by Saja Elmishri
Increasingly, conscious consumers are trying to cut down on their waste and are trying to find a workaround for the hang tags. For several years there has been some discussion in the sustainable fashion community about whether they’re even necessary.
Care labels are not legally required in the UK or EU. They are the cloth items attached to the inside of clothing that display basic laundering instructions. However, fiber makeup tags including percentages of materials are mandatory and have been since 2012. Country of origin, while compulsory in the US, is not in the UK or EU, although deceptive origin labeling is considered fraud.
In the UK, these tags are required by the Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy, while in the United States, care labels and origin labels for apparel produced domestically are regulated by the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) and date back to a 1930 tariff law. Country of origin and care instructions on imports is controlled by Customs and Border Protection. “The country of origin of a textile or apparel product … in which the good was wholly obtained or produced,” must be clearly identified on items sold in the U.S., according to CBP regulations.
But for hang tags, the paper, cloth, or plastic labels that display price and branding information, there is no legal requirement for companies to use them, unless they display other regulated information such as fiber and care. Some retail experts have linked these hangtags to deforestation, waste and climate change.
“From a sustainable perspective they are wholly unnecessary,” says Lee Klabin, a luxury sustainable designer based in London. “However, they do have some marketing or brand awareness value.”
Paul Foulkes-Arellano, founder of Circuthon, a management consultancy that coaches businesses on transitioning to a sustainable circular model, notes that physical barcodes are only still relevant for scanning in traditional, brick-and-mortar retail stores.
During the pandemic, online fashion sales in the UK have more than tripled, and less almost half of shoppers have not bought a single item in a brick-and-mortar store in the last 12 months, according to a PWC global consumer report published in March. It remains to be seen whether these shopping habits solidify after the pandemic, but it is worth asking whether hang tags now qualify as excess—and outdated—packaging.
“There is a concept in luxury that I must give added value and having more is better,” Foulkes-Arellano says, “But as the industry changes, this needs to be reflected and the new luxury should be little as possible. You do not need to send additional tissue paper. Send them a stronger message of what luxury or packaging is about.”
Klabin agrees. “Everything is about the perception of value,” she says. “If a customer buys into a brand because it is sustainable to the core, then they will also appreciate and expect that message to follow through all the way to the packaging.”
Keen to leverage the branding opportunity of tags, designers are looking for alternatives with a smaller footprint. “Choosing biodegradable or recyclable material is essential,” says Camille Jaillant, founder of Olistic the Label, a French sustainable luxury brand. “It is important to reduce the environmental impact by reducing the size of the label and to choose natural fasteners,” the thing attaching the tag to the garment, “such as organic linen, cotton, raffia, etc.”
For her brand’s hang tags, Klabin uses flower seed paper that can be planted, and for the care labels, she uses 100% cotton rather than polyester, the typical material used for care labels. “It may add a couple of pounds to the cost of the garment, but environmentally speaking, the fact that it can biodegrade with the rest of the garment is priceless,” Klabin says. “I think all brands should be using the growing allure of gimmicks in the hangtag industry to really push the boundaries.” She cites Sheep Inc.’s digital provenance tag made from castor bean oil plastic. “It signals their affiliation with doing something differently.”
But Jaillant is skeptical of digital tags. “I am not for electronic chips or RFID [tags], because again we are creating something we don’t need. At Olistic, you can always find all the information online on each product.” Instead, for the brand’s recent collaboration with Arizona Muse, the brand linked each product to a QR Code, where customers, “can find all the information, from fibers to final production,” thanks to blockchain technology. Best yet, the information is all on your phone for easy access.
Perspective is also important in the wider fashion industry, as Foulkes-Arellano emphasized. “Hang tags are the tip of the iceberg when it comes to environmental concerns from the fashion industry.”
With a variety of eco-friendly options for garment labels, many digital, finding creative and sustainable ways to engage with consumers can and should be a creative challenge for sustainably-minded designers and brands.