Historic Futures: Promoting value chain traceability
written by Charlotte Turner
With only days to go before the 4th Future Fabrics Expo opens at London Olympia Exhibition Centre (28th-30th September), we’re looking forward to showcasing some other organisations that are doing important work in the field of sustainable fashion and textiles, along with our core showcase of globally sourced reduced impact fabrics.
One of these organisations is Historic Futures, who have spent more than 10 years exploring value chain transparency and traceability. This work is integral to knowing more about where our products come from, how they are made, and the impact they are having on both the environment and on global communities.
Historic Futures are currently developing String3, so we spoke to co-founder and director Tim Wilson to find out more, and we found what he had to say so interesting that you can read it in full here.
TSA: What was the motivation to start Historic Futures and to work on improving supply chain transparency?
HF: I had been working in the value chain / traceability area for many years and realised there were no solutions focusing simply on getting reliable data from the whole chain without linking to specific product or production systems (e.g. organic). The triggering event – to actually get started – was a conversation with Nike that demonstrated how difficult it was to collect reliable data from the value chain.
TSA: Historic Futures makes it possible for companies to collect and manage value chain data – can you tell us a bit about how you do this?
The basic concept is very simple, and is analogous to situations we all face everyday. I need to speak to somebody at Company X about their new product, but I don’t have their contact details. I could ask my colleague sitting next to me, who has read about Company X, what they know about this new product and just go with that. It’s really quick and easy, and they probably know more than I do. But if I want to rely on the information – to write an article in the press, or to use in a presentation perhaps, then I’d want to speak to someone who really knows, inside Company X. It’s the same problem with value chains. I need to know the country of origin of the raw materials used in my product – because my brand has made a commitment on this, or because the law now requires me to know. I could ask my supplier – who sells me the finished goods – that’s quick and easy and they probably know more that I do, but I can’t rely on the information. Our String3 system fixes that problem – I send my question to my supplier inside String3, and it provides the tools for my supplier to send it on to their supplier. There might have been several suppliers and even they don’t actually work with the raw materials. String3 makes it simple for everyone to keep passing the question on until it gets to those who really know the answer. Sounds very simple, in reality the system is quite sophisticated – making sure that only the answer to the question is ever shared, not the details of each actor in the chain, keeping people informed of progress, benchmarking performance and so on.
TSA: You’re currently developing the newest phase of String, what will this be able to offer clients?
HF: String3 – the service we are working on now – will make it simple and efficient for people to find information about how and where their products were made. It will save them time and provide answers which are more reliable than other methods. Interestingly it will also provide a means to benchmark supplier performance – clearly identifying which suppliers and value chains are good at providing this information, driving continuous improvement. Crucially for suppliers, the service can be used free of charge and it does not disclose sourcing details to customers – so suppliers can confidently use the system to help their customers get answers to legitimate questions about raw material country of origin or value chain certification status.
TSA: We’re looking forward to showcasing Historic Futures at the Future Fabrics Expo, which is geared towards the fashion and textiles industries – can you tell us about some of the work you have done in these industries?
HF: We’ve been working in fashion and textiles for nearly 12 years – since the very beginnings of HF. During that time we have delivered projects for many of the world’s leading brands. Those projects have ranged from strategy formulation to large scale data collection and reporting – all focused on value chain mapping, to understand how and where products were made.
TSA: Are there some positive impacts you have seen from your work that you can tell us about?
HF: We’ve seen benefits across the entire value chain from better, bolder claims about finished goods for brands, to improved relationships between supplier and customer for sourcing agents, to improved inventory control and “right first time” rates for manufacturers. We’ve seen suppliers get new business through being able to deliver value chain information and improved efficiency in differentiated raw materials such as organic cotton or recycled polyester. There are many ways that reliable value chain data can deliver benefits, but the area that seems to be the most consistent across geographies and sectors is this ability to obtain reliable data – when needed – for products that contain raw materials where country of origin or compliance with some 3rd party standard is important.
TSA: What do you think are the biggest obstacles with incorporating more sustainable materials into supply chains of different sized companies?
HF: Sustainable materials is a difficult term – I’m not sure anybody really knows what it means – but there are clearly important choices to be made about materials and production processes in terms of the impact they have on people, planet and profit. For buyers, understanding what’s in your product – and whether it’s what you specified – is a critical first step. For suppliers, being able to demonstrate good practice and regulatory compliance throughout the value chain quickly and efficiently is vital if better performing materials are to become mainstream.
You can learn about String3 at the 4th Future Fabrics Expo on 28th – 30th September at Olympia Exhibition Centre, London. We’ll be showcasing the work of several organisations and projects, as well as hundreds of individually sourced and researched materials with a reduced environmental impact.