Every week, The Interline rounds up the most vital talking points from across the landscape of fashion technology news. This roundup is also delivered to Interline Insiders by email.

Is voluntary disclosure creating an uneven playing field? And can data serve an arbiter instead?

Summarising its recent, excellent, Sustainability Index, BoF this week concluded that the true cost of sustainability is one that fashion is unwilling to pay. While the data are difficult to argue with, the conclusion is, perhaps slightly mis-framed. Some brands and retailers could unquestionably be making greater progress on ethical and environmental metrics than they are, but for many the reality is less a matter of choice than necessity.

The first way of slicing this is the simplest: the same sustainability research suggests that billions of dollars in investment is needed to overhaul apparel, footwear, and accessories supply chains. And, frankly, small to medium enterprises do not have anywhere near the financial clout to make a dent in the scale of investment needed. Which is not to say that smaller organisations cannot make a difference – those with a mission clearly can – but rather that their impact will be minor compared to the comprehensive, systematic overhaul that needs to be made for the industry as a whole to stand on a more secure, equitable footing.

The second angle is slightly more complex: even the largest brands operate with complex, intertwined processes that are both difficult to unpick, and that introduces a layer of abstraction between the brand and their sourcing and supply chain partners. Consider the difference in difficulty between understanding where a finished garment is made (by a tier 1 partner) and being able to quantify where its components, trims, raw materials, fabric dye and more originated.

The long-established nature of supply chain relationships means that many brands do not deal directly with these tier 2-5 suppliers, or that their processes are so distant from the end result that they are often overlooked when it comes to quantifying the environmental and human cost of the finished product.

This is likely to be a significant contributor to the inertia that the fashion industry has when it comes to making sweeping sustainability changes, and it is also the reason that significant effort is being focused on consumer education. Today the European Commission unveiled a new messaging campaign intended to tackle the disposable nature of the fast fashion segment from the consumer end, which is perhaps an indication of the comparatively minor progress that the industry has made towards sustainability targets of its own volition.

Which leads to the suggestion – shared by thinkers and policy influencers – that perhaps voluntary disclosure has reached its limit, with brands privately asking themselves whether honesty is the best policy at a time when disclosing links to particular sourcing destinations is leading to brands being shut out of important markets, while competitors who keep quiet are carrying on trading.

At this point, it seems entirely possible that regulation (or rather stronger, more directly punitive regulation) could be applied to fashion sooner rather than later, but whether brands are forced to open their books or whether they do it voluntarily, it’s highly likely that direct access to supply chain data, for both consumer and regulatory audiences, is on the cards.

Other headlines:

Noteworthy news and events from the technology side of fashion this week included:

The announcement that online resale giant StockX is now valued at close to $4 billion USD, following the sale of new stock and previously employee-held shares. This is a testament to the precipitous growth of the secondary market; StockX first surpassed a $1 billion valuation just two years ago, and these leaps seem to be on track with a prediction from last year that sneaker resale would be a $30 billion global industry by 2030. Tightly coupled to this, of course, will be the lingering questions of which system(s) of digital / physical authentication will win out in the longer term, and what share of the secondary market brands are able to seize for themselves with smart investments in customer relationships and product identifies that persist beyond the point of original sale.

A new partnership between 3D vendor Optitex and digital avatar and sizing business Alvanon, targeted at bringing latter’s 6,000+ virtual bodies into the 3D design, simulation, and technical development environment, to improve fit, quality, and other key metrics.

An additional funding round being completed by Snorkel AI (raising $35 million), which offers a programmatic approach to the training of machine learning models. This is intended to solve a problem that is extremely applicable to fashion: the need to impart deep domain expertise to models that are intended to alleviate manual work, but require extensive amounts of manual input and labelling in order to be effective.

The hosting of a webinar next Wednesday, 14th April, by Sean Coxall (the former head of Li & Fung Supply Chain Solutions) and Jim Shea, CCO of First Insight, dedicated to the importance of digitising the full demand chain – which is something The Interline has covered several times before.

And the best from The Interline this week:

This week we published two exclusive collaborations that both get deep into digitisation, from different angles.

First was our headline collaboration with Style3D, which makes the case for extending 3D to become a bridge across the brand / supplier divide.

Second was our first collaboration with Unity Technologies, which explains the potential of machine learning to make the essential-but-complex process of material digitisation accessible to a creative audience.

Next week continues our focus on the digitisation of supply chains and sourcing networks.

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News Roundup – Week 9, March 2021

The Interline rounds up the most vital fashion technology news. This week: diverging economic recoveries make the case for continued remote working, and fashion must not get too far ahead of itself in trying to tackle the problem of digital ownership.