Sustainability has become fashion’s loftiest goal and also its most hackneyed mantra over the course of recent seasons.
The sector has created and pushed the evolution of its own varied definitions of environmental stewardship and social responsibility. Now, consumers are increasingly looking to brands that claim to be sustainable for cold, hard facts to back up the assertion.
While brands may interface with the consumers most frequently, tangible change starts with manufacturers, mills, raw materials suppliers and tanneries. These behind-the-scenes bodies are increasingly working to provide transparency into the back-end operations that keep fashion afloat, through new practices that allow traceability throughout the supply chain.
Verticalizing operations, implementing blockchain solutions and even installing cameras in factories are some of the tactics suppliers are using to provide brands, and ultimately shoppers, with the assurances they need to buy without reservations.
According to Saima Chowdhury, founder of Bangladesh-based Noi Solutions, LLC and American brand Grey State Apparel, “verticality has become really relevant” in recent years as consumers yearn for “peace of mind that brands are doing what they’re supposed to do.”
Chowdhury’s family has owned a suite of verticalized yarn, denim, all-over print, knit and sweater factories near Dhaka since 1976, employing 15,000. The company deals chiefly in private-label manufacturing for some of the sector’s most popular “mall brands.” Chowdhury, based in New York, also runs Grey State Apparel, a line of casual and lounge wear.
Noi sources its cotton from Mississippi’s Staple Cotton, she said—a relationship that has endured 25 years. “At the beginning of the season, the cotton is harvested, and we have an agreement where they hold our cotton for us and ship it [to Bangladesh] throughout the year as needed,” she added.
About 80 percent of Noi and Grey State’s apparel is made from this U.S.-grown cotton, which can be traced down to the farm level via UPC codes on each bale. The remaining 20 percent of the company’s fibers are from overseas manufacturers, and can be traced from the yarn stage onward.
Once the cotton arrives in Bangladesh, it is spun into yarn, knitted into fabric and sewn into finished garments at Noi’s factories, which are all located within a three-mile radius. Complete visibility into its own day-to-day operations has given the company an advantage that Chowdhury believes is central to true traceability—something that brands have been asking for more fervently in recent years.
“It’s becoming more common for consumers to hold brands accountable,” she said, “and it’s becoming expected that you, as a brand, are adhering to standards.”
Shoppers who are curious about where a Grey State product is made, and are eager to learn more about the “back-end” processes that go into production, can read more on the brand’s environmental and social impact page on its e-commerce site.
“The United Nations has 17 Sustainable Development Goals, and we’ve taken those goals and decided what they mean for us, how they translate in terms of actions, and how are we going to meet those standards,” Chowdhury said.
The U.N.’s guidelines include promoting waste reduction, energy efficiency, clean water and sanitation, health care, fair wages, safe working conditions and more.
“I always say that sustainability is not just an environmental issue, but a social one,” Chowdhury said.
“Oftentimes, as the end consumer we kind of tend to block that out,” she added. “It’s not something you can control, and people tend to sort of forget about it, because it’s not an easy thing to think about.”
In order to give end consumers more access to information about the origins of their purchases, Noi is looking into sewing scannable codes into each garment that would provide shoppers with “a history of where it came from.” But mapping each product’s journey is a heavy lift, Chowdhury said, since individual pieces go through so many stages in the production process.
“Until we get there, we’ll try to keep as much as possible out there about who we are and what we do, both through our website to our social channels and however we’re talking to our customers,” she said. “We want to give them as much transparency as we can as to how we’re making our products.”
Aseem Kumar, owner of manufacturing enterprise Fashion Images Overseas, echoed these concerns about socially conscious sourcing.
“When we speak to our customers about what they are struggling with and what they would like to improve upon, transparency and the ethical dilemmas that come along with outsourcing are always something that comes up,” he said.
The network of production facilities in Rajasthan, India, specializes in the dyeing, printing and sewing of garments. Recently, Kumar, a mechanical engineer, decided that installing cameras was a sure-fire way to assuage brands’ doubts about overseas production.
“The goal of the live video is to show in real time, how brands’ clothing is being made,” he said. “We want to show off our factory, our staff, and the good work we are doing in the most authentic way possible.”
Plenty of brands have offered posed and stylized photos of their manufacturers’ operations, he said, but video brings the “hidden world of apparel manufacturing” into clearer focus.
For now, the goal of installing cameras answers the question, “Who made my clothes?” Kumar said. But ideally, he’d like to open camera access to his entire supply chain, so that brands and curious customers can watch yarns being spun, then see them being woven or knitted into fabric and finally printed or dyed for garments.
“My hope is that as people watch the work that goes into making their clothes, they feel more connected to the products they buy, and make better purchasing decisions,” he said.
Kumar believes wholeheartedly that end consumers are “pushing the trend toward transparency,” by demanding openness from brands. He hopes that his factory’s camera initiative can help to “bridge the gap” between shoppers and manufacturers across the globe, personalizing the process of purchasing.
“Many customers have never seen what the inside of a factory looks like, and we want to teach them about our world,” he said.
Bringing sophisticated retail tech solutions into the fight for traceability, Dagsmejan, a Swiss-Swedish functional sleep and loungewear brand, announced this month that it would use blockchain technology to drive transparency to its latest line.
The brand’s new Stay Warm collection of sleepwear will be made with 100 percent traceable Nativa merino wool, co-founder Andreas Lenzhofer said, and will use the company’s existing blockchain platform to extend supply-chain visibility “from fiber to bed.”
“The blockchain platform allows all the Nativa-certified partners in the value chain to collaborate and provide information concerning the wool transformations directly,” he said. Certified users can log data concerning production operations in the form of text-based “traces,” which are automatically linked together using an algorithm that incorporates internal production codes like purchase order numbers, combing and spinning numbers, lot numbers and more into the blockchain.
“Current traceability systems are largely based on paper-based certification paths,” Lenzhofer said, and on disconnected outside systems that monitor the product chain. The new system, in cooperation with Nativa, goes “one step further,” offering customers the “highest transparency, and a full audit trail on wool origin.”
“The new procedure creates a digital trail that significantly improves the reliability of traceability and offers full transparency over the entire production chain,” he added, “starting from the farm where our merino sheep are living, till the moment when our garments reach the doorstep of our customers.”
Ensuring consumers of the animals’ welfare is the primary goal behind these efforts, Lenzhofer said. The Dagsmejan brand uses certified merino wool for its products, and rejects the process of mulesing, wherein strips of skin are cut from a live animal’s hind quarters to reduce the risk of parasitic infection by flies.
“We definitively see a rising awareness and interest from consumers on the whole journey from fiber to garment,” he added. “As a value driven firm with a purpose and strong commitment to sustainability, we see it as our duty and our promise to constantly search for new ways how to make earth a better place.”
Dagsmejan also seeks to elevate consumer understanding of sustainable supply chains by providing a step-by-step look into the phases of its production process on its e-commerce site.
“For each collection, and thereby each garment, you can follow the different steps taken,” Lenzhofer said. “We see it as part of our mission to help form consumer understanding for what sustainability really means and build the knowledge for informed choices when making purchase decisions.”