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digital tags

Are Digital Tags the Answer to Transparency in Fashion?

For years, the fashion industry has been toying with the idea of digitizing garment tags, and it looks like fashion brands are finally bringing it to life. Some retailers are now replacing the usual care labels with “digital tags” which can be scanned by a smartphone, instantly providing customers with a wealth of information. Digital tags have made headlines due to the various claims of their ability to create more transparent supply chains and circularity in fashion. Yet, luxury fashion brands seem to be among the first to implement this new technology, most likely as a more effective authentication tool. Is there a real possibility of this digital method being used for the betterment of the industry, or just to cover a brands’ bottom line?

There’s little information on…the possible environmental costs of utilizing more plastic to successfully embed [digital tags] into garments.

Fashion of Business reported last year that the trade group American Apparel & Footwear Association “wrote a letter to the US Congress asking for legislation that would pave the way for brands to get rid of physical labels in clothing if they chose.” This came years after France adopted its very own “Anti-Waste Law” in 2020 which covers plastic pollution in general, along with strong language regarding fashion supply chain tracing. Along with the EU’s recent foray into mandatory “Digital Product Passports” (DPP) regulating the industry seems to be becoming more tangible than ever before.

What Are Digital Tags?

Digital tags, or digital IDs, actually refer to a couple of label-replacing techniques. Various companies, such as Coach, have been working on utilizing QR codes through either external tags or by printing them directly onto the inside of a garment. This means that instead of seeing a care label or size information on the inside of an article of clothing, a scannable QR code would be in its place. However, another method has emerged which would go much deeper than the fabric’s surface. A study conducted by University of Michigan professors Brian Iezzi, Austin Coon, Lauren Cantley, Bradford Perkins, Erin Doran, Tairan Wang, Mordechai Rothschild, and Max Shtein recently looked into the possibility of creating miniscule digital fibers which can be woven directly into fabric. Through a material described as “a bit like taffy,” fibers are created from plastic material which is heated, then pulled and stretched into something invisible to the naked eye. The end result is a miles-long fiber which can be worked into textiles through traditional methods. “While each individual layer is clear, the combination of two materials bends and refracts light to create optical effects that can look like color,” the University of Michigan team explains. “It’s the same basic phenomenon that gives butterfly wings their shimmer.”

This technology will contribute to increased knowledge throughout the supply chain for manufacturers, consumers, and recyclers.

These types of advances surely have the ability to make physical garment tags obsolete, however there are certainly barriers to entry. There’s little information on how expensive the equipment needed to create, and mass produce, hair-thin digital fibers is. Not to mention, the possible environmental costs of utilizing more plastic to successfully embed this type of technology into garments. And, while printed QR codes seem to be more reliable and more accessible at the moment, they still run the risk of being either cut out, or washed away over time. If a label containing clear fiber content cannot be read at the end of a garment’s first life, then its ability to be properly recycle greatly decreases.



 

How Do They Work?

Regardless of what method is used for forthcoming digital IDs, there continue to be discrepancies about what information should or should not be available once a customer reaches the clothes-scanning stage. The usual care and garment tag content seems inevitable, but whether the digital tag will provide a full garment history is still unclear. Some companies — or countries, in the case of France — are hell-bent on these digital tags becoming Digital Product Passports. In other words, digital tags would not only contain information about the garment’s journey to the customer but data on how the item is used after the point of sale.

This technology will contribute to increased knowledge throughout the supply chain for manufacturers, consumers, and recyclers.

In 2019 The Sustainability Consortium, a global non-profit, conducted a research project titled “Project WearEver: Demonstrating the Feasibility of Using Digital Tags to Measure Clothing Use.” The project set out to gather data which could prove that digital tags would in fact prompt consumers to choose higher quality, lower impact clothing. Through technology called radio frequency identification (or RFID,) TSC was able to reliably track a garment’s footprint even within someone’s closet.

Karen Leonas, Professor of Textile and Apparel, Technology and Management at North Carolina State University shared with TSC that “for efficient handling through recycling and the creation of new products, the content and production processes used in the initial creation of the clothing is necessary. This technology will contribute to increased knowledge throughout the supply chain for manufacturers, consumers, and recyclers.”

With more information on where a garment has been, a garment can be successfully sorted and recycled rather than tossed at the end of its first life-cycle.

TSC claims that consumers, equipped with more information via these digital IDs, developed positive views of more durable clothing. Whether that result would be consistent on a larger scale remains to be seen, though one thing is clear: RFID technology could greatly increase the chances of circularity. With more information on where a garment has been, a garment can be successfully sorted and recycled rather than tossed at the end of its first life-cycle.

How Could This Change the Industry?

For all the proposed benefits of digital tags, there are still many unanswered questions about what their true impact will be. How could this play out in the US versus the EU, where these labels (and requirements within them) are now enforced? Digital Product Passports will require large fashion brands to follow specific rules when it comes to environmental labeling. According to Innovators Magazine’s Debbie Shakespeare, “this covers the product’s recyclability, traceability of textiles, and the presence of plastic microfibres. Certain environmental claims such as ‘eco-friendly’ and ‘biodegradable’ are banned from product information.” Will US companies be incentivized to adopt this new technology wholeheartedly without a mandate? What will keep companies from greenwashing on these labels without government regulations?

With more information on where a garment has been, a garment can be successfully sorted and recycled rather than tossed at the end of its first life-cycle.

The biggest obstacle to success, it seems, is a lack of any sort of consistent or streamlined information on digital tags within the industry at large. While the EU may be working hard to combat this, the rest of the world will be encountering brands with various levels of commitment to transparency, and the new technology, for the foreseeable future. Digital tags, IDs, and product passports are too new to be proven innocent or guilty. Yet, something we can be almost certain of is that without regulation, this technological development will become nothing more than a lateral greenwashing move.

Learn More about How Brands Are Taking On Transparency in our brand directory.

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