Traceability and transparency: Exploring two key components of sustainable fashion
by Amelia Zimmerman | Oct 28, 2022
The shirt I’m wearing was made in Indonesia.
It is 57% cotton, 38% polyester, and 5% spandex.
That’s the extent of my knowledge about where my t-shirt came from, where it’s been, and how it came into the world.
For years, most of our clothing purchases have been made on information as scant as this. And for the most part, we accepted this as the status quo.
But consumers (and other stakeholders) are demanding more from their favorite apparel brands: they’re asking for a clearer picture of the social and environmental impact of the products they’re buying. To give consumers what they’re looking for, apparel brands will need to achieve both traceability and transparency within their supply chains.
Traceability vs. transparency
These terms appear frequently in fashion circles, and are often used interchangeably. But while they’re related, traceability and transparency mean slightly different things.
Transparency* refers to the extent of a company’s awareness (and, in some definitions, public disclosure) about how and where its products are made, and who makes them. It’s high-level information about a company’s suppliers, the raw materials used in a particular product, where these materials were sourced, and how they became garments. Transparency can include data points such as:
- Supplier names
- The materials used in a product
- Locations of suppliers and factories
- Certifications and licenses of materials and suppliers
Transparency gives both companies and their stakeholders better visibility into their often long and complex supply chains. It also helps companies stay compliant with ESG and EHS requirements.
Rather than a high-level overview or an end-to-end map of a product’s overall supply chain, traceability refers to a company’s ability to track every transaction and movement of a particular batch or individual product along its supply chain. This data is far more detailed than the kind of data involved in transparency discussions. If transparency is the macro, traceability is the micro. It can include operational data such as:
- Batch-lot information, including crop data
- Purchase order data
So where transparency allows a company to identify who was involved in making a particular line of T-shirts, where they were made, and with what raw materials, traceability allows a company to pinpoint the exact journey of an individual item or batch Although it’s not as common in the fashion industry, traceability is a helpful asset when recalls are required.
Because transparency tends to be the first step in collecting better product data, it’s entirely possible to achieve transparency without traceability — and in fact, that’s where many brands are today. But real strides in sustainability will require highly traceable products, and traceability leans heavily on transparency. Without high-level data about suppliers and supply chains, it’s difficult to go any deeper.
Traceability and transparency in the greenwashing debate
When it comes to making sustainability claims about their products, brands need both genuine transparency and traceability. Transparency is the big picture, but traceability is the small picture, and in sustainability, the small picture or the granular details become proof, supporting sustainability claims. Genuine traceability gives brands and potentially even consumers access to specific data points around every transaction and movement in a supply chain, for a particular product or batch. Without traceability, many of the claims made in the name of ‘transparency’ can easily be construed as greenwashing.
Traceability and transparency ≠ sustainability
Traceable products and transparent supply chains are the first steps in any sustainability journey. As the old saying goes, you can’t manage what you can’t measure.
But being able to trace a product’s journey doesn’t make the product sustainable, and neither does simply disclosing this data, without taking steps to mitigate product impact. Most brands would be unlikely to voluntarily disclose unfavorable product information in the name of transparency, but many brands do achieve a kind of false ‘transparency’ with the public simply by disclosing select information that makes their products appear sustainable. Telling only a part of a product’s story is misleading and is its own kind of greenwashing. A traceable and transparent supply chain isn’t necessarily an eco-friendly supply chain, but it’s a key part of the sustainability journey
How can apparel brands achieve supply chain transparency?
The first step to achieving supply chain transparency is to conduct thorough supply chain mapping across each of your product lines. There are multiple methodologies for conducting supply chain mapping, so it’s important to do your research and find an approach that will best suit your organization. For each of your products, a simplified supply chain mapping exercise might involve:
- Listing each of your suppliers and their key information
- Mapping your list by product chronology or other relevant metrics
- Inviting suppliers to share data about environmental impact, social responsibility, and compliance
- Identifying the risks and opportunities at each link in the chain
Look for experts and life cycle assessment (LCA) tools like Green Story to help you along the way. Using the globally recognised standard methodology, the Green Story sustainability platform quantifies the environmental impact of your products, from the beginning of a product’s life at raw material extraction through to the final stages in-store and brings the highest possible accuracy and transparency to your products' data.
How can apparel brands achieve supply chain traceability?
Because of the number of materials involved in making a single product, traceability is an enormous undertaking, and won’t happen overnight. As an apparel brand, getting started with traceability might look something like this:
- Selecting a particular component to trace
- Deciding on universal units for communicating with suppliers, such as a batch lot
- Implementing tools and methodologies to collect, store, and share the particular data you’re looking for
How can apparel brands share product impact data with stakeholders?
If your push for transparency is the result of stakeholder pressure, identify which groups (consumers, investors, employees, or others?) are behind it, and what they are most interested in knowing. ‘Information bombing’ is its own kind of greenwashing; dumping too much data in public obscures the metrics that really matter and leaves people confused. So work out who wants to know, and what they want to know. Then, focus on how to communicate this information in a complete manner, without creating overwhelm or confusion.
At Green Story, we help e-commerce apparel brands make accessible, product-level sustainability disclosures. Our solution translates your sustainability data into easy-to-digest, accessible information for your audience, enabling brands to leverage impact visualization and share positive impact with consumers in a way that is relatable. For example, you might present water savings as a number of ‘days of drinking water saved’ rather than liters, or carbon emissions as a number of ‘cars taken off the road’ rather than tons of carbon.
It’s also important to determine what product information you’re required to disclose for ESG purposes. Although you’re probably keeping up with existing mandatory disclosure requirements, new regulations are on the horizon, and it’s important to stay current and prepare for what’s ahead.
What’s next for the fashion industry?
Ultimately, improving the traceability, transparency, and sustainability of the apparel industry as a whole will take more than just individual brands stepping up their game. The fashion industry has a data problem, which means the industry needs to work together to build a more connected and comprehensive data ecosystem, in order to more reliably trace and quantify product impact. Additionally, brands need to work together (rather than in competition) to hold each other accountable, set unified sustainability standards for suppliers, and hold the industry to a higher standard.
Green Story can help
At Green Story, our mission is to empower 1 billion consumers to know their impact and make choices that are better for the planet and the generations to come. We’ll help you quantify and visualize your environmental impact, make accurate claims about the sustainability of your products, and offset your emissions through verified carbon credits. We’ll also make sure your customers are along for the journey by telling your sustainability story in ways your consumers can easily grasp, integrating your story into every aspect of your communications, and achieving market-wide buy-in for your sustainability mission.
About Amelia Zimmerman
Amelia Zimmerman is an ESG and sustainability writer. She lives in Toronto with her puppy and her partner, and she is passionate about using storytelling techniques to help people understand and act on climate change.