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Experts Examine How Fashion Can Tackle Traceability

Fashion’s efforts to map the supply chain amid ambitious self-imposed targets underscore the importance of collaboration.

Executives weighed in on transparency and traceability in the face of supply chain disruptions during Sourcing Journal’s annual Sustainability Summit June 1 as the industry works toward a future where the inner workings of a garment are plain to see and understood by the end consumer.

One immediate hurdle: understanding the difference between transparency and traceability. The former refers to the claims a company may disclose on, for example, their website to the consumer, while the latter provides the granular level of information to support how or when something such as a T-shirt is made.

“There is a difference and we need to understand those fine lines,” said Rick Horwitch, chief of supply chain and sustainability strategy and global retail lead at Bureau Veritas Consumer Products Services Inc. during the summit in New York City.

Understanding the distinction will help companies create efficiencies that can come with successful traceability, pointed out Pamela Fierst-Walsh, PVH Inc. vice president of traceability.

“Traceability’s not an option. This is not a nice to have,” she said, adding it’s become essential. “It’s where everyone is going. If you’re not already going there, you’re missing out.”

Gaining visibility is challenging, but no one is immune to that, Fierst-Walsh went on to say.

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The upside is that businesses are operating at a time of major disruption when it comes to technology’s role in digitizing the paper trail and enhancing supply chain visibility.

“There are tons of tools,” Horwitch said. “There is no reason why we shouldn’t be able to have visibility. There’s no reason why we shouldn’t have traceability and mapping.”

More recent years have seen millions of dollars pumped into tech startups promising varying levels of supply chain visibility, ranging from first to last mile and the granularity that comes with everything in-between. Research firm CB Insights reported funding into supply chain and logistics tech companies totaled $9.4 billion in the first quarter.

Companies just beginning the traceability journey first need to determine what they’re tracing and then go from there, Fierst-Walsh pointed out.

“It’s important to just note right off the bat that there are a lot of misconceptions around traceability, and I think one of the biggest ones is that there is just one solution,” she said.

The executive went on to point out tech solutions will have to be evaluated for what’s best for a company’s supply chain “because there isn’t going to be one solution to trace every little aspect.”

As more and more companies take the leap to tracing and mapping, it begs the question of what collaboration could bring and to what extent competitive mindsets are barriers to progress.

Alexa Raab, global brand and communications leader at Sorona, doesn’t view the situation in a competitive way and believes her peers share a similar mindset.

“I really see it as us and them. I don’t see it as an us versus them,” Raab said. “We’re all likeminded in that we want to change the industry, and I think we all believe that in order to do that you can’t really hold your cards too tightly to your chest.”

For Raab, the end goal is to get to a point where a consumer would walk into a store and request a garment made from Sorona’s plant-based polymer. While it may be some time before that is realized, part of achieving that goal is industry companies working together.

Sustainability Summit Supply Chain
“Securing the Links on Your Supply Chain” panelists talk traceability and mapping during Sourcing Journal’s Sustainability Summit. Courtesy

“Ultimately, if something works for one company, we want it to work for everybody,” Raab added.

Fierst-Walsh offered another take, saying an “insane allergy” exists within the apparel industry “stemming from pre-competitive issues.” Companies, she said, know how to avoid those pitfalls, so why not work together on the bigger challenge?

“Let’s be pre-competitive together,” Fierst-Walsh said. “Let’s figure it out because there’s so many challenges here that are bigger than any one company. We are smart enough to avoid those actual pitfalls, so let’s avoid them and make progress.”

Companies’ progress in traceability comes amid a changing regulatory environment, but it remains to be seen whether policy is actually influencing fashion’s trajectory on that front, or if apparel is moving ahead of it.

“You have to take [regulations] seriously, right. There’s that. Take it seriously and make sure you’re on the right side of that, but beyond that, it’s a little bit beside the point because you have to look at the targets,” Fierst-Walsh said.

In many cases, the executive said, many companies’ targets fall beyond the scope of regulation.

On a similar note, politics impact supply chain decisions, but that’s nothing new, Horwitch said.

“Whether you’re talking about this country or other countries around the world, ultimately policies that are made by the government, political policies that are made, are going to have an effect on whatever is going on in the chain in fill-in-the-blank country,” he said. “So I don’t think this is a U.S. issue. It’s a global issue, But, with that said, it’s always been a global issue and business learns to adapt in country. People learn to adapt in country and you keep the chain going.”