Traceability is the foundation of all sustainable supply chains, but apparel supply chains are far from traceable. It’s time for apparel companies to create more visibility.

There’s an apt management quote that sheds some light here, but it often arrives as a misquote. The difference between the two is telling. The widely-used misquote is: “You can’t manage what you can’t measure.” What W. Edwards Deming actually said was, unsurprisingly, more complex, and it is more useful in the real world: “The most important figures that one needs for management are unknown or unknowable, but successful management must nevertheless take account of them.”

In vast, complex supply chains, there are always going to be unknowns. Certain dark corners, where horrors such as slavery and child labor exist, are difficult for individual companies to spot and measure. But as BSR member companies would agree, no one can afford to dismiss these issues as things they “can’t manage.” For their own bottom lines, as well as for ethical reasons, (and, in our age, there’s no separating these interwoven rationales), account must be taken. Companies must manage what they can’t measure.

Recently, BSR worked with C&A Foundation, in partnership with the UN Global Compact, to assess the prospect of creating truly traceable apparel supply chains. At the core of our project is the idea that by collectively creating more visibility, the whole sector will gain a more lucid view of where and how resources should be directed. Attention and management will then be more focused on truly critical areas and less bound by what individual companies happen to be able to measure within their own supply chains at a given moment. Systemic issues warrant systemic, collective solutions.

Our assessment asked three central questions:

  1. What points of apparel supply chains are currently traceable?
  2. Do real technology solutions exist that can support and drive traceability?
  3. Where are the best areas for the industry to work together to create traceability?

To answer these questions, we mapped apparel supply chains, conducted a landscape analysis of apparel sector traceability efforts, and conducted a detailed assessment of 25 traceability software solutions providers. Our process included interviews with nearly 30 global apparel brands and supply chain partners.

This is what we found.

Traceability remains a developing issue for the industry. There are buds of ideas all around, addressing various materials and processes, but apparel traceability is not yet scaled. Patagonia’s Traceable Down is an example of an individual company’s pioneering action, while the Better Cotton Initiative’s Chain of Custody demonstrates an industry approach to driving traceability. These bright spots are real but rare.

Good technology solutions exist. We identified five software providers that seem well positioned to meet the industry’s functional and technical requirements for traceability. These companies are: AmberRoad, ChainPoint, GT Nexus, SourceTrace, and TraceTracker. There may be other effective providers out there, but, after detailed assessment, these five providers currently offer the apparel sector the most relevant and proven services.

While individual company actions may create windows, collective action could force walls to come crumbling down. We identified four opportunities for the apparel sector to collectively drive traceability: harmonizing efforts in cotton, developing traceable viscose, creating visibility in outsourcing and sub-contracting, and mapping homeworkers. We are talking to interested brands to verify that these opportunities resonate with their needs and to discover if there are other good ideas that we should consider pursuing.

If you are interested in learning more about our findings and the specifics of the opportunities that we’ve identified, please join us at a UN Global Compact webinar that we are hosting for different time zones on March 9 and 10, or contact tnorton@bsr.org or eniemtzow@bsr.org for more information. You can also fill out our survey to give your views on ideas to create more traceable apparel sector supply chains.

To create traceable supply chains, we must search rigorously for knowns while embracing realistically certain unknowns, moving ever forward, illuminating all possible areas, and managing at once the measurable and the unmeasurable.