Currently I was suggested by two friends in a video conference to refer some transparency platforms on the market. ProductDNA, Haelixa, retraced, SUPPLYSHIFT, Transparency-One, Sedex and many more had been developed and promoted in the last few years. It is claimed that the transparency of supply chains of different industries could be improved exponentially through these platforms, therefore the process to improve the sustainability targets like should be accelerated in wide range.
There is no doubt, that transparency is the very first step and an on-going piece of sustainability work. In many of these platforms, you may map your supply chain by inviting buyers and suppliers via email, typing in the general information. Like professional networking media such as LinkedIn, if everyone does so, reality-close supply chains, or even business communities can be mapped, as the base. On this base, related reports, certificates and order information can be uploaded and exchanged with different setting of visibility levels toward different partners. It seems to be a very smart solution compared with exchanging all those information via calls and mails, like an ERP, specialized for supply chain, not within an single enterprise, but for the whole industry, and even more, so far being said in all marketing clichés. But really, is it the way we work in the future?
Numerous German transformation thinkers like Maja Goepel and Jule&Lukas Bosch have already given the answer. Sustainability has to be combined with digitalized solutions in the future, and a good digital solution should make sustainability visible, measurable and scalable (lessbar, messbar und eskalierbar in German)!
Most of the transparency platforms can ease textile companies to make supply chains transparent (visible), especially for the business users. Brands will be put under more pressure to certify their manufacturers and eventually improve those manufacturers´ social and environmental conditions of factories we haven´t “seen” before.
And here come the limits of things. Many of these transparency platforms seem not really understand the textile business, although they claim the textile business should be fit for the platforms. Categories for document exchange are reserved by platforms like bluesign or OEKO-TEX certificate, which are order-based and one-off document, and provide no reference for other orders and other buyers in the business network. Not to mention that ownerships of documents are different depending on contracts and business practice, if it comes to the question, who should upload which document for what purpose and why on my/you/their cost. Furtherly, the whole certificate business, developed by a few large trend-makers such as SGS, Bureau Veritas and TÜV etc. are based on verifying and auditing, in other words, test but not teach. There is no existing system to coach or improve most of the sustainability goals. amfori and SAC mentioned till 14 environmental performance areas, but till now just a small part of capacity building modules for 2 areas (wastewater and chemical management) were provided. Surely these areas are huge. But let´s just forget about the other 12 areas! All these make platforms still have a long way to make performances of suppliers measurable and scalable.
Specialization and localization in individual industries will be a good way for platforms to get more practical substance. Otherwise, it would be too optimistic to make claims like penetrating the garment supply chain till the cotton farmers in the next 5 or even 10 years. Do the transparency platform know that far before the cotton farmers (tier 6, 7 supplier), even the upstream manufacturers, like spinning mills (tier 3, 4 suppliers, mostly multi-billions enterprises) speak no word English, except the only salesman, who has no time for operating on any external platform. If they don´t directly work with the key authorities of supplying countries, all these ambitious claims stay just marketing slogan.
A small story of mine in this aspect in-between: As I was leader of the sustainability of a mid-sized German garment importer. In 2018, my German and local teams contributed amfori on the new BEPI platform more than half of factory data of the total database. This kept even for the next 2 years, so that I was always very welcome by amfori. But I kept it for myself that most of the factory data up from tier 2 were not contributed by those factories (because they simply didn´t understand the BEPI platform), but by my teams in name and permission of the factories, which was the only way to fulfill our client requirement.
For suppliers and manufacturers, using these different transparency platforms will be a total chaos! Till now, they still could barely follow to cooperate organizing certification with different buyers in different styles, via emails. Can you imagine that manufacturers should change to use not one but different platforms to manage those papers in near future? Provided that 1% of employees in a mid-sized German textile company can master to operate on one single platform (for instance BEPI) correctly, according to my experience, there is no chance for an Asian factory to find one guy who can operate on 3 different platforms!
Finally, we should put ourselves in our suppliers´ role and ask, what do our suppliers gain on this platform? The key toward any successful sustainability change, if it doesn´t come top-down from the legislator, is always a win-win-split between buyer and supplier, spender and receiver. If the answer for this question is still not clear or direct enough, we need to rethink on this approach before we jump to implement it.
True, if the buyer imposes the rules supplier and uses his buying power there will be no equal partnership. The good use of platforms will change the landscape. But yet again, the gate keeper to these platform need to keep thresholds low. Otherwise the best tools will not be applied.