Traceability is one of sustainable fashion’s biggest concerns, and with good reason.
In 2020, there were revelations of forced Uyghur labor practices in China’s biggest cotton farming region, Xinjiang, as well as the discovery that 20,000 metric tons of Indian cotton was falsely certified as GOTS-approved organic cotton. Some forward-thinking countries have already started introducing legislation to enforce traceability — in March in Germany a due diligence law was introduced to put the onus on companies to meet labor and environmental standards along the full supply chain, including contractors abroad, or face steep fines.
But most brands aren’t ready for transparency. Fashion Revolution’s annual Fashion Transparency Index last year reported a 16% average score for traceability from 250 of the world’s biggest fashion brands, though that had seen a year-on-year increase from 12% in 2019 and 8% in 2017.
Traceability is vital to a healthy fashion industry for a number of reasons. When it comes to raw materials, supply chain insights company Sourcemap found that up to “25% of [raw] transactions are fraudulent; they fail to meet legal and company-specific standards.” Not only is it crucial to weed out unethical activity, in the long run, traceability also helps clothing recyclers understand what items are made out of so they can reuse or dispose of them properly.
From the human rights perspective, publicly available supplier lists give trade unions and workers rights organizations greater visibility over the issues that face garment workers, like the illegal subcontracting between suppliers. It’s also beneficial for brands, as investing in traceability “can also enhance investor and consumer trust in the brand,” says the 2020 Fashion Revolution index.
Traceability is difficult to achieve and progress is slow, especially for big brands that face retroactively implementing it into their huge, convoluted network of suppliers. But technology may offer a solution. Here are some of the exciting companies creating tech solutions to transform supply chain traceability.
Founded in Australia in 2018, FibreTrace is a technology that embeds luminescent pigments onto fibers at the spinning mill in order to make a textile that is fully traceable at every stage of its lifecycle. FibreTrace co-founders Danielle Statham and her husband David originally wanted to track the cotton they farmed to make sure their fibers weren’t being mixed with lower quality fibers when they sent it to the spinning mills.
The Stathams partnered with anti-counterfeiting expert Paul Stenning, now FibreTrace’s head of Research and Development, to apply his technology to their cotton. The pigments are indestructible and built into fiber so that even if the fabric is recycled, its origins can still be traced using a handheld scanner that reads the pigment. Information about the fiber is stored on a secure blockchain database in real-time at each stage of the production line. It’s not just cotton that is becoming more traceable – FibreTrace technology can be applied to responsible viscose and recycled polyester. The company is currently trialling it on wool, leather and bast fibers like hemp and flax.
The pandemic has accelerated the use of QR codes in daily life, which can only be a good thing for Lyfcycle, which applies QR codes to clothing labels so that customers can learn about the provenance of their garments. Founded in 2019 by a father-daughter duo, Lyfcycle’s focus is on encouraging customers to make more informed decisions on the shop floor before they buy a garment.
This happens through the Lyfcycle app, where customers can scan a garment’s QR code to reveal an interactive map and read up on what it’s made of, where it came from and who made it. For brands and suppliers, Lyfcycle’s Web Traceability Platform can be used to trace textile waste from production to help understand the environmental impact and inefficiencies in the supply chain. Currently, the company counts Skopes menswear and Smiley as its biggest clients.
A leading traceability tech platform is EON, founded in 2015 by Natasha Franck. Based in New York, EON is all about strengthening the circular economy, connecting brands, customers and the industry using technology that integrates with NFC (near-field communication) tags or QR codes to assign a garment with a CircularID. This ID contains information about the garment’s original price, material composition, dye processes and other key features, which would help recycling companies better understand what to do with the garment, allow brands to refurbish old clothes, and assist in the authentication of luxury products for resale.
The CircularID protocol is a standard that EON hopes will be adopted industry-wide – they’re already working with the likes of H&M, YOOX NET-A-PORTER Group, Gabriela Hearst, Nanushka and Target to create connected products. EON’s tech also allows brands to create a hub of information for consumers, too. Nanushka’s Resort 2021 collection features connected products that once scanned, offered styling options, resale instructions and sustainability credentials for customers to explore.
Based in New York, CertainT is a platform set up by Applied DNA Sciences that tags fibers using a molecular identifier called SigNature tags. These can be applied and detected at any point in a garment’s lifecycle through forensic testing, done in an Applied DNA laboratory, or on-site at any stage in the supply chain.
Molecular tags are uncopyable, customizable, resistant to extreme environmental conditions and can be applied to both natural and synthetic fibers, including cotton, leather, down and feathers, wool and recycled polyester. Once tagged, data on the fiber is tracked, recorded and uploaded to a cloud database that a brand or supplier can access online and share with their customers. U.S. cotton companies PimaCott and HomeGrown Cotton work with CertainT to forensically verify their cotton — the company claims that over 100 million pounds have been marked so far.
TextileGenesis is a Hong Kong-based tech company that is best known for creating Fibercoins, which are essentially digital tokens – likened to fingerprints – that can be assigned to any textile asset, like fiber, yarn, fabric, or finished garment, creating a digital identity that tracks the fiber as it moves through the supply chain. Fibercoins stay intact no matter how many times the material is reused or recycled, and the information is stored using blockchain, which can’t be altered or tampered with.
According to Canopy, of the“6.5 million metric tons of viscose pulp produced annually, approximately half comes from Ancient and Endangered Forests,” so traceability in the viscose supply chain is important for their preservation.
Last year, the company was one of the winners of the H&M Foundation Global Change Award and also launched the Viscose Traceability Project with luxury group Kering, Fashion for Good and Danish fashion giant Bestseller.
French start-up ViJi allows brands to follow the production of their garments in real-time using photo-geolocation to ensure that suppliers are following their CSR procedures. Viji also authenticates this information using blockchain, and structures it so it’s accessible to customers.
Viji’s consumer-facing services include Viji Clic, a web plug-in that gives a customer access to a brand’s available information about their social and environmental credentials, as well as the ViJi App, which scans a brand’s barcode to access their sustainability information in stores. ViJi’s clients include a host of sustainable French brands and suppliers including HABILE, Maison ALFA, Balas Textile and Laines Paysannes.