Illustration by Hannah Robinson

How many of us think about where our clothes are made? Who makes them? Where do the designs come from? Were the original designers credited or has their work been appropriated? Where were the fibres spun that made those clothes? Were chemical or natural dyes used on those fibres? What is the environmental and social impact of growing one type of fibre over another?

The way current global markets are set up facilitates disconnection between consumer and commodity. The system makes it incredibly difficult to even think to ask these questions, and even harder to answer them. Globalisation drives increasing connectivity and disconnectivity at the same time. As consumers, we benefit from ever-expanding international airports and faster internet networks, yet we don’t know where the things we buy come from.

We desperately need the fashion industry to clean up its act, as it’s one of the most polluting industries on the planet. Demand for cotton is degrading soil and creating water shortages. As customers, choosing where we spend our money can make a huge impact. But this choice can be incredibly difficult when brands don’t provide clear, measurable information about the social and environmental impact of their clothes. As trade becomes increasingly globalised, it’s even harder to track supply chains. Most of the time brands don’t know exactly who was involved in producing their clothes and where this took place.

Ideally, we want to make product supply chains transparent. Giving consumers the ability to make informed purchases, based on clear information about working conditions, sustainability, materials and processes involved. But this is difficult to achieve. Small brands worry that if they require their suppliers to expose their sources, the suppliers will simply switch to work with a different brand instead – one that doesn’t require this. Often suppliers don’t want to tell brands where they get their part of the production line from, for fear that brands will just bypass them, going to their supplier direct, making them useless in the supply chain.

So how can brands encourage their suppliers to become more transparent? Some brands enforce contracts, particularly larger brands with the negotiating power to do this. They can offer pay incentives to transparent suppliers. Furthermore, where supply chains are common for several products, brands can collectively ask their shared suppliers to be transparent, otherwise the suppliers would face losing business from the whole group.

Creating transparent supply chains is a long and complex process, requiring trust between brands and their suppliers. New technology may provide a solution. For example, Trustrace, an Indian company, use blockchain technology to digitally track product supply chains, through enabling brands to connect with people involved in their product supply chain. This means that brands can track their environmental and social footprint, take steps to make it better and share this information with consumers. Improving traceability of supply chains is essential to make fashion more sustainable, to create connections in a disconnected world.