Three ways digital technology on garments can fast-forward fashion sustainability

Lindsey Hermes
19 December, 22

The wastefulness of fashion is finally being addressed by the global apparel industry, with many brands turning to digital technology to address environmental impacts. There’s a realisation that a complete change in consumer behaviours around clothes buying is needed – a move from linear to circular consumption – supported by smart tech. Instead of items being manufactured, sold to one ‘owner’ and discarded when no longer wanted, the consumer mindset and the entire fashion business model must evolve towards circularity. 

Technology plays a leading role in this transformation because data will be needed to power end-to-end solutions supporting the lifecycle of a garment, helping shoppers, retailers, and recyclers unlock the potential of a circular fashion economy. The aim here is that we re-use and recycle textiles on such a grand, industrial scale, that carbon emissions decrease, slowing the catastrophic process of global warming. 

Apparel gets a second life

Resale and re-commerce are set to be big business when ‘circular fashion’ becomes the norm. Research firm Cowen now predicts[1] re-commerce – including resale, rental and subscription models for clothing – will account for 14% of the apparel, footwear and accessories market by 2024, up from about 7% in 2020.

Equally, resale platform ThredUp[2] suggests that apparel resale alone will be a $64 billion market by 2024. Innovative retailers and clothing brands are already planning a future where they can welcome back items of clothing, and generate a revenue stream from stock they’d formerly never have seen again.

Consumers also want to do their part and reuse, resell, repair or recycle clothes, extending the life of a pair of jeans, cocktail dress, or cashmere cardigan, rather than consigning it to landfill. Across the global markets Avery Dennison recently surveyed[3], 62% of people said they want brands and retailers to make end-of-life options accessible for their products, with 58% saying fashion brands should help consumers repair items, and 57% saying brands should help consumers resell items when they no longer want to keep them.

Today, the care label is the only communication device on a garment and it is sewn into every item. When a care label becomes digital and connected, circularity is triggered, enabling a world of possibilities. Avery Dennison believes digital triggers[4] hold the key to circularity, such as  RFID supply chain solutions, or QR codes on care labels, connected to data platforms that deliver valuable information to multiple stakeholders.

How will this work?

Digital technology on garments can help promote sustainability in fashion and retail in three ways: 

1. Recyclers and resellers can access vital data

To reduce the mass wastage of garments, the industry needs to have composition and manufacturing process data on every item and link information all the way along the supply chain. Once this is widely available, and recycling facilities have been properly funded and scaled up, the journey to fashion circularity can truly progress.

Putting a digital trigger, such as a QR code, on a garment that holds standardized data (no matter the brand), allows reverse logistics partners to automate the sorting process. This increases the efficiency of understanding whether a garment is resale-worthy or what type of recycler needs to handle its composition. Equally, resellers will be able to confirm the authenticity of products using the same technology.

2. Consumers are empowered to make sustainable choices

Fashion buyers are demanding increased transparency detailing how their products are manufactured, packaged and shipped. The technology behind item-level identification enables brands to meet these expectations. So, if you are a consumer and you want to learn how to care for your garment in a more sustainable way, or recycle or resell it, you scan the digital label with your smartphone to gain access to information on an app. The label acts as a gateway, allowing consumers to check garment history and composition, and learn how and where to recycle items.

Avery Dennison’s research[5] has confirmed that younger consumers – and other demographic groups – are embracing QR codes and smartphone apps. We found that 90% of fashion shoppers (surveyed across Europe, the US, and China) would welcome tech solutions designed to improve their shopping experience. Another pertinent finding was that 60% of shoppers want more transparency about the production journey of their clothes, so they can make ethical purchasing decisions.

3. Retailers can track, report and analyse

For the retailer, digital technology will allow accurate tracking of a garment post-purchase, meaning it’s possible to receive it back once a customer has finished, and generate more value out of it, in a variety of ways. With QR codes on intelligent care labels, brands can track the volumes of inventory going back into the circular economy, and monitor how effectively they are paring down their carbon impact.

In conclusion, the concept of having a permanent digital trigger such as a QR code on the garment really unlocks the ability to move the whole industry forward, with data that will drive the necessary awareness and make new ways of working possible.

Looking ahead, consumers will want to move beyond a transactional relationship with a brand, to more of a ‘community’ mentality whereby they return items for ongoing use. This means deeper connections to the products must be enabled. It needs to be a digital label that turns every product into a data-generating asset, with the data accessible by ubiquitous mobile devices.

Data may not sound like the glamorous side of fashion, but it will power the digital transformations fashion retailers are now focused on. Consumers are wise to greenwashing and want hard facts and figures from the brands they’re buying into, that confirm environmental issues are being addressed. Therefore, we need points of connectivity on items of clothing, collecting and tracking the data necessary to achieve sustainability, circularity, and digital consumer engagement. Only then can fashion truly claim to be green.

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