Fashion has been eyeing blockchain to trace its notoriously opaque supply chain for years. The technology has yet to be widely adopted, in part because it isn’t easy to implement. It requires information and participation from all the suppliers along the chain, from cut-and-sew factories to fabric weavers, yarn spinners, ginning mills, and even farmers.
Lately, though, disruptions from the pandemic to geopolitical events have made visibility all the way down the supply chain a top priority for brands and retailers, adding to pressure they already faced from consumers and watchdogs to be more transparent. It’s helped drive momentum around blockchain projects. In recent months, groups such as the UK Fashion & Textile Association (UKFT) and companies such as H&M have launched new pilot programmes to track their supply chains with blockchain.
“To be totally frank, it was the dual onslaughts of Brexit and Covid, and the impact that had on supply chains,” said Adam Mansell, chief executive of UKFT, which announced a tracing pilot with IBM and others including Next and H&M’s COS brand in August.
Government regulations are contributing too. This year, the US banned imports of products made with cotton from China’s Xinjiang region, where researchers and authorities say Uighurs and other Muslim groups have been pressed into forced labour. (China denies the claims.) Germany adopted a law scheduled to take effect in 2023 mandating large companies perform due diligence to ensure their supply chains comply with social and environmental standards.
To be totally frank, it was the dual onslaughts of Brexit and Covid, and the impact that had on supply chains.
These sorts of developments have drawn “attention at the very highest level around, ‘How do I manage the risk in my supply chain?’ — the material risk — and that immediately brings you into the traceability topic,” said Amit Gautam, founder and CEO of TextileGenesis, a blockchain-based tracing platform for fashion.
The company is H&M’s partner for its new tracing efforts, and has teamed on separate pilots with the US Cotton Trust Protocol, a cotton sustainability group that counts Gap and Levi’s as members, and with Kering and Bestseller on a viscose tracing project.
For brands and retailers feeling pressure to be more transparent about where they get their goods, the appeal of blockchain is clear: In theory, it provides a verified record of a garment’s history at each step of its production, something companies haven’t historically had much visibility into, and because of its decentralised architecture, that record would be tamper-proof.
But blockchain isn’t a silver-bullet solution. Companies still face the challenge of making sure the data they’re getting from suppliers is accurate.
“The issue is still that first part: How do you get the information and verify the information that’s coming into that blockchain system?” said Nate Herman, senior vice president of policy at the American Apparel & Footwear Association. “In the last two years there’s been a dramatic increase in efforts to do that.”
Pressure To Know the Chain
UKFT’s traceability project is funded by a research grant from the UK government. Other partners include Future Fashion Factory, which supports innovation in the UK garment sector, and Tech Data, a technology firm.
“There is definitely an economic driver to this,” Mansell said.
After Brexit, sourcing from Europe immediately became more challenging, and then the pandemic threw global supply chains into disarray. Companies realised they needed a much sharper understanding of where their materials came from.
The aim of IBM’s and other blockchain projects is to capture information around each step as it happens, as opposed to fashion’s historical method of tracing, which has been to start with a finished item and try to follow it backward. But “fibre-forward” tracking is tricky. Companies often only have contact with the factories that sew their garments and maybe fabric suppliers.
Keric Morris, who heads up standards for IBM’s strategy business and is involved in the UKFT project, said they’re collecting data from invoices created at each step of the chain and other information, stretching back to the farm level. They can’t always identify the specific farm the cotton in a product originated from, since batches of cotton are often mixed together when they’re processed, but they can identify the area or even group of farms it came from.
To start, the pilot is focusing solely on cotton products, which entails onboarding suppliers in countries including Bangladesh, India, Turkey, and Portugal.
“What makes it slightly different from other projects is that we are very much trying to build it so that the platform is available for everyone,” Mansell said.
The scope of TextileGenesis’s work is narrower. It focuses specifically on tracing what Gautam calls sustainable, differentiated materials, such as organic cotton as opposed to commodity cotton, or recycled polyester versus virgin polyester. It does it using a digital token it calls a Fibercoin.
“It’s a digitisation of the physical volume, so if 100 kilograms of Tencel are shipped to a spinner, then the spinner’s account on our system receives 100 kilograms of inventory,” Gautam said. “When that fibre is converted into yarn, yarn to fabric, fabric to garment, we transfer those tokens along the chain at article level.”
H&M has “several scaled pilots” set to launch with the company throughout the year. An H&M spokesperson said in an email its partnership with TextileGenesis enabled it to improve its supply chain’s traceability and transparency.
One challenge for companies is ensuring the information logged on the blockchain is accurate. Many are having to use other tools, such as forensic verifications that test genetic or chemical markers in material fibres, to confirm suppliers are entering data truthfully.
Another is cost. There’s a reason TextileGenesis focuses on fibres such as organic cotton.
“Commodity material has very little value, and very little value from a traceability perspective,” Gautam said. “There’s always a certain amount of effort, investment required to deliver traceability, and if it’s commodity product, how do you capture that value across the supply chain?”
There’s always a certain amount of effort, investment required to deliver traceability.
Commodity material describes the vast majority of fabric used to make clothing, and its supply chain tends to be more fragmented, making it more difficult to trace. Some of the costs involved would likely have to be passed onto shoppers.
“The first and foremost resistance I see is from the consumer,” said Tarun Kumar Agrawal, a production logistics researcher at KTH Royal Institute of Technology in Sweden who has studied blockchain’s use to trace the apparel supply chain. “Are consumers really interested in paying a premium if they get to know about all the history of the product? There is a major segment of consumers who still believe in price over sustainability.”
He predicted many big brands will adopt blockchain, but how it develops further could depend on what return they see on their spending. Brands could release tracked-and-traced product lines, much like the “sustainable” collections that exist.
Gautam forecast an even greater split. In his view, the top 100 or so fashion brands will trace most of their products in the coming years. “The rest of the apparel retail market, which is a lot of domestic retailers, let’s say in parts of Asia or parts even of Europe, which is lower value retail, would continue to be generic, would continue to be commodity product, and largely not traceable,” he said.