The big push: New labelling laws will jump-start fashion circularity

Michael Colarossi
22 May, 23

The apparel industry’s mission to become more sustainable is being fast-tracked thanks to a raft of eco-labelling laws planned in the EU, and growing industry advocacy in the USA. It’s realistic to anticipate that within the next five years there will be a legal requirement to make product information and details of a garment’s eco-credentials more transparent.

There is still some uncertainty about how this will be executed, but the expectation is that product data will be made available to customers via Digital Product Passports (DPPs) or ‘digital twins’ stored on cloud data platforms and accessed through smartphone-scannable digital care labels or tags. This tech[1] is market-ready. Shoppers can scan an intelligent label – often a QR code on a label – and discover how and where a hoodie was made, the sustainability profile of the material, how to care for it, and how to recycle it responsibly.

Behind the legislation and enhanced labelling is the hope that manufacturers and their customers will evolve away from linear models of production, consumption, and disposal, and adopt circular models, whereby clothes last longer, and when no longer wanted, are either resold or re-processed so that they can be-integrated into new clothing. ESG-focused brands including Levi’s[2] and H&M[3] are already introducing ‘take-back’ schemes, aiming to ‘close the loop’ by repurposing worn garments. Patagonia[4] started this trend with their Worn Wear product line, and also supports a Repair Portal, offering care tips and free repairs, to help customers extend the life of their garments.

The apparel industry’s urgent challenge  

Circular models are urgently needed as the climate crisis unfolds. The World Economic Forum[5] has identified the fashion industry as the world’s third-largest polluter. It releases 10% of worldwide greenhouse gas emissions annually. Waste is a monumental problem; 1. 9 million tonnes of textile waste[6] are produced every year.

Of the 100 billion garments produced each year, 92 million tonnes end up in landfills. Without seismic change in the apparel industry, these problems will only ramp up in the coming years. Consumers have wised-up to unsubstantiated claims from some apparel producers and are demanding science-based evidence[7] of carbon reduction. The French government passed the first stage of its fashion sustainability legislation this January. The French Decree 2022-748 AGEC (Anti-Waste for a Circular Economy Law)[8] requires large retailers to provide consumers with detailed information about the environmental qualities and origins of products they purchase. The law will extend to smaller companies in the next few years.

The law covers the product’s recyclability, traceability of textiles, and any presence of plastic microfibres. Certain environmental claims such as ‘eco-friendly’ and ‘biodegradable’ are banned from product information. The data must be accessible as a product page online, on labels, or in another printed format in stores. The law empowers shoppers to make conscious decisions about what they buy, and forces retailers to manage their waste more responsibly. Non-compliance will lead to fines.

More apparel eco-legislation is coming

The French law is the tip of a regulatory iceberg, with the EU, the US and the UK all poised to pass fashion sustainability and Extended Producer Responsibility laws, as our recent report[9] shows.

To comply, brands must begin by designing with sustainability in mind and selecting appropriate materials, the details of which can be made transparent to regulators, consumers and a host of other stakeholders. This transparency then extends to the supply chain, ensuring that brands have visibility of where materials are sourced and how their garments are made. And it ends with communicating that information, likely through a digitally-connected label on the garment.

Finally, while most of the legislative activity is in Europe, global brands (regardless of where they are headquartered) will need to comply.  And given the complexity of apparel supply chains, ultimately, the European requirements may drive change.

To prepare for that change, forward-looking fashion brands are adopting readily-available digital labelling technology, and they are starting to organize their supply chain data to make it accessible via cloud-based DPP platforms.

Beyond compliance, DPPs also help brands enhance their consumer experience, drive supply chain efficiencies, and facilitate textile recycling. When a QR code on a care label[10] is scanned with a smartphone, for example, consumers can find out about the authenticity and provenance of the textiles and dyes, and perhaps see a carbon calculation and water use rating. This will give customers, retailers and recyclers all the information they need to facilitate circular models of return-to-store, resale and recycling. Certainly, sorters and recyclers cannot process garments without a wealth of information.

Consumer education needed now

The use of QR codes on garments, alongside other digital trigger technologies, can be a catalyst behind consumer change. But there is work to do to ensure wide adoption and proper consumer understanding of what’s possible. Avery Dennison is involved with both the CIRPASS[11] panel in Europe and the AAFA[12] in the US, to help scope digital labelling and DPP technology, in line with industry and consumer needs.

At NRF Retail Week[13] in New York this January, we demonstrated a digitally connected t-shirt and scarf both designed to facilitate circularity and help brands prepare for incoming laws. Consumers can trace the path of each unique garment by scanning the QR code on its care label, and then use Avery Dennison’s connected product cloud,[14], to view the product’s journey, from yarn supplier, through to the manufacturing process. 

Behind the clever tech is a simple ambition: applying digital technology directly to garments can enable the circular economy. Solutions like DPPs will give consumers a better understanding of how to repair, recycle, and resell their clothes. This will not only encourage more sustainable fashion choices but also pave the way for mass adoption of secondary marketplaces, and recycling channels. Scalable technologies are available today. It is now just a matter of starting. 















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