Materials Traceability: What We Can Learn From Tomatoes and Peppers
Written by Ashley Gill, Program Administrator, Textile Exchange
In the spring of 2008, almost three years ago, 1,300 people across the country ate salsa and became sick from salmonella poisoning. The Center for Disease Control, the Center for Disease Prevention, and the FDA warned the public not to eat tomatoes. After a full month, peppers from Mexico were identified as the true culprit, but only after the tomato industry in Florida lost nearly $100 million dollars from loss of sales. Following the trail of paperwork and pointing fingers took at least 30 days.
From this lesson, the FDA learned the value of traceability. Quick traceability. A new law was put into place in January of 2011 that included a requirement that the FDA “upgrade its ability to track both domestic and imported foods.” Every single person in the supply chain became responsible for the safety of the end consumer. There is still research being conducted on how to make this rapid traceability feasible. The process towards this will be slow to gather all the necessary data in a global supply chain, with hundreds of thousands of farms, millions of consumers, and an infinite number of paths between them. The ability or inability of the FDA to trace a particular food back to its source can literally be the difference between life and death.
The technology that will allow the FDA to track salmonella infested peppers will allow the average consumer to pull out their phone, scan a barcode, and find a picture of the farmer who grew their peach, tomato, or avocado. If they wish, they can even send them a note to say thanks.
So what are the lessons for us in the apparel industry? Traceability isn’t going away. As consumers become accustomed to knowing more about what they’re buying, they’ll start asking questions. Unlike the food industry, the safety of consumers won’t be a strong enough impetus to make change happen. Or will it? The textile industry is beginning to consider the safety of consumers, the supply chain, and every part of the environment that touches any part of the textile industry. Sustainability just might be the catalyst for traceability in the textile industry.
Want an example? Marks and Spencer began a plan (Plan A, http://plana.marksandspencer.com/about) that started in 2010. The plan is to become the world’s most sustainable retailer by 2015. Plan A addresses Climate Change, Waste, Sustainable Raw Materials, Fair Partnerships, and Health. It’s a commendable project, and likely a daunting one. How do they know they’re accomplishing all these indicators across their entire supply chain?
As part of Plan A, M&S is rolling out a project called String that will track every single piece of clothing it sells from raw material through to store. Instead of tracking a particular product line, M&S plans to track each batch of clothing sold as it moves along the supply chain. It’s a huge project that will involve close partnerships with suppliers, farmers, and many others.
“Most retailers can only pinpoint the manufacturer of their products and some, who buy through third parties, cannot even go to that level, by maintaining tabs on every aspect of production, M&S will benefit from “stronger connections” with its vendors, increased marketing power, and improved trust with customers.”
Mark Sumner, Sustainable Raw Materials Specialist
Enter Material Traceability. With the ability to trace materials, brands like Marks & Spencer can ensure that Plan A is carried through as designed. Complete traceability for the entire supply chain is still a huge challenge, but we’ve come a long way. Developing a chain of custody to ensure sustainability standards has led us to some really exciting possibilities. Aside from Historic Future’s Strong System, a system of transaction certificates and scope certificates can also ensure that certain guidelines were followed throughout the supply chain. That’s happening right now with Fairtrade, Organic, Recycled, and other materials. (For a look at the standards that we’ve developed, go here: http://textileexchange.org/content/standards).
At Outdoor Retailer this week, a new Sustainability Working Group was announced, the Materials Traceability Working Group. This group will be co-chaired by Steve Richardson, Director of Material Development at Patagonia, and Anne Gillespie, Director of Industry Integrity here at Textile Exchange. This group is going to be tackling this very topic. They’ll aim to provide tools and resources to support raw material claims by developing and implementing traceability systems for these materials through the supply chain. A big part of this will be the Content Claim Standard. This standard will be a third-party certified standard that verifies the amount of a given raw material in a product, allows companies to support their product claims. We really want the standard to work for everyone. If you have any ideas or suggestions for this kind of standard, first read the current draft of the standard here: http://textileexchange.org/content/content-claim-standard, and then let us know what you think at Integrity@TextileExchange.org.