Will Blockchain Really Make Fashion More Sustainable and Ethical?

Will Blockchain Really Make Fashion More Sustainable and Ethical?

The first time I came across the blockchain technology was in 2013 when I was invited to participate in a seminar on bitcoin. At the end of the seminar, I went away amazed at the concept of cryptocurrency but confused as to what exactly were bitcoin and blockchain.

The best simplified explanation for blockchain I’ve come across is the one by Fashionista which describes it as:

“a decentralized, tamper-proof ledger. The ledger part denotes that it’s like a digital document that keeps track of transactions; the decentralized part essentially means that multiple parties control the ledger. As a result, each transaction that’s added to the ledger becomes locked in, so no other party can edit or alter someone else’s entry without everyone knowing it. It’s also transparent, so everyone can see who entered what”.

The biggest value that blockchain offers is transparency. The ability for everyone to see what is being done and by who, which leads to accountability which of course, is priceless. It is quite difficult to be shady in recording your transactions when everyone can see what you’re doing. Unless of course, you can control what everyone else sees or in this case take away the phones and computers. And the fashion industry can’t do that, now can they?

Like most new technologies, the changes that blockchain will make to the fashion industry have been greatly touted. From the supply chain to retail, the technology has been marketed as the magic wand that will wipe away irregularities, unsustainable practices and unethical practices from the fashion industry. Various startups are currently offering blockchain technology to fashion companies. Supply chain companies like Provenance say they can let the consumer know where the clothes are coming from; from the tailors to the retail shop. VeChain claims to be able to solve counterfeiting problems by the use of trackable RFID tags embedded in products.

Related Post: Explaining Cryptocurrencies and Why They’re Killing the Planet

All these point to one irresistible conclusion; with blockchain, transparency will become the new norm for the fashion industry.

Now not to be a kill-joy but I am just not that optimistic. I agree that it will encourage transparency; I just don’t think that it will be as impactful as popularly touted in mainstream fashion media.

Blockchain offers the technology to make it easier for fashion brands to hold their value chains directly responsible throughout the production processes, to communicate this better to their customers and for customers to easily trace the journey of the products throughout the production and distribution processes. All these make it relatively easier to hold the fashion brands accountable where they are found lacking and this is a positive step in the right direction.

Will Blockchain Really Make Fashion More Sustainable & Ethical

However, as far as I can tell, the major stumbling block towards transparency and sustainability has never been the absence of the technology, system or means to take responsibility for acts or omissions. There exists a myriad of ways for a company to hold its suppliers accountable and closely monitor their value chain. The crucial stumbling block I see is the continued absence of a desire or will to submit to, implement and enforce such standards.  

Before blockchain, there were already fashion brands pioneering ethical and sustainable practices in their supply chains. Brands such as Patagonia, People Tree and Stella McCartney have been championing better industry practices before it became a ‘cool’ thing to do. Some of these brands have found efficient ways to communicate their values, their impacts and transparency; through the release of white papers, campaigns, videos and creative marketing to mention a few. These brands reinvented the concept of accountability and came to their customers holding out their hands to show clean palms. They did it all because they wanted to, their mediums of choice were only the means to this end.   

Why Patagonia Is Fighting For Public Lands - Clever Ethical Marketing Ad
Patagonia is a pioneer in the sustainable apparel industry, known for its use of anti-marketing marketing. Credit: Patagonia
Patagonia's Anti-Consumerism Ad - Clever creative marketing
Patagonia’s popular anti-consumer advertisment.

Blockchain, as with every other technological solution, requires human administration and implementation. Fashion brands will utilize it if they want to. The million-dollar green question is – do they want to? What would be the expected outcome? Wouldn’t the aim of applauding blockchain technology very easily become a means to acquire tickets to recognition as part of the brands that ‘belong in the future’, with reduced emphasis on ‘just how clean are your hands all through your value-chain’?   

Yet another worrisome hurdle I envisage in this use of the technology lies in its complex nature. To experts, it is simple enough; to the untrained eye, it is literally rocket science. The value chain of many fashion companies starts in the rural regions of most developing countries. These people aren’t concerned about their place in the value chain, they’re just trying to make a living. Indeed, to most of the low-paid workers in these areas, accepting the use of machines in their workplaces translates to being laid off from and a consequential loss of their means of livelihood. So, forgive me if I don’t hold my breath on whether or not they will welcome the blockchain technology with open arms.

Related Post: Ethical Fashion 101: The Top 5 Ethical Issues in the Fashion Industry

In addition, these developing nations often have less than perfect labor practices. While the majority of these practices might not have been encouraged by the fashion companies at the top of the value chain, they would generally cost too much to change and is easier if everyone lived with them. In cases like this, I can’t imagine either the suppliers in these developing nations or the fashion brands in any real hurry to adopt a technology that will show their customers where their clothes are made, how the raw materials are obtained, how many hours their employees work, what they actually earn and so forth.

In my opinion, what the fashion industry needs (more than blockchain technology) are factors that will force upon them the desire for transparency and the need to take responsibility for their actions in production. These could range from government policies and regulations to the ultimate power of the consumer to vote with their wallets and withhold purchase. Given that these conditions exist in developing countries, the countries won’t be implementing such policies anytime soon. Our last resort may just rest on the shoulders of informed consumers.

If we don’t buy them, they wouldn’t make them.

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