It will be impossible to forget that the fashion and textiles industry was rocked by the second largest industrial disaster in history during 2013. The Rana Plaza factory collapse took the lives of nearly 1,200 garment workers in Bangladesh and forced the apparel and textiles sector to put the lens on the way clothing is made.
It took weeks for some major global retailers to determine whether their clothes were made by those factories in the Rana Plaza building. A few companies were literally scrambling to figure out what contracts they had with whom, where, for what products and for how long a business relationship lasted.
Considering one retailer alone might source from thousands of factories at a time and tend to drop and add new suppliers within the year, months or even weeks, it becomes a challenge for a company to know exactly whom they are working with at any given time.
And that's just on the surface level the first tier. What became evident after Rana Plaza is that some companies didn't have contracts with the factories operating in the building yet clothing with their brand labels were found in the wreckage. Brands had contracts with factories that may have been illegally sub-contracting out work to unchecked factories in Rana Plaza. Unfortunately, this type of 'non-compliance' is common.
It's become obvious that a lack of adequate supply chain transparency and traceability is putting the entire industry at risk and making it extra difficult to respond quickly when things do go wrong.
And the risk increases as you dive deeper into supply chains, beyond that first tier. When a company tries to look at the other stakeholders in its supply chain the mills, the spinners, the dyehouses, cotton growers, etc. the water gets even murkier. A recent study suggests that non-compliances increase 18% in the second tier and 27% in the third. In other words, less visible suppliers are often failing to meet social and environmental standards. Fashion companies simply cannot afford to not know, or even further not understand, what's happening across a supply chain from fibre to final product.
For 2014, transparency and traceability is going to be top of the wider fashion and textiles industry agenda.
What we mean by transparency and traceability has aptly been defined by journalist Robb Young as "the disclosure of information relating to material sources, manufacturers and other suppliers in order for all stakeholders, including end consumers, to have a complete and accurate picture of the ethical and environmental impact of a product."
The Future of Textiles is Transparent and Sustainable
The good news is that a shift towards ethical and sustainable business for fashion and textiles is happening and at a seemingly faster pace and more seriously than ever before.
There are quite a few pioneering examples, companies that are really setting the industry standard for best practice is social and environmental sustainability.
Secrecy surrounding a company's sourcing partnerships and wider business practices has been seen as prime for maintaining competitive advantage at least, up until now. Increasingly, being open and honest is considered pre-competitive or even value-added for customers.
But there are now several fashion brands that are taking a radical approach to transparency by disclosing everything about how a product is made and how much each stage costs, even the retail mark-up percentage.
One brand takes a decidedly radical approach by revealing as much as possible about each one of its products including: the manufacturer, the fabrics and lining, zippers, buttons and even the thread. And for as many products as possible, this brand traces the fabric through the supply chain of raw materials, yarn spinners, fabric weavers, printers, dyers and so on.
Bigger brands and retailers are stepping forward in their own way by publicly publishing a list of their first tier factories, which is a good start. However, seeing as that most large fashion companies work with hundreds or even thousands of suppliers, traceability remains a massive challenge.
Certifications Systems Ensure Traceability
Some suppliers are too beginning to see transparency and traceability as a crucial component in the way they do business and for ensuring that supply chain impacts are verifiable and meaningful. They are tackling this issue by working with certification organisations that audit and monitor a supplier's operations.
Certifications and standards are helping to improve the traceability of textiles for fashion. Whilst environmental and social certification systems have been around for quite some time, some of the leading ones are innovating how they work to have more impact for small-holder farmers growing cotton and other fibres.
Several certification systems on the market at the moment are increasing in sophistication in order to respond to today's challenging fashion business landscape. This includes employing new technologies to collect data more efficiently, to reach deeper into supply chains and to facilitate better communication between stakeholders.
Technology Drives Transparency
Technology is going to play an important part for transparency, traceability and the future of sustainable textiles. For example, there are several new web-based tools that track and map where products are made. They do this entirely by collecting and making available open-source data.
Tracking and tracing of a company's supply chain is not new.
A number of innovative supply chain software solutions are also using technology-based real time data to manage supply chains and to give a voice to textile and apparel workers and fibre farmers. Through mobile phone applications and SMS, retailers, factory and farm managers alike are able to gather direct feedback on working conditions from the workers themselves, anonymously.
Parallel to what's happening across the food and produce sector and with transparency targeted campaigns driving a global conversation around sustainability, consumers will increasingly want to know where apparel is made from fibre to fashion. These types of tools will help make that possible.
Labeling is Still an Issue
Clothing labels tell the consumer details about how a garment is made, the materials it's made from, where it was made and how to take care of it.
Discussions over what information needs to be included on a clothing label and how this information is communicated have been happening for decades. In both the US and the UK, 'Country of Origin' labeling, or where a product was manufactured, became compulsory in the late 1950s / early 1960s.
Governments and companies have launched several different 'eco-labels' over the course of the years with varying degrees of success, the EU Eco-label launched in 1992 being one of the more prominent of these.
Reports suggest there are about 25 textile related eco-labels and no universal standard as yet. However, it has certainly been a hot topic at recent industry conferences. And so it remains a bit of a minefield for consumers who truly want to understand the environmental and social credentials of a product.
Sarah Ditty is the Editor in Chief - SOURCE Intelligence, at Ethical Fashion Forum.