An important topic which came up at sustainability-themed The Industry Fashion Futures Forum, in partnership with Avery Dennison this week, was traceability and the use of technology to track products through the supply chain and then on to the end consumer. Using "RFID" technology, garments and products can be individually identified, located and followed to increase efficiency, offer better stock management and create less wastage and better customer experience.
What exactly is RFID? RFID is an acronym for “radio-frequency identification” and refers to a technology whereby digital data encoded in RFID tags or smart labels are captured by a reader via radio waves. RFID tags contain an integrated circuit and an antenna, which are used to transmit data to the RFID reader (also called an interrogator). The reader then converts the radio waves to a more usable form of data.
Marco Di Pietro, from IdeaPura, a high-tech Italian company using RFID to help business processes from manufacturing to retail, says: “I was working at YOOX and luxury brands wanted to track products so they didn’t go into the secondary ‘grey' market."
Luxury brands started to use the RFID technology to know exactly which products were going to which retailers and therefore know who was selling products into this grey market. Luxury brands like to keep control on points of sale and before this technology it was very hard to guess the original source and stop this frustrating leakage.
Hannah Bernard, Global Marketing & PR Director Apparel & RFID at Avery Dennison, a global manufacturer and distributor of pressure-sensitive adhesive materials, apparel branding labels and tags and RFID inlays, says: “RFID is about knowing what you have and where you have it. It’s the information to tell a customer ‘we’ve got that in a store just down the road from you’. If you don’t know what you have, how are you going to sell it?” she says.
"If you don’t know what you have, how are you going to sell it?"
Hannah Bernard, Avery Dennison
Further technical terms such as "UHF", allows the RFID to be read from a distance which helps in the logistics and movement of product, and "NFC" talks to mobile phones and could be useful if consumers can access the information using a QR code.
Zarah Adato, Project Manager RFID Strategic Development, Marks & Spencer, says: “It’s about keeping track of inventory and knowing where it is. We can fulfil online orders from stores, see what stock we have and, eventually, offer same day delivery,” she says.
RFID has huge potential to link all the processes of the chain from the raw materials to authenticating product. Much like food, people are demanding traceability and tiny RFID chips can be integrated into the fabric or logos of the garments or products.
At the moment, the majority of the information from the chips are used in the back end of the fashion chain, but, using a QR code, brands can make this information available to the public.
Global fashion giant Zara currently holds the RFID information in the security tag which can be reused and reprogrammed for future items, while other brands are embedding chips to help differentiate between fakes and genuine product.
“Luxury brands were having customers return items and they wasn’t even sure if it was their product."
Marco Di Pietro, IdeaPura
“Luxury brands were having customers return items and they wasn’t even sure if it was their product. Moncler now puts the chip into the logo and Ferragamo puts it into the bed of the shoe,” says Di Pietro.
RFID’s technology has been centred on stock control. Speed is tantamount in today’s retail economy and also feeding the right product to the right places helps cash flow and lowers inventories.
It has huge potential on the consumer front. It offers peace of mind and information on what is it made from, where it was made, who made it and who sold it. It could also be something useful for the thriving resale market to say something is 100% genuine or even age the product. It’s almost like a digital watermark for fashion products.
“I’ve not seen a single brand or retailer regret using RFID. It’s like a bar code was a few years ago,” he says. “The longer the supply chain the better the results. It follows a bag in Tuscany to the warehouse to the store to that woman in Paris,” he says.
RFID has the potential to increase the amount of information brands know about their product and where it is. At the moment the majority of the RFID chips are in the swing tags and don’t follow the garment through its life. But, with calls for brands to take ownership and responsibility of their product at the end of its life, it could be useful for identifying items and attributing them to brands and manufacturers and making them recycle or dispose of discarded fashion responsibly.
Once consumers are educated in what RFID is, and the benefits of it, there needs be a full disclosure on items containing these chips, making consumers aware that these things are in their clothes and whether they agree to them being there. Brands and labels need to inform customers that these things are there and for good reason. The benefits of knowing the full origin and supply chain of your item and, also, eventually, making retailers responsible for it long after they’ve sold it, will surely be an acceptable compromise to the majority of consumers.