Data is key to sustainable apparel industry

Digital technology will enable the apparel industry to address its damaging environmental impact, says Sarah Swenson, global senior manager sustainability at Avery Dennison.

The ongoing fast fashion trend means clothes consumption continues to rise year-on-year. In 2019, UK consumers were reported to have spent a huge £61bn on new outfits, and it’s estimated that 13 million items of clothing end up in landfill every week. This is the product of our throwaway culture.

New digital care label offers supply chain traceability

The current system has a complex and hugely wasteful supply chain and manufacturing process. As such, it’s one of the largest contributors to the rise of environmentally damaging emissions. It is estimated that the industry is responsible for 10 per cent of global carbon emissions and almost 20 per cent of wasteful water. On average 23 kg of greenhouse gases are produced per kilo of fabric, and according to the Project Fibersort report (March 2020), in North-West Europe alone, around 4,700 kilo tonnes of post-consumer textile (PCT) waste is generated every year. Yet less than one per cent of garments are recycled and the average Brit throws out 3.1kg of textiles every year.

As a significant contributor to the looming threat of the climate crisis, there is no denying the industry needs to evolve, and fast. I believe many changes are imminent, and one will come in the form of digital technology which will enable the apparel industry to address its damaging environmental impact.

Data is by no means the glamorous side of fashion, yet it has the potential to reinvigorate the industry, maintain its status and profits while minimising apparel’s contribution to global warming. Retailers and brands know they must track and report emissions if their sustainability strategies are to be credible, and recent news that Burberry plans to be climate positive by 2040, shows a determination to drive for transparency and change. Ultimately technology and data will power end-to-end solutions to fashion’s problems, helping shoppers, retailers and recyclers unlock the potential of a circular fashion economy.

The current system has a complex and hugely wasteful supply chain and manufacturing process

At Avery Dennison, we believe digital triggers – for instance QR codes on care labels and RFID tags for retailers – hold the key to enable apparel retailers to keep track of their carbon-reducing progress via data that is accessible throughout the item’s lifecycle. Acting as a gateway, they allow consumers to check garment history, composition, and hold information on how to recycle items. Garment recyclers can verify composition which is essential for their processes, while resellers will be able to confirm authenticity. QR codes on intelligent care labels, brands can also track the volumes of inventory going back into the circular economy, and monitor how effectively they are paring down their carbon impact.

We recently launched a pilot project with LA-based recycler Ambercycle, a post-consumer garment recycler. The partnership is the first in a series of innovation-based collaborations, and involves Avery Dennison’s Digital Care Labels being attached to Ambercycle’s garments. The labels feature a QR code that links to an app offering a digital ‘post purchase experience’ run by Avery Dennison’s new atma.io connected product cloud.

These labels allow people to see how the item was made, and understand the environmental benefits of their choice. When the consumer is finished with the item, they can scan the QR code to see how to properly recirculate the materials. In the case of our pilot, they send it back to Ambercycle, where it will be recycled into a new textile. The project’s ambition is that 100 per cent of the clothes made get recycled.

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There is no time to lose. We are on the cusp of expected climate reporting legislation which is likely to be announced in November at the Cop26, the UN Climate Change Conference. This will forcibly spur the industry into action.

With legally binding ESG pressures imminent, the time for apparel brands to act is now. Serious levels of transparency and practical processes from brands will be crucial to successfully deliver on their environmental goals.

Giving brands the ability to intrinsically access and track their garments, even post sale, delivers a huge advantage. It provides them with an ongoing ‘golden thread’ of product information to support the decarbonisation journey. This will ultimately lead to a cleaner reputation and a greener future for fashion.

Sarah Swenson, global senior manager sustainability at Avery Dennison