• English

Do you know where your clothes come from? UNECE joins the EU and ITC to discuss transparency and traceability solutions at European Development Days

The ready-made garment industry continues to accelerate its pace. Its growth is estimated at a 2% annual rate, according to the Global Fashion Agenda (GFA), while clothing utilisation has decreased by 36% in the last 15 years, meaning more clothes are being produced and then disposed of after a shorter period.

Such trends, coupled with increasingly complex and fragmented value chains and widespread practices of illegitimate subcontracting and undeclared informal work, make improving traceability and transparency the first necessary step in the roadmap for scaling-up sustainable patterns. Key actors in the industry have identified them as crucial enablers for change and as the first core priority for immediate implementation in the CEO Agenda 2018, released at the Copenhagen Fashion Summit, in May 2018.

Traceability, understood in this context as the ability to substantiate a claim via the collection of relevant data generated along the value chain (history, distribution, location and application of products, parts and materials), helps companies identify opportunities for efficient and sustainable management of resources, as well as of risks for health, the environment and labour rights.

This in turn fosters greater transparency, making it possible to gain accurate data, which can then be disclosed and made publicly visible. Presenting the information in a standardised form supports common understanding, accessibility, clarity and comparison, and fosters credible communication towards consumers and the general public. Tools such as the Higg Index (Sustainable Apparel Coalition), build on industry-wide collaboration and go exactly in this direction.

In 2017, one third of the 100 largest global fashion brands have traced and made publicly available their list of tier-one suppliers, which represents a significant growth from 12% in 2016 (Pulse of the Fashion Industry 2018). Information disclosure is gaining further relevance through the harnessing of consumer demands and public awareness campaigns, such as #whomademyclothes by Fashion Revolution and the Transparency Pledge by Clean Clothes Campaign (Follow the thread, 2017).

But disclosing information about the tier-one suppliers is not enough. Traceability is required through the whole value chain. According to the Pulse of the Fashion Industry 2018 report, 2/3 of negative sustainability impact occurs at the raw materials stage (tier-four). Cotton farming, for example, consumes 4% of worldwide nitrogen fertilizers and phosphorous,16% of all insecticides, and 7% of all herbicides (GFA and BCG, 2018).

At the Conference “Traceability for Sustainable Value Chains: Textile and Leather Sector”, held during the 31st UN/CEFACT Forum in April, debates highlighted the need to work towards a harmonized set of traceability standards in the industry, which will allow to find a common ground to advance sustainability practices.

As a follow up, on June 5th at the European Development Days 2018, UNECE partnered with the International Trade Centre and the European Commission to host the Lab Debate “Do you know where your clothes come from?” on how to move in such direction, and turn challenges into opportunities for a transparent and sustainable garment industry. Progress and possible approaches to sustain stakeholders’ efforts in this direction were discussed with Sustainable Apparel Coalition, Clean Clothes Campaign and the many experts and participants  present.

This is part of the ongoing  initiative that UNECE and ITC are leading, aimed at setting up a multi-stakeholder platform, and developing policy recommendations and traceability standards to  guide the sector towards more responsible production and consumption patterns, in line with SDG 12 of the 2030 Agenda, which aims to make production and consumption patterns more sustainable.

This work builds on a strong basis of principles and guidelines, which are recognized at an international level, and define the sustainability requirements for the sector, e.g. the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights together with the OECD Due Diligence Guidance in the garment and footwear sector and the ILO and IFC Better Work programme.

The findings of the UN/CEFACT study Textile4SDG12 provide key recommendations on the traceability and transparency dimension, which can contribute to a “level playing field” for businesses and the many other actors of the global garment industry.