Google partners with WWF on digital data platform for sustainable fashion sourcing

The tool's purpose is to give brands and retailers deeper insight into environmental impacts at all tiers of their supply chains

The new tool will leverage Google’s cloud, machine learning and big-data analysis technologies to track the environmental impact of fashion’s most commonly-used materials – including cotton and viscose – at all stages in the supply chain. WWF, meanwhile, has said it will provide its “deep knowledge” of the environmental impacts of textile supply chains in context, and of the most common routes and processes for the supply chains for the materials.

It is Google and WWF’s hope that, by combining their expertise, data will become more coherent, thus enabling fashion companies to factor in the true impact of their supply chains. Fashion supply chains are notoriously fragmented and globalised, making auditing and data collection a challenge.

The partnership builds on Google’s ongoing work with Stella McCartney, the luxury fashion brand which is as much known for championing animal rights and environmental stewardship as it is for its platform shoes and chain-embellished handbags.  The two companies last year kick-started work to create a cloud-based tool tracking raw materials in clothing manufacturers’ supply chains. Following a successful pilot, this work is ongoing.

As for WWF, the NGO’s Sweden arm developed a similar tool in partnership with IKEA in 2018, and continues to work with the furniture retailer. IKEA is notably aiming to use only materials from recycled or renewable sources by 2030. It is hoped that insights from the two tools can be combined to make the latest venture broader and more accurate.

Google added in a statement that it is currently in consultation with “a large number of other fashion, luxury, denim and athletic brands and retailers” in a bid to collect more data for the new tool, and to expand its use across the fashion sector.

“Sustainability is a challenge that crosses industry boundaries, and we firmly believe that solutions require strong partnerships and collaboration,” Google’s chief sustainability officer Kate Brandt said.

“Our ambition is to fill fundamental data gaps by bringing greater accuracy to environmental reporting—ultimately moving toward more sustainable processes. By combining our technology, and with data inputs from many key industry brands and retailers, we believe we can significantly magnify this work together.” 

Fashion footprint

Once complete, the tool will assess impacts ranging from water scarcity and water pollution, to air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions. The geographical context will be taken into account, as will any positive benefits of more sustainable sourcing, such as localised supply chains, innovative processing technologies or regenerative agriculture.

Fashion is widely regarded as a key global contributor to many of the world’s most pressing environmental issues. The global fashion sector produces up to 8% of annual greenhouse gas emissions, and could potentially emit 50% more by 2030. It also accounts for one-fifth of wastewater generation on a global annual basis and is regarded as the world’s second-largest polluter of water. Moreover, fashion is now widely-recognised as a key hotspot for waste and for human rights abuses.

Due to the sector’s reliance on global supply chains, tech-based solutions centred around transparency have repeatedly been posed as a key component of emerging solutions.

For example, C&A’s charitable arm, the C&A Foundation, is working with geospatial technology firm Azavea to develop an open-source digital map of fashion supply chains.

Elsewhere, the Foundation is working with blockchain startup Bext360, the Organic Cotton Accelerator and Fashion For Good to use blockchain to help bolster the transparency of fashion brands’ cotton supply chains. These efforts have received the backing of the likes of PVH Corp and Kering.

Another digital mapping tool for fashion supply chains comes from environmental non-profit Canopy. The organisation’s  ForestMapper tool, which lays bare the deforestation impacts of fashion supply chains, has received funding and pledges to use from H&M, Marks & Spencer (M&S), Inditex and Kering.

It is worth noting that transparency is not synonymous with sustainability, but rather regarded as a pre-requisite to improving environmental and social performance.

“Brands may be disclosing a lot of information about their policies and practices but this doesn’t mean they are acting in a sustainable or ethical manner,” Fashion Revolution states on its website. “However, without transparency, we cannot see or protect vulnerable people and the living planet.”

Sarah George

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