By Chris Lijzenga, from Circle Economy, in collaboration with partners at Avery Dennison, CaaStle, The Renewal Workshop, and Adidas.
This article first appeared at Fashion United.
‘Technology’ in fashion is a wide-reaching term, one that covers anything from product data and traceability, to logistics, inventory management and garment labels. As an umbrella term, technology covers all of these topics and is an increasingly pivotal enabler of circular business models. But when we talk about technology we are no longer talking only about garments being tracked from suppliers to retail stores in order to measure how many garments are sold, nor are we talking only traditional stitch-on garment tags which display country of origin and (often unreliable) information on a product’s material composition. Instead, it’s time to spotlight the rise of ‘digital triggers’ in facilitating circular fashion models.
In circular resale and rental business models, brands and solution providers need to account for sold garments coming back into their possession, so that they can be repaired, reused or recycled. To facilitate this second, third and fourth life, each individual garment would benefit from an unique identification code and inbuilt lifecycle tracking. In rental, each garment needs to be tracked along its journey from the customer to repair or cleaning, back into the rentable inventory, and back out to the next customer. In resale, third-party platforms need to know exactly what kind of used garment they have in their possession, including, for instance, original sales and marketing data, which can help to verify whether it’s authentic and inform how to price it’s resale for future customers. Enter: digital triggers.
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 fibre 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. 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 challenge is keeping the QR code on the garment for its entire life, as care labels are often cut off by consumers. Yes reader, you too! We’ve all done it before. And no label means no data. To mitigate this risk, brands can add a QR code to a sewn-in woven label or embed a label via a heat transfer, thus ensuring 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 obvious to the consumer that the QR code is associated with care and content information, making it less likely that they would be drawn to scanning it for the intended purpose.
A second is an NFC (Near Field Communication) tag embedded in a woven label, which is extremely unlikely to be removed. However, the garment maker then needs to make it very obvious to a consumer that it is present in the woven label and there needs to be an awareness of how to download an NFC reader on their smartphone. Some smartphones, especially those released in the past few years, have NFC chips built into the hardware, but not all phones do, and this means many consumers need to download a dedicated NFC reader from the app store.
The final type of digital trigger that can be applied is an RFID (radio-frequency identification) tag, but RFID tags are generally not customer-facing. Instead, they are used on hang tags 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. RFID tags require a dedicated reader, and this limitation means that consumers aren’t able to scan them, meaning consumer-facing information must be accessible elsewhere. RFID tags, therefore, are useful for solution providers and back-end processes as they facilitate traceability throughout the lifecycle chain. A further complication for their application is that RFID tags often do not meet wash standards, which is less than ideal for circular apparel models for the apparel industry, where readability over time is essential.
Brands consider multiple factors in their decision 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. They also want their customers to lengthen the lifespan of their garments by recycling, repairing or reusing it. Through 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 along the multiple stages of their lifecycle, brands can know when repairs are needed or when to direct consumers to have the garment recycled. Digital labels can also be a more aesthetic and practical option, as physical care labels are often cut off due to discomfort or being visually unattractive, while a digital trigger can remain on a product for longer by being placed directly on the garment. Typically, 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 also depends on what they aim to achieve. If a brand wants to present customers with more information about the journey of the garment or give them options on how to engage with circularity or recycling, they will need to implement a digital trigger like QR or NFC because RFID isn’t scannable by customers. However, if a brand wants to conduct efficient in-house or outsourced inventory management and track assets throughout the repair and cleaning services for a rental model, a washable RFID makes a lot of sense.
Currently, physical care labels are still a legal requirement but increasingly, country-specific legislation is trending towards allowing care and content information to be delivered digitally. As customers demand more transparency around their products, the first step is that digital triggers are expected to increasingly show up as an add-on to physical care labels, rather than a replacement. This dual-approach is more accessible for brands, less disruptive, and allows for additional information to be stored about the product and for further engagement with re-commerce, rental or recycling models. In practice, this means that for the foreseeable future physical tags will continue to use the country of origin and material composition, but either on the same or add-on tag, or embedded directly into the fabric itself, will be a scannable trigger.
These digital triggers allow for new levels of transparency, as brands can show the supply chain journey of the garments and clothes can be validated for authenticity. In addition, by allowing consumers to scan items into a digital wardrobe, brands can also create new revenue channels on digital platforms by facilitating consumers to resell their own used clothing. Finally, digital triggers can enable re-commerce or rental by, for example, showing consumers where their nearest suitable recycling station is.
Adidas’ ‘Infinite Play’ take-back program was launched in 2019 in the UK, and initially could only accept products that consumers had bought from official Adidas channels as products automatically went into their purchase history online and were then set for resale. This meant items couldn’t be scanned in via a code on the garment itself. However, since Adidas sells a significant proportion of its products through wholesalers and third-party resellers, the circular initiative wasn’t reaching nearly as many customers as it could. Adidas needed to enable more consumers to participate. The solution, it turns out, was already on the product. Alongside their technology and labelling partner Avery Dennison, Adidas products already had a matrix code: a companion QR code that could connect consumers’ garments to the Infinite Play app irrespective of where the garment was purchased.
Now that we have set this up, Adidas has realised the thousands of use cases that are possible, from traceability and transparency to product authentication - Luca Mosca, Adidas
For the consumer, the system is relatively simple and the QR code plays a critical role at every step in the process. A consumer goes to the Infinite Play app and scans their garment’s QR code to register the product, where it will join their purchase history alongside other products bought at official Adidas channels.
The app will then show the consumer a buy-back price for the item. If interested, the consumer can choose to resell the item. Adidas adopted their existing product article numbers, which are found on the product’s label, to let a user know if their product is eligible to return and if so, the Adidas gift card they would receive as compensation.
Finally, Stuffstr, a resale solution provider, facilitates a home pick-up and manages the further processing of the product(s), before the item gets resold into the Infinite Play program for a second life.
Adidas cites two key benefits to using a companion QR label. Firstly, QR content can be permanent or dynamic. When a garment is first purchased, the digital trigger can show certain information, but after two years the brand can change the visible information to show, updated recycling options in your local area, for example. Secondly, QR codes identify each garment individually. No two shirts are the same, even within the same model and color. This asset-level identification is incredibly important in resale and rental, and for Adidas, it meant it was able to accurately estimate buy-back prices, authenticate real garments and give second-life consumers a detailed description of what they were actually buying.
CaaStle is a turnkey fully managed service that enables brands, such as Scotch and Soda, LOFT and Vince to offer rental business models by providing technology, reverse logistics, systems and infrastructure as an end-to-end solution. Early on, CaaStle made the decision that they needed to track garments at the individual asset level, not just SKUs (generally only style and color). As CaaStle reports, if a brand is operating a linear model where clothing is sold and is never expected to return, there is no need to track each asset. All that is needed, in that case, is to know how much a supplier is going to make of a particular garment, how many come through, and how many are sold on.
Tracking each asset enables the industry to monetise inventory in new ways. If you birth garments digitally, then at the point where you want to make the business decision to adopt a recommerce or rental model, you can go ahead. - Amy Kang, CaaStle
In a rental business model, each asset must be tracked individually. You need to know which asset is sitting in the warehouse, which one is sitting with the customer and which one is being cleaned. This is especially important as it relates to gradual wear and tear of garments as they have multiple life cycles. A brand or solution provider managing rental garments needs to be able to track how many uses each garment has been through at each point of sale, and how damage reports can act as a feedback loop for design improvements and material choices. This is important as customers are less flexible when it comes to evaluating the quality of used or rented clothing; minor stitching problems may not be accepted. In using an asset-level tracking systems, CaaStle can track garments through the inspection, processing and cleaning processes, so if a garment is sent to a customer with a hole and the customer complains, they are able to track back exactly where it went wrong in their processing.
In the CaaStle system of digital triggers and tracking, Amy Kang (Director of product platform systems) explains that three key factors are essential; the permanence, readability, and identification speed of the technology. CaaStle has shifted over the years from fabric stickers and markers to barcodes, and gradually towards washable RFID, and have therefore experienced, first hand, how these factors vary across technology types.
As shown in the table, fabric stickers and markers are less than ideal across the board, though they are cheaper solutions and can be faster to market. As CaaStle reports, having manually written markings or stickers are much more susceptible to fading or coming off in the wash. Barcodes and washable RFID are much more consistently readable and don’t fade, yet it is also important to make sure the digital trigger is woven or sewn in a consistent place on the garments to avoid warehouse workers constantly searching for the tag and slowing the efficiency of the process. With higher scanning identification speeds on top of all of that, washable RFID holds strong potential, and CaaStle and many other leading solution providers anticipate shifting towards this solution, once the technology develops further in terms of, for instance, the error rate when scanning garments at certain proximities.
The Renewal Workshop (TRW) is a complete end-to-end resale service, with headquarters in Oregon, USA and a second base in Amsterdam. TRW accepts pre-consumer overstock and return products, or post-consumer products—sorts them for reuse, and cleans and restores the reusable items to a like-new condition, before listing them either on their own website or a white-label plugin on the partnering brands website. From the beginning, digital tagging has been an important aspect of their process and TRW identifies different priorities of asset-level tracking in its facilitation of a brand resale business model.
Similar to Adidas and CaaStle, TRW manages products at an asset level. They then feed it into a white label e-commerce platform which is branded by the actual brand. TRW manages the backend inventory and customer service. Every garment has a barcode and serial number, and TRW uses this serial number to gather data from the original brand. It’s important for TRW to know the details of the used garment that they have in their possession so they know exactly which version of the garment they have, how much it cost when it was released and how to describe it when they re-list it for sale again. It can be difficult to obtain this product information because most brands operating in a linear system do not have processes in place to account for a product coming back. Once it is sold, it’s essentially forgotten.
“What we’ve seen is that customers want as much data when buying a secondhand item as they have when they buy new” - Jeff Denby, The Renewal Workshop
Because customers increasingly expect data in second hand purchases, just as with original product information, the industry stands to benefit from making this data accessible and transferable.
So what does the future hold? In the ideal world led by our partners and brands, the industry would move forwards in developing ‘digital passports’, for garments which hold a universally agreed asset-level digital trigger which could be accessed by brands, retailers, recyclers and customers alike. This kind of standardized technology and labeling solution means that not every brand or solution provider is coming up with their own proprietary processes, leaving customers confused in a sea of things-to-remember. The future of technology in fashion, in this sense, could truly unify the industry around common practices that would make circularity more accessible for everyone.
Circle Economy supports apparel brands work towards circularity through training programmes, masterclasses, circularity assessments, and more. Learn more here