The management challenge of introducing increasingly sophisticated labels is compounded by the continuing diversity of labelling laws worldwide.

Labelling legislation can be a major headache for textile and clothing companies, especially those with global supply chains. Just looking at a small sample of major mature markets shows the regulatory complexity that has to be managed by company legal teams.

Take the United States, whose federal government agencies are often accused of overlapping in jurisdictional terms. Labelling requirements for textile, wool and fur products are enforced by the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) and the US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) agency, for instance.

Furthermore, the Textile Fiber Products Identification Act, the Wool Products Labeling Act and the Fur Products Labeling Act are among the laws that need to be followed by clothing companies wanting to tap America's vast market.

These rules require most apparel products to carry permanent labels, noting fibre content, country of origin, identification of the manufacturer, importer, or other dealer, and care instructions, according to the American Apparel & Footwear Association (AAFA).

Labelling must be in English. Disclosures can be in other languages too, as long as the English version is included. As regards origin labelling, country abbreviations and other spellings close to the English name for a country may only be used if they unmistakably identify the country to English speakers.

In terms of care instructions, the FTC mandates that labels for clothing must have a washing or dry-cleaning instruction, and that care symbols approved by the American Society for Testing and Materials (ASTM) may also be used in place of words

There are some exceptions to the rules, however. Some items, such as totally reversible clothing without pockets; products that may be washed, bleached, dried ironed and dry-cleaned by the harshest procedures available; and products that have been granted exemptions on grounds that care labels will harm their appearance or usefulness, are only required to have obvious temporary labels at their point of sale.

Apparel products containing wool, leather or fur also have additional labelling requirements. Under the Fur Products Labeling Act, for example, the label on fur products must show whether the fur has been bleached, dyed or artificially coloured, and whether the fur is used or damaged.

Japan's labelling laws
Japan's laws also show how clothing manufacturers really need to do their labelling homework: overcoats and rain coats, including Japan-specific kimono overcoats, must for example provide information on water repellency.

The most recent Japanese rules on clothing labels were detailed in October 2010 by the Consumer Affairs Agency, a division of the ministry of economy, trade and industry, and are authorised under Japan's Household Goods Quality Labelling Law.

Yarn that has not been finished, woven fabrics, knitted fabrics and lace only need to be labelled with the composition of the fibres included and to have the name of the maker and contact details, but finished clothing items - everything from jackets through skirts, cardigans, aprons and nightwear - require details on home washing and care.

The home washing instructions must specify whether the item is suitable for chlorine bleaching, whether it needs to be dry cleaned, can be wring-dried or needs to be otherwise dried. Data on ironing must also be provided, including the maximum temperature the garment can withstand.

The full details of the requirements are spelled out in the agency's JIS L0217 document, which also requires that labels providing the information "shall be attached firmly in a prominent location."

EU harmonising laws
In Europe, the European Union (EU) has tried to simplify matters for clothing and textile companies selling into its 27 member states, by passing rules harmonising labelling laws.

The most recent major update to EU laws on this topic was agreed by the EU Council of Ministers last July, when it passed a new regulation on 'textile fibre names and related labelling and marking of the fibre composition of textile products.'

This 188 page legislative tome is actually an attempt to simplify EU rules on how clothing labels must describe the fibre content of products, by replacing three directives on the same topic: directives allow EU member states greater leeway on interpreting EU laws, while regulations must be followed to the letter.

Some key innovations in this new law included that non-textile parts of animal origin (essentially fur and leather) have to be noted on labels; and allowing manufacturers to note the presence of small quantities of fibres (including desirable luxury ones) if they wish. The new law also provides for a swifter method of agreeing harmonised names and standards for new fibres, of potential critical importance as new novel artificial fibres come onto the market.

The new law came into force this May (although clothes placed on sale beforehand can legitimately carry labels under the old regime until November 2014). Its aim is to aid the EU clothing industry in being more dynamic, while protecting consumers.

A European Commission note said if EU member states had different rules on "names, composition and labelling of textile products...this would create hindrances to the proper functioning of the [EU] market," adding: "Consumer interests need to be protected by correct information."

However, despite calls from some consumer groups and retailers, the reformed EU law still allows national governments significant leeway over a number of labelling issues, which will need to be heeded by clothing companies selling across Europe.

Critically, the European Parliament refused to accept common rules on origin labelling that could have opened the door to a 'made in the EU' label. Perhaps understandably, luxury Italian and French manufacturers were not thrilled at the prospect of being lumped in with T-shirt makers from Latvia and Romania, and an EU origin labelling scheme will merely be studied by the European Commission for further proposals in 2013.

Brussels officials will also assess whether proposals should be brought forward on an EU care labelling system; an EU-wide uniform size labelling system for relevant textile products; rules on noting the inclusion in clothes of allergenic substances; and EU rules on electronic labelling and other new technologies, such as RFID.

RFID guidelines
The pace of RFID uptake across the apparel supply chain is expected to increase after a number of major US retailers brands and technology providers in June agreed a set of guidelines for assigning serialised identification numbers to individual items.

The 'EPC-enabled RFID Serialization Management for SGTIN-96' guidelines released by information standards organisation GS1 US will make it possible for firms to trace individual products. They provide best practices as well as various methodologies for assigning globally unique identification to individual trade items, using a Global Trade Item Number (GTIN) plus a unique serial number. This combination is known as a Serialized Global Trade Item Number, or SGTIN.

"This document should be the first stop for any company that is implementing right now - regardless of their level of understanding or in involvement in item level tagging," explains Doug Harvel, IT project leader at Jockey International, which helped put together the guidelines. "This was created by industry, for industry - and will serve the retail sector well for years to come."

Assigning a SGTIN to individual items means that two otherwise identical units of the same product are uniquely identifiable, making it possible to fully use the power of RFID for simultaneous inventory counts and ensure that the right product is in the right place, at the right time.

The introduction of industry-wide standards was key to greater acceptance for RFID technology believes Sybille Korrodi, head of marketing at RFID label specialist TexTrace.

The issue of privacy has been another obstacle, with fears that RFID readers would be able to track consumers who had chips embedded in their clothing. But Korrodi explains there are ways to offset these fears: the chips have a read range of just a few metres, no personal data is stored on the chip, and there are several ways to deactivate the chip, be it temporarily (stand-by) or, if the customer really wants it, irreversibly (killing).

"We always advise companies to be transparent about their use of the technology and also communicate the benefits to the end consumer," she says. "For example, there's an advantage if they go into a shop and the product they would like to buy is there in their size. So it's not only the brands and retailers who benefit from the technology, it's also the end consumer. But it took a while to get to the point of talking about that."

With additional reporting by MJ Deschamps and Julian Ryall.

Click on the links below to read other chapters in the management briefing:

just-style management briefing: Apparel labels become more high-tech

just-style management briefing: RFID technology gets increasingly sophisticated

just-style management briefing: Retailers hail benefits of new label technologies