I am a former fashion label owner. Mine was a small business that I managed over several decades in two countries across several states. That experience has strongly influenced the way I see fashion studies and fashion research, which is the work I do today. In fact, my research centres very much on the smallscale firm—its challenges and opportunities. Opportunities abound in the fashion system, particularly when viewed from the start-up world. For instance…
Imagine holding your phone up to a garment and seeing its full lifecycle displayed as an appealing story of good practice and apt process. Imagine paying the seamstress directly—who may be living in the global south. Imagine the hints you might get on caring for this garment, and imagine the life you could give it beyond your time with it. This is the vision that technologies like blockchain have promised us—but how, ask many smallscale fashion firms, are we to achieve this? We don’t even know where to start! There seems to be neither platform nor app that can be accessed.
There is an urgent need to increase the garment and footwear industry’s ability to manage its value chains more effectively, identify and address labour and human rights violations and environmental impacts, combat counterfeits, and handle reputational risks, while embracing more sustainable production and consumption patterns. Drivers for change stem from consumers, investors and stakeholders within the industry including social, market, regulatory and technological forces.
Among the drivers are industry watchdogs such as Fashion Revolution. Their Fashion Transparency Index reviews brands’ public disclosure on human rights and environmental issues across 246 indicators in five key areas. Importantly, they observe that too few major brands and retailers disclose crucial environmental data, despite the urgent need for transparency. Furthermore, Fashion Revolution do not monitor smallscale firms in their index—which means SMEs have little to no public mechanism for communicating their supply chain credentials.
In fact, many companies have a limited view of the network of business partners within their value chain and do not get the full story behind their products. Most can identify and track their immediate suppliers, but information is often lost about the suppliers of their suppliers. It requires the collaboration of all industry partners, the deployment of common approaches and reliable technical solutions in widely different environments.
Advanced technologies, like blockchain, can accelerate the transition towards more responsible and business models and transparent supply chains by connecting all stakeholders on the value chain. Such visibility supports accountability and market access for compliant actors in advanced and emerging economies. But first we need to develop an understanding among industry stakeholders of the data requirements for digital tools. We also need to gauge industry attitude toward transparency, as well as considering extended user responsibility requirements and Identify challenges and opportunities.
It is little wonder that smallscale fashion firms are confused, concerned and calling for an ‘education piece’ on how best to navigate all the measures required and how to make their supply chain transparent, as quickly as possible, considering Net Zero 2030 targets and the urgent UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), not to mention fears of inadvertently using modern slavery or causing environmental harm in their supply chains. This is the point where the Manchester Fashion Institute (MFI) felt we could develop just such a guide.