Last month, the United States of America banned import of cotton products from Xinjiang region in China over worrying claims that it is produced using slave labour and forced labour from Uighur Muslims. In July 2020, The Guardian reported that nearly one in five cotton garments are produced through the Uighurs forced labour taking place in the Xinjiang province. The need to trace the origins of the garments is a pressing one. Often when garments are manufactured, the raw materials are sourced from different places. If blockchain is used to trace the fragmented supply chain of a garment which often spans over multiple cities and countries, it could help promote ethical labour practices, transparency, authenticity and shall lend credibility to the producer.
After revolutionising the agriculture and fisheries global industry, blockchain technology is here to change the face of the fashion industry in a real, tangible way whilst promoting sustainability. If it’s possible to ascertain through blockchain the humidity of the place the fish on your plate was swimming in when it was snatched from the water it sojourned in, then it’s time to look at the journey of the clothes on your back through a similar lens.
How blockchain can support sustainable fashion
Blockchain is a decentralised shared digital ledger that maintains a list of growing transactions that participating parties can add too. Blockchain offers end-to-end visibility in supply chains, for example—when raw materials like cotton leave the farm, they are accompanied by paperwork (which accumulates at each stage of the supply chain) that usually remains with the producers in their internal systems. The use of blockchain would allow the information to be uploaded as a block and anyone with access to a blockchain-based network could procure the information.
A jumper made by Martine Jarlgaard in collaboration with blockchain service Provenance was the first ever fashion garment which used this limitless technology with fashion. The piece came replete with a code that when used, gave consumers the option to choose wool from three alpacas named James Bond, Skyfall, Othelo and detailed everything right down to which mill it was spun in and where it was knitted.
To trace the lifecycle of a piece of clothing, private and open forms of blockchain can be utilised so as to provide access to the necessary actors involved in the supply chain. This can be achieved by making each factor of the supply chain a separate block in the chain of transactions. Thus, for example, if the process consists of raw material collection, textile manufacturing, transformation of fabric into clothing, sales, marketing and finally the consumers, then every participant shall constitute a block. All these blocks together will provide the history of a garment.
Why blockchain in fashion is more relevant than ever now
Indian fashionistas will be gobsmacked to know that the fabled blue and green dress Jennifer Lopez sashayed down the Versace ramp in, was embroidered by Indian artisans in Mumbai. Last year, luxury brands were shocked to find out that they were connected with suppliers who weren’t paying workers their fair dues.
The use of blockchain technology will promote fair fashion, transparency and accountability to consumers in the Indian landscape. Brands having to transparently reveal their supply chain will lead them to produce with manufactures that follow practices in tandem with legal requirements and global standards. Manufactures will have to make sure their operations and standards satisfy the brands standards if they wish to continue working with them, thus ushering a grassroots level change. This in turn will help artisans from India and other developing countries get their due credit.
In October 2020, a fashion pact was created and presented to heads of state during the G7 meeting at Biarritz. Many notable brands such as Hèrmes, Nike, Prada signed a pact to protect the environment, oceans and biodiversity whilst mitigating climate change. To realise these goals and achieve their environmentally conscious spirited ethos, blockchain will play a big role. Blockchain serves as proof of authenticity of a product. Brands claiming a certain textile is from a region will have to truly source their fabrics from that region. Thus, if a brand states that the material for Paithani sari was sourced from Paithan, using blockchain the consumers will be able to verify the veracity of the claim. This kind of verification of origin is also in line with India’s new Consumer Protection E-Commerce Rules, 2020 which mandates that every piece of clothing must state where the product was made. This technology will not only help verify the origins but also every minute detail of the production cycle, right down to where the thread holding the fabric together was made.
It has been projected that the Indian government loses 1 lakh crore rupees over counterfeit products annually. To combat the burgeoning counterfeit market, brands can turn to blockchain to verify the authenticity of goods. Smart tags like Radio Frequency Identification Devices (RFID), Near Field Communication (NFC), secure tags and others can be used to solve the problems this three trillion dollars counterfeit industry brings with it. Artificial intelligence and blockchain based company Ennoventure which embeds covert watermarks on labels will aid consumers in their quest to find authentic products in India. By integrating blockchain based technology into the supply chain, brands can also protect their intellectual property by safeguarding their designs, making imitations by fast fashion brands difficult. Thus, when the origins of a garment can be traced, counterfeit garments will not possess such a chain of records and can be weeded out from authentic pieces, allowing them to retain their uniqueness.
Consumers in today’s day and age buy clothing from brands whose ethos reflects their own personal beliefs or morals. For instance, Stella McCartney’s brand is fully vegan and animal cruelty free, while bigger brands such as Chanel, Prada and Gucci have vowed to keep animal fur off the runway. This shows that brands are increasingly changing their practices to align with their conscious customers‘ narrative. Blockchain, because of its open source technology, allows the consumer to look at each stage of the manufacturing process and ensure that the garment has gone through a cycle that suits their beliefs. In a country like India where 23 to 37 per cent of the population is vegetarian and religious groups believe in not using animal by-products in their sartorial choices, blockchain technology can be used to satisfy customers as to the exact procedure the garment has been through before reaching the racks.
With workers in India, especially women being grossly underpaid in the garment industry, with some earning less than 1 rupee per piece, the kind of traceability and transparency blockchain promises could be what changes the face of fast fashion by forcing brands to pay fair wages, source raw materials ethically-with minimal impact on the environment.
Countries like Italy are launching blockchain based projects to guarantee the quality of products in order to protect the “Made in Italy” label. With the Indian government increasingly trying to promote “Make in India” and urging consumers to buy local to kickstart the economy after the pandemic, using this technology will offer creators protection and give consumers confidence about the manufacturing quality and authenticity. Not only that, it could also boost the handicrafts industry, allowing consumers to confer their patronage on certain waning small industries, knowing that their money will go back to the artisans. Although blockchain could be used to spearhead the sustainable and ethical fashion movement, the important question to ask is—are brands ready to lay bare their procedural layers and their steep profit margins or will they continue to extract their pound of flesh from underprivileged workers and unaware consumers?