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Tech innovations for sustainability and fairness in the fashion industry


The fashion industry is facing a sustainability crisis. As part of IBM’s Think Summit, UKFT’s CEO and IBM’s Global Managing Director for the Consumer Industries, discussed how emerging technology is helping to create more efficient and sustainable supply chains by revealing the entire lifecycle of a fashion garment.

UKFT is working with IBM, TechData and the University of Leeds on the Sustainable Supply Chain Optimisation (SSCO) project, a research and innovation initiative jointly funded by the UK Government through UK Research and Innovation and Innovate UK.

Adam at Think Summit 2

At IBM’s Think Summit UKFT’s CEO Adam Mansell, said: “Sustainability and transparency has been an issue for the industry for a number of years and has become increasingly important throughout the whole of the supply chain. This move is driven predominantly by retail and a desire to understand where products are made, how they are made and how employees in the different supply chains are looked after.”

The SSCO project aims to develop a platform that all stakeholders, from microbusinesses through to large retailers, can use to input data and access that data to understand their supply chains more clearly. It will allow them to understand the pinch points and they can use that insight to change their own business models to deliver a more sustainable fashion and textile industry.

Adam gave the example of an organic T-shirt and the challenges of getting true visibility of each stage of its production.

“The cotton could be grown in one continent, it could be ginned somewhere else, spun somewhere else and knitted somewhere else, then turned into a garment somewhere else entirely,” he said. “Understanding all those different supply chain pinch points all the different actors in the supply chain makes it a very complex set of data.

“Large retailers may have visibility of their tier 1 and tier 2 suppliers but even they wouldn’t necessarily understand where their tier 3 and 4 and agricultural supplies come from. Certainly their buyers won’t. Using this platform, we aim to help both big retail and small businesses.

“In our industry in the UK, over 80% of the businesses are microbusinesses so it’s a very hard for businesses of that size to access that sort of data. This platform we’re developing will hopefully give us more data and clarity in one place to change practices in this industry.

Luq Niazi, General Manager for the Global Distribution Sector & Global Managing Director for the Consumer Industries at IBM, explained that the technology company has been working on this kind of problem for the last few years.

IBM started work on consumer-related traceability with the Food Trust platform, which looks at the safety of food from farm to fork. It works on a blockchain transaction system in a similar way that will be used for the SSCO project.

“If you can track safety, that means you can track carbon footprints, water and you can also track issues around ethical labour practices,” said Luq. “That’s all part of a movement we’re involved in and something we’re also seeing in other parts of the industry, with our work with Kaya & Kato in Workwear and our work with Picenza in Italy looking at sustainability in fabric manufacturing.

Adam explained that the drive for increased transparency from the fashion industry came from two key drivers.

“The first is the retailer’s desire to be doing the right thing and to be seen to be doing the right thing but there is also the drive from legislation,” he said. “If we look just within the UK, there is extended producer responsibility coming down the track, which in very simplistic terms will mean retailers are responsible for how consumers get rid of their clothes at the end of their lifecycle. There is new legislation around packaging and existing legislation around the use of chemicals. These are driving change but also companies that can show their consumer that they are traceable and have full visibility of their supply chain will end up with a bigger slice of the consumer cake.”

Adam said that the market for fashion is incredibly challenging at the moment, with pressures coming from all angles. In some ways Covid has hampered progress on sustainability but in others, it has exposed the weaknesses in fashion supply chains, which makes a project like this even more valuable.

“It is interesting because manufacturers are being asked for all kinds of different data requirements from actors all the way up the value chain,” said Luq. “I think the more we can democratise that data and have some kind of consistency of information will help that.”

Luq asked if there was anything further from a policy perspective that would help to accelerate the project and the drive for greater sustainability.

“What I think is missing from the sustainability ecosystem is a recycling and upcyling supply chain,” said Adam. “For example, we could work with all the big retailers to collect back used clothing but unless we have the infrastructure to strip a jumper back down, respin it and put it back into the supply chain, all we end up doing is creating a mountain of second hand clothing that ends up in landfill or gets shipped overseas. And without that recycling infrastructure, things get terribly difficult. We need to not only look transparency but we also need to think about how we use data to make sure that a company understands that a particular shirt has got three different fibre types in so needs to go through a particular recycling process. That would really close the loop and get the most from data.”

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