Asserting and verifying sustainability claims in the garment and footwear sector are set to become easier thanks to a toolkit of policy recommendations, implementation guidelines and standard endorsed by UNECE member States that provide traceability and transparency solutions for tracking any garment or item of footwear from raw components to point of purchase.
The UNECE toolkit delivers solutions for generating an immutable record of provenance and composition for any item of clothing or pair of shoes. Armed with such information, consumers, regulators and companies themselves can check claims around sustainability and ethical production.
Greater transparency and traceability can also contribute to efforts towards building a circular economy, as prioritised by the European Union. With precise information on product composition, goods can be more easily recycled keeping materials in use and practices that generate waste, pollution or damage the natural environment cannot be hidden from regulators.
This member State endorsement launches a Call to Action or ‘The Sustainability Pledge’, inviting governments, garment and footwear manufacturers and industry stakeholders to pledge to apply this toolkit of measures and take a positive step towards improving the environmental and ethical credentials of the sector. Commitments should be made in time for the next multi-stakeholder policy dialogue, planned to take place on 21-23 September in Milan, Italy.
“We’re incredibly proud and excited about the highly pragmatic, workable and opensource solutions that have been endorsed by UN member States for improving the sustainability and circular practices in the garment and footwear sector,” said Olga Algayerova, Executive Secretary of the UNECE. “With this endorsement, we have a clear roadmap for change and I encourage all actors, regulators and governments to join The Sustainability Pledge.”
The support of member States is a reflection of the region’s commitment to more sustainable economic models. Italy has taken a leading role in exploring the role that digital technologies can play to give consumers reliable and updated information on the life of products, and to help producers, particularly SMEs, increase the efficiency and sustainability of production processes. While France has recently adopted a series of laws that are front runners in the region’s advancement towards greater circularity, transparency and more responsible business conduct.
"We welcome the endorsement of these policy recommendations and implementation guidelines," said Maylis Souque, Secretary General of the OECD National Contact Point for Responsible Business Conduct and Senior Advisor on Corporate Social Responsibility, Ministry of the Economy and Finance, France. "With this UNECE-brokered package of recommendations, governments and responsible companies can gather the information necessary for improving sustainability in the sector and prioritizing circular economic approaches to production."
Companies also welcomed the endorsement, including from those who have taken part in the developing and testing the toolkit.
“Vivienne Westwood have put the UNECE guidelines to the test, working with our suppliers to trace their supply chain back to its origins for two products in our ready to wear collection – a pair of jeans and a shirt”, said Giorgio Ravasio, Country Manager, Italy for Vivienne Westwood. “We have learned a lot through the pilot projects and we have been able to set up internal processes to increase traceability and transparency in our supply chain. We hope that our effort will benefit not only our company, but also all those in the fashion system, who show sensitivity to this matter and want to qualify their supply network and fight for the protection of the planet.”
The blockchain platform can now be adopted and applied by any company or producer along its value chain from field to shelf to achieve traceability with the confidence that the system is operable, even by local-level producers equipped only with a smartphone to record their blockchain data.
The Sustainability Pledge meets growing demand from consumers for more information on how clothing, textiles and shoes are sourced, manufactured and made. According to Euratex, the EU textile and clothing industry alone has a turnover of 162 billion euros. Millions of people are employed through the sector’s global supply chains, which are complex and opaque creating opportunity for the exploitation and abuse of workers many of whom are women. Total greenhouse gas emissions from textiles production amount to 1.2 billion tonnes annually - more than the emissions of all international flights and maritime shipping combined – and consumers are distinctly unimpressed.
"To make positive impact we need visibility along the value chain that goes beyond first tier, and traceability and transparency are a key enabler for responsible practices. Information is available but remains in different proprietary systems addressing mainly mono claims using specific terminology, “ said Paul Roeland, transparency lead, Clean Clothes Campaign. “Hence the harmonization and standardization done by UNECE is important as it brings together different sustainability approaches and standards across the supply chain partners - from farmers, to brands, to retailers."
A recent consumer survey of over 2,000 adults who had purchased clothing within the previous six months found that 88% wanted to see more attention being paid to reducing pollution. Indeed, over half of respondents had already made lifestyle changes to reduce their environmental impact and more than 60% report going out of their way to recycle and purchase products in environmentally friendly packaging, according to the 2020 findings from McKinsey.
“Once we know the provenance and make-up of the clothes and shoes that we buy, we can make informed decisions as consumers about the sustainability claims of those goods,” said Ms Algayerova. “We can ensure that our clothes and shoes are part of a virtuous cycle of production where non-recyclable material are eliminated and valuable raw materials re-used.”
Note to editors
The Sustainability Pledge is a result of the UNECE project ‘Enhancing Transparency and Traceability of Sustainable Value Chains in Garment and Footwear’ that is being implemented with UN/CEFACT, in collaboration with the International Trade Centre (ITC) and with funding from the European Union. The goal of the project is to establish a mechanism that enables governments, industry partners, consumers and all other relevant stakeholders to make risk- informed decisions and achieve accountability for sustainability claims.
Over 250 experts, campaigners, government representatives and industry insiders have contributed to the recommendations, guidelines and established an agreed standard for their application. A blockchain pilot application for cotton was launched in 2020 and earlier this year, a similar pilot was launched for leather.
The blockchain system is an open-source Ethereum blockchain, which allows for the running of smart contracts and use of DNA markers. It is designed to guarantee data confidentiality in compliance with applicable regulations. Importantly, the application runs in both a web version and on mobile applications to ensure accessibility to all partners in the value chain – including farmers and producers in emerging economies equipped with a smartphone.
The aim of the pilots was to test our approach for identification and coding of key data at critical data points in the supply chain, to create an inter-linked and immutable record of provenance and composition.