How to Prove Provenance and Sustainability Promises
Following Earth month, where brands tend to overcommunicate their promises in using eco-friendly materials and renew their commitments to sustainable and ethical practices, how they are substantiating their claims is still unclear. While the stated sustainability goals may be high, so too are the reputational risks that brands must address if they do not deliver on their promises. At a 2015 Summit held at the United Nations, a package of seventeen goals was outlined with associated targets for ending hunger, eliminating extreme poverty, reducing inequality, tackling climate change, and halting the loss of biodiversity and ecosystems — all by 2030 – which is currently not on track to be met.
One of the contributing problems of brand claims is that many companies rely on their supply chains to provide proof. Compounding this problem is that many supply chains are still utilizing manually derived paper trails, which may not prove provenance, and rely on the integrity of the quality of information being inputted. Current ERP and blockchain systems, similarly, are faced with the basic problem of data integrity, as transactional data can be distorted throughout the process. This can have far-reaching consequences should the information be inaccurate or fraudulent in any way.
An example of this scenario occurred on October 30, 2020, when The Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS) obtained substantial documentary evidence confirming rumors about systematic fraud abusing the Indian government certification system of organic cotton production. During surveillance audits by GOTS accreditation body IOAS, a regular part of the GOTS quality assurance, attended by GOTS experts, fake Raw Cotton Transaction Certificates (TCs) were detected.
Similar reports go back to 2010, when the Financial Times of Germany alleged that a “gigantic fraud” was taking place in the sale of cotton garments marked as organic by leading European retailers like H&M, C&A and Tchibo because they actually contained genetically modified (GM) cotton. In 2016, major retailers in the U.S. recalled many of their Egyptian Cotton labeled home textiles because they could not confirm that the products originated from Egypt. More notably, only 1% of all cotton produced in the world in 2015 was able to be traced back to Egypt, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Due to the speed and volumes of production, it is not uncommon for inaccuracies to arise. A study sample shows that for 11% of cotton-polyester composition claims deliberate fraud is not likely, however, for around one-third of the cotton-rich cotton-polyester garments analyzed, cotton content claimed was much higher than it actually was.
The risk of fake transaction certificates on raw materials is a serious issue, and therefore, the use of blockchain systems without verification of the entered transactional data as the primary approach for track-and-trace is equally risky. Physical traceability on the material itself is critical for the authenticity and quality of the product, the integrity of the supply chain, and ultimately the reputation of the brand.
In 2014, the first physical taggant-based cotton track-and-trace system was deployed on a large commercial scale for Costco. This involved the physical tagging of the cotton in California and followed the fiber to yarn, fabric, and finished goods in China and India. The “closing of the loop” by the physical tag with testing at every point of the supply chain enabled all parties of the supply chain to be certain that the integrity of the cotton from fiber to finished goods was preserved. Supporting paper documentation that provided information about the bale identification, the physical testing of the cotton, the shipping records as well as the linkage of fiber to yarn to fabric was ascertained in a known and verified supply chain.
To prove sustainability claims, raw materials should be derived of sustainable materials, whether fully or partially, or sustainably mined, both of which can only be proved if authenticated from the source. Due to lack of insight and transparency, brands may not be aware of the occurrences within the supply chain, where fibers and yarns from different sources can be spun together to create a final product, or cotton from countries utilizing forced labor can be mixed with American cotton, thus nullifying the claims of 100% American-grown cotton.
For recycled Polyethylene Terephthalate (PET), companies like IKEA have indicated that they are committed to ending the dependency on virgin fossil fuel materials and using only renewable or recycled materials by 2030. Yet, in reality, there is only so much recycled PET material available in the world. Without a means to authenticate the raw material in the product itself, there is no tangible way to verify finished goods and be sure that the claims on 100% recycled polyester or 30% recycled material claims are true.
However, often, brands may use these tactics to benefit their bottom line. The Federal Trade Commission provides guidelines for greenwashing, while other industries have consumer protection laws. The very fact that much of the “green” marketing is based on loose definitions allows for an interpretation of what the company truly means. Thus, consumers are left to determine on their own what a company’s values represent and what they stand behind, especially if the proof is not offered up.
In November 2020, the European Commission and national authorities conducted a study assessing 344 "seemingly dubious" sustainability claims made online by companies in divisions including clothing, cosmetics, household equipment and travel services. In 42% of these cases, national authorities had reason to believe the claim was false, deceptive and potentially an unfair commercial practice under EU law. In most cases, the business failed to offer consumers enough information to assess the claim's accuracy, while 37% of cases used vague terms without supporting proof.
Although the industry leaves much to be desired in terms of concrete guidelines for responsible and ethical sourcing and marketing, brands are leading the crusade against the lack of regulation. Swedish menswear brand ASKET has committed to tracing its entire collection back to the origin of the raw materials while putting that information into every garment. ASKET’s standard requires the brand to break down every garment made into its raw material, trace every component back to its origin and put all that information from their entire supply chain into every single garment. Reformation is yet another brand with mass consumer appeal that has committed to transparency, offering up each piece on their website with sustainability impacts and a breakdown of carbon dioxide, water and waste savings.
The revolution to follow the lead of these brands is slow, yet great progress is being made within the apparel and non-apparel industry. The key to the complete revolution is the synchronicity of the industry and the continued demand from consumers for complete transparency, which can only come from the scientific and technological ability to track and trace.