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.

Signs point to a retail rebound, and contactless and cash-free could be the watchwords.

Despite very public wrangles over uneven distribution of vaccines, broadly speaking large swatches of the world – or at least its consumption markets – are in the process of vaccinating their populations against COVID. The USA, especially, is now targeting 200 million doses given within the first 100 days of Joe Biden’s presidency, and the UK has passed a major milestone, giving first doses to more than half of its adult population.

As a corollary, there is a prevailing feeling of optimism for physical retail: a potentially 17-year spike in sales could follow the completion of vaccination programmes and the associated boost to consumer spending. And while the natural assumption would be that eCommerce will be the primary beneficiary of this recovery (and major store closures are still making headlines), new indicators suggest that only a quarter of retailers have actually pulled back from retail leases since the pandemic began, and that more than a third of them intend to grow their investment in physical retail in 2021.

It seems all but guaranteed, though, that shopping in a store will be a decidedly different experience when non-essential retail reopens here in the UK, following similar resumptions in trade elsewhere. As well as the obvious virus-mitigation measures in place – we’re all familiar with perspex screens and physical distancing by now – major payment providers are making big moves towards a contactless, cash-less future. This is, of course, an area where Apple and Google’s respective contactless payment partnerships are looking particularly prescient; paying with your watch might have seemed frivolous in 2019, but in 2021 it seems essential.

To reinforce this, the UK has just this week introduced a new £50 note, carrying the likeness of computing visionary, LGBTQ icon, and WW2 codebreaker Alan Turing, who did much of his pioneering work in The Interline‘s home city of Manchester, UK. And as much as everyone who works in a technology discipline owes to Turing and early computing figureheads like him, statistics suggest that the UK could eliminate the use of cash completely within five years – and other countries are sure to be following similar paths.

Supply chain and sourcing upheavals underline the need for digitisation.

If retail in the Western hemisphere appears to be stabilising, the presence of Western brands in China is on an opposite footing. This week has seen multinationals like H&M being removed from Chinese eCommerce channels as Chinese corporations and shoppers boycott companies that have publicly declared their intention not to use cotton potentially originating from the Xinjiang region.

As well as serving as a reminder of the extraordinary lengths to which China’s politics are intertwined with its corporate and consumer structures, this developing story is a testament to just how interconnected the physical and digital channels have become – especially in a market like China, where eCommerce sales are now a majority. This is why a human rights flashpoint concentrated on cotton can lead to the delisting of videogame cosmetics created by a British luxury brand.

China is, of course, a fairly unique case. Very few other regions – and certainly none on China’s scale – are likely to intervene in their growing eCommerce sectors to the extent that China’s government is, and of course the precipitating, ongoing cause of this entire crisis is arguably one of the most extensive human rights violations of our time.

But disruption to sourcing that then goes on to have a dramatic impact elsewhere is by no means exclusive to China. Despite extensive work to remain a powerhouse in garment and textile production, Bangladesh is seeing a consolidation towards Western brands placing orders with smaller numbers of more advanced manufacturers, and the same trend that is driving streamlining of workforces and product categories in consumption markets is having a disproportionate impact on workforces in production markets.

The fact is that if 10,000 people lose their jobs in the UK, this translates to 100,000 in other countries. This is what I am trying to explain to policy makers, to talk about purchasing practices and their impact around the world.

Those are words from Mostafiz Uddin, who operates a small denim manufacturer in Bangladesh, and who, in the Sourcing Journal article linked to above, is attempting to reshape policy in his country to avoid a potential decimation of the garment manufacturing sector.

But again, this is just one manifestation of a larger, more universal trend. Boohoo, which made headlines in 2020 when an investigation uncovered malpractice and labour violations in many of its UK-based production partners, has this week announced that it will be pulling back from its relationships with potentially hundreds of suppliers – cutting its domestic supplier down from close to 500, to below 100.

Foundational to this paring down of suppliers is supposedly the banning of sub-contracting, which is a code of practice that is likely to prove difficult to enforce even in a domestic supply chain – let alone an international one, where subcontracting occurs completely off the radar, and is often a symptom of poor visibility into the real capacity and capabilities of manufacturers. All of which could give rise to a situation where subcontracting is driven even further underground as producers of fabrics, trims, fibres, and components who supply finished product producers are forced to obfuscate their relationships even more than they already do, or to go out of business.

Garment dyeing from Ralph Lauren.

And this, of course, could create a world where brands are taken by surprise even more often, when off-the-books subcontracting relationships are discovered by auditors, press, NGOs, or other third parties.

There is no easy solution here – or at least not one that lives under the umbrella of traditional supply chain management. But all the same, the impacts of sourcing decisions (however morally justifiable they may be) are already being routinely felt at retail, online and off. Which is why this week’s final story, of Ralph Lauren’s investment in its multi-partner “Color On Demand” process, has such relevance. In a world where dyeing continues to pollute, and where incentives are being created for the dyeing process to be covertly redistributed, the ability to own as much of that process as possible will be appealing to any brand.

Look for more from The Interline on the possibilities of digital dyeing very soon.

And the best from The Interline this week:

This week we published an exclusive op-ed from Shannon Mercer, CEO of FibreTrace, which examines how visibility at the fibre level, coupled with the right technology to carry that visibility from one end of the value chain to the other, could power a new level of supply chain transparency.