Want to know what the next big thing will be in the global apparel industry? Well, we hear much about the issue of transparency, and in a great many cases, this is referring to the issue of apparel brands and retailers revealing the names of their manufacturing facilities. We all know this is a positive step because it brings about accountability and, in turn, accountability brings responsibility.
But there is another conversation taking place around transparency and it is to do with the issue of actual apparel garments and the contents of those garments. Where did the fibres that produced those garments come from? Where was the cotton picked, how was it processed, and can we be sure that those involved in the supply chain were treated fairly?
This issue has actually been surfacing in the agenda in recent years, but progress has been fairly slow. However, in China right now, there are events taking place which might place the issue of product transparency right at the top of the agenda for apparel brands. Ready-made garment manufacturers in Bangladesh need to be ready to respond.
There is now credible information from China that the huge cotton growing region of Xinjiang is a serious sourcing risk due to labour concerns. Rights groups claim Xinjiang’s Uighur minority are being persecuted and recruited for forced labour.
Xinjiang is by far the largest cotton growing region in China, yet NGOs and risk agencies claim it is impossible to know whether or not cotton sourced from the region has been picked using forced labour, in large part because of the secretive nature of Chinese government officials.
US agencies have repeatedly said they cannot be sure that apparel brands don’t have coerced labour in their supply chains if they do cotton business in China.
Let me be clear here, I am not singling out China, merely using it as an example to illustrate an issue. The point being made is that we are now seeing the very limits of auditing in global apparel supply chains. We know that social auditing to check for labour abuses and related issues is a sector that is under threat. That is because there is too much duplication and, in many cases, factories find ways to evade detection from auditing companies. Many believe the social auditing model is broken.
But what about auditing for fibres? To stay on China, what about auditing to ensure that cotton has not been picked and processed by forced labour? Brands and retailers simply cannot afford to have the risk that cotton, picked using forced labour, will be found in their supply chains. Indeed, a couple of Australian retailers, Target Australia and Cotton On, have already said they will no longer have cotton from Xinjiang in their products.
This has huge implications across the whole supply chain, including for Bangladeshi manufacturers. Could they be handling cotton that has been through forced labour camps? Who knows, for as we have seen above, the auditing model is prone to failure for it is based mainly on humans. And humans, as we all know, are prone to errors.
I spoke at the start of this article about the next big thing in the global apparel industry. This, I believe, will be the growing use of blockchain and DNA tagging to trace fibres such as cotton right from the farm to the final consumer. Already we are seeing huge technology developments in this area, with millions of dollars’ worth of investment flooding in. In fact, of all the areas of sustainable textiles and apparel which are attracting investors, this is the most popular. The reason for this is that there is a clear market need and demand for such technology.
The apparel industry is sitting up and taking notice. Just recently, the organic cotton contained in a pair of kids’ pyjamas was traced right back from the farm to the customer as part of a blockchain project aimed at demonstrating traceability along the apparel supply chain.The pilot was a joint effort between Fashion for Good, C&A Foundation, and the Organic Accelerator, with support from brands Kering, PVH Corp and Zalando.
In the past, tracing raw material flows through the textile supply chain has proved to be a major challenge, especially those linked to particular standards such as organic cotton. Such levels of traceability have been very much a utopia.
The particular technology pilot mentioned above was started in 2018 by the partner organisations to test and validate “on-product markers” in combination with blockchain technology as a potential industry solution to traceability.
The project identified DNA using invisible fluorescent and microbiome technologies respectively in tracking organic cotton.
Remarkably, after enduring the manufacturing processes of spinning, chemical treatments, high temperatures and dyeing, the DNA and invisible fluorescent tracers emerged intact to positively identify the cotton in consumer ready garments in retail outlets.
This is a huge breakthrough and we can expect more developments in this area. At present, fibre traceability systems, though reliable, rely largely on paper-based trails of certification as well as various, separate systems to manage the chain of custody.
The new process creates a digital and physical trail that increases reliability of the tracing exercise by combining the immutability of blockchain with on-product markers that verify the identity of the fibre.
Such technology benefits all of us. It benefits end consumers because they have confidence in the products they are purchasing. It benefits farmers because they are more likely to be treated fairly if there is this level of accountability in place. And, of course, it benefits us as manufacturers as we are part of a supply chain which has more credibility and trustworthiness and in which stakeholders have greater confidence.
Mostafiz Uddin is the Managing Director of Denim Expert Limited. He is also the Founder and CEO of Bangladesh Denim Expo and Bangladesh Apparel Exchange (BAE).