It’s no secret the fashion industry has a complex web of networks. From discovering the true origins of a fibre, to following a yarn, fabric or garment through the supply chain, the term traceability is becoming increasingly important. Where does my clothing come from? What’s really in my favourite sweater? Who made my clothes?
It’s a sad reality but traceability - and indeed transparency - really came into the fore following the horrific Rana Plaza incident in 2013. More than 1100 garment factory workers were killed in Bangladesh when an 80-storey building collapsed. Now, more than five years on, players big and small appear to be embracing new opportunities in the fashion industry, with traceability - to some degree - looking to become the new normal for many brands. 2019 was slated to be “a year of awakening”, according to McKinsey & Company’s State of Fashion 2019 report, which urged companies to “self-disrupt their own identity” to satisfy the growing demands of “woke” consumers. The report found that consumers, particularly those younger than Millennials, have both social and environmental issues on their minds and that these beliefs are intertwined with how they shop. Brands which aren’t transparent, which fail to offer traceability within the supply chain or which don’t have an environmentally focused narrative will fail to capture perhaps the most influential group of consumers.
From farm to finish line
Leading the way to becoming 100% traceable is Swedish menswear brand ASKET, who has committed to tracing its entire collection back to the origin of the raw materials and put that information into every garment. ASKET’s new 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 - the entire supply chain - into every single garment. Since ASKET made this mighty pledge, the brand is 80% traceable as it documents the where and how each garment is made and origin of the fibre.
“The apparel industry is in desperate need of change. Every garment produced requires precious natural resources as well as human hands that stitch it together,” says ASKET co-founder August Bard Bringéus. “Yet compared to only 15 years ago, we buy twice as many garments but keep them only half as long. The sad truth is that the average consumer has come to disregard the inherent value in each item and fashion has become a disposable commodity. Our goal is to show people exactly what goes into making their clothes. Only when we face the full story and the true cost of the products we put out there, can we start making better decisions.”
ASKET's goal is to show consumers exactly what goes into making their clothes - from the raw material to the physical labour. By drilling into supply chain complexities and craftsmanship ASKET hopes to help consumers make more responsible decisions about what they buy, at prices that reflect what it costs to make them.
Travelling the world to unravel the seams, the ASKET team is visiting Australian woolgrowers, mills and manufacturers to gather information to be included in every garment’s label. And whilst many players within the supply chain have nothing to hide, ASKET says that those who do not wish to comply will be weeded out of ASKET’s production pipeline. “Iin 2018 we commenced our journey to make our garments fully traceable from raw material to finished garment, no easy feat considering the complexity associated with the garment supply chain,” says Bringéus.
After months of research and discussions, Asket set up a partnership with an Australian woolgrowing property in Omeo, Victoria, which now supplies Asket the Merino wool used in its apparel range – making the apparel 100% traceable.
“We’re steadfast in the belief that curbing fast-consumption habits is by far the most effective way to reduce fashion’s impact on the planet. And fabric selection plays a very important part in this. Our priority is the longevity and durability of our garments - of course with a focus on natural materials that are biodegradable.
“When it comes to wool, Australian Merino is second to none. The Merino fibre lends is itself beautifully to both quality and durability; it's fine and soft giving the knit a luxurious feel, but the fibres are also long, lending to durability. What is more, Australia has a long heritage of rearing Merino sheep and consistently producing amongst the best wool.”
It's the importance of fabric selection mentioned by Bringéus which remains at the core of ASKET. Yet it’s currently not only up to brands to pay attention; consumers hold the power in what they choose to buy. As consumers have become increasingly aware of what’s in their food, this trend is gradually creeping into apparel, with more and more consumers turning the label to see what’s in an item of clothing. However, there’s still a long way to go when it comes to fibre education and environmental impacts.
“In general, consumers don’t understand fibres, natural or synthetic, and the environmental impacts that are associated with each but that’s also in part to the lack of information available,” says Bringéus. “A tell-tale sign is the excitement we’ve seen around clothing made from plastic water bottles, ocean plastic or other upcycled plastics. While it might go some way in cleaning up the planet, clothing made out of any kind of plastic may actually do more harm to the environment than good - with the shedding of microplastics and lack of proper recycling methods. More efforts need to be made to promote the use of natural degradable materials and developing effective methods for recycling of plastic.”
Emerging designers take charge
With both traceability and supply chain transparency playing a vital role in fashion’s complex ecosystem, emerging labels know the importance of building their business around this. The Woolmark Company works with designers to connect them with the supply chain, allowing designers to have strong working relationships with spinners, mills and manufacturers.
In 2018 The Woolmark Company collaborated with lifestyle label Nagnata to introduce Australian Merino wool into their offering for the first time. So successful was this initial launch that Nagnata returned to Merino wool for a second collection featuring zero waste yarn, and in 2020 expanded its range of seamless Merino wool lifestyle apparel.
“It’s really important to us to have a close relationship with our manufactures and we like to be involved in the process every step of the way,” explained NAGNATA co-founder Laura-May. “This also allowed for us to learn so much about the versatility of Merino wool. You achieve a much higher level of innovation when you collaborate in person with the technicians who are essentially coding the knitwear machines making the garments. It’s easy to have creative ideas on what you want the textile to look like, but if it can’t be coded or achieved by the particular machine you’re working on, which happened countless times because there are so many restrictions, then you need to go back and forth on alternate ideas.”
The Woolmark Company also supports supply chain transparency through its prestigious International Woolmark Prize, with the 2020 finalists tasked with presenting fully traceable collections for the final event. Each finalist created a sustainability roadmap and presented traceable collections using technology from platform partner Provenance. By focusing on transparency and sharing key product information, each designer brings the supply chain to the shopper in a way that’s secure, trustworthy and accessible.
2020 Woolmark Prize winner Richard Malone presents a fully traceable wool-rich collection.
2020 winner Richard Malone created a collection inspired by his upbringing in Wexford to create considered, functional and beautifully made garments that minimise harm to our environment and works towards creating a circular, sustainable fashion system. Eliminating traditional chemicals to provide a natural, less intensive method of dyeing, the Irish designer worked with a society of incredibly skilled weavers in Tamil Nadu, India, using completely organic and plant-based dyes as well as more recent innovations using Merino wool and other conscious fibres.
Malone is strongly against the mass production and excess prevalent in today’s fashion industry, and has been vocal about changing our approach to design, sustainability, transparency and luxury. Since his label’s inception, he has been celebrated for his inventiveness and innovation in fabric production, garment manufacturing, pattern cutting, recycling and education.
“I believe that sustainability needs to be the norm, and that environmentally conscious garments should be no less directional or desirable than any others,” says the Irish-born designer. “In this case, one of my goals was to work exclusively with mills and weavers that encourage and implement fair trade, regenerative farming, recycling initiatives, organic dyeing and the promotion of education for understanding garment construction and adding to a garment’s life cycle. I believe this is a powerful tool in changing our buying habits, encouraging the demands we put on the clothing industry and how we wish to proceed at a time of increasing environmental awareness.
“Transparency is essential in our move forward and in future-proofing our industry and our environment. This collection aims to respect and trace each person and process involved in the collection’s creation, with everyone given equal billing.”
“My goal is to establish a network that can become a benchmark for a new way of producing fashion, that is both respectful to those who make it, and vitally respectful to our planet. Transparency is essential in our move forward and in future-proofing our industry and our environment. This collection aims to respect and trace each person and process involved in the collection’s creation, with everyone given equal billing.”
A common thread in conscious fashion, 2019 winners Colovos and Edward Crutchley also both ensured they could trace their supply chains by working with a close-knit network of suppliers.
“Our goal was to create a luxury, modern collection with a fully sustainable proposition,” explained Michael Colovos. “We are committed to principles of zero waste in manufacture, so all production waste and end-of-life garments will be recycled to create new fabrics, a process that uses steam, heat and citrus to breakdown the fabric waste and create a new fibre to be spun into fully recyclable yarns.”
Colovos founders Michael and Nicole Colovos on an Australian Merino wool-growing property.
Edward Crutchley also had a transparent and sustainable approach to sourcing and manufacturing for his International Woolmark Prize collection. Cut-and-sew garments were made by a small family firm where there is total production flow transparency, giving the brand the ability to know exactly who has been involved with every step of the garment sampling and production process. Knitwear and woven jacquard fabric were made by Johnstonʼs of Elgin in Hawick.
“I think it is impossible to work as a smaller brand in today's environment without transparency and sustainability being at the foremost of what you are doing,” explains Crutchley. “One of Merino wool's strongest assets is its sustainability and how it can be used to contribute to a circular economy.”