Every week, The Interline rounds up the most vital talking points from across the landscape of fashion technology news. We provide our take on what matters, and why. This roundup is also delivered to Interline Insiders by email.

Can fashion continue to trade on the illusion of transparency?

It was perhaps premature to refer to “peak uncertainty” in last week’s roundup, given that the peak has definitely been elevated by this week’s ongoing political tension, but it’s important to remember that other critical concerns have not vanished. And despite the news being buried in the landslide of election coverage, several stories this week stand as stark reminders that fashion, in a broad sense, still lacks even the basic building blocks of real supply chain transparency.

Following written submissions, numerous UK brands will now be called to an oral hearing – as announced at the weekend – to aid in an investigation into whether products sold on high streets could be traced back to forced labour in the Uighur Muslim camps of Western China. Tellingly, the announcement – which is not limited to UK-owned companies, and which applies to several multinationals who source in China and sell in The Interline’s home country – does not claim that any of the brands called to give evidence knowingly profited from indentured labour, and the responses from the brands cited are careful to point out that they do not “directly” work with factories in the Xinjiang area.

This distinction matters because a direct, causal relationship between brand and supplier is incredibly difficult to establish in any global, multi-tiered value chain. It is entirely probable that a large UK retailer could be selling garments made with forced labour and not know it – either because their contract is with a manufacturing coordinator or agent who purposefully obfuscates the real production location(s), or because the various tiers of suppliers (raw materials, mills, dye houses etc) that contributed value to that product are simply not monitored to the standard that regulators and consumers demand.

As part of our blockchain focus, we have already looked at some possibilities for how the multi-tier supply chain visibility problem could be solved, but the uncomfortable truth remains that a great deal of what happens before a sample, prototype, or finished garment arrives on a brand’s domestic shores happens out of sight… and often out of mind.

And while yesterday’s story of garment worker deaths in India appears to be unrelated to apparel production (an industrial accident in a shared complex is apparently to blame) it nevertheless conjures the awful spectre of Rana Plaza. No doubt frantic emails and Slack chats flew back and forth this morning at various brand and retail headquarters, asking “did we work with that factory?!”. And in many cases the honest answer will be “we don’t know”.

At the risk of running a message into the ground, this is a problem that technology needs to solve, and it needs to solve it now. Because the exposés will keep coming, constantly pulling the veil aside on new potential humanitarian crises, and revealing that fashion was – however unknowingly – tied to them. And those stories are being uncovered with old-fashion legwork and investigation, which is something that our industry can only get ahead of by either doing similar legwork at greater speed and scale – something few brands have the capacity to take on – or finding alternative tools to provide instant insights into issues that have remained stubbornly hidden.

It’s important to remember, too, that while there are commendable initiatives underway right now to support domestic manufacturing in the UK, EU, and US – including Ted Baker’s new Made In Britain collection – bringing the problem closer to home does not automatically make it more visible, as this summer’s review of garment production in Leicester (one of few remaining UK manufacturing strongholds) demonstrated. There are, of course, exceptions, but these are inevitably niche brands that source and produce in-country with an emphasis on quality rather than volume, or uniform manufacturers that have taken steps to secure their sourcing networks and nurture home-grown expertise.

There is, frankly, no substitute for direct knowledge, and with every passing news report and every successive tragedy it becomes clearer that fashion, as a broad industry, does not have that knowledge of its supply chains. And without investing in new technologies and new processes, fashion will not be equipped with the right tools to gather that knowledge or ensure its integrity – whether the party it’s destined for is a regulatory committee or a discerning consumer.

And while consumer demand for transparency and sustainability might vary by region – a report this week indicates that some Chinese consumers are more willing to sacrifice sustainability in favour of a lower price point – it seems obvious that as time wears on, the illusion of transparency that fashion trades on is going to become easier and easier to see through.

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