Traceable fashion with Alemais and Australian Indigenous Fashion
The Who, What and Wear of Traceability in Fashion and Textiles
In partnership with FibreTrace
When every other week there is a survey telling us about our collective desire to choose brands based on their sustainability efforts, and with fashion brands seeking supply chain solutions that lead to better impacts for the people and the planet, it’s timely that we unpack traceability.
According to Kelly Elkin – Head of Environmental and Social Impact for Alemais, and Yatu Widders-Hunt – Founder and Curator of Australian Indigenous Fashion and General Manager of Cox Inall Ridgeway, while the fashion industry faces significant environmental challenges, transparency and traceability is the cornerstone to change.
When you consider there is now technology which embeds scannable pigments into fabric and allows consumers the ability to follow a garments lifecycle, traceable fashion is no longer on the horizon, it’s well and truly arrived.
G+S: What’s the biggest environmental challenge facing the global fashion and textile industry today, and how can traceability help address it?
KE: Two things that come to my mind are are our industries emissions and the need to reduce them by 45 per cent by 2030 in line with the 1.5 Degree Targets as set out by the Paris Agreement, and then secondly would be global consumption and the level of growth of the fashion industry all the while we’re trying to reduce these emissions. But it is a wholistic issue. I believe traceability is key to accountability. It’s the map to allow you to reduce your impact because without transparency you don’t necessarily know what your impact is, and you don’t know where the biggest issues may lie and how you can improve those.
YW-H: From a First Nations point of view one of the things that’s of great concern to the First Nations Fashion Community is the destruction of Country and the overuse of natural materials which of course leads to waste, which is well documented. From a design point of view First Nations designers take a very Country centred approach rather than a human centred approach so that’s a primary concern in the overuse of natural materials, overproduction, and overconsumption. Traceability then drives more transparency, it also empowers consumers to have more visibility around how things are made, ask more questions, and put more pressure on the industry to make more positive changes.
G+S Can transparency in the supply chain really transform the industry, or is it just a buzzword?
YW-H: I think it can, but it also needs to work hand in hand with other factors like significant policy reform, investment in sustainable practices, so I think there’s not one solution alone that will transform an industry, I think it needs to be a multi-pronged approach. There’s been a lot of focus on consumer advocacy which I fully support but there also has to be buy-in and investment from the industry itself and the government and policy level as well.
KE: Transparency is a word that’s been growing in terms of its use, but I don’t believe it’s a buzzword. I believe it’s one of the more descriptive of all the terms. Transparency really is what it says it is. And that can be applied to any aspect – whether that’s the supply chain, your material, the social or environmental impact. It can cover all.
G+S Raw fibre producers often go unnoticed; how can we shine a spotlight on their contributions to sustainability?
KE: Fashion’s biggest environmental impact is generally in that fibre cultivation and fabric production area and that’s considered a Tier 3 and 4. If you can get transparency in the fibre and fabric sector right everything flows on from there. So, it makes sense that at Alemais, we focus on reducing our impact by targeting our fabric and fibre. Mapping our supply chain for Tier 1, 2, 3 and 4 is integral. The majority of fashion brands only currently trace their Tier 1 suppliers which is their garment factories (the cut, make and trim). Some may know their Tier 2 facilities which is their fabric mills (dyeing, processing, the wet processing). And then you go into Tier 3 which is your yarns and Tier 4 which is fibre cultivation. Very few fashion brands have visibility on that.
Fashion has one of the most complex supply chains, especially in a globalised era. Looking at tens of thousands of kilometres for a piece of fibre to travel before it gets to the customer. In terms of Australia, we grow a lot of cotton and wool, but we process that fibre to turn it into yarn and fabric overseas. And then brands make it into clothing in another country and lastly it gets shipped to the customer. It’s a really long journey and the more hands that pass it, the harder it is to get that visibility.
G+S When you consider that First Nations designers are designing with Country in mind, what lessons can the wider fashion industry learn from First Nations fashion?
YW-H: A lot of the principles are really basic, so if we are looking at traditional ways of Caring for Country it’s not overconsuming materials, not using materials out of season. We are Country led so producing when Country determines those resources are available. It’s educating and talking about why this is the way it is. It’s socialising some of these values and understandings across the broader industry. I think slower practice is important. A lot of First Nations practitioners (not all but many) will develop smaller runs which is not overuse but also ensures there are practices that are kept alive and valued in the industry. (Whether) it’s handwoven by someone, or picked specifically for a cultural reason, it’s educating the consumer on the value of the product beyond the aesthetic, which I think is very similar to many artisan communities around the world. It’s building a different set of values around what you’re creating and why, and when you can access it.
That understanding of where things are made, who makes them, who has the authority to create them, even down to how things are stored appropriately, is very much at the forefront of how we communicate about what we’re creating. It’s not always the outcome that creates the value, it’s the process.
G+S What’s the most challenging aspect of integrating sustainability into a company’s operations?
KE: At Alemais we’re very lucky because our directors genuinely want positive change and I think if you have enthusiasm from the top down then you’ve already beaten one of your biggest challenges. With buy-in from your directors and the team you can then tackle other challenges around sourcing, costs, and lead times.
YW-H: It does take a significant amount of investment from the industry to embed (sustainable) practices and considerations. It also forces us to confront those issues that have been the backbone of how many business are structured. Having to confront those things and asking whether they are healthy and whether we should continue them, is a very hard thing for people who actually profit off that model.
G+S How do cost considerations impact your sustainability efforts, and what innovative solutions have you explored to overcome them?
YW-H: There’s a little bit of a tension there I guess in terms of sustainable practices and cost consideration, and I appreciate the industry is also doing it pretty tough at the moment so it’s a particular challenging time to be thinking about additional investments or potential loss of revenue. Some of the models I’ve seen, and I’m not necessarily saying they’re perfect, (consider) consumer education and awareness, producing less and limited runs. A lot of businesses are making efforts, in some cases it’s just playing around the edges because we’re not necessarily confronting the real issue, so it will take some policy levers as well as leadership from within brands and businesses to redefine how their business model operates.
KE: You really need to consider the relevance of a product and make sure it’s a desirable design, it’s versatile, and it’s a competitive product. There’s no point in us making the most sustainable product out there if it is cost prohibitive and it is unappealing. The material can’t compromise, it has to be able to stand next to a conventional fibre and provide the same wearability or better. In terms of innovation, it’s about not being afraid to embrace innovative fibres and understand sometimes you may have teething problems, or you may have to compromise in terms of the composition. It’s really just about being creative in the way you approach it.
G+S What is the most common misconception about transparency in the textile industry?
KE: Traceability is just so important, and I think people get a bit scared to know their supply chain, for fear of what they might find, but that should be what motivates you to act and make a start! The industry has always been quite closed and competitive, but those on the social and environmental impact side of it are generally pretty open. I have lots of precompetitive conversations with my counterparts in other brands and the ESG network, because we’re having the same challenges, we have been facing these challenges for decades but with new standards, legislations and technology enabling further transparency it’s all hands on deck! Everyone’s constantly learning.
YW-H: (The misconception is) that it won’t make a difference. That it’s marketing rather than a behaviour change. Traceability relies on a behaviour change. We’ve seen it in the food industry, so we do have templates for how this can drive better production practices, more consideration, more transparency. There’s all sorts of examples where we’ve seen that level of education and openness actually support consumer driven change.
G+S If you had one piece of advice for the G+S audience, what would it be?
KE: Always look for specifics. There is so much greenwashing out there. Whether it’s intentional or not it’s really easy to be misled. We never claim to be a 100 per cent sustainable brand because that’s impossible. You don’t need to be an expert. It’s just really about asking the basic questions. What’s it made out of? Who made it? Where is it made? Do I really need it? Is it versatile? By less, choose well.
YW-H: Educate yourself, be considered in your choices and also don’t be afraid to engage in a dialogue with Government or brands. Again, I do support the notion that consumers need to make better choices, but they also need to be supported at the industry level to do that. If you have things that you want to say or contribute or ideas about what you need as a consumer to make better decisions or things that you like to see happen in the industry, I think we should be encouraging more dialogue, writing to your MP’s, being public about your thoughts and positions, writing to brands or businesses that you like. Without that dialogue and wholistic conversation, it will be moving at a much slower pace… There has to be a link at all levels.
G+S How will technologies like that of FibreTrace’s scannable pigments help in achieving supply chain transparency?
KE: We’ve always been really challenged in how we approach transparency with plant-based fibres and that’s what really ground-breaking with FibreTrace, it will give you that ability. Making sure you have viable, scalable solutions – that’s what they’re trying to achieve.
G+S What advice would you give to fashion brands trying to improve their impact?
YW-H: Sometimes First Nations Fashion gets characterised as its only people living in remote communities and art centres but there’s a whole spectrum and diversity of business models that we can learn from. Brands like Ngali and MAARA based in big cities, showing internationally who are also embedding cultural and sustainable values into the way that they operate. There are models that are right under out nose that we can actually draw from.
When we talk about Country, that also includes community as well, so it’s also about how we treat people, how they’re involved in the production, how they’re remunerated, how they’re acknowledged. It is a far more wholistic approach than simply environmental outcomes, there’s also social and cultural outcomes. In the western model we tend to carve them up: is it anti-slavery, ethical practices, environment. First Nations designers don’t see them like that. Country centred means a wholistic view of everyone and everything that is part of the notion of Country, and that includes animals and people, river systems. It’s a small but significant shift in the way we look at things but might actually change the way we develop policy and practice.
FiberTrace®’s mission is to ensure every member of the textile supply chain has the ability to take direct accountability to reduce the environmental impact of the global industry. In doing so, we aim to ultimately provide the consumer the opportunity to choose a transparent and sustainable supply chain to follow and purchase from.
Through transparency, brands and suppliers will be empowered to make better decisions for the environment, their customers, and the bottom line.
Every fibre tells a story®. Let us help you tell yours.