By Rachel Kibbe
Blockchain technology is the basis for cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin, which the term is most popularly known for. What many don't realize is that blockchain itself is a technology whose implications are so deep that most industries are just sort-of-kind-of cracking the surface of how the technology might be applied. One powerful example is Provenance’s blockchain project with fashion designer Martine Jarlgaard. Revealed at the Copenhagen Fashion Summit in May of 2017, the project uses blockchain technology to make timestamp records of the entire supply chain of a garment. The where and when of production is precisely recorded, from the first mile of raw material. For example, the technology can document the farm from which the wool will be sourced all the way to where and when the ultimate garment will be boxed up and sent out to the retail store. The entire supply chain information can be accessed by the consumer through looking up a code on the garment’s hangtag. The fashion industry’s complex supply chain, and the nearly impossible path to achieving complete transparency, has been both my frustration and fascination for the last 10 years since I graduated from Parsons with a degree in Fashion Design.
From seed to hanger, a garment and all the parts of the garment, from the fibers to the buttons etc., can be sourced from all ends of the planet and pass through many hands. Abuses, slights, and environmental and labor catastrophes are hidden in the complexities of the supply chain’s web. Because of this confusion, fashion has spun out into the second most polluting industry next to oil and energy, a fact few people even know.
While there have been many and varying ‘legal’ acts passed across the global economy, trying to get companies to reveal and clean up rampant environmental and labor abuses in their supply chains, there is still so much room for accidental and intentional error and loopholes. Blockchain technology holds, to me, the closest thing of a promise to truly documenting the supply chain of a garment.
" BAHHHH HUMBUG TO BLOCKCHAIN" —companies that want to remain shady.
The main weakness I see in this project was not in the project itself, which is fairly straightforward and does what it says it will do, but rather in the business adoption incentive. So many companies, especially the richest and most powerful fashion companies, depend on the corporate social responsibility loopholes intrinsic to not having one worldwide fashion ethics and sustainability standard: from the Bangladesh Health and Safety Accord, to GAP Inc’s own ‘internal regualtions’, to the Higg Index, to Kering’s devoted team of sustainability scientists, there is no uniform set of rules and regulators aligned to regulate the industry.
With such vast sets of different regulations, greenwashing is rampant and constant manipulation of numbers and information, even companies essentially giving themselves awards and holding 'sustainability conferences' to make themselves look better, is becoming the norm. Even the aforementioned Copenhagen Fashion Summit, one of the highest regarded summits on sustainability on earth, is very questionably sponsored by the veritable queen of fast fashion, H&M. What this means for blockchain supply chain tracking is that the biggest companies might ultimately be against adopting a technology that would hold them totally accountable. In turn, this might stymie making such a technology widely used and therefore more affordable for those smaller companies who would actually want the technology and use their complete transparency as a selling point.
I think real innovation in blockchain technology in the fashion industry will lie in paying garment workers and for purchasing raw materials in developing nations in crypto currencies. The capital of workers, factories and farms in developing nations would be increasingly protected, intermediaries who cut a little off of every transaction would be eliminated, exchange rate issues vanquished, and more money would be available to the people and businesses doing the heavy lifting of making a garment. There will also come a day, I think, where factory machines use blockchain technology to run themselves, but there is a surprising amount of handwork still necessary to making a garment, and I doubt that it will be completely automated in the near future.