Driving Sustainability Through RFID Technology


A growing number of brands are helping to pave the way for a more sustainable future.

For years, sustainability served as one small facet of broader business plans and goals, falling to the wayside of other initiatives like growth strategies and digital transformation. Lately, however, it has quickly become one of the most important priorities for industry leaders, executives and customers across the globe—especially coming out of such a disruptive and impactful year as 2020. The fashion industry, in particular, is one in which consumers are calling for widespread change in terms of how products are made, as well as what make up products and how they are managed. More and more brands are pledging their commitment to fulfilling these demands and are paving the way toward a more sustainable future.

The fashion industry overall accounts for around  32 million of the 57 million tons of polyester used annually, only 14 percent of which is made from recycled material. In addition, according to the  UN Environment Programme, the industry produces an estimated 10 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions, which is more than all international flights and maritime shipping combined. At this pace, these numbers could surge more than 50 percent by 2030 without proper intervention.

From a consumer perspective, it’s clear that the industry’s negative environmental impact is influencing their decision making around certain purchases. In fact, a new  report from clean manufacturing leader  Genomatica found that 86 percent of respondents believe sustainability is a good goal, while 52 percent think it’s important and consciously make choices to be more sustainable, and more than a third say that if there were a store selling sustainable clothes, they would do all their shopping there. This is why legacy brands like Levi’s, Patagonia and Stella McCartney have built their identities around sustainable operations, and why there are a plethora of smaller to mid-sized brands that have and continue to follow suit.

Three Factors that Directly Impact Sustainability
The implementation of RFID technology in supply chains empowers brands with greater visibility into inventory levels and automates traditional, manual practices that, in turn, reduce negative environmental impacts. By using item-level RFID solutions, manufacturers can manage inventory with greater accuracies of up to 98 percent, allowing them to adjust production plans appropriately.

This includes lowering the number of products shipped and limiting the amount of exorbitant materials and resources, the waste that ends up in landfills as a result, and gas emissions associated with transporting goods. For example, one brand successfully removed 20 million units of inventory per year while simultaneously increasing sales, eliminating approximately 400 shipping containers full of garments that no longer needed to be manufactured, shipped and distributed, and thereby saving products, time and money.

In addition, the use of innovative RFID tagging products made from easily recyclable materials is helping to drive more sustainable processes, including those made from discarded plastic bottles, recycled polyester or 100 percent  Forest Stewardship Council-certified recycled paper. These converted RFID tags contain no polyethylene terephthalate (PET), and the inlay is instead replaced with a recyclable paper carrier, helping to drive a 10 to 16 percent decrease in product carbon footprint compared to conventional PET RFID labels.

With the PET materials removed, the integrated circuit (IC) and antenna are placed directly onto the paper, making its components easier to separate—and, therefore, easier to recycle. This also reduces the decomposition period of the labels, from five to ten years down to just six weeks, while still enhancing product durability, longevity and functionality without compromising a brand’s sustainability and reduced carbon footprints goals.

Lastly, by using 3D and augmented reality solutions, businesses can create samples in a completely virtual space to help reduce waste and eliminate the need for unnecessary materials. Rather than companies having to wait for physical samples, customized garment catalogs with high-quality digital previews can instead be provided, showing how various branding items would look on each product. Furthermore, the adoption of this technology has been shown to be important for brands to be successful in their commitment to sustainability, and in driving these initiatives forward.

In order to minimize negative environmental impacts, the industry is responsible for pushing itself and championing more technology-driven solutions to lead the charge in driving sustainability. Success is possible, but it will be limited if the industry does not take on the challenge of creating a better environment—whether it’s a tag, fabric or how inventory is managed—proving the smallest of changes can make the biggest difference.

Dean Frew is the chief technology officer and senior VP for RFID solutions at  SML Group, and the founder of SML Intelligent Inventory Solutions (formerly Xterprise, purchased by SML in 2013). Dean is responsible for driving SML’s RFID tags and solutions strategy, and he runs the company’s RFID solutions division, based on his 20-plus years of experience delivering RFID solutions to retailers and brand owners around the globe. To learn more about SML’s own sustainability efforts, five-year goals and progress made to date, check out the  SML 2021 Sustainability Report.



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