Over the last five years, global movement, Fashion Revolution has galvanised millions of shoppers to tag and ask brands #whomademyclothes. For the brands, willingly or not, it has become increasingly important to improve their transparency efforts as they go looking for not just who but how, when and where the clothes were made.
There are parts both known and unknown in the fashion supply chain.
The ‘unknown’ stems from lack of traceability, the path of the product from start to finish. Most brands are unable to track back their product beyond the tier-1 suppliers. Going down more in-depth to the fibre level, it is almost impossible to ascertain the farm from where say conventional cotton was sourced.
The ‘known’ parts of this long and divided supply chain include supplier tech specs, different standards and metrics adhered to by vendors, purchase orders and various value addition processes. However, they exist as scattered bits of knowledge, often stored on multiple files, emails or vendor portals; perhaps a reflection of the old-fashioned way of working that the fashion industry still adheres to, when compared with other sectors like auto and IT.
“The need of the hour is a tool that fills the missing gaps in data in the fashion supply chain and brings efficiency around information access to tell the story of every garment from fibre to fabric.”
ERP and PLM systems are not enough. The need of the hour is a tool that fills the missing gaps in data in the fashion supply chain and brings efficiency around information access to tell the story of every garment from fibre to fabric. Sweden-based TrusTrace is hoping to deliver on that specific need with a machine language and blockchain-powered platform. Hosted on the cloud, this 18 month-old startup creates visualisations of supply chains mapped with verified supplier data. Those data dashboards help brands identify their weakest links, undertake risk analysis and improve sustainability efforts as well as communicate them to the end customer.
TrusTrace is founded by two Indian tech specialists, Saravanan and Hrishikesh Rajan, who hail from families with interests in textile businesses, they grew up in the city of Tirupur, popularly known as India’s garment hub.
Putting Accurate Data On The Platform
First up is data collection. TrusTrace is running pilots with seven sustainability frontrunner brands including Filippa K and Houdini, with each setting up its own taxonomy of information requirements. These brands, through the platform, are sending customised questionnaires to tier-1 suppliers, who can further forward the online forms to the next tier like spinners or dyers, adding more people to the chain.
Then comes data accuracy. The platform is using multiple methods to test that before putting it onto the blockchain, a form of distributed ledger system which is decentralised and tamper-proof. Thus, fake certifications and the likes can be eliminated.
Saravanan explains with an example, “To validate a claim of fair wage payment to its workers, the supplier will be asked to submit supporting data. That document whether pay slips or policy documents would be verified through multiple technologies like optical recognition and image processing. Additionally, indirect stakeholders like employees could be contacted through automated calls to verify the claim. Thirdly, the platform’s algorithms would correlate the macro information collected by the brand from the supplier’s end like production capacity, energy consumption, total salary payout to test the validity of the fair wage claim.”
Currently, this process is partly automated, supported by human intervention. Over the last eight months, the platform’s algorithms are being trained by feeding them with publicly available data like GOTS(Global Organic Textile Standard) and other relevant industry standards. Domain expertise of partner brands is being leveraged for this process. As more brands and suppliers come onboard, the system’s logic will improve.
Building Relationships With Suppliers
The traditional fashion brand-supplier dynamic is often one-sided, laden with former’s wish-list, rather than dialogue for co-existence. Besides, the push for transparency has meant an increased workload for suppliers. Elin Larsson, director of sustainability at Fillipa K says; “Suppliers are a bit fatigued as several brands are asking suppliers and factories lots of questions as well as getting them to fill out different forms about different standards. When we are using TrusTrace to ask the suppliers to fill up the information for us, initially they are hesitant to put in the time and effort. But once they understand the potential of the platform, they are willingly coming onboard to be part of the bigger picture and contribute to the end product itself.”
The building of relationships takes place when a supplier for one brand shares the data, the TrusTrace software can replicate it when another brand asks similar questions, thus reducing the overall effort of filling up lengthy questionnaires. To further incentivise data sharing, the startup intends to offer suppliers, access to new brands on the platform.
Meanwhile, by being at the heart of knowledge sharing between brands and suppliers, TrusTrace wants to be the TripAdvisor of suppliers by rating them based on information shared, along with ethical and sustainability credentials. It can be hoped that such comparisons can motivate the laggards to perform better. Also when suppliers are engaged with and supported, they contribute to critical improvements in the supply chain.
The validated claims and assessments will be placed on a consortium blockchain, which is partly private and therefore visible only to specific brands. The brands could decide what information to exchange with each other.
Saravanan and Hrishikesh got Trustrace off the ground with an initial grant of 2 million Swedish kronor (SEK) from the Swedish innovation agency, Vinnova. Currently, they are in talks for further investments to scale-up and looking to partner with certification bodies and organisations that bring complementary skills to build the platform further. Also, they have earned a spot in the latest batch of the Fashion For Good- Plug and Play Accelerator programme.
TrusTrace joins the nascent ecosystem of transparency tools for the fashion industry, that is likely to register a rapid growth in the wake of consumer pressure and imminent regulatory push. Other players in this space are Sourcemap that works with Eileen Fisher and Provenance that recently collaborated with Czech designer, Martina Spetlova. Here, Saravanan puts forth their point of differentiation, “Most traceability platforms already in the market do not take care of ensuring data put on it is authentic and that responsibility currently rests with brands or suppliers.”
While TrusTrace is just getting started, the success of this Saas solution rests on the team’s ability to have brands commit monies to the software. The other challenge is the lack of industry-wide standards, definitions and incomparable data sets. Even though the exact environmental impact of a product might still not be known and 100% transparency remains elusive, the needle has started to move in the right direction.