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Nithin Coca headshot

Can Smarter Labels Enable a Fully Circular Fashion Industry?

By Nithin Coca
A black shirt on a hanger with a blank care label.

Imagine a future in which every item of clothing on the planet could be traced from the factory it was woven in, to the ship that carried it, to the store that sold it, to the customer who took it home. 

But that’s not all. Clothing could also be encoded with information that makes it easier to resell, or data allowing recyclers to properly and efficiently give it a new life. That is the dream of Avery Dennison, the nearly 90-year-old company best known for its innovations in labeling. Now a digital-first company, it sees an opportunity to use its tracing technology to transform the textile industry toward a more circular economy.

A growing garment problem

“We believe that we can, through intelligent labeling and digital technologies, enable things like recyclability of clothing, transparency of the supply chain and even things like resale,” said Mike Colarossi, vice president of innovation and product line management at Ohio-based Avery Dennison. 

Right now, the textile and fashion industry is, as a whole, very unsustainable. The rise in so-called “fast fashion” — quickly produced, cheap but fashionable products — led to a massive increase in textile production over the past decade. The textile industry is estimated to be responsible for about 10 percent of global carbon emissions, according to the United Nations Environment Program.

In 2018, the United States alone generated 17 million tons of textile waste, which mostly consisted of discarded clothing, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Of that textile waste, 11.3 million tons ended up in landfills.  

Recent headlines described mountains of discarded clothing dumped in Chile’s Atacama desert that got so big they could be seen from space. And the impacts are far greater than landfills, with garments clogging gutters or harming air quality as they are burned in residential areas in many parts of the world.

“Many people succumb to buying seasonal trends that then get thrown away within a couple of months, and it’s just not sustainable,” said Nadya Hutagalung, an Indonesian-Australian model and ambassador for the United Nations Alliance for Sustainable Fashion, in a statement.

Tech-enabled care labels open the door for a circular economy in fashion

Avery Dennison does not produce clothing or textiles for the consumer goods market, yet it sees itself as playing a central role in the industry. In fact, the company has long produced a tiny, but important, component of many clothes we use daily: the care labels that come attached to clothing, explain what it’s made of, and provide instructions on how to clean it. 

“Our products end up on most consumer-facing goods and business-to-business goods,” Colarossi said. “Labels are ubiquitous, and by digitizing them, we believe we can unlock a host of different value creation opportunities.”

That includes products that currently have no value, like discarded clothing. Old care labels can easily be removed or fade, but an increasing amount of clothing includes Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) — a wireless system used for tracking and identification — or other forms of digital labels woven into the fabric, which can be more long-lasting and provide more data than traditional tags.

Avery Dennison wants to enable the creation of something that has, literally, never been done before — a circular economy for clothing that gives it a new life and economic value. 

For Colarossi, empowering recyclers is key to unlocking the next step necessary for a circular textile economy.

“Knowing what's in that garment determines whether you can simply mechanically recycle something or if you need to go to a more sophisticated process,” Colarossi said. “What we do is provide a label that can be read using digital ID technology, and that information can help automate the [sorting] process and then optimize the recycling process.”

In June, the company launched a partnership with garment recycler Texaid that Colarossi hopes will show an actionable, scalable model to achieve that.

Texaid is a European company that describes itself as “a circular service specialist for the fashion and textile industry.” The company sees Avery Dennison’s Atma.io connected cloud platform for digital IDs, which carries information about the fiber makeup of every garment, as crucial to expanding its work.

“Existing textile recycling facilities will be woefully inadequate if they remain small-scale,” Texaid CEO Martin Böschen said in a statement announcing the partnership. “Technology can scale up processing so that we can generate the volumes of high-quality feedstock the industry is going to need."

Of course, the role of digital labels and data is only a piece of the circular economy puzzle. Addressing the need for simpler fabric blends and better materials sourcing is also key. Consumers, too, have a role to play by buying less fast fashion and wearing clothes more often before discarding them.

Creating a circular economy, and eliminating the flow of discarded clothing to landfills (and deserts) around the world will be a major undertaking for the entire industry — and for those like Avery Dennison that help create innovative, actionable and scalable solutions.

Image credit: Anna Nekrashevich/Pexels

Nithin Coca headshot

Nithin Coca is a freelance journalist who focuses on environmental, social, and economic issues around the world, with specific expertise in Southeast Asia.

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