Before cotton crops can become a pair of jeans, they pass through numerous hands. And historically, this complex chain of custody has been challenging to track.
“Transparency in cotton supply chains is long overdue and necessary basis for ethical supply chain management, environmental sustainability or circularity,” said Lukas Pünder, co-founder and CEO of blockchain platform Retraced. “Often, cotton from up to 1,000 farmers from different continents is mixed in one single pair of jeans. And little is known about who, where and what happens.”
Apparel supply chains have largely relied on transaction certificates to follow materials and goods as they move through the production process, but the data that travels with these inputs can be manipulated. In 2020, the Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS) discovered falsified organic cotton certificates. And cotton sources are now under more scrutiny amid reports of forced labor in China’s Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, creating an urgent need to validate fiber origins.
“Traceability brings credibility, and it’s more important than ever in light of the recent events, where the credibility of various cotton projects was questioned,” said Omer Ahmed, CEO of denim manufacturer Artistic Milliners. “We need to ensure real traceability from farm to fashion throughout our supply chain.”
“Often, cotton from up to 1,000 farmers from different continents are mixed in one single pair of jeans,” said Lukas Pünder, co-founder and CEO of Retraced. “And little is known about who, where and what happens.”
To provide this visibility and assurances about cotton’s origins, Artistic Milliners worked with Retraced to develop a holistic, integrated solution that tracks its goods from crops to consumer. Going beyond a paper trail, blockchain creates a “digital handshake” at each transaction, proving that the inputs and end products are truly what they claim.
“Blockchain is the way forward, as it helps make the process transparent with the ability to secure data at all stages of the supply chain,” said Ahmed. “After considering multiple blockchain solution providers, we chose to work with Retraced because they had this wonderful positive energy and shared our vision of real traceability.” Another benefit of Retraced’s technology, he said, is its user-friendly platform for all stakeholders.
Once fibers reach Artistic Milliners’ facility, the company plugs the data from Retraced into its own enterprise resource planning (ERP) system so materials can be monitored through the production process. For the manufacturer, traceability not only assures authenticity, but also enhanced lifecycle assessment capabilities.
In addition to cotton, Artistic Milliners’ platform can track fibers including viscose and Lycra, streamlining brands’ supply chain oversight.
Farm to fashion
Along with helping Artistic Milliners share its sustainable cotton journey, this added traceability will benefit the entire value chain.
Part of what enables Artistic Milliners to have better traceability is cutting out intermediaries at the top of the supply chain through its Milliner Cotton Initiative (MCI). Farmers typically have to go through a broker to sell their cotton to ginners. These middlemen then blend premium crops with lower quality fibers to achieve an average price point. As a result, farmers with high-quality cotton can miss out on premium valuations.
With MCI, farmers and ginners are directly linked through the platform. Growers plug data into the system, and before a transaction can take place, both the farm and gin have to verify the information. Along with ensuring that farmers are paid fairly, this gives ginners access to a better grade of cotton that hasn’t been diluted with blending.
“Social well-being and economic empowerment are the cornerstones of our project,” said Ahmed. “We believe that once farmers and cotton pickers start getting fair reward for their crop, it will help them break the poverty cycle.” The platform also provides data that can help farmers calculate their margins and plan accordingly so they can maximize their profits.
“Customers want to see the full journey of the product, which currently no other platform is able to provide,” said Omer Ahmed, CEO of Artistic Milliners.
The first phase of the blockchain initiative involves 500 farmers. By September, Artistic Milliners aims for 20,000 bales of premium cotton under the program, which would translate to 3 million pairs of jeans. Looking ahead, the intent is to raise this figure to 2,000 farmers next season.
“We don’t want this project to be a race against time,” said Ahmed. “We want to make sure that our traceability solution is achieving the targeted outcomes before we scale it up.”
Beyond improving farmers’ earnings, Artistic Milliners has been more broadly addressing the quality of life for its upstream partners. MCI has worked with communities to create alternative livelihoods for female cotton pickers in the off-season, such as beekeeping and kitchen gardening. Artistic Milliners is also providing training for farmers and pickers on topics such as first aid, life skills and financial literacy.
Through the blockchain solution, consumers can view the social impact tied to their purchase of MCI cotton, tracing the garment back to the farm level. “Customers want to see the full journey of the product, which currently no other platform is able to provide,” said Ahmed. “Many of our brand partners are excited and are eagerly waiting to test our platform.”
Artistic Milliners is looking to eventually make the initiative open source, with the intent of transforming traceability and transparency into the norm for the denim industry.
“Traceability is an industry-wide challenge, and only with a platform that connects everyone can we address that,” said Pünder. “With Artistic Milliners’ MCI project, we are implementing real-time fiber tracing the way it should be—from the bottom up following the natural flow of the material. The objective of this project has to be to create the blueprint for fully digitalized traceability. It’s an exciting development for fashion.”
Click here to learn more about Artistic Milliners.