Technology has long been used to keep track of products in a supply chain. While consumers only see a barcode, it’s the intelligence behind those black lines or square blocks and numbers that really count.
Hennie Ras, the Cotton Cluster domain expert on traceability, says that supply chain systems vary from the simple, retail barcode version on one hand, to the highly sophisticated systems first developed by the US Army and NATO on the other. In the middle are masses of systems that can track products within companies and a few that can track within specific supply chains. The fresh fruit industry, for instance, is a good example of where a specific commodity is traceable.
“Our challenge, however, was different,” says Hennie. “To support the Sustainable Cotton Cluster we had to integrate a chain that deals in different commodities – from seed cotton, to lint, to yarn, to material and to finished garments – that all need to be traced differently, all using the same system and within the same database.”
What makes the system remarkable, is that it can handle all the transformations and value adding processes that cotton fibre undergoes in the value chain. In simple terms it means that a T-shirt can be traced back to the farms on which the cotton was grown, and when it comes to quality issues, the system can drill down to a specific event to identify where and when a handling event was associated with a problem. This item-level traceability is unheard of in the textile industry and gives the Sustainable Cotton Cluster a real value proposition to sell to retail partners and to position our industry in the sustainable market.
“Through a unique identifier (UID) that identifies each individual item within each product line, our system ensures traceability – and an audit trail – within and between the different organisations in the supply chain,” says Hennie. “We can do this regardless of the number of participants in the chain because the system covers it like an umbrella and links into each role-player’s own system.” Supply chain players that don’t have start-to-end traceability internally can supplement their own systems by accessing the cloud-based platform through a browser or dedicated interface.
Another feature of the system is that the requirements for local cotton to comply with the global Better Cotton Initiative (BCI) standards are built into it. For example, farmers are flagged to complete an annual list of the pesticides they have used. This makes the management of standards much easier and simpler, and auditing no longer depends on physical inspection alone. The system monitors compliance on a continuous basis and gives the retailer and each participant all the information necessary to communicate with clients and consumers about the items they buy.
Behind all this information sharing is an agreement between the role-players that allows the Cluster Administrator to selectively open windows into information as and when needed. “Confidentiality and integrity of the system is hugely important,” says Hennie.