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Fashion labels in the age of recycling: are they accurate (and well translated) enough?

Updated: Oct 13, 2020

With fashion and luxury consumers becoming more demanding, it is now crucial for brands to explore greener alternatives - and if you are thinking “recycling”, you should know that there is much more than meets the eye. Starting with producing better labels, and translating them right.

Transparency. Recycling. Sustainability. Circularity. Death of fashion seasons.

If you have been following the fashion scene recently, you might have heard these words being increasingly used not just by environmentalists and eco-luxury brands, but also by more “traditional” high-fashion designers (Stella McCartney docet).

There is a lot that brands can do to remain relevant and embrace the sentiment of their customers. One avenue worth exploring is labels.

As customers, we look at labels to find out what our clothes are made of, where they were produced and how to care for them. Last week, I was exposed to a new perspective, going even beyond the issue of what kind of information should be included in labels.

The fundamental question is: are garment labels truly accurate?

But also: can a label's accuracy level impact effective recycling? And how can you ensure that labels stay accurate across languages and markets when you translate them?

I admit it: as a fashion translator and sustainability advocate, I am one of the pickiest customers out there. I am highly mindful of what I wear because I know what goes into making clothes (including the amount of fashion pollution that ends up in our rivers and oceans). So before buying a garment, I always read the label to check the textile composition, looking out for natural fibres and easy-to-recycle materials.

However, I had no idea to which extent something as tiny as a label could impact the recycling process of a whole garment...

…Until last week, when I attended the webinar: “Do labels actually tell us what is in our clothes?” with Jade Wilting and Hilde van Duijn from the Circle Economy.

Eye opener.

(By the way, here is a video of the webinar, which was Episode 1 of a Circle Economy series called 'Circle Textiles Talks'. I subscribed to the channel and will be following the next episodes closely. If you work in fashion, I suggest you do too!)

Aspiring sustainable brands, here is some food for thought

As Jade and Hilde explained in the webinar, the Circle Economy team was asked to investigate the accuracy of composition labels in clothes by no less than the Dutch Ministry for Infrastructure and Waterways (yes, the Netherlands do have a very cool and ambitious green agenda).

To accomplish the task, Circle Economy researchers used Fibersort, a technology able to categorise textiles based on their composition. And what did they discover?

Here are the top 3 facts that you as a brand should definitely be aware of:

1 - Labels don’t always tell the truth.

Fibersort revealed that the garment composition of our clothes is often different from what the label says. In fact, very often. In this study, the garment composition labels were inaccurate in 41% of cases, with labels for cotton-polyester blends telling the truth only 23% of the time!

2 - The material of labels matters.

Attaching a care label to a garment made of a different material (e.g. polyester label on a cotton garment) is a widespread practice that makes the garment harder to recycle.

3 - Labels as we know them might soon disappear.

Expert Jan Merckx from GS1 Netherland challenged the notion that we need to have a physical label attached to every single piece of garment. In the future, traditional labels could be replaced by more accurate and environment-friendly digital alternatives.

Can a label get lost in translation?

Surprisingly, researchers also found that in some multi-lingual labels, the textile composition data had been wrongly translated across languages.

When this happens, consumers based in different countries could potentially receive incorrect information on the composition of a garment they purchased. Arguably, the same wrong information would then be passed on to the workers of the local recycling facility, ultmately preventing the correct recycling of the garment itself.

The screenshot below, fresh from the webinar, shows a mistranslated label where the "85% acrylic - 15% mohair" composition stated in the first line magically turns into "75% acrylic - 25% mohair" in the following lines:

My first thoughts as a translator when I saw this image?

1. That garment must have been quite old (which is unlikely, in this era of fast fashion!), dating back to a time when translation was done "manually"with no auto-correct function;

or, alternatively,

2. This fashion brand must have hired a cheap translation provider who did not duly revise the translation of the label before sending it to print.

Here is why.

Considering the translation technology that we professional translators use today as part of our job, it is now very unlikely that a figure gets mistranslated or mistyped at all.

As a matter of fact, modern Computer Assisted Translation (CAT) tools such as SDL Trados or Wordfast are engineered to immediately detect any discrepancies between the numerical values in the original text and the translation; when they do so, they send a clear error message prompting the translator to correct the numbers accordingly.

For example, here is a screenshot of my Trados interface showing the tags and error messages that appear when the numbers between source text and translation don't match:

What if a tiny little typo goes unnoticed?

Although rare, it might happen. A technology glitch. A server connection hiccup.

That’s precisely why implementing a solid revision process is paramount before printing and publishing any kind of text, from articles and catalogues to care labels.

A trustworthy translation company would always provide an accurate round of revision, engaging a professional proofreader to compare the source and target texts side by side, specifically ensuring that all the numbers and figures match across the two versions.

So what is my final translator's verdict on label translation mistakes?

Whether the number inconsistency on the label is due to a lack of technology or a less-than-professional language provider, it is clear that today a similar mistake could easily be avoided in two ways: by using the right translation technology, and by hiring a reliable translation provider - whether a freelance translator or a company - to achieve increased information transparency across markets and better recycling outcomes overall.


Today, many of the labels attached to our clothes contain inaccurate information on the textile composition of garments. This fact, coupled with the sheer presence of physical labels on clothes, can hinder the correct recycling of textiles. Moreover, garments can be even harder to recycle in foreign markets if the material percentages on care labels are wrongly translated.

To avoid pitfalls and truly become more sustainable, here is what you can do as a luxury manufacturer and fashion brand:

  • Consider creating physical labels in the same material as the clothing (e.g. cotton labels for cotton garments) to allow for easier recycling

  • Watch out for progress in the implementation of electronic labels. It looks like digitalisation is where the industry is headed!

  • For your multilingual label, choose a reliable translator who can implement the right translation technology, such as Computer Assisted Translation (CAT) tools or localisation software

  • Invest in professional linguistic revision services to ensure that no translation mistakes and typos found on your label will ever make it through to the printing stage.

Your picky customers will thank you. And the environment too.


#FashionTranslation is my bread and butter, #Sustainability is my passion. I love to stay abreast of the changes in the Luxury universe and share what I learn. To read more of my articles and posts, connect with me here. If you would like me to add value to your sustainable brand with well-thought Italian translations that speak right to the hearts of your ideal customers, email me at

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