The fashion industry has come under continued scrutiny about its sustainability and ethical practices

The fashion industry has come under continued scrutiny about its sustainability and ethical practices

With ethical consumerism on the rise, manufacturers and brands unable to meet 'green is the new black' expectations risk damaging their reputations. Weaving transparency throughout the end-to-end process is a proven path to a sustainable future.

Over recent years, the fashion industry has come under continued scrutiny about its sustainability and ethical practices. From the raw materials used and the environmental impact of production, to the working conditions and minimum wage at manufacturing and distribution sites, particularly in developing countries.

At the same time, society has become much more environmentally aware and the rise of ethical consumerism has led to demand increasing for clothing that has been sourced and produced in a sustainable and ethical manner.

Proving credentials

While these factors may give some companies cause for concern, they also present an opportunity for those that can prove their eco and ethical credentials to capitalise on consumers' increasing willingness to pay a premium for brands with good reputations in these areas. Consumers are actively looking for products made from recycled fibres, Fairtrade and organic materials. They want proof that manufacturing has had a minimal impact on air, land and water pollution and want to buy from companies using ethical farming and labour methods.

As we've seen recently, manufacturers and retail brands that can't recognise and meet the 'green is the new black' expectations risk damaging their brand and, ultimately, falling revenue. In addition, the UK government has responded to the trend with new government regulations including supply chain transparency and fair labour requirements, providing further challenges.

It is, therefore, safe to say that sustainable fashion is not just better for the environment, workers and economies, it is good for business too. Bearing this in mind, why is it still proving to be a daunting challenge to so many clothing manufacturers?

The key issue appears to be one of transparency and traceability.

Despite the various barriers to change, the good news is, more brands have recognised the need and progress is being made. Recent studies have shown that top fashion brands are increasing their commitments to corporate social responsibility and greater transparency is proving to be one of the main drivers. Nevertheless, a shortfall remains, with many brands still having only limited transparency.

Transparency trials and tribulations

Many fashion brands are struggling with supply chain transparency as they rely on an array of global suppliers and contract manufacturers from a variety of markets, including Asia, Latin America and Africa. This is the first hurdle, and in order to succeed, brands need to make a strategic commitment to supplier performance management, establishing and maintaining standards around sustainable products and implementing compliance controls.

With so many moving parts to monitor and manage, the key to transparency is for brands to transition from often chaotic methods of data collection and monitoring to a more centralised system. More often than not, information gathered is usually strewn across countless spreadsheets or standalone systems that won't integrate. This makes it nigh-on impossible to monitor suppliers and partners on sustainability factors such as waste, CO2 emissions, use of chemicals and pesticides, water and fuel consumption, working conditions and more.

Thankfully, modern technology has evolved in order to mitigate the transparency problem and provide true traceability. Through a centralised system, organisations can monitor and track numerous suppliers all at once, with up-to-date information on product ingredients and the production lifecycle. Depending on the brands' requirements there are three different levels of traceability to consider:

  • Lot traceability – this is the most basic level of traceability, which allows brands to track all of the materials used in a given product. For example, 100 black dresses, size 10 can be traced to the lot, or batch of individual items that went through the manufacturing process.
  • Component traceability – this takes things one step further, rather than simply tracing the finished product as a whole as the individual components of each product are monitored and tracked. This is especially useful where the separate components are manufactured by different suppliers.
  • Source traceability – the most advanced level, source traceability means that a finished item can be traced down to its primary components, sub-components and even the raw materials used. For example, this allows brands to backtrack the origins of fabric and know exactly where that cotton or wool came from.

In addition to traceability, there are a number of other technological capabilities that are important for clothing manufacturers to possess, such as supplier audits, quality assurance, scorecarding and alerts to anomalies. With centralised data and reporting, fashion brands can now clearly monitor supplier compliance, ensure sustainability standards are being met and, for ultimate transparency, publicise that information for its customers and stakeholders – maintaining a sustainable and ethical reputation.

Increased sustainability isn't the only benefit of supply chain transparency. Brands can also increase product quality, improve time to market and identify opportunities for cost reductions, such as more efficient logistics that minimise CO2 emissions.

Weaving transparency throughout the end-to-end processes, based on a unified technology foundation, is a proven path to a sustainable future.

About the author: Gavin Davidson is manufacturing lead at Oracle NetSuite where he is charged with utilising his understanding of the product, marketplace and customers to increase sales, improve customer satisfaction and retention and drive the solution maps for partner and product offerings.