ChainMail | Mapping Global Factories

An apparel supply chain registry expands its mission to other industries

ChainMail | Mapping Global Factories

In 2013, a badly constructed and managed garment building in Bangladesh collapsed, killing more than 1,100 people. The Rana Plaza disaster wasn’t a distant tragedy to American and European apparel brands and retailers, even if they knew nothing of the building’s slipshod management. That’s because clothing factories in the massive Rana Plaza complex were part of the global supply chains of two dozen Western brands.  

“One of many things the building collapse revealed is how little global brands and retailers knew about where and how clothing and their supply chains were being created,” Katie Shaw, chief program officer at Open Apparel Registry, told me in a recent conversation. “Some brands discovered that their products were being manufactured there by people on site scrambling through the rubble and finding product labels.”

Rana Plaza led to a reckoning in the apparel industry — a demand for greater transparency from brands and retailers about where their clothes are made and how garment workers are treated. This push for supply chain accountability from activists, consumers, and governments is spreading to other product categories, including smart phones and computers.

In 2019, as part of the decade-long global response to Rana Plaza, Shaw’s organization launched Open Apparel Registry, a detailed, shareable database of identifying information about individual garment factories around the world to bring light to opaque clothing supply chains. The point was to standardize data about apparel supply chains and make that data freely accessible to all interested parties. 

Starting Nov. 2, the Open Apparel Registry is expanding to become Open Supply Hub, a broader registry of factories and suppliers across industries including not just apparel but electronics, beauty products, sporting goods, furniture, and more. The goal is the same — to provide data enabling supply chains to be mapped in order to strengthen oversight — but on a wider scale because the issue is universal. Companies are answerable to the public, shareholders, nongovernmental organizations, and government regulators about, for example, the treatment of workers in factories. Think about the push for ESG (environmental, social, and governance) investing, or investigative reports about alleged abuses at Apple supplier assembly lines

Registry information includes the country, name, and address of each factory, an ID number, GPS coordinates and Google Earth view; plus the sector/product type. Optional info includes the parent company and number of workers. 

Typically, information about suppliers and subcontractors is hard to confirm. They exist behind the scenes in industries and often don’t broadcast their affiliations for competitive reasons. Names of companies change based on translations or subsidiaries, and addresses often are wrong. “That’s when you hear stories of auditors turning up two days in a row at the same facility, thinking they’ve gone somewhere else on the list,” Shaw said. The registry clears that up and more. For example, if a brand or retailer contributed a facility list to the tool, that will be visible on each entity in the registry. “You start to get this deeper understanding of the ecosystem surrounding a facility based on who has that facility in the data set,” she explained. 

Shaw said expanding from apparel was driven by several factors, including the opportunity to get more big players to join. “We had major multi-category retailers who bought into our approach and philosophy and could see the benefits of the tool, but they were struggling to get internal buy-in when we were only operating within the apparel sectors,” she said. “So our expansion really is led by user demand.” 

Shaw’s organization doesn’t get involved in investigations or keep track of audits by companies or watchdogs; it operates as a neutral repository of information on suppliers for use by factories, brands, and others, including academics and unions.

The Open Apparel Registry launched in March 2019 with about 8,000 facilities in the database. By the time of expansion to become Open Supply Hub, there will be well over 90,000, and the organization hopes to map 200,000 apparel facilities by the end of 2023. That’s probably about 85% to 90% of the global total, Shaw said. More than 530 organizations, from big brands to tiny civil society organizations, have contributed data to the registry. 

Shaw said open data sharing and transparency are “less mature in sectors beyond apparel,” so it’s difficult to estimate the speed of Open Supply Hub’s growth. “We’re hearing a lot of interest in mapping commodities supply chains, such as palm oil, cocoa, wood fiber, soy, and cotton, as well as subcontractor relationships, so the potential is enormous.” 

Read the complete Issue 22 of ChainMail here.

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