Bringing Consumers into the Loop
The Critical Role Consumers Play in Advancing a Circular Economy.
As the textile industry pushes toward circularity and away from the conventional linear system, consumers are becoming the newest link in a modern supply chain. That’s because in order for textiles to go around and around responsibly in a closed loop system, consumer participation is critical. Yet how can individuals understand the key role they play in advancing sustainability without the textile community bringing them into the fold? Progress depends not only on the ability of the supply network to raise the level of awareness regarding environmental efforts, suppliers must also be open to creating a deeper relationship with consumers. Trends support extending outreach. Studies show that consumers increasingly expect transparency around where products come from and how they are made. This is particularly the case with today’s younger generation keen on knowing more about corporate actions on climate change issues and social responsibility, say forecasters. Similarly, industry trends advocate collaboration inside and outside the traditional supply chain, suggesting that breaking down traditional textiles silos will fuel a better flow of ideas to and from consumers to the benefit of all.
Conversations with several leading textile players reveal that new and improved programs directed at consumer engagement are in the works. In every case, whether that is accelerating digital efforts to attract consumer interaction, or take back programs to advance recycling efforts, or elevating connectivity between user and maker for enhanced communication, the results are proving positive.
“Polartec is a rare ingredient brand with authentic consumer relationships that in some cases, go back decades. Connecting and engaging with them has always been a priority, and will play an even bigger role going forward.” — Steve Layton, Polartec
“When we can make this feeling of responsibility for each of us within the industry — not a duty, but a feeling — change will come sooner. This includes consumers!,” asserted Hamit Yenici, CEO and co-founder Hich Solutions, during a discussion on circularity earlier this year.
We’ve been talking about smart garments for more than twenty years with limited traction outside of niche audiences, leaving the textile community wondering when and/or if the time would come that e-textiles grab the attention of everyday consumers and take off in the marketplace. With the growing buzz around circularity, and the ubiquitous smartphone, that time is now.
What if for instance, consumers were able to simply tap their iPhone to the zipper on a jacket they purchased for weekend hiking and begin a 2-way conversation with the apparel brand? The brand could relay a reminder that after four months of wear, the user needs to refresh the DWR, for example, or the consumer could inquire about where to recycle the garment.
This direct back-and-forth connection with the brand opens the door for consumers to step into the textile supply chain like never before and become active in the emerging circular economy. Industry is working to make this a reality.
At an ISPO panel discussion hosted by YKK joined by Houdini and software start-up Eon earlier this year, execs spoke enthusiastically about how connected garments can help enable a circular economy. YKK highlighted its TouchLink technology, and Houdini explained the Houdini Universe, its circular eco system and how they are implementing Eon’s connected products platform, with CircularID Protocol, and YKK’s TouchLink technology, to steward a circular lifecycle for products.
TouchLink is the access point; Its purpose is similar to a QR code but enhanced, with information essentially loaded into the garment. YKK’s interactive zipper triggers a URL to enable a discussion between brand and consumer. EON’s mission is to create a unique ID that can be tracked from conception through the supply network and on to the recycler.
“We’ve updated our website with new imagery that’s very consumer-forward, and given our customers the ability, through a portal, to download and use our brand imagery and assets for their consumer communications.” — Renee Henze, Sorona
Traceability features are not new to textiles, however, what’s being developed now is more consumer-oriented and ongoing between user and brand creating an elevated customer experience and ultimately an effective means to advancing circularity.
“We need to educate the consumer and get them the information that will allow them to do the right things at the end of life with their apparel. Whether it is returning the garment to be remade or whether to resell the garment or repair it,” stated Brian La Plante, sustainability lead, YKK USA, who believes we need to make it easier for consumers to understand why textile responsibility is important, so that the relationship to the garment is deeper than the current “buy today, toss tomorrow” mindset. He added, “Today’s linear relationship with the consumer will not give way to a deeper user experience necessary for the circular economy to take shape.”
Houdini in partnership with YKK is the first brand out of the gate with the technology, and EON is the software provider on this particular product. June 2021 is the expected launch date.
“I believe this is the future,” said La Plante. “It hits so many of the right notes and positive aspects that it finally brings connected apparel to the point where the category can start to achieve real growth ”
The increased consumer awareness around how textile products are made — particularly in the area of environmental responsibility — prompted Gore to advance the use of QR codes. Gore has been putting QR codes on hang tags since 2019, but the company was preparing for launching QR codes on hang tags in 2018; QR codes are not directly on the product. It’s still early to make projections about 2021, according to the company.
However, momentum around consumer use of QR codes seems to be building. According to Gore associates, this could be because more products in the market now have codes and more users are scanning. People definitely got more comfortable and more aware of codes during Covid, with restaurants using QR codes to get the menu. At Gore the results are similar to the click through rate in our digital advertising.
Another example of connectivity comes from Napapijri, an Italian brand that has developed a unique digital take-back program through which its new Circular Series garments can be returned and recycled. When purchasing Circular Series, customers are invited to register their garments online through a unique identifier. In order to encourage mindful consumption, customers will have the option of returning their garments only after two years from purchase. Circular Series will then be processed into new yarn and new products. Upon returning the garments, customers will receive a 100 Euro voucher to be used at napapijri.com for the purchase of their next Circular Series product. (For more on Circular Series garments, see Page 10.)
On a recent Thursday evening, Sorona’s Alexa Raab and Sorona brand ambassador Kaylin Richardson “met” on Instagram Live to talk about sustainability and textiles. Richardson, a professional skier and two-time Olympian, and Raab, global brand and communications leader, covered the topic in a fun, casual manner that Richardson’s 11.K followers could easily relate to. The discussion made material science, environmental responsibility and Sorona’s blend of renewable resources sound downright friendly. The company has engaged Richardson to speak about her experience wearing gear that includes Sorona content (Helly Hansen) and her experience with technical performance of apparel, but this IG Live event broadened the discussion.
Other examples of Sorona’s consumer approach are reflected in a refreshed website and a new series of videos for brand partners. Said Renee G. Henze, global marketing & commercial development director, “We’ve just updated our website with new imagery that’s very consumer-forward. Additionally, we’ve given our customers the ability, through a portal, to download and use our brand imagery and assets for their consumer communications.”
Further, the company is putting together a series of videos that will be launched with several brand customers in China for use with their consumer audience with the expectation that brands in other parts of the world will want to use these as well.
The website also highlights Sorona’s celebration of its Common Thread Fabric Certification program that launched last year. The program assures the fabrics have the unique molecular footprint of partially plant-based Sorona polymer as well as meet key fabric performance attributes.
“At the end of the day, it begins with the consumer experience. Consumers are becoming more educated about the problem and want to be part of the solution.” — Eddie Ingle, Unifi
Polartec has been connecting with consumers for 40 years. “Polartec is a rare ingredient brand with authentic consumer relationships that in some cases, go back decades. Connecting and engaging with them has always been a priority, and will play an even bigger role going forward,” stated Steve Layton, Polartec president.
Polartec is engaging more actively with consumers, particularly with 2021 being the 40th anniversary of PolarFleece and the 30th anniversary of the Polartec brand. One of those initiatives is the Family Album photo contest, a consumer promotion to crowd-source a visual history of those who’ve worn Polartec-made garments on their outdoor adventures. In North America, Polartec partnered with JamBase, where entrants can win garments from partner brands or grand prizes that include VIP ticket packages to such music festivals as High Sierra Music Festival, LOCKN’, Northwest String Summit, and Summer Camp.
An eco-friendly apparel collection will be showcased this Spring at a hip flagship outdoor store in downtown Seoul, Korea. What makes this so interesting is that the players involved are Hyosung Performance Textiles and The North Face and clothing made from recycled bottles sourced locally from the JeJu Island of Korea. (Jeju Island is known as the Hawaii of South Korea. It is also a UNESCO World Natural Heritage site drawing millions to the island every year.)
The North Face (Korea) developed and launched its new S/S ’21 regen Jeju line of outerwear and sportswear in its flagship store in Seoul last month complete with mannequins wearing apparel from the collection displayed in the store front windows. Additionally, TNF’s Korea team built a regen jeju instore boutique where several of its major influencers are displayed on video monitors to entertain customers –Shin Min-a, actress and Ro-woon, K-pop singer and actor who are original TNF Korea ambassadors, Kim Yo-han, K-pop star and temporary ambassador for the regen jeju collection featured in Singles Fashion Magazine.
“Today’s linear relationship with the consumer will not give way to a deeper user experience necessary for the circular economy to take shape.” — Brian La Plante, YKK
“At the end of the day, it begins with the consumer experience. Consumers are becoming more educated about the problem and want to be part of the solution,” said Unifi’s CEO Eddie Ingle.
Unifi has been committed to create circular economy solutions through textile takeback programs. Partners include Oak Hall and Designtex, and according to Ingle, “the results helped create a system for capturing and recycling textile waste back into first-quality goods that can be broken down and recycled again.”
Consumer involvement has been ongoing at Unifi. As a sustainability partner of PAC 12 Green Team, an initiative in the Pac-12 Collegiate sports conference, in recent years Unifi has collected bottles on the University of Washington campus that were used to make Unifi’s branded recycled polyester, REPREVE, which Oak Hall used to produce graduation caps and gowns. Each gown contained 23 recycled plastic bottles and could be recycled back into new gowns. Additionally, Unifi recycled plastic waste collected from the Zero Waste games at Colorado University, Stanford, and UCLA. This was transformed into REPREVE fiber which was used in products sold through their bookstores, including Chico Bags and Nike apparel.
Ingle believes that as a result of collaborating across the supply chain and investing in new technologies like textile and garment sorting, advanced mechanical recycling, depolymerization, etc., “we will be ready for the time when more bottles will go back into bottles.”
Textile testing provider Hohenstein has been authorized by the Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development (BMZ) to verify compliance for the Green Button, a German government certification for sustainable textiles. Now, in addition to certification for MADE IN GREEN by OEKO-TEX, a qualifier for the Green Button, Hohenstein certifies for the 46 Green Button criteria. The traceable product label proves that textile and leather products have been tested for harmful substances and manufactured in an environmentally friendly and socially responsible manner. The Green Button originates in Germany but aims to be a global seal. In line with the globalized textile value chain, all companies that manufacture and/or distribute textile goods can apply for the Green Button. For more information, visit Hohenstein.US/Green-Button.