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Smart garments: How digital clothing tags can promote sustainability in fashion

At this year’s London Fashion Week(Opens in a new tab), the growing intersection between fashion and technology took an innovative form: digital clothing tags.

Backstage at the Ahluwalia show(Opens in a new tab) in February, I saw these tags attached to pieces from the British brand’s latest collection, in a partnership with Microsoft and software platform EON(Opens in a new tab). In place of the average, flimsy clothing tag (which are usually swiftly removed after purchasing an item), these versions each feature a QR code. When scanned, the tags unveil a bundle of information about the garment: how Ahluwalia manufactured it, insight into the supply chain, the item’s lifecycle, and even the creative process — including the kind of music designer Priya Ahluwalia(Opens in a new tab) listened to during its making.

EON’s mission is to improve traceability and enable the circularity of garments. A slew of luxury brands(Opens in a new tab), including Prada, Coach(Opens in a new tab), and Ralph Lauren are looking to introduce some form of digital product IDs or have already done so, as a component of a larger goal to incorporate sustainable and technologically-advanced practices more staunchly into their businesses. Amazon Style(Opens in a new tab), which opened its first physical store in California last year, has similarly added QR-laden tags to its clothes, which lean more toward details like sizing and customer ratings of their products, rather than information about Amazon’s manufacturing process.

The digital ID tags being presented at Ahluwalia LFW.
Credit: Microsoft.

Circular fashion, a concept often relegated to a buzzword(Opens in a new tab), is something brands increasingly strive to deliver. Circularity, in this regard, is the ability to repurpose and reuse clothing. Fashion is amongst the most polluting industries(Opens in a new tab) on the planet, producing 20 percent of global wastewater(Opens in a new tab) and 10 percent(Opens in a new tab) of all greenhouse gas emissions. A collective push to shed this reputation(Opens in a new tab) and increase sustainability has been amplified in past years — not to mention the booming secondhand clothing market(Opens in a new tab) is estimated to be worth $350 billion by 2027.

A recent report from U.N. Climate Change and CDP(Opens in a new tab) shows that the fashion industry is finally making tangible changes to achieve sustainability and take action against climate change. But there is work to be done: greenwashing is still rife when it comes to high street labels; fast-fashion presents enormous challenges. Wearing then throwing away fashion is still a major issue: 92 million tonnes(Opens in a new tab) of textiles end up in landfills each year. By 2030, it is estimated(Opens in a new tab) that this number will increase to 134 million tonnes of waste annually.

Many in the fashion industry believe technology like digital IDs hold potential for effective change. In this case, the tags act as a sort of passport for a garment, providing a holistic, end-to-end overview for the product. They ultimately deliver a blueprint coveted trinity: resale (the most environmentally-friendly(Opens in a new tab) tactic when it comes to fashion), repair, and recycle.

For Natasha Franck, the founder and CEO of EON, digital IDs — in the form of QR codes or NFC tags(Opens in a new tab) — hold the potential to turn “simple products” into “traceable and valuable assets”.

“Products become immersive media channels, connecting brands directly to their customers, on-demand,” she tells Mashable. “Customers can scan their items with their phone and discover in-depth information about where and how they were made, or access services such as styling, care, repair, resale and more.”

These bits of “embedded information”, as Franck puts it, transform pieces of clothing into smart garments, which can massively support brands and people entering the resale market, in particular. EON is developing an Instant Resale(Opens in a new tab) program, through which users can scan their product’s digital ID and instantly resell. The startup is currently working with French luxury brand Chloé and fashion resale site Vestiaire Collective(Opens in a new tab) on this initiative.

Maruschka Loubser, director of global partnerships at Microsoft, tells Mashable digital ID tags, like those in the company’s partnership with Ahluwalia and EON, are “an important part of the future of fashion” due to their ability to promote circularity creatively.

“Digital IDs enable authenticated resale, rental and service business models — turning products into a service,” Loubser explains. “In general, if a garment is smart it allows for multiple interactions it taking it from a linear business model to a circular — it also enables the garment transparency whether it is being re-sold, rented, recycled or upcycled.”

“Digital IDs enable authenticated resale, rental and service business models — turning products into a service.”

– Maruschka Loubser, Microsoft

This isn’t the first time Microsoft has forayed into fashion, recently dipping into the junction where AI meets design(Opens in a new tab) with Portugal-based company Fashable to create “an AI algorithm that can generate original clothing designs, helping fashion companies to meet customer demand, get to market faster, and reduce clothing waste.”

Backstage at Ahluwalia LFW.

Backstage at London Fashion Week: Ahluwalia x Microsoft.
Credit: Microsoft.

The ubiquity of these tags is growing. In fact, the European Union proposed a standardized practice of digital passports for textiles(Opens in a new tab) last March, a facet of its Circular Economy Action Plan(Opens in a new tab) which is part of the EU’s larger 2050 climate neutrality target and the European Green Deal(Opens in a new tab).

Still, consumer attitudes may have to shift. The Sustainability Consortium(Opens in a new tab), a global non-profit with a focus on the consumer goods industry, conducted a 2020 study(Opens in a new tab) that concluded, “Digital tags can measure the frequency and duration of clothing use with reasonable reliability.” The organization found that there are some constraints to scaling the idea more broadly, but consumer attitudes towards these tags became increasingly positive. Yoox Net-A-Porter Group(Opens in a new tab), a global online retailer that also works with EON “to accelerate circularity”, found in its research(Opens in a new tab) that customers progressively engaged with the information provided via the tags. In 2021, the company found that 39 percent of shoppers viewed information about the care of a product, while 47 percent viewed details about transparency.

Franck says that brands adopting technology in this manner will be able to “outperform others” in the realm of sustainability. She also believes the possibilities for this technology are massive for development in other spaces, with the potential to connect products with “emerging technologies like digital wardrobes, gaming and metaverse apps, NFTs and more.”

“Brands who succeed will move beyond selling ‘simple products’ to selling ‘intelligent assets’,” she says. “The possibilities are endless, and there is still so much innovation to come.”

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