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With improved tracking, tracing and labelling the garment sector has an opportunity to build back more sustainably

With improved tracking, tracing and labelling the garment sector has an opportunity to build back more sustainably

A woman sitting at a sewing machine in a garment factory

Consumers are increasingly interested in making more environmentally and ethically aware choices when it comes to the clothes and shoes they wear, according to a series of recent studies. But the sector is awash with complex language and misleading labelling that makes it difficult for consumers to follow through on their good intentions.  

UNECE, with support of the European Union, is leading an international effort to provide solutions to make it easier to track, trace and label products in the garment and footwear industry.  

“Traceability of origin, human rights, environmental compliance and information exchange standards are becoming market drivers,” said UNECE Director Elisabeth Tuerk, at a recent UNECE meeting bringing together experts from the garment and footwear industry, adding: “Sustainable choices need to be made easier for consumers and businesses to advance responsible consumption and production.”

On 23-24 November, UNECE gathered 230 experts among which 45 speakers over two days for an online policy dialogue on measures and practical approaches that have been specially developed to bring greater clarity to the garment sector, and on concerted actions to implement such solutions on a large scale, through stronger policy coherence and wide industry engagement.  

Following the event, the United Nations Centre for Trade Facilitation and Electronic Business, (UN/CEFACT), agreed to add the project’s Call to Action for approval to its upcoming plenary in April. This is a significant step forward as it invites all actors in the garment and footwear industry to take action for traceability and transparency in their industry using an agreed set of measures, proposed by UNECE and aligned with international commitments towards the 2030 Development Agenda.

In this same spirit of collective action, the November gathering brought together policy specialists and activists alongside the many international organisations and researchers present. One of these activists is campaigning journalist Dana Thomas author of Fashionopolis: the price of Fast-fashion and the future of clothes.

“Clothes are our most basic and initial means of communication, they convey our social and economic status, our occupation, our ambition, our self-worth – they can empower us and imbue us with a sensuality,” said Ms Thomas. “Personally, I think clothes should have detailed labels, like food products do – so the public can understand how their clothes are made.”

The project

The UNECE project, ‘Enhancing Transparency and Traceability of Sustainable Value Chains in Garment and Footwear’ is being implemented with UN/CEFACT, in collaboration with the International Trade Centre (ITC), and with funding from the EU. The ultimate aim is to help the sector play a stronger role in driving actions towards sustainable production and consumption patterns and advancing the circular economy.

To this end, a set of tools are being developed, which include policy recommendations, implementation guidelines and traceability standards – as well as the Call to Action. The goal is to provide companies with practical solutions to share information about the sustainability performance of their products, processes and facilities in a standardized format, to ensure that the actors involved throughout the value chain speak the same language and that the sustainability claims are reliable.

Post-pandemic opportunities

The lockdowns caused by the COVID-19 pandemic have hit retailers and producers of clothing and footwear hard.  But the pandemic could also prove to be a game-changer, pushing more and more consumers to turn their back on unsustainable production and consumption practices and an industry that accounts for 10% of all humanity’s carbon emissions.

As COVID-19 vaccines are being prepared for roll-out, some 15% of consumers in the US and Europe expect to buy more ecologically and socially sustainable clothing. While another study found that 71% of customers are expressing a greater interest in circular business models, such as rental, resale and refurbishment.

But while consumers express a willingness to change their behaviour, it’s difficult for them to make informed choices. There is a baffling array of terms used to describe products with little or no consensus on what they mean. What constitutes a ‘sustainably sourced’ dress or an ‘eco-conscious’ pair of sneakers? And how would one check the retailers claims?

What’s more there are cases of misleading labelling in the sector. According to the Egyptian cotton producers’ association 90% of the cotton marked as Egyptian cotton is not produced in Egypt, while a recent article from the Financial Times highlighted that 20% of cotton traded comes from regions exploiting forced labour.

Much of the problem can be attributed to the complex web of actors involved in the production of anyone item of clothing or pair of shoes. In recent decades, production has been outsourced to a global network of suppliers and factories with brands losing oversight and control of their value chain.

Next steps

At the November meeting, participants agreed to pursue a global multi-stakeholder engagement with action at both government and business level and a common language to share information and data.

These actions focus on the tools that UNECE is piloting in a blockchain environment for sustainable value chains in cotton. A similar approach will be piloted for leather products. Blockchain lends itself to an industry that sources materials and workers internationally, as production data can be stamped into goods, allowing them to be tracked and traced from primary producer to the end retailer.

Presentations at the November event demonstrate how increased use of such transparency and traceability tools can play a key role in mitigating deforestation and ensuring land conservation for sustainable sourcing policies. Advanced traceability could also guard against trade of endangered species, poaching and counterfeiting, according to presentations from the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Flora and Fauna, or CITES.

There are potential gains for corporations, too. Transparency and traceability systems could reduce operational, regulatory and reputational risk associated with opaque value supply chains, according to brands and business associations intervening at the meeting.

According to event participants, industry engagement and participation will depend upon four core factors:

  1. The consideration of operational processes at stake
  2. Readily available and “easy” tools tailored for industry decision-makers
  3. Solutions building upon existing regulatory systems
  4. Affordability, accessibility and inclusiveness

The policy recommendations, implementation guidelines and traceability standards are now in their final phase of consultations.

Find out more:

The Policy Recommendation and implementation Guidelines are undergoing public review until 20 December 2020, while the Business Requirement Specification (High Level Process and Data Model) and CCBDA Data Model for Transparency and Traceability in Garment and Footwear are undergoing public review until 03 January 2021.

The documents and the comments logs are accessible from UN/CEFACT website. The call to action was submitted for endorsement over 26th UN/CEFACT plenary. The cotton blockchain pilot is running and the Proof-of-Concept is planned to be published  in Spring 2021 (pilot’s project and progress report). The presentations of the policy dialogue are available on the meeting page.