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Avery Dennison: Digitally enabled labels central to circular economy in fashion

In order to scale its solution, the labeling and embellishment manufacturer must partner with apparel companies and other stakeholders.

Person scans a QR code on a t-shirt with their phone

Image courtesy of Avery Dennison.

Imagine being able to scan a QR code on a jacket that is no longer wearable and receiving clear directions for how to recycle it. Or being able to scan a code that will allow you to make sure a Telfar bag is authentic.

That’s the type of future Avery Dennison envisions for apparel and other consumer goods. And it’s a future that might not be too far off. In early October, the label manufacturer announced a partnership with Certilogo, the digital authentication platform, to enable the latter application.

GreenBiz caught up with Michael Colarossi, vice president of product line management, innovation and sustainability at Avery Dennison, to discuss how the company sees its technology addressing the issue of textile waste and solving the apparel industry's broader sustainability challenges.

"I would say the primary route that we're thinking of the technology helping to address, that it's really an enabler, and to be that provider of information,” Colarossi said. "There is really only one thing on a garment that communicates, and that is the label. Whether it's providing brand identity or whether it's providing technical information on the garment itself, that is the only communication device that brands and consumers — or anyone in the supply chain — has to really understand more about that garment. So, we see that label as a communication vehicle to help enable some of the solutions."

While this technology will help drive the circular economy and it will provide or help shine a light on some of the other areas, it is one part of solving the bigger challenge that the industry faces in terms of sustainability.

But Colarossi acknowledged that labels are just one piece of the solution puzzle. 

"While this technology will help drive the circular economy and it will provide or help shine a light on some of the other areas, it is one part of solving the bigger challenge that the industry faces in terms of sustainability," he said. "It's important that we don't lose sight of the other things that we have to go target to make certain that this industry continues to reduce the impact that we have on the environment and improves the impact that we have on the communities in which we operate."

This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity. 

Deonna Anderson: Can you give me an overview of where Avery Dennison is with this new technology? I heard one of your colleagues talk about it at Circularity 20, so I'm curious about where things stand. 

Mike Colarossi: We have the capability today of creating a unique digital ID for, really, any piece of apparel, footwear or — in the future — really any consumer good. And then, we have the ability of printing that in a variety of formats, whether that's on a label, on a hangtag, on a fabric label, or we have the ability to create a technology trigger — for example, with our RFID technology. Through the combination of a unique digital ID and a variety of digital triggers, we can enable different consumer experiences. 

The capability exists today to do it. We partnered with Ahluwalia [a ready-to-wear fashion company] for Copenhagen Fashion Summit to create a label that was entered into her garments with a specific purpose of creating or enabling the circular economy, which is one of the use cases that we're exploring. But you can imagine that there's a variety of other use cases that we're looking to unlock as well — anything from consumer engagement and creating and working with brands to create a unique story or a different way to engage with a consumer or to provide sustainability information in a digital way on a product; or to provide care and content information on the product; or to enable the circular economy or to even think about the future of retail and how are consumers going to engage in a store, whether it's with customization of personalization or engaging in a store to provide information on a product and thinking through how that technology can annihilate that. The technology exists. 

We can make it happen today, and what we're doing is we're standing up, over the next several months, a series of what we call "Lighthouse Projects" to really test out the different hypotheses and use cases that we have. 

Anderson: Are those pilot projects?

Colarossi: Yes. Think of it like in the agile sort of framework where we've got pilot projects that we're going to get into the market. We're going to test, we're going to learn and then we'll continue to iterate the solution as we go forward. But we're talking with a number of the major sports brands in Europe and in the United States, some of the fashion or luxury brands in Europe, and then, we're also engaged with organizations like the United Nations or the [European Union] who are looking to change regulations as it regards to transparency of information that brands are required to supply consumers with. We've got a number of these use cases or partnerships that we're developing to stand up the technology and demonstrate it in a variety of these different formats. 

Anderson: As you test and develop these partnerships and continue to iterate the technology, what do you hope the impact is overall? 

Colarossi: The vision first is that every product will be born with a unique digital ID. And then, the hope is, once you have that unique identifier on a piece of apparel or a piece of garment, we can then enable or solve some of today's biggest challenges.

For example, today, it's very difficult to recycle garments because a consumer either doesn't know how or where to return a garment to be recycled or the recycler themselves doesn't know the content of that garment so they don't know what recycling methodology they should be using. That's an example of solving one of the biggest challenges that we have in terms of waste within the apparel supply chain.

Another one is the resale market. One of the biggest challenges that resellers have — particularly in the luxury space — is understanding if a product is authentic or not, and the consumer has the same challenge. In an attempt to enable that circular economy or the resale side of that economy, providing a unique ID would allow that consumer or allow that reseller to immediately authenticate it with a scan of their phone. [We’re] really looking [to address] some of those big challenges with the unique identifier that we're able to apply to a garment. 

Anderson: You mentioned working with a company in Copenhagen, and I know that partnering with other companies and organizations is going to be the way that you really drive this solution forward. I'm curious if you can share any other examples of folks that you're already working with? 

Colarossi: I shared Ahluwalia, of course. We’re [also] working with the U.N. They have an effort where they're looking to change the way in which you communicate information or the requirements that you have — or brands have — in terms of communicating how a garment was made. So, we're involved in helping establish that standard for the industry. We've also engaged with a recycling network on the east coast of the United States. It's looking to bring together brands, recyclers, and in companies like Avery Dennison, to create a complete circular system in the U.S.

And that's interesting because that's a consortium of companies that represents all different supply chains. And so, we're working with that organization to develop and basically be the provider of all that shared content information and enabling the circular economy. Those are two examples.

Person scans a QR code on a shirt that they are wearing

Image courtesy of Avery Dennison.

Anderson: Living in the age of coronavirus, it seems like consumers might be getting more comfortable with QR codes and the different types of codes they can scan with their phones. Since consumers might be more aware of how these types of technologies work, do you think adoption will be easier when brands start using these labels at scale? 

Colarossi: I would say it depends on the region of the world. For example, in China, where people are now accustomed to using WeChat to pay for everything via QR code on their phone, scanning a QR code is second nature. In the United States, where that technology hasn't proliferated as much, there still is an education effort required. We even noticed that with some work that we've done with brands, we still have to provide the hint or the identifier on the garment that says, "Hey, you need to do something" or "You could engage." 

I think COVID will change it from the perspective that more people are going to be using technology to get information. It will change it from the perspective that a lot of us are going to be doing things online, more so than ever. I think there are those sets of opportunities. But I still think there's an education effort required. 

Anderson: What do you think it would take for QR codes and RFIDs to be just a widely adopted part of a label on products across brands? And when do you think it will get there?

Colarossi: I think many brands today are considering it. But I think it's still a very new space, and companies like Avery Dennison, we have an obligation to help the industry imagine what's possible. So, the QR code is interesting, and putting a QR code or RFID or MSC or Bluetooth or any technology into a garment is interesting. What's more interesting, though, is what does it enable? And what we're finding is that because it could enable so many different things, that could be an overwhelming problem and challenge for brands, for factories, for recyclers — for anyone in the supply chain to really imagine.

We recognize that the industry is on the cusp of change — whether that is the trend on consumption, the issues that the industry faces on waste, or the issues that the industry has historically struggled with on transparency of their supply chains.

I think we're still fairly early in adoption. My belief is within the next three to five years, you're going to see it proliferate. ... It will be aided by a few of the brands that are going to be standing up pilots in 2021 and consumers getting comfortable with seeing that and understanding what we are supposed to do with this. And then, I think there are likely to be changes in regulations that are going to require us to think differently about the value of a QR code and communicating a lot of information in a very little amount of real estate on a garment. So, I think those three things combined: You'll probably start seeing it move here in the next three to five years. 

Anderson: Why is it important for Avery Dennison — and also for the companies that you will eventually partner with and that you're already partnering with  — to be doing this type of work right now? 

Colarossi: I think that there are probably two or three reasons. The first is that we recognize that the industry is on the cusp of change, whether that is the trend on consumption, the issues that the industry faces on waste or the issues that the industry has historically struggled with on transparency of their supply chains. We're seeing a trend where brands and consumers alike are placing a lot more importance on addressing those things. And if Avery Dennison can be part of the solution through technology, that is a space that we want to be investing in and we want to be enabling for the industry. So, I think that's the first reason. 

I would say that the second reason is that we do believe that the industry — and all industries, frankly — will become more digital. And we, as a business, need to figure out how we are going to play in that market as well. So whether it's digital solutions, whether it's digitizing our supply chains, whether it is creating new customer experiences through new digital transformation, this is part of an overarching strategy that Avery Dennison has to become more digitally oriented and data-centric in the future. And I think that will help us just continue to be a sustainable business in the broadest of terms. 

The company's been around 80-plus years. We plan to be around 80-plus more years. And this is part of our strategic vision that we need to continue to invest in the space of digital. 

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