When it comes to blockchain, apparel brands would be wise to emerge as first movers rather than fast followers, said experts at the recent PI Apparel in New York City.
From demanding millennial consumers to a growing interest in sustainability, environmental stewardship and social responsibility, a potent cocktail of factors is driving corporate interest in blockchain and bringing targeted solutions to market aimed at solving concrete—and persistently stubborn—challenges.
“Blockchain offers the opportunity to figure out where the problems in the apparel value chain are and to police a part of it,” Elizabeth Rich, coordinator of Forum for the Future, said.
Blockchain remains a bit of a question mark for many, as the technology behind the popular Bitcoin cryptocurrency has been considered overhyped as a panacea for every social and corporate ill. In essence, however, “putting something on the blockchain” really just means uploading contextual data on a ledger or database that can’t be altered (though leading minds fear blockchains will be hackable and alterable someday soon).
The benefit of storing and sharing data on a blockchain is that, especially where complex supply chains are concerned, the many stakeholders involved can observe the data on any given product as it moves from point to point with greater peace of mind about its origins, interactions and destination. To date, Coca Cola and the State Department have used blockchain technology to combat forced labor, the sock brand DeFeet used it to fight counterfeiting and numerous players are jumping on applications for logistics, shipping and supply chain.
Shawn Wolfe, business strategy manager for Kurt Salmon, a part of Accenture, pointed to factory labor as one area of opportunity, noting that an apparel brand approached the firm with concerns over how to enforce labor standards at its manufacturing partners. Implementing a method, like blockchain, that would allow the brand to track specific metrics around labor could go a long way toward ensuring compliance with its criteria, Wolfe said, though the data uploaded onto a blockchain is only as trustworthy as the people managing that information. Currently, this apparel brand only performs a compliance check once annually, but with the right technology in place, the company “should be able to do it computationally on the fly,” Wolfe added.
Rich advocated for the apparel industry to come together and work on solutions that benefit the sector as a whole instead of separate players developing disparate solutions.
“We don’t think any ‘one’ should own the entire process because the industry needs a collaborative approach,” she explained. Of all the stakeholders, brands have the greatest incentive to map their supply chains all the way back to the suppliers, Rich added, because they could suffer the greatest risk of not knowing this information. Plus, brands have the privilege of speaking directly to the consumer and communicating the journey of each item of clothing from source to shoppers.
Given that 90 percent of millennials prize authenticity, proving that a product is the real deal via traceable technology like blockchain will only grow in importance for brands, Wolfe said.
Devery.io is one blockchain solution that focuses on product authenticity and verification especially for e-commerce, because grey-market bad actors can interfere with the journey of a legitimate product from warehouse to retail store. The startup was selected by China’s JD.com as an inaugural participant in its Beijing-based AI Catapult accelerator. Andrew Rasheed, Devery’s founder and CEO, said that though blockchain is promising, scaling the technology to manage high transaction volumes efficiently remains a significant challenge.
Wolfe cautioned against taking a “wait and see” approach to implementing blockchain projects, even if there still are many kinks to be worked out as the technology evolves.
“You don’t have to go ‘Big Bang’ on this,” he said, encouraging apparel brands to start small and focus on a pilot project or proof of concept initiative. First movers in the space will have the advantage of contributing to and shaping blockchain standards. Laggards who adopt blockchain further down the road will be stuck with how pioneers chose to design the electronic databases.