Released in The Interline’s first Sustainability Report, this executive interview is one of a ten-part series that sees The Interline quiz executives from major companies on what the term ‘sustainability’ really means, as well as the integral role they play in supporting brands and retailers in their sustainability strategies.

For more on sustainability in fashion, download the full Sustainability Report 2023 completely free of charge and ungated.

Key Takeaways:

  • Digital Product Passports (DPPs) have the potential to revolutionise the fashion industry by promoting sustainability, transparency, and responsible consumption – provided they are based on accurate data.
  • As well as containing essential data such as material composition and provenance, production processes, distribution carbon footprint, and key regulatory information, DPPs can also help unlock the fashion industry’s transition from linear to circular models.
  • Mapping value chains and improving multi-tier supply chain visibility will be critical for exposing the data needed to account for and address environmental and social issues the short timeframe needed.
Do you believe “sustainability” is still a useful term for defining the complex road that fashion needs to travel? What does that word mean to you, and how does your definition manifest itself in your company’s approach to designing solutions for fashion’s most urgent challenge?

The term “sustainability” has undoubtedly been corrupted. Overuse, improper application, and lack of understanding from both brands and consumers have rendered the term less useful than it could be – perhaps even damaging. In its most basic form, I believe there’s always been a general misunderstanding of the term. Often interpreted solely in connection with the sustainability of the planet’s natural resources and disregarding the sustainability of the millions of livelihoods intrinsically linked to the fashion industry. But whether the word itself is confusing or not, doesn’t necessarily render the meaning of the world worthless. We should be pursuing sustainability in all its forms, but the use of the term should be better regulated and used with more scrutiny. As with any claim or statement, context maters.

With the shift in consumer behaviour towards sustainable consumption and recent legislative changes, supply chain traceability has never been more important for brands and manufacturers alike. Digital product passports are part of the fashion industry’s transition from a linear model of consumption (buy-wear-throw) to a circular one (buy-wear-recycle, resell, or rent). How do you think Digital Product Passports are going to shape the future of fashion, and what data do fashion brands need to gather and disclose in order to create them?

Digital Product Passports (DPPs) have the potential to significantly shape the future of the fashion industry as it adapts to the growing demand for sustainable practices and transparency. DPPs can serve as a critical tool in transitioning from a linear model of consumption to a circular one by providing consumers, brands, and manufacturers with comprehensive information about a product’s lifecycle. A few of the benefits of DPPs are likely to be:

  • Enhanced Sustainability: Enabling consumers to make informed choices by offering detailed insights into a product’s environmental and social impact. Brands that prioritize sustainability can use DPPs to showcase their commitment to eco-friendly practices, attracting environmentally conscious consumers.
  • Improved Transparency: A key to building trust with consumers. DPPs can disclose data related to the entire supply chain, from sourcing raw materials to production, transportation, and distribution. This transparency can help combat issues like forced labour, unfair wages, and environmental harm, as consumers can make ethical choices based on this information.
  • Extended Product Lifespan: By providing care instructions, repair guides, and information on recycling options, DPPs can promote a culture of responsible consumption, reducing the fashion industry’s contribution to landfill waste.
  • Regulatory Compliance: DPPs can serve as a compliance tool. Brands can proactively gather and display the necessary information to meet regulatory requirements, avoiding potential fines and reputation damage.

To create effective DPPs, fashion brands should gather and disclose the following key data:

  • Material Information: Details about the materials used in the product, including sourcing, composition, and any certifications related to sustainability (e.g., organic, recycled materials).
  • Production Process: Information on the manufacturing process, including locations, working conditions, and any ethical or fair-trade practices.
  • Transportation and Distribution: Data on how the product is transported and distributed, with a focus on reducing carbon emissions and environmental impact.
  • Product Care and Maintenance: Guidelines for care and maintenance to extend the product’s lifespan, including washing instructions, repair options, and tips for responsible disposal.
  • End-of-Life Options: Information on how to recycle, repurpose, or dispose of the product in an environmentally friendly manner.
  • Environmental Impact: Data on the product’s overall carbon footprint, water usage, and other environmental metrics.
  • Regulatory Compliance: Ensuring that the DPP complies with relevant laws and regulations, especially those related to transparency and sustainability reporting.

In conclusion, Digital Product Passports have the potential to revolutionize the fashion industry by promoting sustainability, transparency, and responsible consumption. Fashion brands that embrace DPPs and provide comprehensive, accurate, and easily accessible data can not only meet consumer demands but also contribute to a more sustainable and circular fashion ecosystem.

According to the Fashion Transparency Index 2023, for the first time, more than half (52%) of major fashion brands disclosed their first tier supplier lists. But 45% of brands still revealed very little about their supply chains beyond Tier 1 – likely because there’s a huge amount of complexity in those deeper tiers. Your solution grew directly out of a huge amount of first-hand experience in garment manufacturing: what insights has that given you into how fashion can improve multi-tier supply chain visibility?

It’s worth celebrating advances in transparency but we’re a long way off where we should be. Whilst it’s complex to delve into deeper tiers, that complexity is largely driven by the lack of interest in knowing more – at least until now.  Brands can only be transparent about what they know and unfortunately, it hasn’t traditionally been deemed necessary for brands to know past their Tier 1/Tier 2 suppliers. 

Mapping supply chains back to fibre source has been a part of our integral operations under our parent company, Lyfcycle, since our inception. It’s through our extensive experience in doing so that we have found ourselves now providing technology solutions through ettos to help clothing brands manage the same in a simpler, more efficient way. It’s not an easy task and it requires a dedicated effort to track back into deeper tiers in a meaningful way. What does become clear as you track further into Tiers 2, 3, 4 and beyond, is that the further distanced a supplier is from the brand or retailer, the poorer the legislation and regulation of social and ethical governance becomes.  With poorer regulation comes poorer traceability since it’s much harder to find and monitor the activities of those suppliers. It reinforces the need for a push approach to transparency. Brands need to be asking the right questions of their Tier 1 and Tier 2 suppliers to inform further down the line. 

This is where ettos can help. We’re assisting brands in clearly mapping their existing supply chains, identifying where they are today and highlighting areas for improvement. Our software empowers brands to connect with their Tier 1 suppliers, from which point Tier 1 suppliers are then able to connect with Tier 2 and so on. As the chain is built, brands are informed and gain visibility of the chain themselves. ettos has been designed to build a more responsible and accountable global fashion ecosystem, driving engagement and collaboration across the supply chain. So, whilst we have a long way to go, there are now tools in place to make the process less daunting and to help give suppliers in deeper Tiers a name and face. 

Thinking beyond compliance with immediate and near-term regulations, there’s a strong need for fashion brands to be able to monitor their entire product journeys in real-time, or as near to that target as possible – for both sustainability reasons and as a lever to help orchestrate and optimise their routes to market. What does it look like, practically speaking, to centralise that journey in a platform that different stakeholders share access to?

Such a platform can provide real-time visibility, transparency, and data-driven decision-making. Here’s what it looks like practically to centralize this journey:

  1. Data Integration and Aggregation: The platform integrates data from various sources across the supply chain and can include data on material sourcing, production, transportation, warehousing, and sales.
  2. Product Tracking: Using QR Codes, the platform enables tracking of products at each stage of their journey. 
  3. Accessibility: Different stakeholders have access to the platform with access levels customized to provide specific information to different parties while maintaining data security.
  4. Transparency: The platform should provide a transparent view of the product journey to all stakeholders, including details about the origins of raw materials, production processes, and ESG claims.
  5. Analytics and Insights: Advanced data visualization tools are integrated into the platform to provide actionable insights and guides brands on their journey to 100% transparency. 
  6. Alerts and Notifications: The platform has alerting mechanisms to notify stakeholders of any actions required or issues.
  7. Continuous Improvement: The platform supports continuous improvement initiatives by providing historical data and insights that can be used to optimize processes and make sustainability-driven decisions.

In practice, centralizing the product journey in a shared platform offers fashion brands the ability to make informed decisions, reduce waste, improve sustainability, enhance product quality, and optimize routes to market. It fosters collaboration among stakeholders, empowers consumers with information, and ultimately helps the fashion industry transition towards a more sustainable and efficient future.

While we’re obviously talking specific solutions and individual brands, it’s important to note that sustainability is something that the fashion industry as a whole needs to tackle collectively. A big part of that is going to come from having technology that is accessible and affordable, so that the full spectrum of brands and partners can participate. How are you positioning Lyfcycle to provide that universal entry point and start to move the industry from individual compliance to collective action?

The impetus to tackle the lack of sustainability within fashion needs to be driven first and foremost by brands but without doubt needs to be addressed by all stakeholders. We’ve seen it over and over again, but when brands expect more of their suppliers in terms of social and ethical compliance, suppliers act accordingly. The same needs to be happening with environmental compliance and action. 

To encourage collective action and mass transparency, technology needs to be accessible and affordable. ettos is free for all supplier accounts, removing a financial barrier to entry and collaboration. Our hope is that in doing so, we can expect the introduction of our software to be welcomed and adopted by suppliers across all tiers of the supply chain. 

Similarly, we’re able to tailor our software packages to suit the needs of all clothing brands, big or small. Whilst there are tools in our software that will be useful for all brands, we recognise the requirements and interests for a global brand will vary to those of a start-up brand. We’ve designed our platform to bring useful solutions to a wide spectrum of brand types, carefully considering necessary integrations and use cases. This is reflected in our tailored packages to ensure that brands can access affordable solutions that address their individual needs.

For a lot of fashion businesses, compliance with regional regulations is the priority target, but long-term sustainability is about individual and collective action to rapidly improve fashion’s environmental and ethical credentials. What do you think the future looks like at that whole-industry level? And what does that mean for your roadmap and your customers?

We’re seeing brands start to move towards more long-term sustainability goals but the degree to which this takes precedence over other core strategies varies with importance and speed from brand to brand. What’s clear is that incoming environmental and ethical legislation in the industry will be a big driver for the speed with which fashion brands adopt improved policies. 

More legislation is needed to encourage regenerative practices and to frame the parameters in which brands are communicating their environmental efforts. I think we’re at a pivotal point in fashion’s sustainability journey where consumers are demanding accountability from brands and brands in turn are starting to look to their suppliers for the same. Ultimately, all stakeholders need to work together cohesively with collective responsibility to make significant improvements quickly. 

I believe there’s a huge learning curve ahead for the industry to tackle and collaborative working is one of the biggest challenges.  Although important for businesses to pursue their own environmental initiatives, we need to see more cross-tier collaboration across the supply chain to effect meaningful change but to date, there aren’t sufficient tools to facilitate this. There’s a severe lack of tools available to brands that represent truly scalable solutions – and scalability is what we need to implement impactful change. But this is where ettos can become a powerful tool for change. 

We’ve built a platform to facilitate and encourage collective action. Our ambition is to continue to enhance cross-tier collaboration to accelerate the improvement of the fashion industry’s environmental and ethical credentials.