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  • Writer's pictureWorld Climate Foundation

Textiles & Apparel Industry: Next Steps to Progress Sustainability

By Debbie Shakespeare, Senior Director, Sustainability, compliance and core product line management, RBIS Avery Dennison

Textiles and apparel companies face uncertain times. The shipping container shortage continues to delay delivery of finished goods; prices of cotton, linen, silk, and wool as well as synthetic materials are rising; energy and fuel costs are soaring; and sadly, the conflict in Ukraine is exacerbating logistical disruption around the world.

Yet while this perfect storm rages across supply chains, the industry must not overlook the fact that consumer interest in sustainability intensified during the pandemic. One recent survey found that a staggering 90% of British consumers said they plan to increase buying from brands with ethical credentials. Meanwhile, Statista Estimates The Global Second-hand fashion market will reach $128 billion by 2026.

With climate change writ large, people around the world are eager to reduce waste and support more circular models for living, and the textile and apparel industry needs to step up and play its part.

Partnering with like-minded stakeholders and decision makers at World Climate Summit 2022 is a significant step towards a sustainable and net-zero future for textile and apparel production. Sharing insights from the industry, Debbie Shakespeare will speak at the Solution Session "Minimising Climate Impacts Across the Value Chain - Best Practices From Sustainable Textiles and Apparel" on 13 November.

Putting Carbon-Neutral Goals in Place

Fashion brands are beginning to make sustainability a central business objective. With official investigations into greenwashing launched this year, there’s no room for empty promises either. Brands know that poor ethical and sustainability standards will damage their reputation and bottom line. Eco-claims must be properly substantiated. Meanwhile, consumers are ready to play their part. Our 2021 survey of 5,000 global fashion consumers found that over 60% think clothing brands and retailers should be making end-of-life options like resale and textile recycling accessible for their clothing products.

With visionary businesses striving to meet the goals of the Paris Agreement, it’s vital that standards are set for each industry. The Science Based Targets Initiative (SBTi) provides a common framework for companies to set science-based targets, and reduce the fashion industry’s emissions footprint. Avery Dennison has joined this initiative, alongside many apparel brands and their suppliers, who can now be held accountable, reporting emissions and tracking progress annually.

According to Vogue Business, 52 fashion brands including Reformation, Nicholas Kirkwood, and Allbirds are said to be certified carbon neutral today, after a rigorous process by non-profit Climate Neutral, which tracks carbon and footprints, sets reduction targets, and helps offset carbon usage.

The latest thinking is that decarbonising fashion should not be reliant on offsetting. It can only go so far. Experts are pointing to the need for innovations to drive rapid reductions in greenhouse gas emissions in garment manufacturing, combined with a drive to ensure all products and packaging can be repurposed – via the circular economy – as the best way forward.

Cutting Material and Packaging Waste

Brands will increasingly seek out circular materials in the products they choose to stock, for instance, sourcing more environmentally friendly textiles, such as post-consumer recycled products.

Retailers can introduce ‘take back’ of garments for resale or reverse logistics and recycling at the end of life. This will require much collaboration, for instance, creating partnerships with local resellers, recyclers, or reverse logistics providers, to ensure the garments sold don't end up in landfill. One option some retailers are considering is to provide a future coupon for customers sending back garments for resale, which creates an immediate ROI.

Tighter supply chain operations can also drive down transportation emissions and textile waste. It’s possible to reduce overstocks through RFID or digital tracking of products to ensure stores only receive what is needed, according to the Just in Time model. According to research by Auburn University, apparel retailers without RFID had 65% inventory accuracy, while with RFID, the rate improves up to 99%. Denim brand Levi’s has reported success with RFID-tagged garments in recent years.

Meanwhile, fashion's use of plastic urgently needs to be addressed, with vast amounts of packaging, hangers, and tags accounting for plastic waste that ends up in landfills and the oceans. Today it’s possible to source plastic-free e-commerce packaging, but again, more transparency in the material make-up of packaging and the infrastructure to recycle needs to be funded and developed.

A Growing Imperative for Responsible Business

Unfortunately, there is not yet a full-scale commitment to being carbon neutral or zero waste across main apparel lines. Clothing brands are focusing on what they can control, which is often the tier-one suppliers and their retail locations, but more focus needs to be placed on Scope 3 greenhouse emissions, which are the largest. Scope 3 greenhouse gas emissions are upstreaming the supply chain and downstream - what happens to a garment at the end of its life.

Data is a necessary step towards achieving carbon neutrality and connecting a garment to a circular supply chain. As it stands, brands are often not providing the data required to achieve the next step in a garment’s life without sending it to landfill. Instead, governments are having to intervene with new legislation. Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) schemes on clothing and textile items provide a real opportunity to ensure that the sector’s good practices are financially supported.

France and Sweden have already introduced EPR schemes and the Netherlands and UK are making significant steps towards introduction. Meanwhile, the EU’s forthcoming Sustainable Textiles Strategy is set to lay down an EPR framework that EU member states could work on if and when they decide to introduce such a scheme. And in the US this January, a new bill in New York state was presented, that if passed into law, will require transparency of at least 50% of the apparel goods sold by large turnover companies, from raw materials to shipping, regarding their environmental impact. Penalties for non-compliance would be up to 2% of a company's global revenue.

Legislation is to be welcomed as a means to force the green agenda in apparel. But my view is that to reduce ‘end of life’ mass wastage of garments, the industry needs to have composition and manufacturing process data on every item and in an efficient, automated way to link information all the way along the value chain. Once this is widely available, and recycling facilities have been properly funded and scaled up, the journey to fashion circularity can truly progress.

Without sufficient data about the garments to share with sorters and recyclers, these operators can’t automate recycling processes. In turn, this means it’s difficult to build a commercially scaled recycling facility that will actually make a profit for the recyclers.

Technology Essential for Supporting and Reporting Sustainable Practice

Today, there is only one communication device on a finished garment, which is the care label, sewn into every item. When a care label becomes digital and connected, circularity is triggered, enabling a world of possibilities. In essence, digital triggers hold the key to tracking the life of a garment post-purchase. These might be RFID supply chain solutions and/or QR codes on permanently affixed garment care labels, connected to data platforms in order to deliver valuable information to multiple stakeholders. Recent Avery Dennison research found that 70% of consumers are more likely to interact with a QR code since the Covid-19pandemic because the event expedited the use of digital tools generally in consumers’ lifestyles.

This is encouraging. Digital IDs on garments, connected to apps that contain rich content, allow consumers to find out how a garment has been made, what the exact material composition is, end-of-life options, and more. We expect to see far wider use of digital IDs in fashion in the coming years, as they are the key to managing and tracking circularity in fashion.

Putting a digital trigger, such as a QR code, on a garment to hold standardised data no matter the brand, also allows reverse logistics partners to automate the sorting process. This will increase the efficiency of understanding as to whether a garment is resale-worthy or what type of recycler needs to handle its composition. Equally, resellers will be able to confirm the authenticity of products using the same ID technology.

Good Corporate Citizenship in Action

With compliance and ESG pressures ramping up, apparel brands need serious levels of transparency and practical processes in place to truly deliver on their climate action pledges. This may seem daunting with so much political and economic upheaval around us. But as eminent speakers at COP27 rightfully remind us, now is not the time to apply the brakes. If brands can access data and have oversight into what happens post-sale, and if the industry collaborates to build the infrastructure for a circular economy for textiles, so much can be achieved.

The apparel industry’s sustainability goals are within reach, but we are currently lacking the data to share accurate and actionable information about textile products and second life opportunities. Technology and collaboration can rectify that. Strong data solutions, user-friendly points of connectivity and visibility of the supply chain will empower apparel businesses to become truly circular, and a force for good.


About Avery Dennison

Avery Dennison Corporation (NYSE: AVY) is a global materials science company specializing in the design and manufacture of a wide variety of labeling and functional materials. The company’s products and solutions, which are used in nearly every major industry, include pressure-sensitive materials for labels and graphic applications; tapes and other bonding solutions for industrial, medical, and retail applications; tags, labels and embellishments for apparel; and radio frequency identification (RFID) solutions serving retail apparel and other markets. The company employs approximately 36,000 employees in more than 50 countries. Reported sales in 2021 were $8.4 billion.

About the author

As the Senior Director overseeing Sustainability, Compliance and Core Product Line Management, Debbie Shakespeare ensures Avery Dennison is on track to deliver on its 2030 goals and holds our value chain to appropriate environmental and social sustainability standards. She serves as a regular sustainability spokesperson to organizations and companies. During her time with Avery Dennison, Debbie has established a Procurement organization within Hong Kong and China, which included the capacity building and integration of Avery Dennison supply chain requirements when it comes to sustainability and compliance.

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