Athens is not in the UK.
No, this isn’t the transcript of a homeschooling lesson during lockdown. Instead, it’s an insight into the data challenge the apparel sector faces.
Apparel supply chains are complex
Anyone working in the industry knows how complex and fragmented apparel supply chains are, with even the simplest of items involving multiple suppliers across multiple continents. Following the mass up-take of off-shoring in the 80s and 90s, the supply chains of most global brands are thousands of miles away from their headquarters or the final point of sale. This physical distance makes keeping track of supply chains a complex and costly endeavour.
The sector’s keen eye on cost in itself drives further complexity, as brands and suppliers themselves outsource every stage of the production process in order to drive down prices. Staying abreast of all elements in a supply chain quickly becomes a bigger and bigger undertaking, even for small brands with limited product lines. Now scale that up to large global brands shipping thousands of product lines on a weekly basis and the seemingly simple undertaking of keeping track of who your suppliers are becomes a gargantuan task. And I’m only talking about the “who” of a supply chain, not even the conditions, certifications and other data that is important for a brand to understand.
At as basic a level as name and address information, the quality of data in the apparel sector is poor. The reasons behind this are varied, including transliteration inconsistencies, a lack of structured address formats in key sourcing regions and the need to work with international character sets. Sometimes it’s just sloppy data entry or an Excel formula gone wrong.
Better data leads to increased efficiencies
There are two key drivers prompting brands and others in the sector to look more closely and improve the quality of data about their supply chains:
- Opportunities to increase efficiency and subsequently reduce costs. To date, vast quantities of information about supply chains sits in disparate databases, which are unable to communicate with one another – there is a lack of interoperability. Data is inconsistently logged meaning that, more often that not, it’s riddled with duplicates and other inaccuracies. Whilst not the “sexiest” of tasks on a brand’s to-do list, cleaning and improving the quality of supply chain data can save huge amounts of time and, subsequently, money.
- Increasing pressure from civil society and consumers for transparency. Prompted by the tragedy of the Rana Plaza building collapse and concerted, on-going campaigning by groups such as Fashion Revolution and the Transparency Pledge, there has been a spotlight on supply chain conditions in the apparel sector for several years. Hundreds of brands are now disclosing more and more information about their supply chains and those that don’t are increasingly considered laggards and subjected to heightened attention from campaigning groups and activists.
The devil’s in the detail: why data format matters
Although progress has been made in the amount of supply chain data being shared, one crucial element has only recently been addressed and that’s how data is being shared. In many cases, supply chain data is locked away in PLM systems or published through inaccessible maps, PDFs, embedded tables or other non-machine readable formats on brand websites. Data is not shared in a consistent format or through a central, industry-wide repository. This makes working with data difficult and inefficient, rendering disclosure little more than a tick-box exercise.
However, there are some simple, quick wins for any organisation in the apparel sector to disclose data more effectively for the benefit of all. In 2019, a set of recommendations was published to guide industry on how best to record and share data, the Open Data Standard for the Apparel Sector (ODSAS). ODSAS is a simple set of instructions for any organisation to follow, whether they’ve been disclosing supply chain information for years or are at the beginning of their transparency journey. By publishing data in an open, comparable and machine readable format, this moves transparency beyond a tick-box exercise into an exercise that will result in greater efficiencies, facilitating interoperability and, ultimately, improved supply chain conditions – both social and environmental.
A central repository: the Open Apparel Registry
Once the unglamorous, but crucial, work to clean and organise supply chain data is complete, organisations can take one simple, further step to reap even greater benefits from their supply chain data by uploading to the Open Apparel Registry (OAR). The OAR is a free, neutral and open source tool mapping garment facilities worldwide and allocating a unique ID to each. A sophisticated algorithm standardizes data from contributors across the industry to create a common registry of names and addresses, each assigned a unique OAR ID number. Through working with OAR IDs alongside facility names, the simple way that contributors are presented on facility profiles and bringing information together in a consistent, centralized repository the OAR creates benefits for users across the entire sector. It eliminates confusion and facilitates collaboration for brands, factories, non-profits, trade associations, governments, unions, academics and more.
The tool processes all data uploaded to the registry, identifying matches using a statistical model which looks for similarities in the submitted name and address data. Whereas other databases would identify the following three entries as individual facilities:
- AKH Eco Apparels Ltd, 495- Balitha, Shah- Belishwer, Dhamrai,Dhaka Dhaka
- AKH ECO APPARELS LTD. 495 Balitha, Shahbelishwer, Dhamrai
- AKH ECO Apparels Limited, 495, Balitha, Shah Belishwer, Ps-Dhamrai, Dhaka-1800, Bangladesh
the OAR is able to recognise that they are all the same facility and return a match to users. (More detail on how the OAR processes data is available in this technical blog.) The contributors of the data are visible on each facility profile, so users can see at a glance which organisations share a connection to a facility. This enables in-facility collaborations between organisations, whether that’s groups coming together to work on social or environmental improvements in factories, or civil society using the tool to advocate on behalf of vulnerable supply chain workers.
Why is this important?
If, due to poor quality name and address information, there is no common understanding of where suppliers in the apparel sector are located, there can be no true understanding of conditions at factories. In addition to this, a better understanding of supply chains reduces exposure to risk – more important than ever in the light of COVID.
Organisations within the apparel sector recognised several years ago that no one organisation can affect change alone and that there is a need to collaborate across industry. Contributing to the OAR is a quick, simple and free way to do just that.