credit off their next purchase, and the shoes are broken down into recycled raw materials to re-enter the fashion supply chain.
Swiss running shoe brand On has developed its own sustainable subscription scheme, wherein members pay a $29.99 monthly fee to use their Castor-bean-based Cyclon sneakers. Once the shoes have been worn down through pavement pounding, they can be sent back to the company to be recycled while a new pair is shipped out to the subscriber.
Meanwhile, Spanish apparel and footwear label Ecoalf upcycles plastic waste from fishing nets, working with fishermen across the globe to collect the plastic nets for processing into a new polymer yarn, which is spun into fabric for a range of products. Avery Dennison’s Albert Yarn is made by capturing material scraps from the cutting room floor and re-spinning fibers into usable yarns. Company research showed that the apparel industry wastes between 15 and 20 percent of fabric during apparel production, and the solution reintroduces these pre-consumer fibers in a manner that’s fully traceable, since they’re made in a single factory.
As shoppers attempt to make more informed choices about the products they buy—and brands try to deliver on their promises—promoting transparency is becoming essential to sustainability strategy. The benefits of tech-driven traceability technology like blockchain have been touted with increasing interest in recent seasons, but haven’t yet proven to be a scalable solution for the industry as a whole.
“However, that is changing,” Chaffo said, “helped in part by large global transparency initiatives spearheaded by industry groups” such as the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe and the World Economic Forum (WEF), which provide large, open traceability platforms.
“This adoption has not been exclusive to large brands, as we see smaller brands with less capital resources adopting blockchain,” Chaffo added, especially across categories like agriculture, which stand to prove relevant to fashion brands attempting to track the origins of their raw materials. The market for blockchain in the agricultural and food supply chain is expected to reach $948 million by 2025, he said by way of example.
“The demand by consumers is also driving the necessity of improved transparency and traceability beyond the larger more established brands,” Chaffo added, noting that the intrigue of blockchain technology presents an “excellent opportunity” for brands to engage with shoppers and influence their decision-making. About 90 percent of consumers want brands to help them in their mission to become more environmentally and socially conscious, according to data from the WEF.
Avery Dennison’s Atma.io connected product cloud, used by Adidas, is helping the sportswear titan promote circularity through connectivity with shoppers. The RFID technology scales the brand’s ability to track and buy back products from consumers, giving them a second life. When a shoe is returned to Adidas, the company leverages its digital identification to confirm that it’s authentic and understand its makeup so that it can be recycled properly. Shoppers can also tap into the data should they wish to check out their shoe’s origins.
Menswear designer Priya Ahluwalia’s eponymous menswear line also adopted a bespoke smart label, which allows shoppers to delve into their garments’ past. Ahluwalia’s creations are made from deadstock fabrics and upcycled vintage garments, and by scanning the labels with their smartphones, consumers can access information about how their purchases were sourced, how to care for them, and ultimately, how to properly dispose of them when they reach end of life.
“We will also need these solutions to scale because as materials become more complex, deeper levels of transparency become mandatory,” Chaffo said. “In general, bio-plastics cannot be recycled in the same manner as PET,” so having insight into material makeup will become essential to promoting circularity, he added.