A huge pile of cotton at the cotton ginners in Madhya Pradesh, India.

Without question, sustainability is a buzzword in fashion circles, but consumers are increasingly seeking the data to back it up.

The Colorado-based firm aims to help companies trace their products back to the farms where they are developed, said founder Daniel Jones. Bext360’s objective is to improve the upstream supply chains of commodities and improve sustainable practices for communities, consumers and the environment. Through Bext360, organizations can blockchain traceable data and sustainability metrics within its software for a complete view of their supply chain and sustainable development activities. Bext360’s sustainability library has metrics to address economic, environmental, governance and social priorities. It can also supply systems to evaluate organic cotton goods at the point of collection to ensure that the right amount of organic cotton is being processed by the ginner, the spinner and the garment manufacturer.

This year Bext360 aims to have close to 250,000 farmers touched by its products and solutions, compared to 80,000 to 90,000 last year. Citing Provenance founder Jessi Baker’s “very good ethos” about how she is running her company, Jones spoke of the camaraderie in the field. “There are other companies that we cooperate with and other straight-up competitors that really have the same mission with us that we try to collaborate with as much as possible,” Jones said. “Everyone is moving pretty fast. It’s exciting.”

The idea for the company was sparked years ago when he was living in Congo having started a merchant bank, Pioneer Management, there and was exporting conflict-free minerals. He was intrigued by the prospect of applying technology to all of these commodities and wanted to provide transparency down to the farm level.

Jones said the first step for fashion companies is to visit suppliers and know who their suppliers are. “While the ideal setup would be to work with ones that have complete traceability and transparency in their operations, the next best thing would be for brands to work with ones that are headed in that direction. They should really do due diligence on their providers and know this is part of their path for the next five years,” he said. “We get 10 calls a day to help people trace their goods. The small brands, it’s really easy for. With the medium-sized ones, it becomes very difficult because they’re not buying enough to influence their suppliers. But they’re big enough that their customers are demanding this. The very big brands are doing a good job of telling their suppliers that they need to provide at least the documentation that shows they’re adhering to the standards.”

While many worldwide banks have sustainable groups, their interests have evolved from capital equipment such as solar panels. “Eighty-five percent of the impact for the fashion world happens within the supply chain. And then if you go cradle-to-grave on a garment — 35 percent of the impact of owning that garment is in the supply chain-to-retail and 65 percent is with the consumers [in regard to multiple washing, etc.]. Within that 35 percent, only 15 percent is with the actual brand,” Jones said. “Going back to the HSBCs of the world, what they have put in their sustainabilty mission is, ‘How can we trace these supply chains down as far as possible? The way to really have an influence on our sustainability fund is to finance those supply chains.’”

Interested as banks are in funding sustainably minded companies, they also want proof, as in documentation or data at every level of the supply chain to ensure that work is being done, Jones said. “It sounds good, but it is hard to do. A system like ours was designed to provide that data to the banks through the brands and through the supply chains.”

He has met with a number of international banks and financial institutions, but Jones said they have yet to commit. Having taught how technology can impact the developing world as an adjunct professor at the University of Chicago in the late Nineties, Jones said, “We can talk about the brands and these initiatives, but until the money starts moving toward the good actors and away from the bad actors is the way you make a big shift in the way that people produce things. At the essence, that’s why I started the company.”

As for what will make consumers change their ways, he said, “There has to be a tipping point of brands that provide data. It could happen in the next two years where there is enough data and enough brands providing this type of information that consumers will start to demand it from the people who aren’t. There is a new wave of conscious consumerism where people are searching for sustainable fashion and brands. They want to know more about what that means.”

One option for tracing the process is to have fluorescent markers placed in the cotton at the gin level, which TailorLux can do. Therefore, when those goods get to the retail level, the garments can be scanned to show that fluorescent marker in order to prove that organic cotton was sourced from a specific farmer. “We don’t necessarily have to touch it to prove that it is what it is supposed to be,” Jones said.

Bext360 is powering “The Organic Cotton Traceability Pilot,” an initiative that is supported by C&A, Kering, PVH Corp. and Zalando and C&A. As the lead technical partner, the program was created through a partnership with Fashion For Good, the C&A Foundation and the Organic Cotton Accelerator. In the future, companies could have a search option for sustainability for shoppers to find green brands, or ones that are offsetting their carbon footprints or biodiversity.

Jones also praised Hugo Boss, Patagonia, the German brand Tchibo and Stella McCartney for their leadership in traceability, adding that some are trying to quantify the percentage of goods that they can trace, and trying to improve upon that. “There is a statistic that brands only know 4 percent of their actual supply chain. I think that may be generous for some of the brands,” he said.

Through Bext360’s platform, clients can manage information such as tying it to the Higg Index, an apparel and footwear industry self-assessment standard for assessing environmental and social sustainability throughout the supply chain. Wanting to meet regulatory requirements is a big incentive for fashion companies. “A lot of it is not altruistic, it’s being forced upon them. Secondly, they just want to differentiate their brands on sustainability,” Jones said.

While everyone is hopeful that collaborative efforts tied to sustainability will continue, Jones said, “I hope they do, but we have seen these things break down over and over. If your supply chain is a differentiator, you’re not going to be as willing to share that information with your competitor. Some of the natural courses of capitalism will slow this down. That’s why the consumers really have to drive the change.”

Pacha, for example, is working with Bext360 to trace such substances as the palm oil used in its products to ensure that it is naturally grown and nondestructive to the environment. The end result will be a consumer-facing tool used at retail. “Our system allows brands to share whatever they think is relevant through marketing and branding, sustainability reports or just use it internally to improve their managerial practices,” he said. “Even just to define what sustainability is. If you ask 10 different people what sustainability is, you get 10 different answers. We’re trying to provide tools within our system so brands can develop their own sustainability metrics.”

As one of the notoriously worst industries for sustainability, he said the fashion industry comes into a race with a “D” grade due to the nature of organic cotton and the pollution of water use that goes along with cotton production. But, “I’d give the fashion industry a solid ‘B’ or ‘B+’ for the speed with which they have tackled this problem,” Jones said. “Target, Walmart and Bed, Bath & Beyond are forcing these types of practices for huge volumes of commodities [in relation to beddings and other home goods]. And the luxury brands have the desire and more margin to provide these services, so we’re seeing them. It’s a little easier when it’s part of your marketing budget, which it’s becoming. The ability to express that brand message has to be backed up with data now instead of just saying we’re sustainable.”

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