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If These Labels Could Talk…

Asking consumers to reduce their carbon footprint might be missing the point. Perhaps the better approach would be to help them understand what a carbon footprint is in the first place, why it’s important, and how to find relevant information about it.

Those already looking for a garment’s carbon data usage—on a label, on a hang tag—are miles ahead of the game. They already know there is information they need to seek. Average consumers, on the other hand, don’t know what they don’t know, which becomes a communications challenge.

Michael Colarossi, vice president, product line management, innovation & sustainability at “smart label” company Avery Dennison, accepts that challenge.

Companies just need to talk to consumers in a language they understand. “First, you need to transparently communicate your information, then try to make it relatable—number of bottles of water that were recycled, the number of trees saved, etc.,” he said at Sourcing Journal’s Fall Summit 2022 panel “The Ultimate Equalizer—Carbon: Reducing our Industry’s Carbon Footprint.” Next, companies need to be able to back up those claims, lest they open themselves up to criticism.

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Once the data is rock solid, it must be conveyed, and digital identifiers stored in clothing labels help enable traceability and transparency, plus prevent charges of greenwashing.

QR label codes have emerged as a viable solution. While slow out of the gate, QR codes became second nature during the pandemic as consumers scanned menus on their phones. Now, consumers are ready in the United States to engage with something on a garment, be it a fan experience on a scannable sports jersey or an apparel sustainability story, Colarossi said. “It reached a tipping point.”

“We need to think about a label’s outsized value in solving some of these big challenges.”

Michael Colarossi, avery dennison

The Future of Intelligent Labeling Tech

The consumer-facing side of intelligent labeling, or the “front-end” of fashion, has room to grow as adoption increases, with even more potential on the B2B side. “I’d say that adoption on the back end for RFID tech is in the 40 to 50 percent range, while on the front end it is much smaller,” Colarossi said. “But we’ve yet to get to the point where brands and retailers are using RFID to map their supply chain.”

As companies are now committing to reducing greenhouse gas emissions, mapping the supply chain is essential, yet challenging. Gaining visibility, and communicating information at the Scope 3 level—where much impact occurs—includes operations outside of their direct purview and control.

“It’s not easy,” Colarossi said. “Frankly we’re not ready as an industry, and most organizations are struggling with Scope 3. Now it’s just keeping the supply chain ready to have these conversations.”

Looking ahead 10 years, the fashion industry will be using digital identifiers stored in clothing labels for even more advanced applications, including recycling or circularity, as long as logistics can support them, Colarossi said. “We’ve demonstrated that a little QR code can enable a takeback program, or automatically sort merchandise. We have the ability to do it.  The challenge is not in the labeling technology. The biggest hurdles are around logistics and recycling networks to close that loop. We need to think about a label’s outsized value in solving some of these big challenges.”