Fashion’s green future: Why we urgently need traceability in the supply chain

Debbie Shakespeare, senior director, sustainability, compliance and core product line management, RBIS Avery Dennison argues that the fashion industry needs to adopt circularity.

Fashion has a dark side. Of the 100 billion garments produced each year, 92 million tonnes are dumped. That is the equivalent of a rubbish truck full of clothes go to landfill sites every second. Should this shocking trend continue, fast fashion waste is expected to rocket up to 134 million tonnes a year by 2030.

Thankfully, there is government, industry and consumer acceptance that things must change. Brands are actively seeking out ways to curb CO2 emissions and cut textile waste. But what exactly can they do? And how can consumer behaviour be incentivised to adopt, so that fewer clothes end up in landfill?

Against this backdrop, I am delighted that circular consumption, product traceability and Scope 3 emissions reduction are pegged as hot topics at the COP27 Climate Change Conference in Egypt this month. I am speaking on a special panel entitled ‘Minimising Climate Impacts across the Value Chain – Best Practices from Sustainable Textiles & Apparel’. I and other experts will be discussing the big challenges the fashion industry faces as it endeavours to meet net zero commitments.

Carbon reduction is a massive issue in fashion companies’ ESG activities and reporting today, particularly relating to Scope 3, and this is why supply chain traceability needs to be embraced in the apparel and footwear sectors. The fashion industry needs to commit to robust traceability, validation, and authentication processes across its very complex supply chain. This will help brands with reporting Scope 3 emissions, and with becoming operationally prepared for more circular ways of operating.

Moving from a linear model of consumption to a circular one will help drive down fashion’s greenhouse gas emissions and textile waste. When adopted on a global scale, circularity has the power to extend the life of garments, through reselling, upcycling, and recycling. Textile-to-textile recycling needs to be facilitated on an industrial scale, and this will rely on access to accurate product data because only with the right information about textile composition can recyclers process fabrics in the correct way. 

Very soon, fashion will not have a choice in the matter. Item-level environmental reporting legislation is being passed in Europe and North America. French legislation comes into force for larger companies in 2023. Known as the French Decree 748, this requires fashion brands to provide accurate information on the environmental qualities and characteristics of the products consumers purchase – which means clearly communicating the make-up and recyclability of textiles and packaging.

Once legislation is passed, eco-claims by fashion brands must be properly substantiated. Digital Product Passports (DPPs) are going to be a big part of this, as they provide the necessary communication gateway. Governments and industries are already setting up new projects to support Digital Product Passports. For instance, the European Commission is developing a unified European Dataspace for Smart Circular Applications, to promote and encourage the digitalisation of value chain and product information data, such as DPPs.

With this IoT technology in place – typically triggered by Digital Care Labels on garments – individual items have a scannable link to a digital twin on an app or website. This will communicate a product’s specifications to meet the needs of any incoming legislation. Companies already provides digital labels with multiple integrated triggers that link to atma.io a data-rich online connected product cloud, to help brands communicate with their consumers, and recyclers, at every stage of the garment life cycle.

Planned EU legislation focusing on textile circularity is likely to become law in 2025, which is what most apparel European manufacturers are preparing for. It aims to make DPPs mandatory so that consumer products will be longer-lasting and be easier to repair and recycle.

To be compliant, brands will increasingly seek out circular materials in the products they choose to stock. That means sourcing more environmentally friendly textiles, such as post-consumer recycled products. With DPPs in play, retailers can properly manage ‘take back’ of garments for resale, or reverse logistics and recycling at the end of life. Consumers will be able to engage more confidently in the resale market, assured of the authenticity of garments, thanks to the data they have access to.

The textile waste mountain will, hopefully, diminish. But first we must commit, industry-wide, to traceability and circularity. We must show consumers what is possible. And we must put the industry infrastructure and digital technology in place to make this a practical reality.

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