Digitally tracking garments to ensure circularity & ethical practices

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Automation and technology in fashion is a broad aspect – covering from product data and traceability to logistics, inventory management and garment labels. With industry 4.0 on the full swing, more and more traditional manual means are transforming into technology-based. Increasingly with the technology pivot, the fashion industry is enabling circular business models.

Figure 1: In apparel circular resale and rental business models, retailers, brands and solution providers need to account for sold garments coming back into their control.

In the present climate circular technology is no longer only about apparel being tracked from manufacturers to retail stores to figure out how many fashion apparels are sold, nor it is only about traditional stitch-on garment tags that exhibit the source country and (often untrustworthy) information on a product’s material composition. Instead, the spotlight is on the rise of ‘digital triggers’ in enabling circular fashion models.

Ensuring Circularity

In apparel circular resale and rental business models, retailers, brands and solution providers need to account for sold garments coming back into their control, so that these can be mended, reused or recycled.

To ease each garment’s second, third and fourth lifecycle, every garment under ‘technology’ business model has put under a unique identification code and inherent lifecycle tracking.

In rental, every garment requires tracking along its origin from the customer to repair or cleaning, back into the rentable inventory, and back out to the succeeding customer.

In resale, third-party platforms prerequisite to know precisely what kind of used garment they have in their control, including, for instance, original sales and marketing data, which can help to validate whether it’s authentic and notify how to price its resale for future customers. Her comes digital triggers technology.

A digital trigger connects a consumer with data contained in a software platform. The kind of data that a consumer can access is controlled by the brand and service provider and could be specific garment information—such as its care instructions and fiber content—or allow the consumer to engage with the brand regarding their purchase— by directing them to a digital marketing campaign about the garment’s production, for example.

Future potential of digital tagging

Currently, the most recognizable and common way to include a digital trigger in a garment is to add a QR code to a care label or a QR code to a separate companion label that states ‘scan me’. Most consumers today are aware they can scan a QR code with their smartphone, although QR code adoption rates vary widely by region. Asia leads in adoption rates, while Europe lags far behind.

‍The trial is keeping the QR code on the garment for its entire life, as care labels are often removed off by consumers. And no label means no data. To alleviate this risk, brands can add a QR code to a sewn-in woven label or implant a label via a heat transfer, thus safeguarding that the QR code cannot be cut out of the garment.

That said, having a QR code woven into the fabric itself does not make it as clear to the consumer that the QR code is allied with care and content information, making it less likely that they would be drawn to scanning it for the intended purpose.

Figure 2: Digitally improvised apparel circular resale and rental business models for ensuring circularity.

‍An NFC (Near Field Communication) tag is fixed in a woven label, which is very unlikely to be detached.

Though, the clothing manufacturer then needs to make it very clear to a consumer that it is existing in the woven label and there needs to be a consciousness of how to download an NFC reader on their smartphone.

The last type of digital trigger that can be functional is an RFID (radio-frequency identification) tag, but RFID tags are usually not customer-facing.

As an alternative, they are used on hangtags or packaging to track products through their life cycles of production and warehousing, through to the customer, and back to the retailer for repair or resale.

Brands/retailers study numerous factors in their conclusion to implement digital tech solutions, including the future of their products, future legislation, engagement with consumers through the life of a product and the garment’s environmental impact.

Brands also want their consumers to extend the lifespan of garments by recycling, repairing or reusing it. Over the smart use of digital triggers and labels, brands are also better able to understand the needs of their customers.

For example, by tracking garments beside the multiple stages of its lifecycle, brands can know when repairs are needed or when to direct consumers to have the garment recycled.

Digital labels can be added aesthetic and practical option, as physical care labels are frequently cut off due to uneasiness or being visually unappealing, while a digital trigger can continue on a product for longer by being placed directly on the garment.

Characteristically, brands reviewing the digital trigger product options (NFC, RFID, QR or other) will review the easiest and most cost-efficient way to add a digital trigger on to their existing product, without compromising the ability of that digital trigger to remain on the product for its entire lifespan.

The choice of technology likewise rests on what brands aim to attain. If a fashion brand needs to present customers with more information about the origin of the garment or how to engage with circularity or recycling, brands will need to device a digital trigger like QR or NFC because RFID isn’t scannable by customers.