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How open map data is bringing transparency to the apparel industry

Expert Contributions 31 Aug - 15:09 SAST

How open map data is bringing transparency to the apparel industry

Expert Contributions 31 Aug - 15:09 SAST

By Deborah Boyer, Azavea

The Open Apparel Registry (OAR) is an open data map of facilities in the apparel industry which apparel brands, civil society organisations, academic researchers, journalists, and other groups use to understand the global apparel supply chain and make it more sustainable and equitable.

The project is steered by Natalie Grillon, the executive director of OAR, and Katie Shaw, the organisation’s COO, both of whom have extensive experience in sustainability initiatives. Grillon came face-to-face with the issues in the fashion industry while working in Northern Uganda as an operations manager for an agricultural company that worked with farmers to grow cotton and organic cotton. She realised that she had no idea where the cotton shipments were destined. Shaw has been working in sustainability for about twelve years, and shifted her focus to sustainability in fashion while working for a global fast fashion brand.

Below, Grillon and Shaw explain in their own words how the registry makes complex and opaque supply chain data accessible by making it interoperable and breaking down data silos using open data and open data standards. The improvements in data quality benefits all apparel sector stakeholders, and ultimately improves the lives of some of the most vulnerable workers in global supply chains.

What role does open data play in the apparel industry currently? What role would you like it to play?

As a sector, fashion is a laggard when it comes to technological adoption, so awareness of open data was virtually non-existent before the Open Apparel Registry (OAR) was built. That’s changing gradually, but there’s still more work to be done to help users and contributors understand why the model is a powerful one.

Together with other organisations in the sector, including the Clean Clothes Campaign and WikiRate, we developed the Open Data Standard for the Apparel Sector (ODSAS) to help industry professionals understand the importance of not just what supply chain data is disclosed, but how it’s disclosed.

From our experience of working on the OAR, many people simply don’t know that data locked away in PDFs or tables embedded in websites are problematic when organisations want to actually work with data, so ODSAS provides some helpful basic guidance on the best way to disclose data. We’ve found that lots of organisations appreciate being given explicit instruction for what to do, rather than figure out how best to disclose data themselves.

Why did you decide that OAR should be an open data project built on open source code?

Supply chains in the fashion industry are incredibly complex and opaque. This complexity creates a barrier to improving social and environmental conditions, both in terms of facilitating collaboration between different stakeholders in the sector, but also in terms of accountability.

Data has been stuck in silos and lacked a universal, central ID through which systems could synchronise, making interoperability between systems impossible. Brands and factory groups alike become frustrated with the multiple IDs connected to the same facility, used individually by each of the many multi-stakeholder initiatives (MSIs) in the sector. There was no resource or oversight to understand where brands or MSIs shared interests in the same facility. Employees at brands, MSIs and civil society organisations would spend hours poring over Excel spreadsheets looking for duplications, matches and overlaps.

The OAR was built to address this data challenge. At its heart, the registry exists to drive improvements in data quality for the benefit of all stakeholders in the apparel sector. As well as many other efficiency and process benefits, the way the registry organises and presents data ultimately improves the lives of some of the most vulnerable workers in global supply chains.

As a sector, fashion is competitive and political, so the registry’s identity as a neutral, pre-competitive tool working with open data and built on open source code has been crucial to building trust with stakeholders. It enables us to bring organisations together to work collaboratively to find solutions to industry challenges in a way that wouldn’t ordinarily be possible.

What open data related challenges were involved with setting up OAR?

Whilst we knew when we started work on the OAR that the quality of data in the apparel sector was poor, even at as basic a level as name and address information, we’ve been stunned at some of the data submissions we’ve received. There are all sorts of reasons behind this, including transliteration inconsistencies, a lack of structured address formats in key sourcing regions and the need to work with international character sets. China is known as the sewing factory of the world, but there are challenges to overcome working with partners there due to government data laws and a national tendency towards closed, rather than open, systems.

Have you learned anything surprising as you’ve dug into the world of open data?

Big tech and the use (or mis-use) of data has been getting a lot of bad press in recent years – often rightly so. It’s been a refreshing learning experience for us to enter the world of open data and to discover a community of people working collaboratively to responsibly harness the power of data for positive outcomes.

What changes are making you hopeful about the future of the apparel industry?

“Open data! Interoperability!” says Grillon. “I’m biased of course, but this unsexy (to some) work we are doing in the background is enabling collaboration, which in turn empowers and enables the change and outcomes we need to see.”

“Whilst progress isn’t as quick as I’d like it to be, I think it’s only a matter of time before government legislation forces the hands of brands and retailers to act more responsibly,” adds Shaw. “In addition to that, there’s a new generation of digital natives who not only understand the power of technology, but also aren’t prepared to accept the status quo. They’re challenging brands to raise their standards and they’re also thinking differently about their own purchasing habits.”

About the author: Deborah Boyer is a project manager at Azavea. Since late 2018, Azavea has served as the technical provider for the Open Apparel Registry.