Provenance? There’s an App for That

NEW YORK, United States — Large luxury goods makers have long emphasised the cultural heritage of their brands and the provenance of their products. But in search of business efficiencies, these same luxury companies — who must ultimately answer to shareholders — increasingly source materials and labour outside their home markets, especially for their more affordable lines, creating a disconnect between consumer perception and manufacturing reality.

As consumers increasingly scrutinise luxury goods purchases, and craftsmanship, authenticity and heritage take centre stage in major advertising campaigns for brands like Gucci and Louis Vuitton, this disconnect has become more pronounced. Indeed, earlier this year, the UK’s Advertising Standards Agency banned two Louis Vuitton ads for misleading the public into thinking that the predominantly machine-made bags were handcrafted by European artisans.

Going forward, a new generation of digital tracing technologies may have the ability to pull back the curtain on materials and labour sourcing and give consumers the answers they are looking for.

Sourcemap, “an open source and open data supply chain publishing platform” created by MIT’s Media Lab offers a glimpse of a rapidly approaching future in which consumers will be able to easily discover, share and discuss where and how their products are made, down to the origin of specific materials and means of shipping.

In a note to New York Times “Consumed” columnist Rob Walker, Matthew Hockenberry at MIT describes the Sourcemap platform: “Companies (and investigative consumers, academics and journalists) can use Sourcemap to share the supply chains behind products and show us all exactly where they come from… We’re not quite there yet, but we can definitely tell you where some things come from. On the site you can find things like Ikea beds, Tesla roadsters, iPods, where Whole Foods gets some of its ingredients, bicycles, Sony PSPs — there are even a couple of planes on there (Airbus and Boeing).”

This kind of radical digital traceability presents a serious challenge to those luxury brands who have played the provenance card to be more transparent about exactly where and how their products are made. But it also presents a powerful opportunity for brands who are able to authentically differentiate themselves on materials and manufacturing standards.

Icebreaker, a New Zealand-based company that specialises in active clothing made from merino wool, has tagged its products with “Baacodes,” which when entered into the brand’s website, let consumers identify the high country sheep stations that produce the wool in their garments, watch videos of the sheep farmers, and follow the supply chain, from fibre sourcing to sewing.

Meanwhile, California-based outdoor clothing company Patagonia operates a website called “The Footprint Chronicles” which lets consumers track the journey of their products through the global supply chain and examine the identities, locations and manufacturing practices of Patagonia’s business partners, as well as calculate a garment’s carbon footprint.

Large clothing retailers are getting serious about supply chain transparency, as well. Earlier this year, as part of its high profile corporate sustainability initiative Plan A, Marks & Spencer said it would become the first major retailer to ensure full traceability of the key raw materials used in its clothing, including cotton, wool, polyester, nylon and leather.

Even the world’s largest retailer, Wal-Mart, is investing in traceable products. For example, their supplier of organic cotton T-shirts, Greensource, tags their garments with product IDs. When entered into a search engine at, the codes show customers where and by whom the organic cotton in their T-shirts was grown, processed and finished.

Now, mobile phones are making it easy for consumers to instantly trace the provenance of a product, when it matters most: in-store, before they buy. In Japan, for example, consumers routinely scan QR codes on fruit to instantly call up information on where and how a particular apple or pear was grown.

As this kind of technology goes mainstream and we advance towards a radically transparent marketplace in which consumers come to expect products that carry and communicate data about their pasts, it’s clear that luxury companies will face increasing pressure to be more transparent about the provenance of their products too.

Vikram Alexei Kansara is Managing Editor of The Business of Fashion

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  1. Luxury production has to come back home… it’s that simple. Italy, France, UK. The Chinese economic boom is exaggerated beyond imagination, Brazil a decade away…Shareholders can squeeze resources till they pop, or customers simply up sticks and look elsewhere. If they don’t invest in home sourcing and production, they’ll lose forever what makes their product unique, luxury.

    moi from Yeovil, Somerset, United Kingdom
  2. Be cool if they tabulated how many GM (genetically modified) ingredients/products go into a given meal.

    And what foods have nanoparticles in their makeup.

    Unlikely to ever happen in the US.

    rpk from Los Angeles, CA, United States
  3. It’s an interesting article but I’m not sure moving large scale production/manufacturing back to Europe or the US is sustainable or even financially viable. I think the answer lies in improving quality of production and facilities in the hubs (China, India) as well as simultaneously being transparent with consumers.

    Here’s an article on the Louis Vuitton debacle:

  4. Sadly there is a generation of shoppers who have come to expect to pay no more than the price of a bag of chips for a pair of jeans, and those consumers do not care where or how their clothes are made.
    It is not that long ago that a coat from a high street retailer would cost the same as a weeks wages for the average person but that coat would last a lot longer too. It would probably also have been made in Europe.
    As prices rise in China it will make more sense to move production back closer to home and be able to keep a closer eye on production and quality.
    Sourcemap is a fantastic project, I hope that is successful.

  5. now lists and rates around 65,000 food, toys, personal care, & household products to help consumers assess the health, environmental and social performance of products and companies. If luxury goods brands can’t bring themselves to make the same kind of information available, they’ll run the risk of looking shoddy or shady or both… The fact that most seem to interpret this interest in provenance as a threat rather than as an opportunity to publicise the excellence of their business practices tells its own story.

  6. it’s a potentially useful tool, but whatever changes this technology drives, you can be sure that opportunists will also adapt as quickly as anyone else. much likely before any large corporations are able to react, the [over]emphasis on provenance/origin will drive an increase in demand for products from “desirable” regions and result in a deterioration in average quality from those regions as marginally lesser quality manufacturers spring up. another byproduct will be an increase in base cost, not only due to labor cost disparities but also from the additional steps required for documentation of every aspect of the production process. consumers may benefit in the short term, but in the long term someone/something will have to sort through the confusion all over again. being fully aware of harmful products of dubious origin that have plagued consumers in the recent past, i’m all for transparency, but feel that processes and inputs should be emphasized ahead of origin.

    Cheol from Fort Lee, NJ, United States