A future closed loop fashion system requires accurate and efficient methods for automated sorting of textile waste. Digital tags could be a key component in such a future system. A new report by Mistra Future Fashion provides an overview of present and future possibilities made available by textile tagging. If garments would carry universally accepted tags the benefits could be greater than solely for use in the end-of-life phase. Apart from accessible information about the exact fiber composition, needed in a sorting line, it could also contain data about the designer, care-instructions and previous owners for a re-sale step. This new info plays an important enabling role for transparency as well as traceability, and brings significant added value in a future circular business models. 

The pros and cons of different tags

Tags, in the case of this study, are information carriers such as QR codes or RFID/NFC transponders, which can be attached during production and stay with the products throughout its lifecycle. RFID/NFC devices, which for example are used in subway passes and retail anti-theft system, are judged to have the largest potential for tagging of textiles. These tags require special reading equipment, which means that the method currently involves a larger investment. However, when the equipment is installed, the reading method is simple and requires very little manual power. This gives the method an advantage in terms of efficiency in a sorting process. Yet, the most common tagging technique today is QR codes, which is a low-cost technology and readable by most mobile phones. QR codes have a relatively short reading distance and the tag must be localized and manually oriented towards a reading unit, which slows down an automated sorting line.

Stakeholders see potentials beyond sorting

From interviews conducted with industry stakeholder it became evident that a digital tagging system should not be restricted to only sorting of discarded textiles. There is also much to gain for stakeholders within production, retail and of course consumers. Tags can be helpful in improving traceability in the supply chain and in bringing better information to manufacturers, importers and retails provided that a quality assurance can be applied to the chain of custody.

Stakeholders stress that the question of personal integrity needs to be taken into account when implementing a tagging system. Problems arise when a garment is equipped with a code that can be read without the consent of its owner. RFID/NFC systems allows for other security opportunities than QR codes when it comes to accessibility of information, meaning that some information is restricted to only those who need it. At present, anyone with a mobile phone app can read a visible QR code, which is not the case with RFID/NFC systems since it requires special reading-equipment.  Furthermore there is the idea of “writeability”, i.e. the possibility to upload additional data during the user phase. This information could for example be interesting and useful during re-sale of a garment. However, stakeholders are ambiguous about the writeability option.  Some companies, e.g. producers, see big opportunities while others are disinterested.

What is needed for a future textile tagging system

To facilitate further discussion, several prerequisites for a beneficial tagging system have been identified together with stakeholders along the value chain of textiles:

  • The system must be adopted by all parts of the value circle. This, in turn, makes it necessary to shape the system in such a way that all actors can utilize their particular potential benefits.
  • The system must be adopted on a large geographical scale, in other words globally.
  • Standardization is necessary, most likely together with regulatory measures and legislation.
  • The personal integrity of consumers must be seriously taken into account when choosing the way forward.

Until now the human eye, experience and hand-feel-judgement has remained the key or even the only instrument for evaluating the fate of collected and discarded textile items. The manual sorting procedure has a unique ability to perform complex assessments and take into account current fashion trends and other subjective factors. However, these processes are time consuming and therefore not efficient enough within a bigger system. Fiber recognition tools through spectroscopic identification, such as for example Fibersort, are already successfully tested and are likely to be introduced as tools for large scale sorting in the near future. Yet, If, or when, a universally accepted system of digital tags would be established in the trade it would be a strong contender to any technique for identification of textiles in the sorting line.  Information from tags can probably not fully replace the incumbent method of manual sorting, but it would significantly speed up the process. Neither of above mentioned aids for automation is sufficient for all purposes and the most probable scenario is a sequential combination of sorting methods.

Read the full report here.

Titel: Textile tagging to enable automated sorting and beyond – a report to facilitate an active dialogue within the circular textile industry
Authors: Finn Englund, Helena Wedin, Miriam Ribul, Hanna de la Motte and Åsa Östlund, RISE