Given the number of parties usually involved in producing a garment, transparency in the fashion industry is no small feat.
From farmer to consumer, there are multiple steps along the way to create the t-shirts, jeans and dresses we all frequently buy. And buy we do. According to a study from McKinsey & Company, annual clothing production exceeded 100 billion items for the first time in 2014. Consumers also now keep said pieces for about half as long as they did 15 years ago, and nearly three-fifths of all clothing produced ends up in incinerators or landfills within a year of being made.
The demand for transparency around where our clothing comes from and exactly what’s gone on before it reaches us is increasing however, backed particularly by campaigns like #Whomademyclothes, run by Fashion Revolution each April.
According to London-based designer Martine Jarlgaard, however, what’s really going to get us there is technology: “When I think about our world and outsourcing now, we’ve gained a great distance to how things are made. We need to re-educate ourselves. Technology will be what helps to reconnect us to the people and the places involved, and that information will increase consumer expectations, which will put more pressure on the big companies.”
On that basis, she’s launched a new pilot initiative that uses blockchain technology – a distributed and secure ledger – in a bid to enable both transparency and trust around her collections.
A partnership with blockchain technology company Provenance, consultancy A Transparent Company and London College of Fashion’s Innovation Agency, it tracks the journey of raw material through the supply chain and finally to finished garment.
Each step of the process is registered and tracked on the blockchain via the Provenance app, from shearing at the British Alpaca Fashion farm, to spinning at Two Rivers Mill, through to knitting at Knitster LDN, and finally to Martine Jarlgaard, at the designer’s studio in London.
Each garment has a unique digital token, enabling Provenance to verify every step of its production and create a digital history of that information including location data, content and timestamps, all of which is presented to consumers via an interface they can access through their item’s QR code or NFC-enabled label (so that it works on both Apple and Android devices).
While such user behaviour might be nascent, Jarlgaard sees this sort of experience as one only likely to increase in the future. “Getting a window into this world – a world that until now has been a secret or seen as insignificant – is a really important thing. By having it as a possibility [for consumers] to access it, we’ll move further in the direction of having that as a standard expectation in the product.”
She adds: “Full transparency and traceability becomes a stamp of approval allowing consumers to make informed choices with no extra effort.”
The idea of a “stamp” is particularly pertinent. At this point, trust lies only in the idea that what the brand is telling you is indeed true. Transparency is often limited to the “made in” labels, which may only reference the last part of the production process, and are not insightful on anything before that point. With blockchain, what we’re able to see is every step, not to mention true trust that what’s there is accurate, because it can’t be tampered with in any way.
The Provenance blockchain model is based on publicly accessible, decentralised, secure information storage, which the team refers to as having the potential to become the social media of product origin and storytelling, built on robust data.
Matthew Drinkwater, head of the Fashion Innovation Agency at London College of Fashion, adds: “What we’re looking to create is a new protocol and standard for giving consumers confidence in what they’re buying. The fact that this is blockchain verified, will mean it’s a product that they can believe in. That’s where there should be a movement towards, and as the technology evolves, we’ll see the final part of the process become even more transparent and visible for consumers.”