While we long for the world we have left behind, the big question we perhaps need to be asking is, “Can we create a better world?” Can this crisis be an opportunity to take a fresh look at the model of dirty growth that has fuelled much of the industrial revolution and move to one that is green? Large investors and businesses are already seeing a unique opportunity to drive a shift to a low-carbon future. And the shift to low carbon is not an end in itself; it can drive resilience, prevent crises and lead to growth with better health and wellbeing.
This is a time of action and a time to build back better? This can only be done by ensuring that businesses minimise the environmental damage their operations cause, including both direct and indirect environmental damage. This is because for a large part of the last three decades, supply chains have cut across global boundaries and most businesses have suppliers with a long chain of sub-suppliers (and sub-sub suppliers, etc.). Each activity in this chain has environmental effects. Hence brands can no longer say that they are only responsible for what they produce; they are in fact responsible for everything they sell – whether they manufacture it or not.
These long and opaque supply chains have ensured that the COVID-19 pandemic is disrupting economies and the manufacturing organisations that help connect them. Huge fluctuations in demand — spiking for some goods and dropping just as quickly for others — are visible signs of the rapid change, and manufacturers are rapidly accelerating digital initiatives to adapt. Unfortunately, most companies’ supply chain technologies and strategies are not designed for rapid change or ongoing disruption, leading to limited visibility and manual, inefficient processes that prevent organisations from quickly responding to the new normal. Creating green and transparent supply chains is the need of the hour as this will result in resilience for the organisation and for the entire ecosystem.
Part of the solution out of this quagmire lies in creating business resilience through green and transparent supply chains. And doing this needs scale and high-quality data on impacts. Realising this massive problem also presents an opportunity to do good Google has announced a partnership with WWF Sweden1 to help create an environmental data platform that will enable more responsible sourcing decisions in the fashion industry. This collaboration will bring together projects from each organisation, drawing on the unique strengths of both. Now more than ever, the fashion industry is answering the call to sustainability. The industry today accounts for 20 per cent of wastewater and 2-8 per cent of greenhouse gas emissions globally – potentially rising by as much as 50% by 2030. Much of this impact occurs at the raw materials stage in the production process, where supply chains can be highly fragmented, and gathering and assessing data at scale is a challenge. Both WWF and Google have worked with other partners too:
- At the 2019 Copenhagen Fashion Summit, Google Cloud announced a pilot in collaboration with Stella McCartney2 to use Google Cloud technology to provide a more comprehensive view into raw materials of clothing manufacturers’ supply chains. That work continues with Stella McCartney, whose team have been pivotal in shaping the concept of the platform and will continue as the first fashion brand to test it.
- WWF Sweden and long-term partner IKEA3 created a similar tool in 2018, focused on analysing the risk and impact of various textiles raw materials.
Google and WWF Sweden will now collaborate on an updated platform leveraging all of these data types, aiming to further increase the accuracy and relevance of raw materials assessments. This new platform will also move beyond cotton and viscose as first announced, to include numerous additional raw materials based on WWF data and knowledge. In addition to Stella McCartney and IKEA, WWF and Google are also in consultation with a large number of other fashion, luxury, denim, and athletic brands and retailers.
Before the pandemic, consumers, companies and suppliers were caught in an unending race to make, ship and sell. Just in time, fashion was popularised as the way of doing business with almost two collections being launched every month. Faster was better. Optimisation of labour and processes was the fuel that fed the system. In turn, the system fulfilled the huge customer demand of trendy, cheap, beautiful clothes that were worn just a couple of times and reached landfills that dot almost every part of the world. The wasteful nature of fashion companies was in stark contrast to the sustainability and climate change narrative that was needed to stop waste in manufacturing, shipping and use. Now that cities have stopped, the clothes consumption cycle has stopped too. This has meant a pile-up of things in the entire fashion and textile supply chain. It’s not just oil companies that are desperate to get rid of excess oil, apparel and lifestyle companies have huge stocks of inventory of finished and unfinished products waiting to be offloaded.
While everyone is nostalgically looking at what the sector was just a few months back, perhaps it’s time to pause and reflect whether it’s worthwhile to go back to fashion the way it used to be. Cheap fashion also meant irresponsible and exploitative manufacturing and irresponsible consumption. Despite the best efforts of textile manufacturers, large brands were not willing to pay the price of innovation and sustainable production. Despite talking endlessly of safety and health, workers were routinely underpaid and exploited. Further, the large opaque supply chains also meant that brands didn’t really know what they were selling, who made it and what it contained. Traceability was a huge challenge. For instance, the provenance of a fabric was doubtful, was a garment 80% cotton and 20% polyester, no one knew!
This was because everyone for the longest time has relied on a paper trail to build authenticity. Certifications and certification bodies have, therefore proliferated. But a paper trail – authenticated via third party audits by its very nature is prone to misuse and has often proved ineffective. Only a technology-led approach – which enables other fibres to be tagged and traced from the farm to retail outlet – can address key social and environmental issues facing the industry.
The Google WWF partnership builds on Google Cloud’s technical capacity, including big-data analysis and machine learning, as well as WWF’s deep knowledge of assessing raw materials. This alliance will use open data, which has the potential to make supply chain data visible and accessible to decision-makers and drive more responsible and sustainable decisions. And this is perhaps the most important part of the alliance. Giving access to data to everyone for better decision making.
Open data is digital information that is licensed in a way that it is available to anyone. Any data or content that is free to use and distributed falls under the idea of open data. Open data can be used in many ways to drive public good, get people involved and solve big problem across boundaries – both real and virtual. There are many open data projects that have been used in the past and this trend is gathering momentum. In this alliance Google will also provide access to Google Earth Engine data, which offers satellite imagery and geospatial data which can detect changes, map trends, and quantify differences on the Earth’s surface. Google Cloud’s artificial intelligence capabilities will allow it to unlock insights fast, filling fundamental data gaps that have prohibited action in this area in the past. In the project each material and sourcing location will be scored on multiple environmental issues such as water scarcity or air pollution, as well as estimating specific impacts such as greenhouse gas emissions and accounting for the ‘mitigation benefits’ of more sustainable sourcing options.
Hence, to build sustainably companies need to do three important things. First, reduce the impact on the environment through direct intervention. Two, build transparency so that you know where your raw materials and supplies are coming from and to ensure that they are following the social and environmental standards that have been laid out. And thirdly, Share what you know for public good
This is the time for the corporate world to showcase what they really stand for. Long term horizons for public good and onground action will not only create resilience but companies that will stay strong in an increasingly volatile world. While the current global crisis has touched virtually every industry, retailers and shippers in particular are working overtime to pivot their operations to keep families supplied with essential goods. Green supply chains need to be part of the solution.
Written for Futurescape