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Why Traceability is Sustainability’s First Step

Talking about sustainability without traceability is a fool’s errand. With regulatory requirements and increasing consumer demand, traceability is quickly becoming table stakes for brands looking to give their sustainability claims credibility.

At Tuesday’s Sourcing Journal’s Sustainability Summit, in a panel moderated by editor-in-chief Pete Sadera, industry players discussed the business imperative of traceability.

“Traceability is really a prerequisite for understanding your environmental, ethical and social impacts,” Ben Tomkins, vice president, retail sales at Oritain, said. “And if you aren’t in a position where you can prove the origin of the raw materials, it’s nearly impossible to be able to stand on any claims that are associated. Having the ability to substantiate [your claims] is absolutely imperative.”

And for companies like Tapestry, certain expectations around quality and craftsmanship are standard for the house of luxury brands. But according to Earl W. Shank, Tapestry’s senior manager, traceability, this gives the company an edge when it comes to traceability. In 2019, the Coach owner laid a roadmap to attaining 95 percent traceability for raw materials by 2025.

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“There is a real need to understand what tools are out there, their applicability to the problems you’re trying to solve,” Shank said. “And then another tenet that’s really important to us is interoperability of those tools because our products tend to be fairly complex . . . there’s a need to understand what sort of tools help and the traceability of each of those individual materials so that as they come together into a handbag, ready-to-wear, footwear, we have a really holistic picture of where those materials are coming from.”

For Supima, the brand known for American-grown Pima cotton that’s “double the cost of traditional cotton,” according to Buxton Midyette, the company’s vice president, marketing and promotions, traceability isn’t just a sustainability imperative but a necessity for differentiating the company’s extra-long staple cotton from the crowd (which justifies the higher price point). Last summer, Supima partnered with TextileGenesis to establish an industry benchmark platform for authenticating cotton.

“For us, it was a real breakthrough,” Midyette said of the partnership, which created a platform that melds the forensic authentication of Oritain with the digital tracking of TextileGenesis. “And so we are migrating our entire licensing group onto this platform, and what this will create [is] a digital token that will be pulled across the entire supply chain. So that when you get to the end as the brand retailer and you’re importing the product into the U.S. and [Customs and Border Protection] asks you where it’s from, you have the entire journey for the product.”

While the need for traceability has been established—either by legislation or consumers—and it’s viewed as a necessary additional step, how do companies convince potential clients of the cost of this value-add? For Oritain, the topic is always the elephant in the room.

“There is a cost to traceability where the accountability falls within the supply chain,” Tomkins said. “I think we’ll progress with time as this is more greatly adopted.” Being sustainable means being economically sustainable as well, he said

Consider the recent news that CBP has detailed nearly $1 billion worth of goods on suspicions of forced labor, with nearly $400 million tied to textiles and apparel, he said. That’s a huge burden not only in terms of the cost of those goods but also the operational and legal cost, missed sales and expense of re-producing those items.

“There’s a significant business case that it’s not just, ‘okay, let’s factor in traceability as a cost of goods sold,’” Tomkins said. “It’s an investment into safeguarding the supply chain. It’s an investment into being able to underpin positive communications, promotional campaigns, product strategies, demonstrating best-in-class supply chain practices and also mitigating the risk of those potential operational and reputational risks.”

This investment is just the beginning.

“This is really the first step,” Midyette said. “And then we can begin that heavy lifting of assessing and developing standards, which I hope will be universal and not parceled out across a dozen different accreditation firms; we need to be speaking the same language in terms of the standards we apply at each stage.”

Shank agreed, stating, “just knowing where the nodes are in your supply chain doesn’t answer what those nodes mean.”