How can increasing digitalization improve the apparel industry’s sustainability credentials?

Spurred on by eco-consumerism, the global apparel industry is turning to solutions that will help them reduce waste and carbon emissions in their supply chains.

Many brands are investing in digital technologies to solve environmental issues, and a big part of this is supporting a shift from linear to circular consumption.

A big change is needed. In a linear model, garments are created, sold, and discarded when no longer wanted. In a more sustainable circular model, garments have second or third lives, sold as second-hand, upcycled into new items, or processed by a textile recycler and returned into the manufacturing system.

Digital care labels to support circularity

What can make this a reality?  Digitalization is the answer. Digital IDs and data will be required to power end-to-end solutions supporting the extended lifecycle of a garment, helping buyers, retailers, and recyclers unlock the potential of a circular fashion economy. Full circularity will come when we reuse and recycle textiles on an industrial scale. While the infrastructure isn’t quite there yet, in terms of textile recycling plants, digital ID technology is widely available, and ready to start empowering change.

The care label is currently the only means of communication on a garment. Circularity is activated when a care label becomes digital and connected, opening up a world of possibilities. Digital triggers[1] are the key. RFID supply chain solutions and QR codes on care labels, for example, linked to data platforms offer vital information to a variety of stakeholders.

Data is the gateway to a sustainable future

Digitalised or ‘connected’ garments can aid the rising sustainability need by providing access to vast amounts of data. To eliminate garment waste, the industry needs composition and manufacturing process data about every item, as well as the ability to link information all the way through the supply chain. The journey to fashion circularity may truly progress once this is widely available and recycling facilities have been appropriately supported and ramped up.

Reverse logistics partners can automate the sorting process by scanning a digital trigger, such as a QR code, on a garment to access consistent data regardless of the brand. This will speed up the process of determining if a garment can be resold or what type of recycler is required to handle its components. Resellers will be able to use the same technologies to verify the authenticity of products.

Environmentally-friendly decisions

The digital label also allows consumers to learn about the history and composition of garments, as well as how and where to recycle them. According to Avery Dennison’s study[2], younger consumers — as well as other demographic groups – are enthusiastic about QR codes and smartphone apps. 90% of fashion customers in Europe, the United States, and China would welcome tech solutions that would improve their purchasing experience. Another interesting finding was that 60% of buyers desire more information about their clothing’s production route, so they may make ethical purchasing decisions.

Digital Tracking

For the retailer, digital technology will provide exact post-purchase tracking of a garment, allowing it to be received once a customer has finished with it, and repurposed in a variety of ways. Brands can track the amounts of inventory moving back into the circular economy and assess how effectively they are reducing their carbon footprint using QR codes on intelligent care labels.

Having a permanent digital trigger unlocks the ability to propel the entire business forward by providing data that will promote necessary awareness and allow for new methods of working.

One school of thought is that consumers will want to move beyond a transactional relationship with a brand to a more ‘community’ approach in the future, where they return items for further use.

Removing waste

As well as using digital tools to promote circular consumption, digitisation can drive supply chain efficiency, and cut waste. RFID technology and digital product tracking can help a company avoid over-manufacturing. Instead, a company only makes what is required, so less waste is produced and, as a result, a reduction in the supply chain’s overall carbon footprint. Businesses are now making use of this to a greater extent, although more effort is still required.

Data may not appear to be the most alluring aspect of fashion, but it will, in the long run, enable the digital transformations that fashion businesses and retailers are increasingly focusing on. Consumers are more aware of greenwashing and demand real data and figures from the brands they support, confirming that environmental challenges are being addressed.

As a result, we’ll need points of connectivity on garments to capture and track the data needed for sustainability, circularity, and digital customer involvement. Only then can fashion legitimately claim to be environmentally friendly.


[1] https://rbis.averydennison.com/en/home/digital-care-label.html

[2] https://rbis.averydennison.com/en/home/our-global-web-index-partnership.html

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