Governments are already discussing digital product passports that disclose a product’s supply chains. Could clothing labels be our new source of sustainability information?
According to the 2022 Fashion Transparency Index, less than half of all surveyed brands disclose their first-tier suppliers, and less than a third communicate a science-based decarbonization target. However, 60% of consumers claim they value brands that are transparent about their operations. As climate neutrality becomes a top priority among many governments, the role of fashion in carbon conversations increases. The fashion industry is one of the most polluting industries in the world, producing millions of garments often derived from fossil fuels that will – sooner rather than later – end up in landfills. Consumers want to make the “right“ choice but often lack the information or education to do so.
But what if fashion brands had to disclose a garment’s social and environmental impact on clothing labels?
What Could These Tags Look Like?
If we’re shopping in a retail store, we need accessible information to make sustainable choices. We won’t whip out our phones to read through a 120-page corporate sustainability report to find out vague carbon data. We simply wish to learn about the specific carbon footprint of a product we consider buying. So what if brands would have to add a QR code to a garment’s hangtag? Shoppers could scan the code to find out about the garment’s sourcing, manufacturing, fair wages, and transport. Such tags would encourage brands to take responsibility for their supply chains and workers’ rights and aim to re-enable consumers’ trust. Another way of designing IDs in an accessible way could be a traffic light scale with a QR code for further information which consumers may recognize from groceries or energy efficiency scales. The same method of course is applicable to online shopping.
Do Product IDs Serve A Purpose?
But when we cut out the hangtag or close the browser tab – where does the information go? To ensure a continuous stream of product information throughout a garment’s lifecycle, we need digital product IDs. These IDs provide visibility on a product post point of sale which is crucial if we think about circularity: If consumers choose to resell clothes, they can simply access product details to provide buyers or recyclers with information on the product’s name, original price of sale, or season. Alternatively, consumers could be informed and incentivized to resell or recycle clothes through the brand’s preferred ways as a way to extend product responsibility.
Ultimately, the more we can trace a garment’s production, the more likely it is to stay in the loop rather than being tossed.
What’s Already in the Works?
However, it seems that the EU is already one step ahead of us. The European Commission proposed Digital Product Passports (DPP) to enable transparent disclosure about a product’s supply chain. They are currently drafting regulations on DPPs to hopefully approve in 2024 and install them in the first product categories as early as 2026. DPPs will be implemented in a broad variety of products such as electronics, plastics, and textiles. In the UK, the former Prince of Wales’ Sustainable Markets Initiative installed a Fashion Taskforce, consisting of established brands such as Chloé, Selfridges, Vestiaire Collective, and Zalando, that started attaching digital product IDs already in 2021. With such big names attached to the project, we can remain hopeful that others will follow suit.
Will Our Shopping Behaviour Change?
Given the lack of climate education among consumers, policymakers should ensure that product IDs won’t overwhelm shoppers, but actually help make informed purchase decisions. There also need to be regulations that prevent brands from greenwashing these tags. Aside from transparency, product IDs could even be a competitive advantage for brands: Surveys were able to show continuous high levels of UK consumer support (67%) for carbon labelling products, with 64% of consumers claiming to support brands that label their product’s carbon footprint.
Considering our oftentimes impulsive shopping behaviour, we can’t be entirely sure whether product IDs will actually affect our actions or if they will feel as annoying as the deterrent pictures on cigarette packs. But none of this distracts from the fact that they hold brands accountable for their production methods and ultimately help us make sustainable choices if we care to do so.