Traceability Explained by Asket Co-Founder August Bard-Bringeus
“If we enforce traceability as a standard, not only do we raise awareness of the value of clothing among consumers, we also push the industry towards accountability.”
Asket is a Stockholm-based menswear brand founded by August Bard Bringéus and Jakob Dworsky in 2015 doing things a little differently. For example: They only offer one permanent, online-exclusive collection (opposed to several seasonal), and a couple of months back, they painted the words “Fuck Fast Fashion” across an entire building in their hometown, sending a pretty clear message. However, they’re not just another brand claiming to be “sustainable”. In fact, they don’t even use the word themselves. Their focus: To end overconsumption and give clothes back their value, setting a new business standard for the entire fashion industry.
One of the ways they’re doing this is by invoking full transparency. According to Asket, the “Made In” labels in our garments offer a dangerously simplified truth about where they were made, making it impossible for us consumers to make informed, conscious purchasing decisions. So in April 2018 the brand launched their Full Traceability Standard, and embarked on an 18 month journey to trace the components of their garments back to the raw material. As a result, they just re-introduced their entire Merino wool program as 100% traceable.
What first made you want to create 100% traceable garments?
In a way it was a lucky accident. We’re an online-only brand, so without stores for people to touch and try our garments, we wanted to show people exactly what goes into making our clothes. Our belief is that if you understand the material, complexity and craftsmanship involved, you’ll appreciate a garments’ inherent value and respect it more. So from the outset, we created a factory directory which showed the final stages of production, mostly the cut and sew phase as well as some fabric production facilities.
We’d always had a dream to share the whole process from raw materials to final garment, but given that the industry is built on outsourcing we didn’t quite know where to start. It wasn’t until we discovered (by chance) that our Oxford Shirt manufacturer had started sourcing cotton from California rather than Egypt that we started to ask questions. They were able to provide us with a cohort of California farms where the cotton was sourced. That was the start, and we realised that with the right suppliers, it was possible to uncover our supply chain.
“The fashion industry has been allowed to grow an immensely complex and fragmented supply chain, that make it all too easy for brands to shrug off any responsibility.”
What does traceability mean to you, and why is this an important transparency marker?
For us, traceability means tracking down every location our garments pass through in their creation; from the raw material, through to fabric production and finally to where it’s cut and sewn. And we’ve developed a metric to quantify our progress: Manufacturing 30% + milling 30% + raw material 30% + trims 10% = 100% traceability.
It’s a concise formula but it puts emphasis on drilling deep into our supply chain, and more importantly: puts an even-weight on each tier of the process because each step has a clear impact on the environment and the people working within it. We share everything we know (and don’t know) on our website as well as a physical label sewn into every garment. Simply by showing the complexity of the value chain, we hope to spark a greater understanding for the resources that are required to make our clothing, ultimately making us all appreciate and care for our clothing more.
Does traceability equal sustainability in your minds, and how do you consider this (sustainability) in your overall business?
Traceability does not mean sustainability. For us, traceability equates to accountability. The fashion industry has been allowed to grow an immensely complex and fragmented supply chain, that make it all too easy for brands to shrug off any responsibility. For us, traceability is a tool for driving positive change in the industry. By tracing the journey of our clothes, we hope to uncover some truths, better understand the process, recognize the impact it has on people and planet, as well as animal welfare, and ultimately become accountable for it; not only us at Asket, but we hope to set a precedent for the entire industry.
When it comes to the word sustainability, we err on the side of caution; in fact you won’t find it anywhere on our website. The reality is that there’s no such thing as sustainable fashion: every garment that’s created has an impact, there’s only more or less moderate consumption. We’re working to reduce the initial impact of our garments, and moderating our consumption, tackling the problem from both ends.
Why are many parts of the garment production so difficult to trace?
Fashion supply chains are among the most complex in the world. Every garment passes through numerous specialised facilities scattered across the globe, each run by different companies, who act on behalf of middlemen. And the brands themselves often just deal with the first tier supplier: the factory that will cut and sew the final piece, a supplier who in turn deals with their suppliers and so on, until you get back to the raw material.
No garment is made from raw material to final piece in one location by one supplier. The more components and material blends the more complex it gets. So it’s essentially impossible to find a supplier that will give you a fully traceable end product. But we are starting to see progress. European fabric mills are increasingly investing in traceability as consumers and brands start putting pressure on opening up the supply chain.
What steps have you taken to reach full traceability in the entire collection?
One of the biggest challenges in uncovering the supply chain starts as early as the raw material stage. The trouble is that, in order to meet quantity and quality demands, the materials are commonly mixed and sold together at auction, and with that erasing the source and making it near impossible to trace. To overcome this, we had to purchase wool directly from one farm.
It took our team 18 months to find a farm that we were happy to work with, both in terms of producing quality wool as well as the care for their flock. Eventually we landed on the Smith Family Farm in Australia, and invested 20% of our previous year’s revenue to obtain 4,3 tons of wool – enough for an Italian spinner to set up a dedicated production line from raw wool to cleaning, spinning and dyeing. From there on, we have already had our own knitters and full control.
Essentially, you can’t rely on buying a finished product from one factory, you need to break up the supply chain and approach every individual supplier yourself, often starting at the farm rather than the other way around.
You say you’re currently at 79% traceability. How will you get to 100?
While reaching 100% traceability is going to be tough, we’re confident it is possible. We’re taking a different approach to sourcing our factories. While industry convention adopts a top down approach, having suppliers source materials, we’ll take a different tact. We’ll start by seeing which materials are available to us and work our way up, seeking the most progressive partners that pioneer better milling and manufacturing practices. This approach will go some way in unravelling the complexity of the supply chain.
And in opening up about both our progress and challenges, we not only hope to raise awareness of the complexities and idiosyncrasies in the supply chain, but we hope to spark a sense of a collective mission, where everyone has a part to play in demanding for more transparency. Once we see this, change will start to happen much quicker.
“If you understand the material, complexity and craftsmanship involved, you’ll appreciate a garments’ inherent value and respect it more.”
Why could the results of this project be game-changing for the fashion industry?
If we enforce traceability as a standard, not only do we raise awareness of the value of clothing among consumers, we also push the industry towards accountability. When you know the exact trail of your clothing, you’ll uncover the harsh realities that exist in the fashion supply chain today: the only way we’ve been able to consume so cheaply and so much, is by exploiting people and planet. Once there is a broad scale realisation that this way of operating is incompatible with a thriving planet, will we start to see change. With greater consumer awareness, they can make more informed decisions about the clothing and in turn the brand they choose to invest in. That might well be the turning point at which the incumbent brands start to change their practises and invest more in improving their supply chain. Traceability and transparency is the starting point for all change.
What will be the next step for Asket?
Traceability is just the start. Now we’ll take steps to understand our impact. For 2020 we will launch our Impact Assessment Project. More to come…
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