Cotton Traceability challenges and the importance of digitization

Cotton Traceability Solutions Today’s consumers are increasingly moving away from mindless consumption into mindful purchasing – a trend that is as apparent in the garment and apparel industry as any other. For this new breed of consumers, the expectation rests not just on style, but also on the sustainability of the sector, for which they are even willing to pay more for products that are produced in a socially and environmentally sustainable manner.

A couple of years ago in 2013, this whole issue of ethical and responsible production systems (or the lack of it) came to light with the incident of the Bangladesh garment factory fire, in which more than 300 workers lost their lives. This highlighted the lack of transparency in the supply chain – a challenge for the European and American apparel brands, whose raw materials or finished products typically travel across continents. While a significant part of their work is carried out in Asian countries like India, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka, these brands simply do not have the time or resources to monitor all aspects of the supply chain, whether crop production or retail.

Cotton being the key input to the apparel industry, its production accounts for 2.6% of global water use. For just one T-shirt made from conventional cotton, you need 2700 litres of water and a third of a pound of chemicals. With sustainability becoming an important parameter, some designers want to go organic and make garments that are truly sustainable. But the problem is, they don’t know where the cotton comes from. Neither do they understand the complexities of organic cotton apparel certification. But the demand pull from the market on one side and the end consumer on the other hand is so strong that it makes a case for brands / designers to go sustainable. And here, technology is certainly helping the case by facilitating tracing and tracking of sustainable products throughout manufacturing chains.

Business case for cotton apparel brand to invest in sustainability

Digitization of the cotton supply chain is what can bring about traceability, which can ultimately give the product the stamp of sustainability. New innovations and the introduction of ethical products into the mainstream retail market are expected to drive market growth over the next few years. The market for ethical products, including cotton, has had a year of impressive growth; and the numbers clearly show that there’s a huge potential in the apparel and retail industry to bring environmental sustainability along with social and economic sustainability for all farmers and workers employed in the trade and chain.

In such a scenario, it is vital for apparel brands to have an in-depth understanding of their supply chains. This trend is visible not just in Europe, from where the journey of sustainability began, but also seen among customers in India and China who are now increasingly conscious about purchasing products which are produced ethically and sustainably.

Traceability as a tool to implement sustainability

Transparency in supply chains becomes a major challenge for brands aiming to implement sustainability at every level. Most brands have not been able to penetrate below the first tier. Traceability has become a larger concern as high profile incidents have come to light, demonstrating that many companies are unable to track where their products come from: much less who created them, the conditions under which they were created in and the impact on the environment. Awareness of where the product comes from becomes an important first step to initiate any kind of intervention to improve the livelihoods of farmers growing their cotton. Moreover, sustainable processes must be used to convert this cotton into quality textile and garments.

According to the United Nations Global Compact (a UN body that has committed to implement universal sustainability principles), traceability is the ability to identify and trace the history, distribution, location and application of products, parts and materials to ensure the reliability of sustainability claims, in the areas of human rights, labour (including health and safety), the environment and anti-corruption. As part of ensuring traceability and transparency, supply chain mapping is an important exercise to track down the various modes in the chain till the very last node of the cotton farming region from where the cotton for the apparel comes. Despite understanding these issues, not many companies have taken action, perhaps because of lack of easy availability of traceability technology.

Traceability demands digitization of the supply chain, but several companies still operates on a dual mode, with some information stored digitally, and others still on paper. This is a rather inefficient method, since retrieving any information will take a lot of time. This is the reason why digital and physical supply chain data must merge and be stored digitally, including the data from other locations. The information retrieval should not demand such a time-consuming, silo-based tracking. The only solution is truly embracing the digital nature of the modern world by making it a fundamental part of modern supply chain management.

What are the benefits of the digital supply chain? A supply chain is only as strong as its weakest link, asserts Accenture. For supply chain partners who have yet to take advantage of the digital supply chain network, the weakest link is actually every single process, communication, connection, and point in the supply chain. When a supply chain partner embraces the scope and possibilities of the digital supply network, some real benefits are realized. As data becomes more available, this data will be applied to advanced analytics opportunities.

SourceTrace Systems provides solutions for traceability by having provisions to capture field data on first hand basis. This system can be used to log in and retrieve any information all year round. Such a solution helps maintain data bases that can store every bit of information required for a seamless traceability loop.