Importance of Traceability in Textile Supply Chain

Importance of traceability in the textile and fashion supply chain
Traceability and transparency in the textile supply chain are very much essential for achieving sustainability in the textile and fashion industry. In a recent study, it has been revealed, the market of fast fashion has declined from $35.8 billion dollars to $31.4 billion dollars from 2019 to 2020. The depreciation can be a lot accounted to COVID-19, however, due to the situation the perception of customers has changed a lot. 

Today’s customer is mind full, rather than spending mindlessly the focus is majorly on spending as per basic needs, which has impacted the fashion, apparel, and textile industry as a whole. The growth of the fast-growing fashion market has also decreased with the growth of more sustainable business approach. Today the customer wants to know who made the product, who is going to be benefitted from the product, also the origin, materials, and history of the product. In such a scenario, traceability comes into the picture.

1. Concept of Traceability

Traceability is the ability to trace the whole lifecycle of a product from the raw material to the consumer, to disposal and recycle (if done). Traceability information does not only convey the source location but also the impacts the product is having on the environment and people of the society. Traceability as a whole pushes for a more transparent textile supply chain. The lack of transparency came into light in 2013, when a Dhaka garment factory collapsed (also known as Rana Plaza collapse) with a death toll of 1,134 and 2500 injured, due to a structural fault in the building. This incident called for social responsibilities and transparency of the supply chain.

Recent policies of the Indian Government of the “Make in India” and the “Atma Nirbhar Bharat” also push for a local make and higher transparency and traceability in the textile supply chain.

2. Necessity of Traceability

Traceability is one of the major necessities to achieve sustainability. Some of the reasons are mentioned as

2.1. Global Textile Consumption

Textile material requires water, energy, chemicals, and machinery to be converted from the raw stage to the finished product. The consumption of water, energy, chemicals varies from fibre to fibre, and it must be tried to use fibers that uses the least water and energy for promoting sustainable growth. However, when we look into global market cotton and polyester dominates consumption and usage. In a report, it was estimated cotton supports a USD 3 trillion global fashion industry. Despite the huge demand of cotton, it takes 2700 liters of water to produce the conventional cotton needed for producing a single T-shirt. Due to such high water consumption the environmental impacts are equally devastating, in 2014 Aral Sea was found to be dried up due to cotton cultivation. Due to this high environmental impact, it is necessary to look for alternatives like organic cotton that consumes 182liters/kg compared to 2120 liters/kg for conventional cotton or others alternative natural fibres as suggested by Das in his paper.

Polyester is also one of the most consumed, with its market estimated to reach $42,400 million by 2024 with consumption increasing at a CAGR 4.0%. Polyester, however, is one of the most energy consuming fibers requiring of 125 MJ of energy per kg, also emitting of 14.2 kg of CO2 per kg making a huge environmental impacts. Hence alternatives like recyclable polyester must be looked into. The global supply chain must be curved and customers must hence be made aware of the effects these highly consumed fibres have on the environment.

2.2. False Sustainable claims of Textile Companies

Sustainable claims without supporting traceable information about the product can be referred to as mere “Green Washing” as referred as Phelan. The statement sums it all one of the major problems that the textile industry have been facing is hoax sustainability claims by different brands, which they uses for marketing. Due to this ill-practice the brands that try to be actually sustainable suffer. In a study by Nimbalker it was shown that around 15% of the brands had no information about their raw material suppliers, and less than 10% had complete 100% knowledge about the full supply chain. The lack of traceability and transparency in the full supply chain is one of the reasons why the sustainability has not yet been achieved in the textile sectors.

2.3. Forced Labor in Textile Sectors

Textile Sectors provide is a labor intrinsic sector. Indian Garment sector provides employment to almost 40 million workers directly and 60 million indirectly. However there had been several reports stating as many as 8.2 million child labors being associated with the garment industry. There have been several measures mentioned to prevent this forced labor, however the lack of transparency and many brands not even knowing about the 2nd tire suppliers has contributed to this practice.

2.4. Better risk management

Risk Management is the factor that has most significant influence due to transparency and traceability in textile supply chain as shown by Agrawal in his article, where he used Delphi Study to analyze the different factors influenced by traceability. With transparency better analysis and better decision making is possible about the market and better tackling of any situation. Product authenticity is another important factor that can be ensured by traceability.

3. Problems faced with Traceability of Textile Supply Chain

Traceability might be one of the necessities in order to achieve sustainability. However when we consider the dispersed supply chain of the textile sector it is very difficult for brands to keep supply chain transparent if the traceability initiatives are not taken from the very raw material producers. Hence the major problems for the traceability are follows.

3.1. Dispersed Textile Supply Chain

The conversion of raw textile material to finished product takes a number of steps as shown in Fig. 1.

Fig. 1: Textile and Clothing Supply Chain (Source: Obser, S. 2015, page- 14)

Due to the high dispersed supply chain it becomes very difficult. India is one of the leading cotton producers, Australia is highly regarded for Wool producers, and similarly the source of different raw materials varies. For yarn China and India Vietnam are the major yarn producers. For fabric China, Bangladesh, Vietnam, Germany are major players, with Germany being one of the main knitted fabrics. Due to this it is very likely that a fabric travels all around the world before reaching the final customer, due to highly dispersed textile and apparel supply chain. Hence it is difficult to implement traceability in the supply chain.

3.2. Global Poverty

One of the major problems in implementation of traceability into this complex supply chain is the enhancing of price per cloth. According to a latest survey it was seen almost 689 million people is surviving on less than $1.90 a day. For such a huge population living under poverty it might not be possible for them to afford the high price of the clothes. Considering the fact that organic cotton has 20-30% higher cost than conventional cotton, also for recyclable polyester costs more than the normal polyesters. The net cost of a garment will also enhance if traceability is implemented.

4. Possible Solutions

There have been various efforts made by several researchers, start-ups to come up with the solution to the traceability and promote higher transparency in the supply chain.

4.1. Integrated Textile Manufacturing Houses

One of the major issues in textile is it is highly dispersed sector; hence it is difficult to ensure the transparency in every stages. However for integrated textile producing houses (i.e. production from fibre to final garment) to a certain extent ensuring the traceability is easier.

4.2. Textile Genesis

Textile Genesis is a textile company that is custom built mainly aiming to provide solutions of traceability for the textile and apparel sectors. It uses Fibercoins which are “digital block chain based tokens” that can be managed by different manufacturers at different level of production chain. With fibercoins details of any asset like fibre, filament, fabric, yarn or garment can be digitized. Data of any type of end usable garment made using this technology will be available in the fingertips of the customers.

4.3. Other Solutions

QR codes and RFID chips have been used as a traceability tools by several brands. However it is possible to replicate these tools and produce false copies. Hence innovations have also been done to tackle this problem; Agarwal in his project has developed cryptotag that is printed on the finished garment. The tag contains tiny particles arranged in random ways which is unique for every garment and the information in this tool can be decoded using image reading technique.

Several brands have already addressed this problem and had come up with their own traceability solutions. In response to the changing customers, the industry is changing as well with supply chains being more transparent. However, transparency in the entire textile supply chain has not yet been possible.

References and Further readings:

About the author: Sayak Nandi is currently pursuing a Bachelor’s degree in Textile Technology from GCETTS. His area of interest includes Technical textile, Weaving, Nonwovens, and sustainability in Textiles.

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