In an industry where critical data tends to be lacking in quality, inconsistent or locked up in silos, the work of the Open Apparel Registry (OAR) has been nothing short of revelatory.
It began in 2018 with a basic premise, it wrote in a recent report: If organizations have no clear idea of where their supplier factories are located, how can they have any sense of their environmental or social conditions?
In the nearly three years since its launch, the free-to-use open-source platform has leveraged information from hundreds of contributors to map more than 64,000 garment-manufacturing facilities across nearly 120 countries, or roughly 85 percent to 90 percent of the entire apparel sector.
Untangling vast and complex supply chains isn’t easy. The OAR uses a name- and address-matching algorithm to tag facilities with a unique identifier that serves as a “central source of truth” and enables interoperability across disparate databases. By annotating each facility with buyer names, certification schemes and other affiliations, the platform seeks to improve the “collective understanding of shared connections,” ultimately helping improve the livelihoods of the garment workers who underpin the supply chain, it said.
“We work to help garment workers achieve their rights. Accurate supply-chain transparency is vital for that, so we can reach out to the correct brands and other stakeholders to resolve rights violations,” Paul Roeland, transparency coordinator at the Clean Clothes Campaign, the industry’s largest consortium of trade unions and nonprofits, said in the report. “Having a clear and unified registry of production facilities makes finding the right information easier and faster, and therefore speeds up the route to remedy.”
Nevertheless, the OAR seeks to remain neutral. It’s operated by a non-profit entity that is governed by a multi-stakeholder board of advisors from civil society, brands and retailers, multi-stakeholder initiatives, factory groups and the open data sector.
“We knew that positioning the tool as a neutral entity, built for the benefit of the entire sector, would be key to its success and building trust within the sector,” the OAR said. “Establishing the OAR as an independent non-profit with a multi-stakeholder board is a key element in how we reinforce this neutral position. Stakeholders would not have been as willing to share their data with a for-profit company with potentially vested interests.”
One brand that has found the OAR essential is Swiss outdoor-wear maker Mammut, a member of myriad multi-stakeholder initiatives. Because each group brandished its own identification system, matching facilities across different platforms was difficult and onerous. Using OAR’s unique ID to map facilities across multiple databases, it said, helped the brand achieve a clearer picture of its operations, especially as it works with its suppliers to improve energy efficiency and switch to renewable alternatives. As a result, Mammut has become more efficient in managing its supply chain, it said.
Another devoted OAR user is Kings of Indigo, an Amsterdam-based denim label that uses the platform to see if other brands are sourcing from the same suppliers or region. Finding kindred brands, it said, could lead to opportunities to collaborate on common goals. It might employ the database to reach out to other organizations to gather information about new sourcing locales, including potential pitfalls.
Higg Co, the technology arm of the Sustainable Apparel Coalition, plugs in directly into the OAR’s application programming interface, or API, to search and match facilities. “This allows Higg and its users to more clearly see the relationship between facilities and their customers, and to guide users to the right supply-chain relationship more effectively,” Higg Co said. “It also allows Higg to move data quickly and seamlessly between platforms for its users.”
The database is helpful for factories, too. “By being able to demonstrate the relationships of your facility through the affiliations visible on the site, and directing people to the OAR as a verified resource, the OAR serves to enhance trust between supplier and client,” said Abhishek Bansal, head of sustainability at Indian denim mill Arvind Limited. “Through using the unique OAR ID, there is the potential to save hours of time and huge financial cost through more streamlined and efficient reporting.”
For a sector that thrives on secrecy, the concept of open data might appear heretical. The OAR said, however, that the sooner the majority of the garment industry understands the importance of sharing supply-chain data freely, the “sooner we can get to work in tackling the systemic sustainability challenges the sector faces.”
All of which is to say, the OAR’s work is far from over. The organization said it continues to raise awareness and drive uptake of the platform through one-on-one calls and demos with stakeholders, continually adding publicly available facility datasets to the tool, and speaking about the benefits of open data at webinars and other events.
Key areas of growth also abound, such as increasing the volume of facilities beyond Tier 1 and mapping out the subcontractors and “shadow factories” that “do not want to be found.” It also wants to build strong relationships with workers’ organizations and other groups, especially in the Global South. By 2025, the OAR hopes to map 200,000 facilities.
“We know that there are so many potential users who could be benefitting from making use of the data in the OAR that we simply haven’t reached yet,” it said.