Apparel’s 2017 Executive Guide to Global Responsible Production, Part II - Being Visible, Traceable, Accountable: The Trifecta of Global Responsible Production Today


One of the biggest buzzwords in the apparel industry today is visibility. Affording an unobstructed view, to apply Merriam-Webster’s definition. In the apparel supply chain, visibility could be loosely translated as the key to staying out of trouble (with the law, the press, the customer, and with the consumer – especially the Millennials), and to verifying good works.

Why the accelerated buzz about visibility today? Because sometimes things go wrong, and because a few brands such as Eileen Fisher and Patagonia are making real names for themselves by doing things right, and sharing the story. In an effort to become more open and authentic, an increasing number of global and local brands are posting their vendor lists and their sustainability initiatives for the public to view. A welcome step to greater transparency and proof of authenticity or honesty, this nonetheless carries some risk as it enables a level of public scrutiny that has previously been difficult to attain.

Millennials and Authenticity. Consumers care about authenticity. Nine out of ten Millennials say they would switch brands to one associated with a cause, according to Cone Communication’s 2015 Millennial CSR Study. The same study found 87 percent of Millennials purchase a product with a social or environmental benefit and 82 percent tell friends and family about CSR efforts. Furthermore, 66 percent are likely to use social media to address or engage with companies around social and environmental issues. Eighty-eight percent reported they would stop buying a company’s products if they learned the company employed irresponsible or deceptive business practices. They use social channels to share and learn: 38 percent share positive information about companies and issues; 26 percent share negative information about the same. One can safely assume that if Millennials care this much about authenticity, brands need to make sure their supply chains uphold the values their brand marketing claims. Visibility allows them to verify.

The Trifecta Makes a Road Trip. In compliance, visibility, traceability and accountability go hand in hand. Together, visibility, traceability and accountability in the apparel supply chain are like taking a scenic road trip. Traceability identifies the journey a garment and its components follow along any of a number of possible routes from concept to consumer. Visibility is the eye in the sky — the traffic monitor flying overhead to identify and relay obstacles, delays and newsworthy events. Accountability is the series of toll booths and weigh stations that check compliance along the way and take stock at the final destination. Together, the three can give a clear view of the journey our garments and their components take. Without one or another, however, we are partially blind to the route those garments and their components have followed. Let’s unpack the three.

Visibility. It is easy to explain but more complex to create. Tight contracts, certification and audits by reliable third-party certification firms, and end-to-end software solutions fully integrating suppliers and logistics all aid greatly in creating a clear line of sight on your supply chain. Boots on the ground and eyes on the goods — frequent factory visits by brand personnel — also greatly enhance visibility with an added benefit of building greater understanding and partnership between the supplier/s and the brand. Together, all these tools extend and enhance visibility.

Accountability. Contracts, onboarding procedures, shareholders, financial analysts, customers, activists, customs officials, safety regulations, testing labs, consumers, lawyers and the press all help encourage and examine brand accountability for where, how, by whom and from what our garments are made. To hold brands accountable, though, stakeholders need both visibility and traceability. They must be able to see the route each garment and its components take.

Traceability. The middle of the three, traceability requires visibility and it enables accountability. It allows those who hold brands to their promise of a safe product made in an ethical way to track a product backwards from finish to start. Noncompliant materials and widespread, unauthorized use of shadow factories operating outside the audit trail have long troubled brands trying to achieve full visibility on production of their goods. That is about to change, with new advancements in science and technology.

Science and Technology. Science and technology have allowed the most exciting compliance advancements in recent years. Applied DNA Sciences made industry headlines over the past few years with the company’s ability to mark and verify textile fibers’ DNA. This promises great inroads in the ability to identify unwanted or illegitimate fibers that make their way into the legitimate supply chain, whether through intentional bulk mixing of generic inputs or unintended cross contamination in processing or storage. The progress of science and technology in this area has been groundbreaking.

Perhaps even more exciting and more widespread in its potential application to garment traceability along the supply chain is the identification and tracking of unique groups of microorganisms present in a given environment — in short, microbiomes. Every item gathers its own unique collection of microorganisms according to where its components are sourced, who transforms or handles them and what environmental players it meets along the way. On the amazing road trip each garment takes, biology creates a unique travel diary of sorts. We just need a translator to read what each travel journal says.

Today, such a translator exists. San Francisco-based Phylagen Inc.’s proprietary combination of science and information technology allows for the identification and cataloging of an infinite number of unique microbial communities. In turn, they enable the traceability of a garment back to the components’ source, and every step of its journey along the way. Reading the microbiome of a garment at the end of the chain tells the unique path it took from field to factory to final destination. Goods from banned components create a different journal entry than goods from legitimate parts. Shadow factories create a different travel stamp than those of the legitimate contractors. And so forth until the total microbiome is read at the end of the road.

Most companies within the supply chain honestly try to do the right thing, to deliver the goods their customer ordered, on time and according to specifications. Right product, right place, right time, made and delivered in the right way. However, a number of forces conspire to make that difficult. The potential for DNA marking and testing, and for microbiome identification to create indisputable supply chain visibility, traceability, and accountability is a watershed compliance event. n


Margaret Bishop is a global consultant to the apparel and textile industry and an Adjunct Associate Professor at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York City. She is a member of the International Advisory Group for the Worldwide Responsible Accredited Production (WRAP). She may be contacted at [email protected].

1 Cone Communications. “New Cone Communications Research Confirms Millennials as America’s Most Ardent CSR Supporters, But Marked Differences Revealed Among this Diverse Generation.” Boston, MA. Downloaded May 20 2017.

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