This Life Cycle of a T-Shirt video may be from 2017, but the story it tells is still incredibly important in helping us understand where our clothes come from and what happens to them when we’re done with them. Fast fashion brands lure us in with low prices and new styles, enticing us to buy far more than we need, leading to increasing amounts of textile waste in the landfill each year.
What has changed since 2017 though, is how brands are considering the life cycle of the garments they produce by examining how they can make changes to reduce environmental impacts. For years there have been moves towards sourcing more sustainable and ethically-made fabrics. Many big brands have lines that tout organic cotton or recycled content. But a new consideration is the life cycle of a garment in its entirety – taking responsibility for what happens to it after it leaves the store – and the ability to track it from beginning to end through the digitization of labels in order to fully understand this journey.
This week Sourcing Journal hosted a webinar with Avery Dennison, Accelerating Circularity and GAP Inc, to discuss the evolution of digital labeling. Motivated by aggressive targets for re-use and recycling in the EU, brands are now essentially being mandated to embrace circularity. And the introduction of the digital label, either in the form of a QR code or RFID, is presenting all kinds of opportunities — not only for how brands track their products, but also new ways for consumers to use the information provided through these labels, and ultimately, how a garment is managed at the end of its life cycle.
In any form, a label provides a way for brands to manage and track inventory, as well as how to identify the composition of a garment. A label is also used to provide care instructions to consumers (ideally so that they will take care of it and make it last!). While a digital label provides these same opportunities, albeit with added efficiency and accuracy, it also provides new opportunities for data collection and analysis which is transforming how the carbon footprint of a garment is considered.
For recyclers, being able to scan digital labels and quickly determine if/how an item can be recycled will be transformational. Information on fibre composition, chemical content, finishes, colour and trims are all considerations that affect recycling options and, as you can imagine, take time and money to process. Improving the efficiency of textile recycling would be a huge win for not only reducing the amount of waste generated by the apparel industry, but also scaling local recycling programs. For brands, being able to track the journey of a garment can help them improve upon the initial design which will ultimately improve the opportunities for recycling at a garment’s end-of-life.
Another aspect of digital labels is tracking the journey of a garment in terms of the secondary market, and the added value this creates. Taking care of our clothes, in hopes of being able to sell them when you no longer want them, enhances how we care for them. By giving our clothes a second life through re-sale, either to another person (think Value Village, ThredUp, or Poshmark) or even back to the original seller (like how IKEA Canada is marketing Black Friday this year), we are extending the life of a garment. All of this will be traceable through the garment’s label.
And as the Life Cycle of a T-shirt video, that teaches us about how our clothes are made, the digital label likewise provides a new marketing opportunity for brands! Through a QR code, customers can scan digital labels with a mobile phone to access composition and care instructions, and they will also be able to access digital storytelling; for example, the story of who made their garment and where. This direct-to-consumer marketing opportunity opens up a world of possibilities for how brands build loyalty with consumers through transparency and storytelling.
Digitization of garment labels is an important aspect of accelerating circularity in the fashion industry. But for it to work, we first need to establish standardized data for labeling so the information generated is relevant at each step of the journey, and around the world. What is relevant in one country may not be in another, so producing data that is accessible everywhere will be key. For this we will first need legislators to enforce the need for digital labeling to ensure that brands are participating. The more collaboration we see in this arena, the quicker things will move and the sooner we will be able to reduce the immense amount of waste being generated by the apparel industry.
TAKE OUR SURVEY!
In order to support the advancement of textile recycling in Canada, Fashion Takes Action, with the support of the Retail Council of Canada and Accelerating Circularity, is conducting a survey to determine the scope (volume and composition) of textile waste generated locally.
If you are a Canadian mill, manufacturer, retailer or brand please fill out this survey! The data will help us create the business case for a domestic recycling industry.