New Supply Chain Platform to Drive Sustainability, Transparency and Profitability in UK Fashion and Textiles

Future Fashion Factory is collaborating with the UK Fashion & Textile Association (UKFT)IBM and Tech Data to design, prototype and pilot a new technology platform based on IBM technologies to help the UK fashion and textile industry to drive sustainability and profitability through increased transparency within the supply chain. Retailers Next, H&M (COS brand), N Brown, New Look and yarn manufacturer Laxtons will be part of the initial pilot.

  • A consortium will develop a data-driven technology platform to enable real-time decision making, effective track-and-trace and more sustainable choices in the UK fashion supply chain.
  • The platform will help to meet the Government’s commitment to the development of new innovations of digital technology within UK manufacturing.
A creme jumper on a mannequin in a fashion studio
Retailers, manufacturers and tech leaders will collaborate to drive the shift to more sustainable fashion supply chains. Image: Future Fashion Factory

The Sustainable Supply Chain Optimisation project has been awarded £1.4m funding by Innovate UK, part of UK Research and Innovation, on behalf of the Industrial Strategy Challenge Fund (ISCF) Manufacturing Made Smarter Challenge.

The global fashion industry is one of the biggest global polluters and one of the greatest producers of waste, while issues around unsafe workplaces, labour abuses and low wages continue.

One of the major obstacles preventing organisations from implementing more sustainable, responsible practices and preventing consumers from shopping more sustainably is a fundamental lack of transparency and visibility across the different stages of the supply-chain. Data is siloed, systems tend to operate in isolation and parties have had little to no incentive to share data with the rest of the ecosystem due to the significant manual effort.

The new technology platform will combine a number of emerging technologies like blockchain, AI and sensors to digitise the key processes in the supply-chain creating a shared system of data that the different parties can trust and easily act upon.

For example, it will be possible to gain a much better understanding of where and how each garment’s fabric was processed and finished, by whom and in what conditions. It will be easier to spot potential disruptions before they have a chance to affect delivery. It will also be possible to better monitor production processes and flows resulting in a real chance to reduce waste and optimise stock.

These unprecedented levels of insight will allow real, measurable and auditable actions across the whole of the supply-chain, enabling increased understanding of and compliance to the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) criteria as well as improved operational efficiency.

In essence, the platform will be designed to help make a complex and disjointed global supply chain more sustainable, resilient and able to cope with unforeseen disruptions.

Joanne Poynor, Head of Sustainable Development at Next, said: “Working together, we are pleased to support the development of a new supply chain platform tool for the apparel and textiles sector, to facilitate the gathering of robust sustainability data and provide clear visibility of environmental and ethical impacts to empower better decisions.”

Sue Fairley, Head of Sourcing, Sustainability and Quality at New Look said: “We are delighted to be taking part in the UKFT SSCO Project as part of New Look’s core strategic commitment to integrate sustainable practices across the business. We recognise that collaborating on this project will help remove complexity, increase transparency and help develop sustainable solutions with more reassuring visibility of the people and the environments impacted throughout the value chain. We anticipate that by bringing new technologies and global networks together, UKFT will accelerate change and allow the provenance of the products we sell to open up from origin to end user.”

The nine-month project will deliver a solution built on a combination of IBM’s Blockchain and AI technologies running on IBM Cloud.

The Blockchain technology will enable increased transparency in the supply chain. The AI technology will facilitate the detection and response to supply chain disruption and provide the insights for real-time analysis of current business performance, rapid problem solving and optimisation of business flows. It will be open source and easily available across the whole supply chain, with an integrated visualisation layer as the core innovation focus.

Adam Mansell, CEO of the UK Fashion and Textile Association (UKFT), said: “A strategic goal for the UK fashion and textile sector is to become synonymous with sustainable and ethical products, processes and production. This project aims to promote greater transparency in the industry to ultimately enhance the competitiveness of UK textile and garment manufacturers, while reducing the environmental and ethical impact of the sector.”

Roberto Battistoni, Consumer Products Business Development Lead at IBM, said, “Trust, sustainability, authenticity and transparency are now the values embedded in the social contract between consumers, retailers, fashion and textile producers.  This project brings together the key players needed to improve trust across the full supply chain. At the same time, there is also an opportunity to reduce waste and have a lasting impact on the use of the earth’s resources. Having such a high-quality group of members in the consortium brings a unique synergy of knowledge, technology and experience to make a difference for the fashion value chain.”

Professor Stephen Westland, Professor of Colour Science and Technology at the University of Leeds and leader of Future Fashion Factory’s data-driven design research, said: “Being able to analyse, present and visualise supply chain data in real time will support fashion businesses to make better decisions for people, profit and planet. We are proud to collaborate across the UK fashion industry to develop a technology platform that will empower brands with more transparent and sustainable supply chains.”

Neil Cornish, Business Manager, Ecosystems Programme UK, Tech Data, said: “We are delighted to offer our experience in supply chain management and technology platforms, our expertise in new technologies such as IoT, artificial intelligence, and data analytics, and our deep relationships with retail ecosystem partners to this exciting project. Our team is looking forward to working with the consortium to develop and deliver a sustainable, transparent and efficient solution for the UK fashion and textiles industry.”

Angela Gaskell, Director of Sourcing, Sustainability, quality and Fit of N Brown, said, “We’re proud to be involved in this UKFT & IBM project and as we progress our ESG programme, SUSTAIN. We recognise the huge potential in collaborating to drive sustainable and transparent supply chains, something which is extremely important to N Brown.”