What is blockchain and what does it have to do with fashion?


Hanging around the fashion community, we have been hearing a lot about the role of technology in fashion. Particularly, blockchain has been popping up as a hot topic and it looks like everyone wants to talk about it.

Blockchain usually comes up as a technology that could help the fashion industry become more transparent and green. At Les Izmoor, we see transparency as the first step of the sustainability journey. The fashion industry might not be perfect  but the more we are open about our practices, the more responsible we are for our actions.  Moreover, transparency is the tool that can empower customers in making more informed, educated and ultimately better decisions. Of course, we are certainly interested in this. Which is why, since the beginning, we have partnered with Virgo-Luxochain, a blockchain-powered platform that helps us trace and verify our supply chain. 

This collaboration has allowed us to create and attach a unique code to each of our garments. This way, we can trace their journeys.

To find out about this technology, we talked to Viola Andretti from Temera, one of the companies that brought the Virgo project to life. Temara has been working on innovative technology for the fashion and retail industry for over a decade.

Here are the things you need to know about this technology!

 

What is Blockchain and what’s all the fuss?

We’ll start from the top: What is blockchain anyway?

Blockchain became sort of a buzzword and it may seem complicated at first but the basic idea is simple. It’s a technology that allows you to record information in a way that’s impossible to later change, hack, or cheat. As Viola says: “it’s a bit like delivering a document to the notary and requesting its registration”. The technology started as a way to structure and store data but it grew into far more than this over the past few years. Today, we have different types of blockchain technologies and applications. 

Essentially, blockchain is a record (or ledger) of transactions that are distributed through the whole network of computers, which are a part of a blockchain. Each “block” contains a transaction and if there’s a new transaction happening, a record of that transaction is sent through the whole network. As Viola points out, this increases the security and resilience of the information. Plus, it makes the data accessible to more participants or actors, as long as they have the access to it.

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So, security and the ability to share is interesting... but there’s another part of the blockchain technology that is promising. Since all the participants can see what’s happening, there’s no need for a central authority to set the rules. Instead, it’s the whole network that validates transactions and has to agree on whether or not to introduce any changes to the records. No central authority is exactly what makes blockchain different from other technologies. 

You might start seeing how this can bring more transparency in what we’re doing, from banking, law, to fashion. So let us explore that more closely.

 

Transparency in fashion matters

Transparency, or rather the lack of it, is at the core of many problems in the fashion industry. Today, the industry is truly global and mass-producing. It’s a standard to have crops or raw material produced in one place, the fabric made in another, and the garment sewn in in a third place. More often than not, there are steps in between, with the garment sometimes travelling through several factories and locations before reaching the final destination. To “optimise” the mass production and lower the costs, big brands not only outsource their production but there’s a lot of subcontracting going on. In most cases, brands can’t fully trace where their clothes come from. Even more, there’s no proper way to track what happens with the garments after they leave the stores or once they are shipped to the consumer. 

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 According to the transparency index by Fashion Revolution, a majority of the major brands today lack transparency on social and environmental issues. The lack of transparency means the lack of accountability in the industry. When accidents and disasters happen, there’s nobody to take responsibility for. There’s also nobody to take the responsibility for the growing amount of textile waste that we’re facing now. Transparency in itself isn’t enough to answer these issues but it’s a first and fundamental step towards a more just and clean industry. 

Now, working towards transparency doesn’t go without changes in the way we manufacture and use clothes. It’s more than a technical change, it’s a cultural and economic change. But that’s a whole topic on its own. However, it’s important to understand that it’s not just a few companies that are not transparent, but rather the whole fashion system. And this is not something easy to alternate… For big companies, it’s hard to suddenly change their whole business, though they should (and to some extent are) work on achieving this. And for smaller companies, who have far less economic power, it’s not easy to control where everything comes from. Many small brands are doing great efforts to source as locally as possible but there are many things they can’t control. Not because they don’t care but because they do not have the means to.

Because the industry changed a lot in the past couple of decades, we need to approach some issues with different tools. When it comes to transparency, new technologies like blockchain could help.

Here’s how.

The potential of blockchain technology

While technology on its own is never the only solution and is never a replacement for ethics in fashion, it can be a helpful tool if used well. That’s the whole idea behind using blockchain in fashion, Viola explained: “Technology is a tool that can enable a fashion brand to be more transparent towards their consumers. But at the base of everything, there’s always the brand’s desire to be truly transparent and clarify its production methods, the origin of the raw materials, and the chemicals used during the manufacturing”.

Blockchain can help fashion brands trace better their supply chain and possibly the afterlife of a garment. Simply put, thanks to technology, brands can create a unique digital identity for each product they make, which allows them to follow it before and after the product is bought. Blockchain, in particular, allows a company to make sense of the complex networks in garment production, from farms, transportation, storage rooms, factories, to stores. For each product, a brand can get the information where the fibres come from, where they travelled, what was used, and who worked on assembling the garment. Because of how the technology is built, it’s very hard to manipulate or change the records.

Brands are already using blockchain to access and share information about the workers who make their products. Some even see it as a way to assess and take care of the wellbeing of the workers, as sometimes cultural and social barriers prevent the workers from speaking up to their managers. This is one way of having an anonymous conversation, directly with the workers. 

Further, if each piece of the garment has a unique identity, we could know what happens to the garment afterwards. We can see if it ends up in second-hand shops, landfill or somewhere else. Viola points out that this is as important as how the garment is made: “Durability and quality are a big part of sustainability in fashion. We need to extend the lifespan of our clothes. Technology could help by allowing the brand to understand exactly what happens to the garment after someone buys it. This would allow them to improve in that aspect too”.

To sum up: what we don’t see, we can’t improve. Thus, knowing the garment’s full lifecycle is the first step towards taking responsibility in fashion. 

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Future of fashion

At the moment, it seems that it’s mostly luxury and big fashion brands that are adopting blockchain technology. The biggest reason for this is because it’s still a new and experimental technology and thus expensive. Yet, the interest is growing and so is the number of companies and start-ups that are developing and offering blockchain. Some smaller brands are already adopting the technology too.

Viola sees this as a part of a wider, global movement towards sustainability. Today, Viola notes, we are talking so much about things like transparency, circularity, emissions, and so on. This is because we came to the point in our society where there’s truly a need to reduce our impact on the planet. “Fashion of the future will have to adapt to this”, Viola is certain. 

And we agree, today it’s no longer a question of choice but it became an urgency to rethink how we do business, including fashion. Blockchain alone isn’t going to change the fashion industry but it might as well force it to practice what it preaches.  

 

We want to thank Viola for talking to us. If blockchain is something that you’d like to know about more, check out Temera's website

In the end, we would love to hear your thoughts on the blockchain! Do you think more brands should adopt this technology? 

Let us know!

 

Text is written by Tena from Thinking Threads


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