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How Connected Garments Could Facilitate Fashion’s Circular Revolution

The fashion industry is pursuing a more circular model, but scaling up textile recycling is going to take more visibility into the content of clothing.

Circularity today is a sustainability strategy for brands, but it will soon be a mandate in some parts of the world. The European Union has taken on textile waste, stipulating that by 2025, all garments need to be recycled at end of life. With this directive and growing demand for recycled raw materials, it is imperative for the industry to be able to more effectively and quickly process used garments.

One of the major opportunities to provide more information at the sorting level is digitizing the content and care label to create connected garments. During a recent Sourcing Journal webinar, speakers shared their vision for remaking these highly regulated labels to be more permanent, engaging and informative.

“Every garment has the potential to be circular, they just have to be connected,” said Debbie Shakespeare, senior director, sustainability, compliance and core PLM at Avery Dennison RBIS.

The current label requirements for garments have been in place since 1996. Along with requiring specific details such as country of origin, care instructions and fiber content, the regulations for passing customs and other checks stipulate that a label needs to be physical. For global brands, labels need to include the necessary information for every single country that they retail in so that all merchandise can be sent to any destination. As a result, consumers end up cutting the thick labels out of garments for comfort.

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Getting to a place where labels are entirely digitized will require revamped legislation, and there are already moves being made toward this connected future. The European Green Deal put forward the idea of electronic product passports, which would include information on end of life dismantling. Meanwhile, the American Apparel and Footwear Association is lobbying to get legislation changed in the U.S. so that labels do not have to be physically attached to merchandise.

Avery Dennison is currently running pilot programs for connected labels. In this system, garments are given a digital ID that can be accessed by interacting with a trigger. These triggers could be QR codes, RFID chips or a Digimarc logo. While it may be easier for a consumer to scan a QR code with their phone, a recycling facility would benefit from being able to sort automatically via RFID. “The future is to have one trigger attached to each garment that can cover all these needs,” said Sarah Swenson, global senior manager sustainability at Avery Dennison RBIS. “The data is held the same for the garments, whether it’s held by one trigger or two triggers, but we do really want to make sure it’s only one so the accessibility is the same for everyone at the end.”

According to Karla Magruder, founder and president of Accelerating Circularity, ideally a label would be permanently affixed so that recyclers and other operators of circular solutions would always be able to find out pertinent information such as fiber content. On the consumer side, Avery Dennison’s digital labels can also tell them where to take a garment once it can no longer be worn.

“If we want to move to circularity, we have to be able to sort a tremendous amount of garments at scale, very quickly,” said Magruder. “And we’re really hoping that that’s something that this digital solution would be able to provide.”

Digitizing labels would also have an impact on supply chain operations such as inventory management, enabling brands to better keep track of where merchandise is. Digital labels could also help avoid costly errors, according to Alice Hartley, director, global sustainability at Gap Inc. Today, if a garment makes it through a production run with incorrect labeling, shipments could be held up, requiring companies to potentially pay to expedite corrected merchandise. If information is housed centrally on a digital ID, it can easily be changed remotely without having to experience the same delays.

Creating new garments with digital triggers would also mean being able to more easily capture data about fiber content, feeding into research currently being conducted by organizations like Accelerating Circularity. This in turn could also help brands develop merchandise that can be more easily recycled.

Beyond recycling, connected apparel would also unlock opportunities for more sustainability storytelling, enabling brands to trace the origins of a product and share that with the end consumer. Further supporting the circular economy, digital labels could also help prove the authenticity of garments as they enter secondhand retail.

“If a consumer buys a product the first time knowing that it might have some potential for secondary sales, either on a peer-to-peer platform or even back to the company you bought it from, that’s changing the fundamental value of that garment at that first point of transaction,” said Hartley. “We know that extending the life of a garment is probably the best way to reduce its environmental footprint, so if we can keep these pieces of clothing in circulation longer by giving consumers more options about what to do with it after a certain point, that’s a win in many ways.”

Watch the webinar, sponsored by Avery Dennison, to learn:

  • What a fully digital future for care and content labels would look like
  • The product attributes that could be hindering a circular path for textile waste
  • What consumer education is needed to support recycling
  • The cost of implementing digital labels
  • How brands and other stakeholders can get started with circularity
  • How Avery Dennison is working with brands, consumers, sorters and recyclers to advance the circular economy

Click here to watch the webinar now.