A free, open access traceability tool for the global fashion supply chain

More than 50 percent of fashion decision makers say traceability will be among the top five factors for reducing emissions in their supply chains, according to a report by BoF and McKinsey & Co. on the state of fashion: technology. It is an essential tool for meeting consumer and shareholder expectations to improve sustainability efforts.

The FibreTrace technology platform offers real-time verification of products as they move through the global supply chain.

FibreTrace works with brands, manufacturers, farmers and raw fiber producers to connect the supply chain. The company launched its first core product, FibreTrace Verified, in partnership with fashion brand Reformation in March 2021. Today, the technology is used by 10 brands, including Reformation and 7 For All Mankind, and more than 60 suppliers of cotton, recycled polyester, viscose, and soon wool and leather.

FibreTrace Verified combines digital traceability with physical technology, applying non-toxic, luminescent pigments to raw fibers at their source. The pigment is indestructible during the processing cycle and can be read and tracked at every stage of the supply chain via a hardware device. Every audit is recorded on the blockchain and provides companies with AI-based insights. FibreTrace-labeled cotton is consequently permitted under US customs and import regulations.

While fashion companies are expected to increase their investment in technology solutions, the State of Fashion: Technology report found that solutions for supply chain transparency and traceability lag behind virtual sampling, capacity planning and virtual fabric libraries as an investment priority.

As a solution, FibreTrace this year developed a second product, FibreTrace Mapped, a digital-only solution that maps the global textile supply chain from fiber to retail, and decided to offer brands and manufacturers free access to the tool to democratize the ability to increase supply chain transparency.

After one year, free access will be limited to 500 digital revisions per year. Any company operating under that unit amount will still have free access, while larger companies will be charged an annual rate of $2,640.

Now BoF speaks with FibreTrace CEO Shannon Mercer to better understand how the technology works, the data and analytics available to companies, and the next steps for FibreTrace technologies.

Shannon Mercer, CEO of FibreTrace.

Why are traceability and transparency important in the textile industry?

SM: Changes in consumer behavior and legislation over the past 5 to 10 years have been a major driver of the increasing prevalence of traceability and transparency. There is now a regulatory framework in Europe and the US, which turns traceability and transparency from a nice-to-have to a must-have.

What technological solutions does FibreTrace offer?

SM: We have two solutions — FibreTrace Verified and FibreTrace Mapped.

FibreTrace Mapped is our new digital chain of custody that tracks and maps product certifications, purchase orders, shipping documents and the like, then uses blockchain to record those processes to provide an irrefutable ledger of what happened in the supply chain. FibreTrace Mapped also provides a brand with the opportunity to share its supply chain data with the end consumer.

We are releasing the free first version of Mapped for the global industry. Over the next 12 to 24 months, we will continue to improve the platform with product templates, reporting tools and enhanced functionality.

FibreTrace Verified uses a patented physical tracking system to audit and verify fibers as they move through the supply chain. Each fiber has a different application, and each type of fiber has a unique signature. For example, American cotton would have a different signature than Australian cotton, and recycled polyester would have a different signature than virgin polyester. We then use proprietary handheld scanners that act as digital auditors to physically verify the fiber in real time and confirm its origin and tampering.

How is technology shared in the supply chain?

SM: Using FibreTrace Mapped is as easy as registering on the platform and uploading your company and product information. Once you’ve created your product, you invite the next person in the supply chain on the platform, who then receives a private tracking order notification and then accepts that order. I think of it as a relay race to pass the baton to the next person until the product is fully drawn.

How can brand partners effectively use your products and services?

SM: When we’re looking at adoption, it’s difficult because there are a number of factors that overlay customers who join – there’s perceived cost, implementation, onboarding, data security, all these things.

When we split it into FibreTrace Verified and FibreTrace Mapped, we put the onus on the brand to make a decision about where they need digital chain of custody and where they need physical traceability. This enables the adoption of traceability in the sector and then gives them the opportunity to choose the suppliers they work with, allowing them to scale from the platform.

The more brands, manufacturers and suppliers embrace traceability, the greater the pressure will be on all players to have an industry-wide standard for transparency.

We enable customers to digitally adopt the platform first through FibreTrace Mapped, where they can increase transparency throughout the supply chain. They are then given the opportunity to add physical fiber verification with FibreTrace Verified.

Why did you offer the FibreTrace Mapped service for free?

SM: The industry talks about traceability, but when we look at adoption at the level of any brand or fiber, it’s not moving fast enough. The more brands, manufacturers and suppliers embrace traceability, the greater the pressure will be on all players to have an industry-wide standard for transparency.

Offering our service free of charge removes barriers to entry. Once we can get people onto the platform and show them the benefits of using it, adoption across all sectors becomes much easier. It’s obviously a big expense, but it’s not just a marketing gimmick – we’re trying to make a difference. That’s why we have an ongoing free option after the first year of rollout, allowing SMEs to take the first step towards transparency.

View FibreTrace Mapped on a mobile device.

From a manufacturing perspective, we are starting to see preferential treatment for brands that adopt traceability technology, as it makes it easier to build their supply chains. So there’s definitely an opportunity for farms and producers to engage more deeply with brands, differentiate themselves and command a premium.

What are AI-powered insights and how can they benefit businesses?

SM: Once the data is in, you can start comparing the information and extracting insights that can better inform your business.

The first version of FibreTrace Mapped comes with simple reporting mechanisms where you can see a global map of where your supply chain partners are located, digital audit timelines aligned with data additions or certificate uploads, and supply chain product list views.

For the second version, which will be released in the next 12 months, we will add product templates and advanced reporting functions. These will be built with the help of our participating brands and manufacturing partners.

One of the misconceptions is that traceability is a cost to the company. I don’t agree with that at all. From a compliance perspective, as these systems are adopted, they negate the need for some types of certification as technology takes over.

What’s next for FibreTrace?

SM: This year we are working to bring leather, wool, linen, hemp and accountability to the market with FibreTrace Verified in hopes of enabling physical traceability of all man-made and natural fibers.

From a technology perspective, we continue to support the B2B part, but we’ve also built a consumer component, so brands can educate consumers and show them the work they’re doing around traceability and transparency. It is a key component for us.

With greenwashing, there is now a lack of consumer confidence about what is actually printed on the label — is it real or not? Thus, the drive of these solutions for transparency and traceability, especially connecting the physical and the digital, enables brands to inspire consumer trust. Therefore, I would argue that traceability is not a cost to the sector at all. It’s actually an opportunity.

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