Tim Wilson, CEO of Historic Futures

Tim Wilson, CEO of Historic Futures

Without knowing the precise history of the products it sells and then being able to verify the claims it makes, Tim Wilson, CEO of Historic Futures, believes the apparel industry will never be able to make a real difference to issues ranging from sustainability to illegal subcontracting. He is now taking the company's String platform back to the drawing board to tackle the issue of total traceability across the clothing supply chain. 

"It's not that retailers are hiding information about where their garments come from," Tim Wilson tells just-style, but that "very often companies just don't know who is in their supply chain beyond their immediate suppliers.

He also believes there is currently too much focus on piecemeal solutions that don't collaborate on the flow of materials - making it impossible for the industry to make informed sourcing decisions and reliable product claims.

Piloted by M&S to great fanfare more than two years ago, the String platform from Historic Futures was intended to answer these questions.

Beginning with children's wear, the goal was to collect information from the extended supply-chain, describing where and how each product was made, including the source of the raw materials such as cotton and wool, where the yarn was spun, the fabric produced and dyed, and the garment manufactured - drilling down by batch rather than product-line.

Wilson says the project with M&S ran for about 18 months, and followed earlier work with Nike and Tesco to investigate the country of origin of the cotton used in their products.

"We proved it was possible," Wilson says. "We tracked 12.5m items through 700 third-party production sites based on 6,500 M&S purchase orders back to authentic country of origin."

But while the project managed to collect accurate and verifiable data to describe product history and raw material country of origin (COO) data, it struggled to reach the required scale.

Instead of building a network of brands and retailers to pull demand for the tool through the supply chain and collect the huge volumes of data required, "other retailers took a step back to let M&S do the work," Wilson explains.

Demand for the tool appeared to go quiet, "which made the whole implementation more difficult. [We were] pushing it instead of pulling it."

Understanding upstream supply
Apart from Historic Futures' investment, which included building a team of 50 and opening (and subsequently closing) offices in China, Bangladesh and Turkey, Wilson laments the fact that abandoning the project now means "there is absolutely no mechanism for understanding the country of origin of the cotton used" in clothing.

As an example, he cites the fact that every single bale of cotton from Uzbekistan - widely condemned for being harvested with forced labour - "still gets sold every year but is not turning up on the market anywhere; no-body's got any, and yet it's all being sold. Well the reason is no-body's actually collecting the data to say where it went."

One of the key challenges is in how accurate or verifiable the data is.

String was designed to reach out "like a like a social network," to all suppliers, asking them to sign up for an account and to verify details about the inputs they supplied, which might be fabric, yarn, or fibre country of origin.

This helps build a database that goes all the way back through the supply chain so the retailer/brand can see authentic declaration of country of origin that's accurate and verifiable.

Not only is it scalable and can apply to most inputs and outputs, but it can be seen in real time, and the data improves as the network gets larger - in contrast to existing ad hoc or annual audit mechanisms.

"No other system can do that," Wilson explains. "In order to do that you have to get in amongst the flow of materials, and you have to know what was supplied."

He adds that the need to collect data at this level of detail "is about every single business case to do with sustainability - it's about understanding the energy, water, miles travelled, social impact [even illegal subcontracting] buried deep in the supply chains of the products that we buy. And we're not measuring any of it. We're guessing all of it, all of the time.

"If you want to understand those things you need to understand what's going on in dynamic upstream supply networks - and that's what String is designed to do."

Simplified String prototype
While String is no longer being marketed, and has been scaled back for textiles and apparel, the service is still running for a few companies that have identified specific business cases.

Historic Futures, meanwhile, has just secured a Government award to create a "radically" simplified prototype version of the String platform - and is urging retailers and brand owners to get involved in formulating the tool.

"We've learnt more than anyone's ever learnt with this," Wilson says, and while he concedes the new version of String will collect less data, it will be accurate, from a wider network, "and still be much better than anyone else is getting"

Until this happens - Wilson expects to have a prototype of the new String up-and-running in about a year - "all of those things that are endemic in the industry will just get worse and worse until we get to a proper collaboration platform where people can share information based on the flow of materials.

"We'll end up with piecemeal solutions that do cotton but don't do polyester, do country of origin but don't do water usage, that work for M&S but don't work for Nike, that don't share data from suppliers and cause multiple audit fatigue."

Part of the problem is that it's "technically difficult, commercially difficult and culturally difficult to get these collaboration networks set up" - and the garment-making business has grown up in a culture of not sharing information on who makes its clothes and where.

Instead, an easier focus is to redirect efforts into more third-party auditing, or adding more data fields to systems, or modelling tools that look at the typical impact of fibre types but not about where they came from.

"No-body's really opened the lid on this. Everyone's skating over the surface and saying 'I've got a report that says I've got no Uzbek cotton'.

"But it doesn't give them much room to engage with collecting actual, verifiable, real data so that we can drive improved performance."

Companies interested in getting involved in moving the String project going forward are being asked to complete an online survey as a first step in mapping their global value chain. Click here for more details.