What Traceability is?

It is the ability to identify and trace the history, distribution, location and application of products, parts and materials, from procurement to production, consumption and disposal: “WHEN and WHERE the product was produced by WHOM”.

If we would like to have an overview about traceability, linking it to sustainability practices, we shall add, to the above definition: “to ensure the reliability of sustainable claims in the areas of human rights, labour (including health and safety), environment and anti-corruption”.

Traceability shall be considered a driver to set and develop a more sustainable supply chain, engaging all players in improving the sustainability of their sourcing policies integrating into their supply chain management systems the Standard Developments Goals (SDG) promoted by the UN Global Compact.

History of traceability

Traceability shall be dated back since the early beginning of humanity.

At a very early stage, it had been used to identify ownership of live animals by means of body marking (it dates back to almost 3,800 years ago as stated in the Codes of Hammurabi).

We shall find as well a kind of unique identification for traceability purpose in the 13th centuries by marking swans belonging to the Kings of England.

Later on traceability on live animals and their products start serving more for an health related purpose: in the 17th Century it start to be practiced indelible branding and strict health certification. Animal products were likewise closely monitored, particularly during the epidemics.

As early as the 1930, traceability begun to be used not only to prove live animal ownership for trading purpose or strictly related to food “safety” reasons: some European countries wanted to prove the origin of their high-quality products such as French champagne. 

Traceability today

As of today, beyond food safety, consumers, NGOs, governments, suppliers and buyers increasingly demand more information about the origins of their products and materials and the conditions under which they were produced and transported along the value chain.

With the increase in demand for organic, fair trade and environmentally friendly products and materials, well-functioning traceability systems and new technologies have been developed to meet stakeholder needs. 

While traceability in the context of food products is primarily a means of confirming food safety and adherence to health concerns and dietary restrictions (with an emphasis on animal welfare concerns), in the fashion industry traceability results in transparency:

1. Informs customers of the environmental impact of products and production, and of the labour conditions involved in production and manufacturing.
Tracing all products and certifying transparency in the supply chain could be beneficial in both boosting the demand for responsibly made products, and in making products manufactured under questionable conditions less appealing.

2. Allow industry partners to have access to reliable, comprehensive data of their business activities as well as their related environmental and social impact.
Once this information is traced and available to Brands, transparency will enable all stakeholders to have access to the relevant information needed to make informed decisions. Both transparency and traceability support visibility throughout the fashion value chains and therefore contribute to build trust between stakeholders.

Traceability and SDGs

The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, adopted by all United Nations Member States in 2015, provides a shared blueprint for peace and prosperity for people and the planet, now and into the future.

At its heart are the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), which are an urgent call for action by all countries – developed and developing – in a global partnership.

They recognize that ending poverty and other deprivations must go hand-in-hand with strategies that improve health and education, reduce inequality, and spur economic growth – all while tackling climate change and working to preserve our oceans and forests.

The 12th Sustainable Development Goal, Responsible Consumption, calls for a profound business transformation towards sustainable consumption and production.

This involves the entire value chain from raw material to consumer, both globally and locally.

Target 12.8 specifically identifies the need for people everywhere to ‘have the relevant information and awareness for sustainable development and lifestyles in harmony with nature’.

To enable this shift, industry practitioners and academics have recognized traceability as the necessary first step for informed decision-making.

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