Not all supply chains are created equal, and that’s especially true in the fashion industry. Clothes account for an estimated half a million tons of nonbiodegradable microfibers reaching the oceans every year, the equivalent of more than 50 billion plastic bottles. Textile dying is the second-largest polluter of clean water (after agriculture), and conventional cotton farming requires high levels of harmful pesticides to prevent crop failure. Perhaps most alarming is the estimated 170 million children engaged in child labor, who make textiles and garments in some of the poorest parts of the world.
Oversight incorporating regular reports and audits goes a long way toward preventing supply chain transgressions, but maintaining a close eye on such global goings-on requires the right tools. To address this, Google today announced at the Copenhagen Fashion Summit that it is building a Google Cloud data analytics and machine learning service that will “give brands a more comprehensive view into their supply chain,” particularly at the level of raw production.
The Mountain View company says it’s actively working with fashion, brands, experts, NGOs, and industry bodies to create an “open industry-wide tool” that not only determines the impact of raw materials production but also compares the impacts of regions where they are produced. Its first named partner is Stella McCartney, the namesake brand of fashion designer Stella McCartney.
“At Stella McCartney, we have been continuously focusing on looking at responsible and sustainable ways to conduct ourselves in fashion; it is at the heart of what we do,” said McCartney in a statement. “We are trying our best — we aren’t perfect, but we are opening a conversation that hasn’t really been had in the history of fashion.”
Google says that the tool will initially target “Tier 4” production of cotton and viscose, a semi-synthetic fiber used as the basis of manufacturing rayon fiber and transparent cellulose film. The company points out that cotton accounts for 25% of all fibers used by the fashion industry and that viscose has well-established links to deforestation.
“This pilot will enable us to test the effectiveness of the tool on these different raw materials, building out the possibilities for expansion into a wider variety of key textiles in the market down the line,” wrote Google Cloud head of retail Nick Martin. “We plan to include data sources that allow companies to better measure the impact of their raw materials relevant to key environmental factors, such as air pollution, greenhouse gas emissions, land use, and water scarcity.”
Martin noted that the work builds on Google’s collaboration with Current Global, an innovation consultancy that helps brands reach sustainability goals with “relevant technologies.”
“Now more than ever, the fashion industry is heeding the call to sustainability. Its environmental impact is significant and growing — among other statistics, the fashion industry accounts for 20% of wastewater and 10% of carbon emissions globally,” said Martin. “We hope that our experiment will give fashion brands greater visibility of impact within their supply chain and actionable insights to make better raw material sourcing decisions with sustainability in mind. “