Greenwashing? Provenance? Traceability? What’s that?
Something important happened in India in December 2018.
The Organic Cotton Traceability Pilot began, with field trials being conducted by the Pratibha Syntex farm groups.
One has to go back to 2013 to know why this unheralded project is among the more important building blocks of a system called traceability.
In April 2013, “the deadliest structural failure accident in modern human history” took place when a building collapsed at Rana Plaza in Bangladesh.
The collapse led to much soul searching in the textile value chain globally apart from activists like a UK based organisation creating a movement to shine the spotlight on the global workforce of the industry with videos like https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XTnFfa0qHIM . #Whomademyclothes became a trending hashtag on social media.
The fast fashion culture has changed textile, clothing and apparel industries globally in unimaginable ways over the past few decades. Unsurprising then that these industries have also been among the first to face wide spectrum activism — from safety to health to labour to environment .
This has resulted in multiple initiatives across one of the most complex global supply chains from research on fibres and dyes to recycling of denims into fire insulation panelling material . Much of this has preceded the tragic events of 2013.
While some of the sustainability measures are dismissed as greenwashing , the reality is that vendor lists are an asset businesses would like to protect. The trade off with transparency is a difficult one.
However the increasing demand for sustainable apparel means a greater dependence on traceability in order to be as transparent about supply chains as possible and this is where technology has come in.
In 2017, the first garment ever tracked with blockchain technology was presented at the Copenhagen Fashion Summit. A digital history of a piece of apparel was created by a firm called Provenance and designer Martine Jarlgaard . A knitted jumper was tracked from the shearing of alpaca fleece on a sustainable farm to the final product headed to a retail store. The garment’s smart label served as “a Proof of Concept of blockchain implementation in fashion supply chains.”
A startup incubated at ETH Zurich , a STEM university in Switzerland, devised a traceability kit dedicated to ensuring greater supply chain transparency and this led to the rollout of the Organic Cotton Traceability Pilot.
It brought together multiple stakeholders of the organic cotton industry and “tested technologies including blockchain, machine vision, artificial intelligence, microbiome sequencing, and in-product markers for organic cotton traceability. At each cotton farm and manufacturing facility distinct DNA markers which could be traced later to distinguish the individual organic cotton producers and locations were applied .”
“The pilot program combines several technologies to trace and identify the origin, purity and distribution of organic cotton from farm to gin. The next stage is to trace the cotton from gin to consumer, then prove the process works at scale.”
While all of this is at the testing stage, there are some other developments that have the potential to provide more immediate results. The Agtech Traceability Platform in Australia, the AgriOpenData of Italy and E-Dhaga of India are some examples .
The first : “is a subscription-based cloud computing platform where growers upload their fibre production information, as an environmental (or animal welfare) declaration, which enables traceability ”
The second : “is a platform that integrates Open Data coming from fields, weather, treatments, water resources, IoT analyses and enables farmers make quicker and better decisions”.
The third is ‘E Dhaga’. National Handloom Development Corporation Ltd (NHDC) developed a mobile app to help handloom weavers send indents and payments, track raw material stocks, delays in supplies etc. The app, in multiple languages, is said to list three months’ yarn procurement of handloom societies .
There is possibly a greater role for the app, linking as it does every handloom society under NHDC . And that is provenance.
Tracing of inputs into a mill made garment is a complex task but it is almost herculean to do so with the handloom industry. The limited norms for handloom dyeing and processing is a consequence of decentralised and disparate supply chains.
While the impact of potentially untreated discharge from micro units dyeing a single dupatta or the fabric for the couture lehenga of a bollywood bride is yet to be assessed, it is inevitable that consumers will begin to demand the same as health, labour and environmental concerns increase.
Could startups work to expand the scope of E Dhaga ? Could they integrate it with the data from the Cot-Ally app of the Cotton Corporation of India to establish a supply chain linkage from fibre to loom?
Today, a buyer has no way of knowing if a “handloom” kurta is made using a solar powered loom, a shuttle loom or a power loom.
Could supply and distribution chains be vested with tools to scan and report? This would mean a weaver can get details of where the yarn has been spun, the apparel maker can get details of whether it was woven on a handloom or a powerloom and where it was dyed and the end user can get a digital history of their purchase. Could technology even permit the trims and embellishments segments to be part of traceability platforms?
Verifying the production, linking bank credit and getting a fair price would be the immediate benefits of such a digital trail- to the cotton farmer or the handloom weaver.
OSH (Occupational Safety and Health) regulators here would be able to devise more efficient ways to treat pollutants, provide health benefits and so on.
For the transparency seeking consumer, the farm to fashion supply chain would be a scan away. We should be able to scan a barcode on a Pochampalli one day and see the dyers and the weavers involved in its making holding placards that say #imadeyourclothes . And maybe one day, spot the field where the cotton for the saree was grown, on Google Maps.
Possible? Of course. Impossible is nothing 😃