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Op-Ed: Are Brands Providing Too Much Information or Not Enough?

When it’s deliver-or-die, supply chains become the lifeblood of a company. To that end, the fashion industry has embraced technology to navigate today’s hyper-complicated supply chain, with myriad solutions shaping the first, middle and last mile. Call it Sourcing 2.0.

Have you ever seen Ellen DeGeneres’ show when she goes onto audience members’ Facebook pages and shows some of the outrageous things they post for the whole world to see? It is quite funny.

Chronicling your life on social media is the “it” thing nowadays. Folk post things like, “Enjoying a night out with the hubs, feeling so loved right now.” But the question is, do you really? How can you be feeling anything when you’re too busy posting memories on Facebook rather than creating them with your boo? Social media may be making us less social, but we are certainly sharing more than ever – including a few not-so-innocent things no one really needs or wants to know.

The point is, now that people freely share personal information online, they increasingly expect that same kind of openness from the companies they do business with, especially the products they are buying. Customers expect information about items, they want to compare brands, and they’re demanding accountability. Look at the list of topics on the agenda at the most recent AAFA events in Portland, Oregon:

  • Worker health and safety
  • Raw material testing
  • Labor laws and fare wage
  • Restricted substances and chemical bans
  • Sustainable production and foot printing
  • Ethical sourcing and forced labor

Likewise take into account the growing number of retailers taking action to remediate or avoid compliance related issues.

Picking up on that theme, there are initiatives to develop indices and shared portals that will enable brands, retailers, suppliers and consumers to develop products based on a variety of sustainability, product safety and ethical sourcing considerations. And all of these things demand technology to support greater collaboration between all parties in the supply chain, leading to increased transparency.

Years ago, the origins of a company’s products used to be pretty murky. Beyond the supply chain function, nearly no one cared. Of course, that has all changed.

Consumers, governments, stakeholders and stock holders now demand details about the sources and systems that manufacture and deliver our goods. They worry about quality, safety, ethics and environmental impact. Farsighted organizations are directly addressing new threats and opportunities presented by this simple question, “Where does this stuff come from?”

Consider the trouble an obscure supply chain can cause. Most iPhone owners probably don’t think about the provenance of their devices, but worker suicides at Foxconn, one of Apple’s major Chinese suppliers, forced the company to pull the curtain back on part of its supply chain in 2009. It had to quell claims that it relied on sweatshop labor. But in December 2013, reports still showed that the production facility exceeded the allowed working hours.

Another high-profile case, the “toxic drywall scandal,” led to class-action lawsuits. The offending product was imported into the United States bearing no readily available information about its source other than a “Made in China” stamp. A few years earlier, toy giant Mattel faced a tornado of publicity about lead in toys, which raised questions about how much control it had over its supply chain. This has even become an icon of sorts — as an internal “code name” for the product testing solution project that is being implemented by one of the largest apparel brand manufacturers in the world.

Only in the last six years or so, has environmental, ethical and product safety been a major sore spot for sourcing teams. But brands and retailers have made tremendous strides to provide traceability and transparency.

International fast fashion retailer H&M, for example, declares it strives to improve labor practices and minimize adverse environmental effects of not only its suppliers, but its suppliers’ suppliers, right back along the chain. Similar claims–once the preserve of a handful of niche retailers–have become widespread. But until recently, customers had a limited view of supply chains. Even companies themselves have often been content not to ask many questions about the origins and pathways of the goods they source.

I remember the listening to Caterina Conti from Anvil Knitwear talking about their project “Track My T” at least four years ago. At the time, the Anvil program was simply amazing, and with the website, customers could explore the journey their T-shirt had taken, “from its very beginning as a cotton seed on a farm, to every step it took before you bought it.”

For many products, origin is an essential feature of what the customer buys, even if it is an intangible or a difficult-to-verify quality. Broadly, halal, kosher, and organic foods are indistinguishable from the alternatives–the distinctions are important to certain consumers, but in a blind test, most would have no way of identifying them. Few people could actually tell the difference between an authentic and a top-end fake Rolex or Louis Vuitton bag.

Counterfeiting is such a huge problem because, after all, an ethically made shirt looks and feels just like the sweatshop alternative. The fact that consumers nevertheless care about ethics and authenticity is indisputable. Provenance is already a big deal–and getting bigger.

Driven by growing calls for transparency, new technologies have emerged and are being embraced by brands and retailers. In time, everyone from supplier to consumer will perceive easy access to such information as the norm. Revealing origins will become an essential part of establishing trust and securing reputations.

The key technologies are not fundamentally new, but they are evolving and blending to unleash new opportunities and threats. Product labeling has been transformed by microscopic electronic devices, genetic markers for agricultural products, and a new generation of bar codes that can be read with standard mobile phones. Combine these developments with the reach of the Internet and virtually unlimited data storage, and organizations can now contemplate more-sophisticated ways to track–and to reveal–the commercialization of their products.

So how much is too much information? In this industry, that has yet to be determined. But with the collaborative efforts between trade associations, world-class and conscious brands, raw material providers and suppliers, in conjunction with technology providers, information “sharing” is a reality.

 

About the Author:

Gary M. Barraco is Vice President, Industry Development for ecVision. Gary is responsible for developing strategic product marketing direction and presenting the ecVision brand and solutions worldwide. He also works closely with industry-focused organizations and cross-functional service providers to establish relationships that enhance ecVision’s solutions to benefit its customers. He leads the marketing communications and execution team to support sales operations in the US and abroad. 
About ecVision

ecVision offers a cloud-based supply chain collaboration platform that optimizes product lifecycle and supply chain processes. The enterprise platform, ecVision Suite, reflects the standardized business processes from design to delivery, creating a single collaborative solution for private label brands, retailers and their trading partners. With increased visibility and workflow, users can improve their reaction time to demand changes, shorten product lifecycles, lower product and materials costs, and improve sourcing and logistic efficiencies.

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